The Gordometer: Can these ex-top prospects go from bust to breakout?
A three-time All-Star; a World Series hero; the face of a city. Six years ago, none of those fates were likely to be Alex Gordon’s. Back in the summer of 2010, when he was demoted to Triple-A, the former No. 2 pick seemed, at 26, perhaps months from being permanently filed away in baseball’s deep archive of busts.
Gordon’s turnaround, which began with a 2011 season in which he hit .303, reached its apotheosis last October and stayed there three months later, when as a free agent he spurned suitors with deeper pockets to stay on as the Royals’ centerpiece for four more years. He is the exemplar of a franchise player, but also of another type: a once highly rated prospect who, after years of struggling, finally reached his potential just before it would have been too late. Last season saw a number of phenoms debut and immediately attain stardom, like Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Miguel Sano. But that is not how it always happens.
Five years ago, Gordon’s career path inspired me to create an instrument to assess the likelihood that other scuffling former top prospects might also belatedly break out: the Gordometer. This spring, I asked five pro scouts for their anonymous observations of a group of once-touted hitters who, like Gordon, have reached their mid-20s without experiencing sustained success in the majors. The scouts provided the Gordometer ratings, which range from one to four Alex Gordon heads. Four Gordons means that the player is most likely to finally put it all together this year, like Gordon did in 2011. One Gordon? The wait will continue, and success that once seemed inevitable might never come at all.
Players are listed alphabetically.
Aaron Hicks, OF, Yankees
The 26-year-old Hicks, a first rounder in 2010 and Baseball America’s 19th-ranked prospect two years later, finally revealed at least some of his reputed five tools during the second half of last season. In 59 games, he hit .250 with eight home runs, 24 RBIs and six steals for the Twins. Then Minnesota promptly shipped him to the Yankees in exchange for catcher John Ryan Murphy. “He has all the tools to do big things,” says a scout. Except for one. “I’m still not sold that he can hit anything but a fastball. I saw a couple times this spring where veteran guys got him to swing and miss on a first-pitch changeup, and after two more changes he was gone. Holy s---, at some point you've got to make an adjustment.”
The scout believes Hicks will exceed 300 plate appearances as the fourth option in the Yankees’ aging and injury-prone outfield, and that he’ll see enough fastballs in a powerful lineup to make an impact, but not a significant one. The scout's prediction: Hicks will hit .250 with 10 home runs and 15 steals.
Brett Lawrie, 2B, White Sox
This is the second straight Gordometer appearance for the 26-year-old Lawrie. Last year’s scout awarded him three Gordons, suggesting he was a strong breakout candidate for the Athletics. He ended up treading water, at best: While he set career highs with 16 homers and 60 RBIs, his OPS of .706 was the lowest of his five-year career, and his strikeout rate skyrocketed, as he whiffed 144 times in 149 games. “He’s built like a brick s---house, and I thought he’d hit,” says a new scout. “But he’s wound so tight. I’d rather have a guy who is wound-up than a guy who is blasé, but there’s tension in his setup. He holds his hands away from his body, and you can see all his muscles flexing. You hope he can find it in his makeup to relax and let his natural ability take over, which is something I’m sure he’s been told 5,000 times.”
The scout believes that Lawrie’s move (via a December trade) from Oakland’s cavernous home park to Chicago’s “launching pad” might help him finally play like the first rounder and 40th-ranked prospect he once was. “Maybe he’ll relax and just try to make good contact, and some of those will go out. He should be a doubles machine and not try to hit home runs.” The scout foresees a .280 average with 20 homers, 35 doubles and 70 RBIs, all of which would easily represent career highs.
Will Middlebrooks, Brewers 3B
It wasn’t long ago—just four years ago, in fact—that Middlebrooks looked as if he were going to be the next great third baseman for the Red Sox. At 23, the Texan hit .288 with 15 home runs, 54 RBIs and a .835 OPS in just 75 games. Unfortunately, that now looks as if it will be as good as it will get for Middlebrooks. A trade to the Padres before last season didn’t help, as he batted .212 with nine homers and a .602 OPS in 83 games. This spring with the Brewers, during what should be the heart of his prime—his age-27 season—he couldn’t make one of the league’s worst teams, instead accepting an assignment to Triple A in late March.
“He’s just not consistent with his hitting approach,” says a scout. “He lacks confidence and that good, initial quickness. Swing can get long. It’s almost like he’s overthinking at the plate sometimes. I just don’t think he’ll be a guy that rebounds to be the kind of player people thought he was going to be a few years ago.” The Brewers could prove desperate for bats and could turn to Middlebrooks, but even with regular playing time, the scout doesn’t expect a batting average better than .215 or more than eight home runs.
