Making their mark

In its baseball preview issue in March of 2007, Sports Illustrated was flush with Daisuke Matsuzaka mania. The Red Sox’ new import was the cover feature and was proclaimed “worthy” of the hype by the magazine.

The staff then pointed to eight young players who, like Dice-K, would be making their mark in the major leagues in 2007. SI ran features on all eight and included a tag line to help identify why they were destined for major league greatness. Three years later (and inspired by a current event you’ll read about in a couple of paragraphs) it seems like a perfect time to check in on the eight and chart their development.

Identifying the next big thing or even solid prospects is a tricky business. This article isn’t meant to demean SI for its “misses” or to celebrate its “hits.” This is simply a look at eight young players who were singled out and how their careers have progressed over the last three seasons.

Alex GordonThe Sure Thing

Following the 2006 season where Gordon was the Texas League player of the year, he skipped Triple-A and opened the season in Kansas City. Undoubtedly, he was rushed. In his first 53 games, Gordon hit .173/.285/.281 and seemed destined to spend time in Omaha.

The Royals stuck with him, however and Gordon steadied himself somewhat to hit .306/.347/.519, which would certainly justify his tag as “The Sure Thing.” He tired a bit over the last couple of weeks and finished the year with an overall line of .247/.314/.411. It wasn’t a great line, but given where he stood in mid-June, it was quite an accomplishment for a first year player.

In 2008, Gordon improved his plate discipline and improved on his rookie campaign, which set the stage for what many hoped would be a breakthrough year.

             Year      BB%    O-Swing %  Z-Swing%  Swing %  Contact %    P/PA
             2007      6.8%     25.8%     71.7%     48.4%     75.5%      3.79
             2008     11.6%     24.1%     68.3%     45.9%     76.3%      3.92

Gordon became more selective at the plate and improved his contact rate. The gains weren’t enormous, but they were enough to make his sophomore season much better than his rookie campaign. He would be counted on to deliver in 2009.

Unfortunately, this season has been a lost year for The Sure Thing. He hit just .095/.269/.238 through his first seven games before hitting the disabled list with a tear in his hip cartilage that required surgery. When he returned two months later, he hit .292/.382/.354 in his first 14 games, but his power was gone. He went more than 50 plate appearances before collecting his first extra base hit. He had a good week in which he tallied four extra base hits (two doubles and a pair of homers) but followed that by going hitless in his next 11 plate appearances. That got him demoted to Omaha.

Predictably, the Royals came under fire for seemingly manipulating Gordon’s service time. He’s in his third full season, but if he stays in Triple-A for more than 20 days, he will fall short of three years of service time, which will delay his free agency by a year. Perhaps it was sheer coincidence that the O-Royals had exactly 20 days left in their season. When Gordon was optioned, Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “He’ll go down there until the Triple-A season is completed.”

Then, when everyone who could count figured what that meant for Gordon, Moore quickly backtracked:

“Of course there’s that chance (that Gordon could return before Omaha’s season ends on Sept. 7). We’ll evaluate it. I don’t put any timelines on when a player is going to return when they get sent down. Never have.”

Next year, Gordon will be 26 and entering what should be the prime of his career. Three seasons into his career and he’s now as far from being the Sure Thing as a player can get. He’s in Triple-A and fighting for his career.

Chris IannettaThe Quick Study

Iannetta broke camp with the Rockies to begin the ’07 season but immediately struggled. The Quick Study got off to a slow start, hitting .158/.327/.184 in April—he had just one extra base hit (a double) in 49 plate appearances, but eight walks—and never found his footing. He was hitting .179/.300/.285 in 181 plate appearances, when Colorado sent him to Triple-A on Aug. 6. While in Colorado Springs, Iannetta played every day and found his stroke (although his power was still missing), batting .296/.397/.407.

Iannetta had what many considered to be a breakthrough year last summer when he hit .264/.390/.505. While the plate discipline was always present, even through his struggles in his rookie campaign, the Rockies were undoubtedly encouraged by the rediscovery of his power. His 18 home runs were the fifth highest total among backstops last year and his OPS+ of 127 also ranked fifth.

