The Gordometer: Can these former top prospects break out in 2015?
Alex Gordon reached new heights last year, during which he finished 12th in the American League MVP voting and ended the season 90 feet away from being the tying run in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 of the World Series. What made 2014 all the more significant for the Royals leftfielder was the path of his career: Just a half a decade earlier, Gordon was an aging former top prospect who couldn’t figure out how to hit big league pitching and seemed on the verge of being declared a bust once and for all. But in '11, Gordon broke out, turning into a star and inspiring me to create an instrument to measure the likelihood that subsequent former top prospects might follow his career path: the Gordometer.
This is the fourth year of the Gordometer’s existence and, as in the past, the idea is to apply it to formerly touted minor league hitters who, like Gordon, have reached their mid-20s without experiencing sustained success in the majors. To get some on-the-ground opinions, I asked five rival major league scouts for their views on this year's candidates. They provided the Gordometer ratings, which range from one to four Alex Gordon heads—four meaning that the player is likely to break out in 2015, and one meaning that the wait will continue indefinitely.
Travis d'Arnaud, C, Mets
Though he was traded twice before reaching the big leagues—from the Phillies to the Blue Jays and then to the Mets—d’Arnaud was a fixture on Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects list for five years, ranking anywhere from No. 17 to No. 81. He didn’t hit much during his first two tastes of the big leagues (.202 over 112 plate appearances in '13, .180 through last June 6), but he started to come around after a midseason demotion to Triple A, batting .272 after he returned to New York.
This spring, d'Arnaud looks like he's taken the next step. “He really impressed me,” says one scout. “I now think this guy’s got a chance to be as good as everyone thought. He has become more disciplined, using the whole field instead of trying to pull everything. When the ball’s away, he drives it the other way. It’s a maturity thing—he’s figured out how to use his tools to hit.” The scout believes d’Arnaud, 26, could hit .290 with 15 home runs and 60 RBIs this season—strong numbers for a catcher.
Davis isn’t an obvious candidate for this list, as he hit 32 home runs for the Mets back in 2012. But the 28-year-old is here because even back then, he wasn’t the contact hitter scouts thought he’d be as an '08 first-round pick (he batted .227). Since '12, he’s fallen apart at the plate, batting just .220 with 20 home runs over the last two seasons with New York and Pittsburgh.
Davis's lingering valley fever, a fungal infection that causes fatigue, may have contributed to some of his struggles, but so did his mechanics. “He was dropping his hands and he wasn’t getting them back up—that’s why he was pulling everything and unable to drive the ball the other way,” says one scout. “They’d give him some soft stuff and he’d just roll over and fly out. I thought he was a stubborn guy, because he wasn’t making any adjustments.” The good news, according to that scout? “He’s finally made them. This spring, he was getting his hands back up in his load. I think he’ll be much, much better.” The scout guesses that Davis, in his first year in the cavernous O.co Coliseum, will bat .260 with 27 homers and 85 RBIs.
Brett Lawrie, 3B, A's
Like d’Arnaud and Davis, the 25-year-old Lawrie is already a member of his third franchise (he was a first-round pick of the Brewers in 20008 and spent four big league seasons with the Blue Jays), and one scout predicts that this will be the year in which he will experience a significant improvement, if not an outright leap into stardom. Lawrie has been held back by health issues (he’s already made six trips to the disabled list), which, as one scout points out, partly stem from his breakneck playing style. “This dude, man, he’s got more energy than any player I’ve ever seen, just gets after it,” the scout says. “So I can see why he’s been injured a lot, which slowed his development.”
Over the past three seasons, Lawrie has batted .261 with an average of 11 home runs and 44 RBIs in 101 games played, but the scout expects a power surge during his first season with Oakland. “He’ll be a guy that will have streaks when he’s on fire and when he’s going to struggle” the scout says. “But he can drive the ball all over the field. I’d guess he’s a .260 guy with 20 homers and 85 RBIs, if he plays a full season.”
Once a highly-rated prospect with the Marlins—he was ranked No. 18 on BA’s list in 2009 and No. 20 the following year—Morrison (pictured above) has yet to figure out big league pitching, batting .251 with 53 homers and a .758 OPS over parts of five big league seasons. The problem, says one scout, is that at 27, Morrison has yet to figure out himself. “I don’t think he has defined what type of hitter he is,” the scout says. “He’s not a gap-to-gap guy, he’s not truly a pull guy. It seems like it varies with each at-bat.” Still, says the scout, “It’s a good number, 27, and he’s going to get every opportunity because he doesn’t have anybody pushing him at first base. He looks a lot better over there than Justin Smoak did, offensively.” The scout projects that Morrison will hit .260 with a modest 15 home runs and 55 RBIs.
Olt was viewed as a potential home run champ when he was a Rangers farmhand—he was BA’s No. 22 prospect in 2013—but he didn’t come close to looking like one last year with the Cubs, batting .160 with 12 home runs and 33 RBIs in 89 games. “Obviously he’s got big raw power,” says one scout. “When he sees the ball and hits the ball, he can impact it. But he just doesn’t make consistent contact. Too many swings and misses, just too streaky.... I think he’s more of a marginal bench-type player.” The 26-year-old Olt, currently starting at third base for Chicago, could soon find himself on the pine, as the Cubs’ younger, Kris Bryant-led cadre of prospects continues to reach the majors. The scout predicts Olt will top out at .240 this season, with eight home runs and an on-base percentage of under .300.
Michael Saunders, LF, Blue Jays
The 6’4” British Columbia native’s five-tool potential led BA to rank him the game’s No. 30 prospect as a Mariners minor leaguer in 2010, but even in his best big league season—'12, when he hit 19 homers and stole 21 bases—his game had holes. Saunders is a .231 career hitter with a .685 OPS, and one scout doesn’t expect those numbers to improve much after the 28-year-old returns from a torn meniscus and debuts for the Blue Jays. “There’s no question he has the talent to be a really nice player,” the scout says. “It’s just a matter of putting it all together over a full season and being consistent, which is I’m sure what Toronto’s hoping. I think the likelihood is he’ll never be more than a fourth outfielder.” The scout projects a .260 average with 15 home runs and 70 RBIs.
Mike Zunino, C, Mariners
Entering this season, Zunino—the third pick in the 2012 draft out of the University of Florida—already had 183 big league games on his resume, and though he's hit 27 home runs, he has batted just .203 with an OPS of .648. At 24, he is the youngest player on his list, and scouts agree that he is the most likely to reach stardom in '15. “I recently had a conversation with another baseball person, and we have a steak dinner on it: I bet he’s going to hit over .240 this year, perhaps well over,” says one scout. “I’m a believer. The bat for a catcher is the last thing to come. They’re so overwhelmed and they have such a tremendous load on them, learning their staffs. Last year, I saw a guy who was swinging at pitches when he was looking for something else. He was a guesser, as opposed to a hunter.... Zunino doesn’t look like a guesser now, but a person with a plan.” Adds a second scout: “He’s the real deal. He might be the All-Star catcher from the American League for the next eight to 10 years.”
The scouts believe that Zunino, though he calls pitcher-friendly Safeco Field home, could hit .260 with 25 home runs and 75 RBIs this season, making him the leading contender to be Alex Gordon’s heir as this year's breakout star.