Prospect Watch: Up-The-Middle Power

Each weekday during the minor-league season, FanGraphs is providing a status update on multiple rookie-eligible players. Note that Age denotes the relevant prospect’s baseball age (i.e. as of July 1st of the current year); Top-15, the prospect’s place on Marc Hulet’s preseason organizational list; and Top-100, that same prospect’s rank on Hulet’s overall top-100 list.

Peter O’Brien, C, New York Yankees (Profile)
Level: Double-A   Age: 23  Top-15: N/A   Top-100: N/A
Line: 46 PA, .304/.304/.804, 7 HR, 0 BB, 10 K

O’Brien’s hanging in with the legendary Joey Gallo in the minor league home run chase, and he plays the most important position on the defensive spectrum, yet he falls behind the first tier of slugging prospects due to a variety of weaknesses.

Peter O’Brien has launched seventeen home runs in 41 games this year. He’s done that while playing in two very pitcher-friendly parks in two pitcher-friendly leagues. He hit .321 in 30 contests in High-A and .303 so far in Double-A–with seven homers in eleven contests at the higher level, to boot.

Oh, and he’s a catcher.

Sounds like the perfect prospect, right?

O’Brien’s accomplishments should not be diminished. His power is very real–he’s a big-bodied slugger with big swing leverage. I saw him a couple of times in Low-A in 2013 and felt comfortable putting him in the 65/70 grade power range even without seeing him clear a fence. With a semblance of other skills coalescing around that grade of pop, O’Brien would be a good big league power hitter.

The question is what exactly those other skills will be. We can rule out speed–O’Brien has literally never stolen a base in 212 minor league contests (it’s not like that’s a big deal for a catcher, though). So that puts the focus on contact, plate discipline, and/or defensive acumen.

All three of these are big question marks for O’Brien. He’s hit for average this year, sure, but that’s largely a function of his home run output. His uppercut swing produces a ton of fly balls, many of which clear the fence; however, this approach leaves him vulnerable to very low BABIPs, which could send his average plummeting if higher-level pitchers can reduce his home run output and/or increase his strikeouts. Unfortunately for O’Brien, that seems to be a very possible outcome for his future due to his lack of plate discipline. He’s walked just four times all year, which is inexcusable for a hitter whom pitchers should be afraid to make a mistake against. The only stop he walked more than seven percent of the time or had a K/BB ratio better than 4/1 was Low-A last year. His leveraged, uppercut stroke has some length and some holes, and he’s vulnerable to high fastballs and low offspeed stuff. He has some bat-to-ball skills and has never had a strikeout rate over 30%, but he’s also never had one below 20%. Sometimes guys like this make the transition to the big leagues, but more often, they turn into J.P. Arencibia or Will Middlebrooks.

Of course, if O’Brien can put up Middlebrooks’ .248/.296/.448 career line while handling everyday catching duties, he’d be a worthwhile (if flawed) MLB player. Unfortunately, his defense is also very much a question mark. He’s a good leader on the field and has a good motor, but like many big catchers, he’s not particularly agile and struggles to block pitches–he’s allowed 36 passed balls in 180 games caught in his career, including nine in 29 this year. He does have some raw arm strength, but he doesn’t have a very quick release and his caught stealing percentages have always been in the 20-29% range (career 22%). The Yankees moved him to third base late last year, and he proceeded to make twenty-one errors in 38 games, for an execrable .802 fielding percentage, getting him moved back behind the plate in 2014. He’s also gotten a few appearances in right field, but his lack of speed would likely cause issues there as well.

None of this is to say that O’Brien can’t be a valuable MLB player. However, if that is to happen, he’s going to have to improve something in his game. His current approach is going to get him in trouble against MLB pitching, limiting his OBP and probably decreasing his power output, and his defense isn’t going to pick up the slack. If he can turn himself into a significantly more disciplined hitter or a significantly better receiver (let alone both), he’ll have a nice big league role for many years. However, O’Brien is a few weeks from his 24th birthday and still has some major flaws to sort out. His production is undeniably fun to watch, and there’s certainly some real skills behind it, but expectations need to be kept reasonable in light of his flaws.


Ryder Jones, SS, San Francisco Giants  (Profile)
Level: Low-A   Age: 20   Top-15: 15th   Top-100: N/A
Line: 160 PA, .268/.314/.389, 3 HR, 8 BB, 43 K

Originally thought to be an overdraft in the second round of last year, Jones features easy plus power and a rocket arm, and his swing and approach are better than his contact numbers suggest.