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

This season has been a letdown; Iannetta’s numbers have tumbled across the board. Currently at .221/.332/.433, he’s become a victim of a lower line drive rate (he’s hitting them roughly 15 percent of the time), which has likely contributed to a meager .237 BABIP. It certainly didn’t help that he spent time on the DL with a hamstring strain.

What’s also hampering Iannetta is a creeping fly ball rate that is certainly suppressing his BABIP.

            Year     AB/SO     AB/HR     GB/FB     BABIP
             2007      3.4       49.3      0.71      .285
             2008      3.6       18.5      0.61      .311
             2009      3.8       19.0      0.50      .239

Yes, he’s taken a step back this year, but if you’re looking for a consolation, the fact he’s held onto his power gains should give you reason for optimism. There’s only one Joe Mauer. But if you can’t have him, Iannetta isn’t a bad option.

Dustin PedroiaThe Little Big Man

Easily, Pedroia has been the most successful player on this list. He hit .317/.380/.442 as a 23-yea- old rookie and won the AL Rookie of the Year award. As a sophomore, Pedroia posted a line of .326/.376/.493 and won the AL MVP.

Whatever you think of the awards and the voters, you can’t deny Pedroia put up solid numbers in his first two seasons in the big leagues. He dashed out of the starting blocks this year, hitting .341/.429/.443 through May 26. Then, he slumped, hitting just .214/.279/.293 over his next 33 games which dropped his overall numbers to .285/.365/.377. Since then, he’s steadied himself and has hit .329/.393/.582.

He has the proclivity to be streaky, but his hot streaks are far longer than his cold streaks.


Chris YoungThe Five Tools Guy

“I would love to be a 30-30 man, but I have to keep working.”

With 32 home runs and 27 steals, he sure came close to 30-30 in his rookie season. Perhaps there was some consolation with the fact he was the first rookie to post a 30-25 season. The power and speed counting numbers helped cover a less than stellar .237/.295/.467 offensive line.

Last year, he gained 20 points in OBP—which was a positive development—but hit 10 fewer home runs despite having 50 more plate appearances. In his three years, there’s a definite power trend for Young. And it’s not a good one.

             Year      XBH%      ISO      AB/HR     GB/FB
             2007     10.3%      .230      17.8      0.59
             2008     10.2%      .195      28.4      0.61
             2009      9.3%      .165      45.0      0.35

Young is an extreme fly ball hitter, so his average will always be low. For a player of his skill set to be successful, he has to stay patient at the plate and hit with power. In three years in the majors, he’s consistently found difficulty in reaching base. He owns a career OPB of .304. That’s despite a walk rate of 8.8 percent. The fly balls are just killing him. With his current totals (45 walks and a .297 OBP) Young finds himself on a very short list of players who take walks, yet fail to get on base consistently. Since 2000, 11 players have walked more than 45 times while posting a sub-.300 OBP:

               Name        Year       BB       OBP
          Scott Brosius    2000       45       .299
          Cristian Guzma   2000       46       .299
          Terrence Long    2002       48       .298
          Alex Gonzalez    2003       47       .295
          Jose Hernandez   2003       46       .287
           Mike Lowell     2005       46       .298
            Ray Durham     2007       53       .295
            Julio Lugo     2007       48       .294
            Nick Punto     2007       55       .291
          Richie Sexson    2007       51       .295
           Bobby Crosby    2008       47       .296
           Chris Young     2009       45       .297

The Diamondbacks optioned Young to Triple-A Reno at the beginning of the month. Many of the things the Royals said about Gordon, the Diamondbacks said about Young. He needed to “clear his head” and “rebuild his swing and approach.”

In the short time he’s been in the minors, it seems to be working. In 49 plate appearances, he’s hitting .333/.429/.524. Undoubtedly, he’ll be back with the team in September. Perhaps whatever he’s doing in Triple-A will stick and he’ll be able to boost his OBP and remove his name from the above list.

