Prospects busting out

I prefer good news. Perhaps it’s because I’m an optimist. I want to tell you the “glass half-full” side of the prospect story.

But sometimes, that’s just not the case.

It doesn’t always work out for all prospects. If it did, following them wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. Of course, this isn’t becoming much fun for these prospects who are struggling to fulfill their potential, or for the fans rooting for them to figure it out.

We must not be quick to rush to judgment when it comes to young players learning how to play a very hard game against the best competition in the world. This is especially true when it comes to young international prospects who also have to learn a new language and high school draft picks who have likely never lived away from home.

But at some point, it becomes clear that a prospect is just not going to develop as was expected, and the reality of the uncertainty of talent evaluation rears its ugly head to front office personnel and fans alike. Typically it is seen as a player takes a second crack at a level of the minors he failed to master the first time around. When this second season goes no better than the first, it becomes apparent that the player may have found his ceiling, despite the tools he may possess and the potential he may exude.

This was the case for a player like Beau Mills, the 13th overall pick in the 2007 draft by the Cleveland Indians. Mills was sent back to Double-A this season after posting a lackluster .267/.308/.417 line there in 2009 as a 22-year-old. Mills returned to Akron and saw his OPS drop by 25 points. There were also off-the-field issues that have nothing to do with his performance, but certainly didn’t help. A prospect like Mills will continue to get chances because of the commitment made to him (as a former first-round pick), but his inability to control the strike zone and failure to develop the expected power have led the Indians to look elsewhere in their planning.

While patience must be displayed, the Indians know what they have in Mills after only three full seasons because he was drafted out of college and thus was older and further developed toward his ultimate ceiling. The opposite is true for former first-round draft picks like Bill Rowell and Anthony Hewitt.

Rowell was the first high school hitter selected in the 2006 draft and was thought to be an advanced hitter even for a prep player. His 6-foot-5 frame and smooth swing conveyed power potential without having to over-swing, thus projecting that he could be a .300 hitter as well. Through 53 games of short-season ball during his draft year, the scouting reports appeared accurate, as Rowell posted a .328/.415/.503 line.

Unfortunately for the Orioles and for Rowell, he has never approached that type of production again. In four years of full-season ball, Rowell has yet to post an OPS higher than .761 and his 11 home runs this season, in his second chance at the Carolina League, were a career high. Rowell still could develop into a major league hitter—turned 22 just this past week— but the power that made him a first-round pick has never shown up in games the way it was displayed during batting practice.

The difference between potential in batting practice and what comes out in the games is what will continue haunt Anthony Hewitt as well. Hewitt was a first-round pick by the Phillies in 2008 (24th overall) and was considered the ultimate risk/reward prospect. Hewitt was among the most athletic high school players in the country that year, and also had displayed tremendous power during showcases and occasionally during high school games. Unfortunately, he can’t hit a curve ball. Never could. Probably never will.

It’s harsh, but it’s the biggest adjustment to make, and thus far Hewitt has failed to make it. Despite extreme struggles in short-season ball in both 2008 and 2009 (he hit .197 and .223 respectively), the Phillies sent him to the South Atlantic League in 2010 and essentially watched him drown. Hewitt posted a .202/.243/.327 line and struck out 158 times in 465 plate appearances. Even the power that he has could create only 30 extra base hits due to poor plate recognition.

Hewitt will likely head back to the Sally League next season, perhaps after some time in extended spring training, but will have to make an extreme turnaround to give the Phillies any kind of confidence.

Hewitt isn’t the only Phillies first-rounder falling further out of the team’s plans each year. The year before Hewitt, the Phillies took Joe Savery, a college two-way player who projected better as a left-handed pitcher and was thought to be a relatively safe pick. Unfortunately as he has progressed further into his minor league career, his velocity has dropped, as have his strikeout numbers.

Never a hard thrower to begin with, Savery has posted K/BB ratios of 1.25 and 1.31 the past two years. Toward the end of the 2010 season, the Phillies began to use him as a DH in Triple-A and have sent him to the instructional league to work on hitting, in hopes that he can make the transition to becoming a prospect with his bat instead of his arm. They haven’t shut him down as a pitcher altogether, but trying to become a hitter is rarely a good sign for one’s pitching career.

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Good article, but just FYI, the title makes it sounds like we will be reading about prospects who “bust out” (i.e. meet/exceed expectations), rather than prospects who “flame out” (i.e. disappoint). At least, I’ve only ever heard the term “bust out” to mean “break out.”