August 30, 2017
The View From Behind The Backstop
The Six Million Dollar Men
It has been a common occurrence in my writing career that the damned Samuel Miller publishes an article and my immediate, visceral reaction is “oh man, why didn’t I think of that?” But lately, I have been thinking specifically about his world without stats piece. Of course it’s particularly applicable to my usual line of inquiry. It’s also a common occurrence for me to be sitting behind home plate at a low-minors game and hear a scout nearby grumble “A-ball stats are [garbage].” So ideally, my work exists in a "world without stats." The statistical performance—good or bad—has to be explained, mind you, but it is not by itself evidence of things not seen.
So now, my hypothetical:
You are given a radar gun, a stopwatch, and a vantage point from the scout’s section. I guess we’ll even give you a roster sheet with listed heights and weights (for all the good that will do you) and dates of birth, but with all other background information removed. You watch three games between two of the better South Atlantic League teams this season—Hickory and Lakewood. Then I pose you a question:
“One of these players got $6 million as an amateur, rank them in order of likelihood.”
Here’s what you might come up with, given a better tabula rasa than I had.
1. Leody Taveras, CF (Hickory Crawdads)
You may have noticed that Baseball Prospectus prospect writers generally default to “OF” as a designation for most guys who roam the grass. If a guy plays shortstop in the minors, we list him as a shortstop, even if he’s Wilmer Flores. We tend to hedge on center fielders more. Leody Taveras is a CENTER FIELDER. When you are looking for $6 million in tools, premium up-the-middle athletic ones are a good place to start. Taveras has those. He’s a plus runner with a projected plus glove at the 8.
One swing in the on-deck circle with the donut still on the bat and you can see the natural leverage and plus bat speed. He’s got an ideal baseball frame. There’s room to add strength in the upper body, and he already has a powerful lower half. He’s a switch-hitter with an advanced approach from both sides. You didn’t really see him put a swing on the ball where it all clicked, but that can happen in three games. Oh yeah, he’s still just 18, the youngest guy on the field. There’s an All-Star ceiling here that makes $6 million look like a bargain. This exercise is mostly playing central casting, and Taveras looks the part of a 1:1 prep outfielder.
While you don’t know that Matuella has an injury track record as long as his substantial wingspan, you do know that if you were going to give $6 million to a starting pitching prospect, the 6-foot-6 righty with the easy 96 is the safer choice. That’s not to say Sixto’s 100 requires much effort either, but the amateur market is beholden to demographics. The pitcher who’s built like a power forward gets paid more than the one built like a La Liga youth team wingback. But man that is an easy 100, and the rest of the package is pretty special too. Oh yeah, you have your ears as well, and over the weekend you hear paeans from the scout section that sound awfully similar to these.
4. Kyle Cody, RHP (Hickory Crawdads)
You are leaving behind the plausible $6 million bonus babies now, but we need to play this gimmick out a little further to get to the point. Cody matches Matuella in size if not quite in stuff. He’s old for the level and you wouldn’t be surprised if he is an upper-minors arm on rehab. He does nothing to dissuade you of this notion, striking out double-digit Blue Claws in four-plus innings of work. He’s rougher around the edges, a little less fastball, less feel for the secondaries, less efficient generally. If pressed, though, you can squint a bit and conjure up a scenario in which he was a big-bodied prep arm from the top of the 2012 draft class, or a safe, college arm—perhaps with a sterling amateur track record—from a more recent one.
5. Mickey Moniak, OF (Lakewood Blue Claws)
Let’s drop the McInernian affectation for a moment. “You” may have only had a three-game look at Mickey Moniak, but “I” have nine. “We”—the Baseball Prospectus prospect team as a group—have over 30. Jarrett Seidler covered his early-season struggles already, and if we don’t trust these looks, what is the point of getting off the couch to do this at all?
Before he joined the Oakland A’s, Al Skorupa gave me a piece of pro scouting advice that has always stuck with me. Someone in the amateur scouting ranks—likely smarter than you, certainly with more information than you—decided to draft this guy. They saw something that could help a major-league team someday. It’s always good to remember that and look for it. With Moniak, naturally it isn’t hard to find. He shows excellent feel with the barrel and is a plus runner who is likely to stick in center field. If you try to get into his kitchen, he keeps his hands in well and turns on the pitch authoritatively. He has a pretty good feel for the strike zone and goes up to the plate with a plan.
To echo something else from Jarrett’s piece, if he were drafted 10th overall, it’s less likely he’d be the subject of several blandly reassuring feature pieces in recent weeks. But he went 1.1 and got the $6 million bonus. The magnifying glass is larger and the warts stand out more. The instincts and routes are rough enough at present that I can’t write that he’s a lock to stick in center, although I suspect he ends up average, maybe a bit above there. The hitch in his swing gets a little longer when you work him away, and he struggles with same-side stuff and spin generally. The barrel control is keeping his stat line afloat even to this level, and we haven’t seen him make adjustments to the league throughout the season. The Phillies will have a difficult decision next year on how to get both Moniak and 2017 first-round pick Adam Haseley center field reps. If he were the 10th overall pick, it would be much easier to have Moniak repeat the South Atlantic League.
This would even be easier to write if he were the fifth overall pick. There are scouts and evaluators willing to call Corey Ray a future fourth outfielder, and he is a more physical player—with louder tools—than Moniak. He’s also three years older, of course, but while Moniak has some physical projection left, he’s unlikely to look like Ray at 22. He’s also unlikely to have Ray’s raw power. Even going into the 2016 draft, there were questions about Ray’s hit tool. The athletic tools were loud—John Eshelman recently wrote him as a 60 run, 55 CF glove in a Ten Pack, about what I would peg as a reasonable tools outcome for Moniak.
But it’s harder to write these words about Moniak, even if they all apply: “It is still only Ray’s first full season, so he has time. His eye is good and there’s some barrel control, so if he figures something out with his swing, his upside remains substantial. However, a fourth outfielder outcome is more likely at present.”
After all, Moniak was never supposed to have any questions about his hit tool. He was sold with a 7 hit tool, in part because he doesn’t look like Corey Ray. Is it an exaggeration to say that no 7 hitter could post a .236/.285/.342 line deep into the dog days of Summer? Maybe. But while the triple slash isn’t evidence on its own, the underlying issues he’s shown on the field reflect many of the concerns you’d have from merely looking at that triple slash.
The recent prospects we’ve thrown 7 hit tools on—who were also reasonable age and league comps for Moniak—include Raimel Tapia, Victor Robles, and Francisco Mejia. Tapia never hit lower than .305 at any minor-league stop. Robles is almost exactly a year older than Moniak and is hitting .322 in Double-A. As a 19-year-old he split his time between two A-ball levels and hit .280/.376/.423. Mejia is the ray of hope. He hit .243/.324/.345 as a 19-year-old in the Midwest League. He then rolled off a 50-game hit streak the following year. Of course, no one was calling him a future .300 hitter as a teenager. But these things can change rapidly. A year is an eternity in the life of a teenaged prospect.
In a fit of nostalgia after Amed Rosario’s call-up, I went back and looked at my initial report on him from Kingsport: “I still don’t see $1.7 million in major-league tools here.” I remembered that line without even looking it up. That changed, even by the next summer. It hasn’t happened yet for Moniak. So yeah, I still don’t see $6 million in major-league tools here.