Phil HughesThe Pocket Rocket

“Baseball is always going to be the thing that drives me. I want to be the best there is.”

2008 was a wasted year for Hughes. He opened the year in the Yankees rotation, but landed on the DL with a fractured rib at the end of April. If it hadn’t been the DL, he was likely going to be out of the rotation anyway. Through his first six starts, he had a 9.00 ERA with 13 walks and 13 strikeouts in just 22 innings.

Hughes opened this year back in Triple-A, but was up in the majors before the end of April when Chien-Ming Wang hit the disabled list. Again, he was roughed up in several of his starts, although he did throw in a pair of excellent performances. However, when Wang was deemed ready to return to the rotation, Hughes was sent to the bullpen. Sometimes, the minor moves are the ones that pay the largest dividends.

Since moving to the bullpen at the beginning of June, Hughes has been unhittable. Opposing hitters are managing just a .175/.235/.222 line against him in just under 36 innings of relief work. He’s now become Joe Girardi’s prime set-up option. With good reason: In 28 relief appearances he owns a 1.26 ERA and 45 strikeouts with 10 walks. There was talk of shifting him back to the rotation when Wang again went down with injury, but the Yankees wisely decided to keep him in the bullpen.

             Role       IP       ERA       SO/9      BB/9      HR/9     SO/BB     OPP BA   OPP OPS
          As starter  141.1      5.22      7.1       3.8       1.1       1.9       .265      .778
          As reliever  35.2      1.26      11.4      2.5       0.3       4.5       .175      .458

Sure it’s a small sample size, but it’s clear that Hughes is doing much better as a reliever. Despite his recent successes, it would be criminal to keep Hughes in the bullpen beyond this season. This is all part of the process of learning how to pitch and Hughes has demonstrated over his last 35 innings that he does have what it takes to get big league hitters out on a consistent basis. The Yankees have the luxury of a comfortable lead in the standings, so they can give their 23-year-old pitcher the opportunity to refine his craft in the bullpen.

The rotation remains Hughes’ future—he should be there next year—but for now he’s doing just fine in the bullpen.

Homer BaileyThe Good Ol’ Boy

After posting a 2.31 ERA in 10 Triple-A starts, Bailey was promoted to Cincinnati in June of 2007. He made six starts for the Reds and was hammered in four of them. By the time he was returned to Nashville, Bailey had worked 28 major league innings with 21 walks and 15 strikeouts and an unseemly 6.99 ERA. The fastball that ranged from 92 to 98 mph in the minors vanished, replaced by one that averaged 92 mph.

Control always has been an issue for Bailey. Here are his minor league walk rates:

2005: 5.4 BB/9 in Single-A
2006: 3.2 BB/9 between Hi-A and Double-A
2007: 4.3 BB/9 in Triple-A
2008: 3.7 BB/9 in Triple-A
2009: 2.7 BB/9 in Triple-A

He managed to cut the walk rate that ballooned when he started Triple-A back in ’07, but he hasn’t been able to translate that reduction to the majors. Here are Bailey’s major league walk rates:

2007: 5.6 BB/9
2008: 4.5 BB/9
2009: 4.6 BB/9

This year, Bailey has a 6.82 ERA in 62 innings of work and has allowed 10 home runs. While his fastball has found its giddyup (it’s averaging 94 mph this summer in the majors), he has scrapped his change-up. He’s now relying almost exclusively on his fastball and curve. According to PITCHf/x, in his start against the Pirates on Aug. 23, Bailey threw 114 pitches—90 fastballs, 21 curves and just three change-ups.

If he’s going to feature only two pitches while fighting through bouts of wildness, you have to wonder if a trip to the bullpen is in his future. It worked for Hughes, maybe it will do the same for Bailey.

