Pirates’ Prospect Austin Meadows, Then and Now by Eno Sarris June 27, 2016 The Pirates are currently only four games out of the last Wild Card spot, and their star center fielder is currently under contract for two more years after this one. Regardless, that hasn’t stopped people from wondering if Pittsburgh should trade Andrew McCutchen, even if the lack of an obvious trade partner makes a deal unlikely. Usually part of the argument is that the team has a near-ready replacement in Austin Meadows. The 21-year-old center fielder just laid waste to Double-A and is now learning the ropes at the highest level in the minor leagues. His power has finally blossomed, and he looks like the five-tool prospect that’s made him a top prospect ever since he entered affiliated baseball as a top-10 pick in the 2013 draft. It wasn’t always super easy for the player, though. I caught up with Meadows in the Arizona Fall League last October, when he was coming off an up-and-down season that saw him slug at a below-average rate both in High-A and in the Fall League. We talked about what he needed to work on. Then I asked lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen how well Meadows has addressed those issues, so as to get the best sense of Meadows over the course of the last year. The main question for Meadows has always been power. Despite a prodigious posterior and a body that mostly suggested he would hit for power, Meadows had been underwhelming in that department up until the point at which I talked to him in October last year. He thought it would come. “This game is about potential, and that’s a big part of it,” he said in the dugout before the AFL All-Star Game. “I look forward to tapping into the power more going forward.” When asked about mechanics, he focused on health. “Just trying to stay consistent,” Meadows said about his plans. “I’m out here to extend the season and stay healthy and keep doing what I’m doing.” That might seem like a weird answer — or, at least an evasive one. He’s definitely improved his power since we talked, and mechanics were part of it, but it also turns out that health is definitely part of the answer. Austin Meadows’ 2016 Power Explosion Time Period PA AVG OBP SLG HR/PA BB K 2013-2015 1050 0.303 0.368 0.452 0.017 8.9% 16.7% 2016 228 0.286 0.339 0.567 0.031 7.9% 16.2% Longenhagen detailed the story of Meadows’ swing. “Pre-draft, scouts were worried about how high and deep Meadows was loading his hands,” he pointed out. “Changes would have to be made if he was going to make high-quality contact.” Take a look at Meadows back in the day for that deep load. In the Fall League, Meadows was working with a “markedly different” version of that swing according to Longenhagen. “The hands were not only loading much lower but they barely went back at all,” the writer said. “It’s a very simplistic approach and one that would rely almost entirely on Meadows’ natural bat speed and hand strength, both of which are exceptional, to generate any power.” The work of a developing player is difficult. On the one hand, there’s the pressure to produce results in order to advance up the ladder; on the other, there’s the understanding that a long-term approach, aimed at succeeding against the most advanced opponents, is the real goal. The best way to find that long-term fit is reps, and that’s what lacked for Meadows early in his career. A hamstring injury cost him three months in 2014, right when he was beginning to change his swing. The 2015 campaign saw him reach 600 plate appearance for the first time — and represented his first chance to really get those reps. So now it’s coming together. “Some of the increased power we’ve seen from Meadows has been wrought by comfort in what has been a constantly changing swing,” observed Longenhagen. “This season, it looks like he’s found a happy medium. It’s still a rather contact-oriented swing but there’s enough timing, feel for the barrel, that I think he’ll produce plenty of power.” That the swing in Adam Hayes’ video from earlier this month looks so similar to the one in the Arizona Fall League is another argument in favor of consistency brought by a long stretch of good health. Since coming back from a March orbital-bone surgery, he’s put it together. “Learning how to stay healthy,” he reiterated as an important milestone in the AFL. “That was important to get under my belt. Consistency, and learning about your body, staying consistent even if you run into a freak problem. Trying to stay mentally tough here. It’s a long year.” You might notice some more aggression and fewer walks from Meadows this year. Some of that might be learning to deal with the book other teams are forming on him. “They control their stuff pretty well up there,” Meadows said of Double-A pitchers in 2015. “Not a lot of walks, game goes by a little bit quicker. You know over a five-game series what the pitchers are trying to do to you. They were trying to throw a ton of offspeed out there, especially in the playoffs, trying to get guys out with ground balls.” One thing you’ll always hear about with Meadows is the arm. “Yes it’s a 40 arm,” Longenhagen admits. Meadows admits it, too. “It’s definitely a process. From center, you have to get it over the mound, I feel like you get an advantage throwing from the corners, but wherever you’re at, you gotta make the throw anyway.” The best news is that it might not matter. “That’s acceptable in center field,” said Longenhagen, “and even if he has to move off of it and to left field, I think he hits enough that it won’t matter.” And all of this due to a good stretch of health. “This kid only played in about 45 games in each of his first two pro seasons,” Longenhagen noted, “and I think now that he’s finally healthy he’s not only been able to become more comfortable with reacting to the pitching he’s facing but with himself as well.” The Pirates’ excellent outfield is about to get even more crowded, it seems.