Gordometer returns: Scouts weigh in on possible breakout players
Last spring, Sports Illustrated introduced the Gordometer, an instrument intended to identify former elite minor league hitting prospects who had in their first few seasons in the majors failed to fully live up to their early billings, and -- with the help of a panel of four advance scouts -- to predict which of them might immediately fulfill their promise. It was named in honor of Alex Gordon, the Royals' second overall pick in the 2005 draft. Gordon scuffled through his first four seasons in Kansas City before rising in 2011, at the age of 27, to become the All-Star caliber hitter that he remains.
Last year's recipient of four "Gordons" -- the top of the scale, meaning he was considered the most likely to break out -- was Matt Wieters. Wieters slugged a career-high 23 home runs, ranked second among American League catchers with 83 RBIs and was a middle-of-the-order force for the Orioles as they surged to an unlikely wild card. Three "Gordons" went to the Pirates' Pedro Alvarez and the Rockies' Dexter Fowler, and both showed major improvement. Alvarez smashed 30 homers and drove in 85 runs and Fowler hit .300 with an OPS of .863, which ranked him 12th in the National League.
Colby Rasmus, who had worn out his welcome in St. Louis, was given two "Gordons," and he continued to disappoint in his first full year as a Blue Jay. His power (23 homers, 75 RBIs) was offset by a very low batting average (.223) and on-base percentage (.289), and he struck out 149 times in 151 games. Finally, Matt LaPorta -- considered such a promising power prospect in 2008 that he was the key piece the Indians got for trading CC Sabathia to the Brewers -- earned one "Gordon." He spent most of the season in the minors, and in his 22 games with Cleveland he hit .241 with a single home run.
The five former top prospects subjected to the Gordometer this year have several things in common. Each of them has spent several seasons, or parts of them, in the big leagues; each is between 25 and 27 years old; each has been ranked at least once in the top 20 of Baseball America's annual 'Top 100 Prospects' list since 2009; and none have put it together at the plate in a way that was once anticipated. Who has the best chance to become this year's Alex Gordon, and who remains at least a season away? See below.
The 27-year-old Santana has by no means been a bust since he was called up in June of 2010, particularly in the power department. In his two full seasons, he has averaged 22 home runs and 78 RBIs. But he has yet to reach the elite level that many expected of him, due to a low batting average (a combined .246 in 2011 and '12) and high strikeout rate (234 in 298 games the past two years). This, scouts agree, is the year he will get there. Part of the reason, they say, is that the Indians have added players like Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds and Nick Swisher who will force opposing pitchers not to work around Santana, but a bigger factor is Santana's own maturation.
"He's just about to hit it big," says one scout. "He's getting more selective, swinging at strikes. You worry about guys that swing and miss at strikes, but he doesn't miss, and now he's laying off of pitches out of the zone."
That scout projects Santana to hit .290 in 2013, with 25 to 30 home runs and 90 to 100 RBIs. Such a projection also makes Santana the player who is most likely to be this year's Alex Gordon.
Beckham, 26, suffered a fractured hamate bone in his left hand two weeks ago, which might keep him on the disabled list until June and will delay the significant improvement that at least one scout predicts for him. Beckham reached the majors in 2009, the year after the White Sox drafted him eighth overall out of Georgia, and while his debut was impressive -- in 103 games he hit .270, with 14 home runs, 63 RBIs and an .808 OPS -- the three seasons that followed were significantly less so. His OPS has not again topped even .700, nor his batting average .252. The scout thinks he knows why: Beckham became enamored of those home runs he hit as a rookie.
"The worst thing that happens to him is that he hits a home run," the scout says. Beckham's early homers made him pull happy, according to the scout. "He developed a hook in his swing, which made him susceptible to breaking balls away," he says, but in spring training Beckham fixed the flaw and was back to driving the ball to all fields. He'll continue to do so when his hand heals, the scout expects, meaning he'll become one of the game's better-hitting second basemen.
Jennings, the 26-year-old whose five tools led Baseball America to rank him No. 6 on its 2010 Top 100, generated a wider range of opinions among the scouts than the other players on this list. One says that Jennings' focus on cutting back on strikeouts (he whiffed 183 times in 212 games between 2010 and '12) and reaching base more (his OBP was a poor .327) had sapped him of his aggressiveness, and that he doesn't envision Jennings finding a middle ground this season. The others were more optimistic about Jennings' immediate future.
"I think he'll make them forget about B.J. Upton," says one, of Jennings' departed centerfield predecessor. "He could be a star," says another. "He can fly, he's got strength. All he has to do is make better contact, and I think that he will. He's a dangerous guy."
The consensus is to expect Jennings to finish 2013 batting .280, with 15 to 20 home runs and 50 stolen bases.
One scout says that the old scouting axiom, "Don't get fooled in March or September," might apply this year to the 25-year-old Brown, who was Baseball America's No. 4 prospect in 2011. Brown had a terrific spring training, batting .356 with seven homers and 17 RBIs and winning the Phillies' starting leftfield job in the process. During the regular season, however, the habits that led him to hit just .236 with a .703 OPS during parts of three previous seasons in the majors have resurfaced (through 19 games, he was batting .217 with two homers).
"He made some adjustments to his swing to cover some of his holes, but to me his pitch recognition just has not been good," says the scout. "He hit a bunch of cookies in spring training, drove the [heck] out of them, and you're like, maybe he's getting it. But the pitching's gotten better, and he's not dealing with it -- cheats on fastballs because he gets jammed in there."
A second scout concurs. "Great tools, great-looking athlete, can throw, can move, has power -- but there's still just something about him, he doesn't have a good timing mechanism."
The scouts predict that Brown will hit .260 with 15 home runs in 2013 "with probably too many strikeouts for what he gives you," says one.
"Lumbering" is a term that two scouts independently use to describe Smoak, who was the premier prospect in the 2010 trade that sent Cliff Lee from Seattle to Texas. In parts of three big league seasons prior to this one, the 26-year-old, the 11th overall pick in the '08 draft, has not hit better than .234 nor had an OPS better than .719. At .208 and .541, he's currently off to another poor start.
"He remains a slow twitch guy," says one scout. "I don't see enough bat quickness yet. He's limited in what he can handle at the plate. He's got power, and if he gets his pitch he's going to hit some home runs. But against good pitching, I don't think he has much of a chance."
The scout projects Smoak to hit .230 this year, with 20 home runs if he continues to play every day -- which he might not, as the impending promotion of catcher Mike Zunino means that Seattle's first base and DH spots could be regularly filled by Kendrys Morales and Jesus Montero. In other words, if Smoak is going to become the all-around hitter he was once expected to be, it likely won't happen in 2013.