As the 64th overall selection in last year’s draft, Ryder Jones was a bit of a dark horse; the son of Appalachian State’s baseball coach hadn’t received a ton of pre-draft hype. After a sound showing in his pro debut in rookie ball, the high school product was challenged with a Low-A assignment this year and has been…passable, I suppose, if all you look at are the numbers (.326 wOBA, 101 wRC+).

That might make you think Jones indeed was a bit of an overdraft, but the player I saw last week was certainly worthy of his draft spot, showing three impressive tools.

Let’s start with the loudest one:

I don’t think you need to see any more than that to conclude Jones has plus power, .102 career ISO or no. Including those two, he has three home runs in his last seven games after blasting just one in his first 69 career contests. Given his size, strength, bat speed, and swing, more are on the way.

More importantly, Jones shows off a balanced, fairly short swing in the videos above–he’s not selling out for the long ball. He’s struck out at an elevated 26.9% clip this year, but there’s no reason he’s necessarily destined to be a high-K guy forever. He’s also capable of working counts, like so:

Moving forward, Jones projects to add contact, power, and walks, which is pretty nice when the starting point is a league-average bat. He could be a .275/.340/.460 sort of hitter if his bat develops like it should.

Defensively, the high school shortstop was moved to third base last year to defer to first-rounder Christian Arroyo, but both players were moved one position to the right this year, putting Jones back at his high school spot. Jones might be the slowest, stiffest shortstop I’ve ever seen–he has very little range at the shortstop position, doesn’t charge balls well at all, seems to have hard hands, and is very slow on the transfer. He’s listed at 6’2″ and 200 pounds and looks considerably bigger, maybe 6’3″ 215 or so (not a shortstop build), and his defensive plays seem to take an eternity to develop. However, the former two-way high school player might have the best arm I’ve seen from the shortstop position, firing absolute bullets to first base (that often made up for the aforementioned slow development of his plays).

He’s obviously not going to stick at short, but his arm strength should play well at third, which would be a better fit for his athleticism. Right field would also be an obvious fit, and catcher would be an interesting idea, though not one that Buster Posey’s organization would likely entertain. If the bat develops as I think it might, anyway, Jones would be quite valuable if he can play somewhere besides first, and while he’s not a tremendous defensive player, I think he can avoid the 1B-only fate. Jones is the sort of prospect who may remain under the radar for some years to come, but end up turning into a very solid player right underneath everyone’s noses.

Travis Demeritte, 2B, Texas Rangers (Profile)
Level: Low-A   Age: 19   Top-15: N/A   Top-100: N/A
Line: 157 PA, .222/.301/.481, 9 HR, 13 BB, 49 K

An athletic teenager with great bat speed and swing leverage, Demeritte nevertheless has significant holes to close in his game.

Selected 34 picks before Jones last June, Travis Demeritte is off to a similarly adequate start in his first full year. Actually, his overall production is better (.352 wOBA, 117 wRC+), but it’s difficult to get too carried away about those numbers when they’re juxtaposed with a triple-slash that starts with “.222/.301” and a strikeout rate that starts with a 3.

Of course, what has allowed Demeritte’s overall production to remain high in spite of those flaws is his impressive power output. I’ve seen him hit a few blasts this year, and here are the two most impressive:

Unlike Jones, Demeritte doesn’t strike you as a power hitter when you see his body–his over-the-fence output comes courtesy of premium bat speed and natural leverage. His bat speed actually causes him problems at times, as he gets out in front of offspeed stuff, leading to strikeouts. He needs to work on his pitch recognition, but isn’t broken in that regard and should round into better form with the bat as time goes on. He has average speed, but doesn’t project to be a threat on the bases.

With potential 25-homer pop, a few walks, and solid contact, Demeritte would be an obvious asset at second base, but–stop me if you’ve heard this before–he’s not much of a defender at that position. Drafted as a shortstop, he was moved to second this year, but while he has some raw athleticism, he lacks great range or hands and his defensive motor wavers. He did recently get a three-game cameo at third when regular Hickory hot cornerman Nick Vickerson was injured and seemed to fit much better there, showing off enough arm and above-average athleticism for the spot. He might be able to hang in at second as a below-average but playable defender, but his value would likely be maximized at third. That puts more pressure on his bat, of course, but if he can learn to wait back on offspeed pitches, he should develop enough offensive potency to be an asset.

Nathaniel Stoltz is a prospect writer for FanGraphs. A resident of Bowie, MD and University of Maryland graduate student, he frequently views prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues. He can be followed on Twitter at @stoltz_baseball.

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8 years ago

What about CFer Michael Taylor?