The Gordometer: Which former top prospects will break out in 2014?
Alex Gordon remains the standard bearer for a certain type of player: A once elite hitting prospect who struggled during his first few major league seasons before finally, all at once, breaking out. Gordon, the second pick in the 2005 draft, batted .240 and averaged 11 homers and 40 RBI for the Royals from 2007-10 before putting it all together in 2011, when he hit .303 with 23 homers and 87 RBI.
For the third straight spring, SI.com has asked a panel of four pro scouts for their opinions as to which long scuffling former top prospects might be on the cusp of a Gordon-in-'11 type of season, and which will likely continue to disappoint. While the scouts proved generally prescient two years ago, last year was more of a mixed bag. Our scouts were shockingly accurate in their predictions for the Mariners' Justin Smoak (they said that Smoak would hit .230 with 20 homers; he hit .238 with 20 homers), but they were a bit overly optimistic about Desmond Jennings and Carlos Santana, and pessimistic about 2013 All-Star Domonic Brown.
This year brings with it a new quintet of potential Gordons, each of whom has yet to fulfill his promise. Each has spent several seasons in the majors, and each is between 25 and 27 years old. As in the past, we have ranked the scouts' predictions for each on a four-level scale we have devised called the Gordometer. Four Gordons suggests that a breakout is likely ahead, whereas as one means that you can only anticipate more of the same.
Dustin Ackley, Mariners OF
Ackley, 26, was picked behind only Stephen Strasburg in the 2009 draft, after he batted over .400 in each of his three seasons at the University of North Carolina. He had a solid 90-game big league debut in 2011, hitting .273 with six homers, 36 RBI and a .766 OPS. He has disappointed since then, batting just .236 over the past two years, and was even sent down to Triple-A for a month in the middle of 2013. One scout is certain that Ackley's troubles at the dish stemmed directly from the Mariners' attempt to play him at second base, and that the club's decision to put him in the outfield permanently will lead to a breakout year for him. "He'd take his defensive struggles up to the plate with him," the scout said. "This spring was probably the most relaxed I've ever seen him. He can go up there and be the player he is capable of being. I won't call him Wade Boggs, but he appears to be Wade Boggs-ish." That scout predicted that Ackley will bat .300 -- an average surpassed by only 12 American League hitters last year -- with 15 home runs. That makes Ackley the player most likely to follow Gordon's career path.
Yonder Alonso, Padres 1B
The Padres acquired the 26-year-old Alonso, the seventh overall pick in 2008, as part of the December 2011 trade that sent Mat Latos to Cincinnati. After a modestly promising first season in San Diego, in which he batted .273 with nine homers, 62 RBI and 39 doubles, his production fell off last year, in part because of wrist and hand injuries that limited him to 97 games. He had just 17 extra base hits: 11 doubles and six homers. While one scout said that he would like to see the 6-foot-1-inch, 230-pound Alonso improve his fitness—"He's never going to be a body beautiful type of guy"—he thinks 2014 might be the year in which the first baseman will begin to maximize his talents, with a .290 average, 15 home runs, 70 RBI and a career high in doubles. "He doesn't have a great uppercut, but he'll hit the ball in the alleys," the scout said. "Playing in Petco Park, he's not going to be a home run guy, but he will hit for average."
Chisenhall, 25, still has the sweet left-handed swing that made him a first-round pick in 2008 and Baseball America's 25th-rated prospect in '11, but he has yet to put it to consistently good use on the major league level. In parts of three big league seasons, comprising a total of 203 games, he has batted just .244, with 23 homers and an OPS of .694. His problem, according to a scout, is that he hasn't physically developed in the ways evaluators once thought he might. "He looks the same as he did when he signed," the scout said of the 6-2, 190-pound Chisenhall. "He hasn't gotten bigger or stronger, and you need your corner players to produce some power. He's a curious case. He looks like a player. He moves like a player. In Triple-A, he is absolutely fabulous. When he gets to the big leagues, he doesn't really produce." That the Indians now seem committed to playing Santana at third suggests that Chisenhall's opportunity in Cleveland might have already passed, but even if he receives regular playing time, the scout doesn't expect much: A .270 average with five to 10 homers and "not a whole lot of RBI." If Chisenhall does have his breakout, it likely won't be with the Indians, nor will it be in 2014.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia, a former catcher, has been accused of being overly demanding of his backstops from a defensive perspective, perhaps to his club's detriment (see: Mike Napoli). In the case of the 26-year-old Conger, a scout said, Scioscia's concerns are justified: "He's robotic back there, and the game is too fast for a robotic catcher." The scout opines that Conger's thus far futile focus on improving as a catcher has hindered the development of a bat that made him a perennial top-100 prospect after he was drafted in the first round in 2006—he's batted .225 with 13 homers in 171 big league games—but believes that Conger's offensive skills likely will never be good enough for him to play regularly at another position, like designated hitter. "I wouldn't say he's a legitimate DH," the scout said. "He's kind of stuck in the middle." Even so, if Scioscia gives Conger 400 at-bats—perhaps because the manager decides he can live with Conger's defensive limitations—the scout anticipates a modest offensive upswing. "He's capable of batting .270 or .280, with 10 to 15 homers and 60 RBI," he said.
Mike Moustakas, Royals 3B
The 25-year-old Moustakas has yet to provide the Royals with the pure power that made him the second overall pick out of California's Chatsworth High in 2007 and Baseball America's No. 9 prospect in '11. He's hit 37 home runs in 375 games, including 12 last season, and his batting average has declined each year (to .233 in '13). Moustakas, though, hit .429 this spring, with four homers and an MLB-high 18 RBI, and a scout who is generally wary of spring stats suggests that those numbers might be a sign of things to come. "He's always been able to hit, but I think he was just trying to live up to too much, following in the footsteps of George Brett and with a number of different hitting coaches there in Kansas City," the scout said. "Every young hitter doesn't start scalding." The scout believes that this is the year Moustakas might start to boil in the way that Gordon, a predecessor at third in K.C., once did. He predicts a .270 batting average with 18-20 homers and 75 RBI.