Matt GarzaThe Gas Can

Garza was a Twin when profiled and after posting a 3.69 ERA in 83 innings in 2007, he was dealt to Tampa Bay as the key guy (along with Jason Bartlett) for the Rays in the Delmon Young deal. With starting pitching at a premium, it’s easy to declare the Rays winners in this deal.

  Year      ERA       H/9       SO/9      BB/9     OPP BA
   2006      3.69      10.4      7.3       3.5       .294
   2007      3.70      8.3       6.2       2.9       .245
   2008      3.74      7.8       8.2       3.5       .232

Control has been an issue with Garza ever since he arrived in the majors. This year, he’s regressed a bit and his 3.5 BB/9 is among the highest in the league among qualified starting pitchers. However, he’s been able to offset damage from the bases on balls by being extremely difficult to hit. His 7.6 H/9 and opponents’ batting average of .232 certainly help prevent the big inning.

When SI profiled Garza, it mentioned his power (hence, the “Gas” reference in the title.) Garza had to dial back some on his velocity to straighten out command issues, but he’s still bringing the heat. This year his average fastball is 93 mph and he’s throwing the pitch more than 70 percent of the time. A strong curve and slider give Garza a full arsenal of pitches. While he may never be a top of the rotation kind of guy, he’s settled comfortably into the role of No. 2.

Kevin KouzmanoffThe History Maker

SI hung the “History” moniker on Kouzmanoff because he was the first player to hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw in the majors, against Edinson Volquez while playing for the Indians in September of 2006.. Undeniably, it was a great start for the young third baseman. However since then, he hasn’t made so much history.

Since his rookie season, his numbers have been in decline.

             Year       PA        BA       OBP       SLG       XBH%      SO%       BB%       WAR
             2007      534       .275      .329      .457      9.4%     17.6%      6.0%      2.6
             2008      668       .260      .299      .433      8.7%     20.8%      3.4%      2.7
             2009      503       .256      .298      .419      8.6%     19.1%      4.0%      1.9

His production puts him in the lower half of all third basemen, and that’s mainly thanks to his defense which has improved. Here’s his UZR/150 over the last three years:

2007: -2.3
2008: 3.1
2009: 4.2

In three years with the Padres, Kouzmanoff has become a steady, if unspectacular performer. That’s not a bad thing… But it’s not good, either.

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Bob Rittner
Bob Rittner

I think you need to change Garza’s years to 2007-2009.

Do you think it is essentially his control that keeps Garza from becoming an ace or are there other factors?

For Garza, there are a lot of examples of pitchers who magically improved their BB/9 rate (without tanking their K/9, if often happens that the decline in one is accompanied by a collapse in the other). Basically, the future of Matt Garza depends on whether or not he can be one of those who can locate his Fastball (without cutting any more speed off of it). As for those like Kouz – it makes zero sense to me that a player regresses at the age he does – what encourages it? Too much cashola? Too much pressure? Neither of those… Read more »
Craig Brown
Craig Brown
Bob – I think “ace” is a relative term.  If my team had him in the rotation, I wouldn’t care if he was the number one or number two… He’s going to be an above average pitcher.  Control will be an issue, though… But not so much it will hold him back. Kinanik – I agree with you on Kouzmanoff.  When a guy at his age regresses across the board, warning flags are waving.  Maybe he just wasn’t that good to begin with and the league made the proper adjustments.  It’s a tough game, and if you can’t adapt, you’re… Read more »
Rob McQuown
Rob McQuown

Kouzmanoff has hit .284/.329/.480 in his career on the road (929 PA).  He’s hitting .290/.327/.461 on the road this season.  I realize that his road ballparks have been somewhat easier than typical, and that the home data shouldn’t be ignored.  But it’s not hard at all to imagine him doing well in an advantageous home ballpark. Failing to “adjust” to Petco as a righty power hitter would hardly make him unqualified to contribute elsewhere.

carter richard carter
carter richard carter

Hi, I enjoyed this very much, maybe you could do a follow-up sometime by trying to see what statistics of these players early in their careers were potential indicators of possible lack of success. thanks very much.