Jesus Montero, 1B, Blue Jays
Montero was once as sure a thing as there was in the minors. The former Yankees farmhand was BA’s No. 4 prospect in 2010, No. 3 in '11 (when he trailed only Bryce Harper and Mike Trout) and No. 6 in '12. But he has yet to put it together at the plate. In parts of four seasons with Seattle—where he was traded, for Michael Pineda, in January of 2012—he hit just .253 with a .693 OPS. He was also bedeviled by off-the-field issues, including significant weight gain (though he’s now lost the extra pounds) and a mortifying altercation with a Mariners scout during a minor league game in 2014. Seattle gave up on him, at age 26, in March, and he was quickly picked up by the Blue Jays.
A rival scout believes that Montero’s release was largely related to his soured relationship with his second club. “The issue with the scout was such an embarrassment to the organization,” he says. Compounding matters was that Montero never sufficiently developed the defensive skills to stick at catcher but has yet to show the power bat on the major league level to play every day at first base or designated hitter. There’s still promise here, though. “I don’t think his ability has been that big of a question mark,” the scout says. “Mechanically, he’s the same, making consistent contact. I don’t think his swing is conducive to power—he’s got some lift, but not a lot of leverage, and his balls have topspin on them. But all is not lost.”
The scout doesn’t believe 2016 will be Montero’s breakout year and that it will be hard for him to crack a loaded Toronto lineup. He predicts a .280 batting average and a half-dozen home runs in limited platoon duty. But he says that it’s too soon to close the book on Montero. “I told our people I’d have some interest in him, after the Mariners let him go. I think it was a great pickup by Toronto.”
Wil Myers, 1B, Padres
What is a former AL Rookie of the Year doing on this list? For one thing, 2014 was relatively weak for first-year players in the league: Myers, then with Tampa Bay, batted .293 with 13 homers, 53 RBIs and five steals—enough to beat out second-place finisher Jose Iglesias. For another, Myers hasn’t come close to equaling those numbers since. Over the past two seasons combined, he’s batted .235 with 14 homers, 64 RBIs and a .675 OPS—a disappointing performance for BA’s No. 4 prospect in 2013.
Questions about Myers’s makeup have bedeviled him and, according to a scout, might help explain why a 25-year-old with his gifts has been traded twice, first from the Royals to the Rays and then, before last year, to the Padres. “He’s a different cat,” the scout says. “He’s not a team guy, or something. I heard there’s some issues with attitude.”
The much bigger issue, though, has been injuries to both of Myers's wrists that limited him to 147 games over the past two seasons. “A lot of it is health,” the scout says. “He’s got great physical ability and tools: power, speed, everything.” The scout says that Myers looked fully fit during a spring in which he hit .273 with four homers, 14 RBIs and an .890 OPS, and that he seemed happy to have been installed at first base after bouncing around the outfield. The scout predicts a breakout season with a .280 average, 20 homers, 80 RBIs and 15 steals. Those numbers sound familiar: In Gordon’s breakout in 2011, he batted. 303 with 23 homers, 87 RBIs and 17 steals.
Jon Singleton, 1B, Astros
In June of 2014, before the now-24-year-old Singleton had taken a single major league at bat, the Astros signed him to a five-year, $10 million deal that included three club options starting in '19. Many considered it a steal for Houston; some even suggested that the Astros had held Singleton hostage, denying him a promotion to the majors until he inked the deal. Those skeptics overlooked the risk the club was assuming. As it turned out, the contract has yet to begin to pay off. While Singleton has raked in the minors—he had 22 homers and 83 RBIs in Triple A last year—his major league performance has been another matter. Through 114 games in the big leagues, he is batting .171 with 14 homers, 50 RBIs, a .621 OPS and 151 strikeouts, and this spring, he lost the first base competition to less-heralded prospect Tyler White and fell behind slugger A.J. Reed on the organization’s depth chart.
“He really isn’t close to the hitter I remember seeing four or five years ago,” says a scout. “It’s almost like he’s trying to live up to something that he’s not. He used to use the whole field, let the ball travel. I’m sure some of it is that he’s pressing. He’s gotten away from his strengths to try to put up big power numbers. Good hitters develop power as they mature.”
If Singleton, now back in Triple A, were to receive a full season of big-league playing time, the scout predicts that he’d hit .230 with 12 home runs—“and a bunch of strikeouts.” “That’s the danger of some of these contracts. You put undue pressure on a kid, and he tries to live up to it. In some cases it works great, but it’s got to be the right kid. I’m disappointed.” Like Montero, Singleton still has time to come through on his promise, but it’s unlikely to happen in 2016.