The Cardinals are reportedly kicking the tires on David Price and Jon Lester, and presumably, they’ve probably at least inquired about Cole Hamels. It’s no secret that they’re looking for pitching, and they both the means and the motive to make a big move. And not surprisingly, trade rumors with the Cardinals inevitably invoke Oscar Taveras‘ name.
According to all the prospect guys, Taveras is the Cardinals best prospect, and one of the best prospects in the game. But while I’m not a prospect expert by any means, I will say that I hold some reservations about Taveras’ long-term value, as I think he fits the mold of the hitter that prospect analysts miss on the most often.
Taveras’ calling card is his bat. Yeah, he’s played some center field, but he’s probably a corner outfielder, and he’s not a Carl Crawford or Brett Gardner type who can have center fielder type value in a corner position. He’ll be good if he hits, and if he doesn’t, he won’t. What one thinks about Taveras essentially comes down to how good of a hitter you think he can be.
And while he was a monster in Double-A a couple of years ago, Taveras’ Triple-A line over the last year or so isn’t really all that exciting. Here’s what he’s done in Memphis between 2013 and 2014.
448 PA, 6.2% BB%, 11.8% K%, .172 ISO, .313/.358/.485, 117 wRC+
That’s not a bad performance for a guy who spent a good chunk of that time as a 21 year old, but he hasn’t exactly crushed Triple-A pitching either. The contact skills are there, but the power hasn’t shown up yet, and this skillset basically needs power to work. There are plenty of scouting reasons to think he’ll hit for power, and he’s done it before, so my skepticism isn’t that he definitely won’t hit for power; I’m just not sure that he will, and his Triple-A performance reminds me a lot of some other prospects who were supposed to hit for power and either didn’t or haven’t yet.
For instance, here’s Jesus Montero‘s career Triple-A line.
1,410 PA, 8.8% BB%, 19.9% K%, .209 ISO, .290/.353/.499, 126 wRC+.
Taveras isn’t the cover-your-eyes defender that Montero is, so his floor is higher, but Montero is probably the most similar recent offensive prospect to be rated extremely highly despite some just okay Triple-A numbers that were explained away by his age. And this isn’t just cherry picking now that Montero has flopped and lost most of his value; I was a skeptic about his potential back when he was getting hyped to the moon as well.
And, really, if you’re interested, you can look back through the minor league leaderboards and look for guys who put up similar performances — based on low walks, high contact, moderate power, above average overall wRC+ — to what Taveras has done in Triple-A at young-ish ages.
In 2013, we get Wilmer Flores, Chris Owings, Nick Castellanos, and J.R. Murphy. You could try and squeeze Xander Bogaerts in there if you wanted, though he’s always been a lot more disciplined than Taveras.
This is hardly an exhaustive study, of course, but most of these guys came with some degree of prospect hype, and by and large, they’ve mostly not hit in the big leagues. That L.J. Hoes failed to develop doesn’t mean that Taveras is worthless, but that Taveras has hit kind of like L.J. Hoes at the highest level of the minors should perhaps make us pause when discussing him as a truly elite prospect.
Taveras is a very nice prospect, but I think there’s a case to be made that he’s the kind of minor leaguer that teams should be willing to trade, because the consensus about his potential has been outstripping his performance for a while now. Perhaps Taveras will get back to the hitter he’s been projected to be, and he’ll turn into a legitimate star. But if he doesn’t, he’s probably not a very good big leaguer, and projecting future offensive performance is the hardest thing for scouts to do. While he’s still very young and has plenty of time to improve, there’s a decent chance that Taveras will never have more value to the Cardinals than he does as a trade chip right now.
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