While our eyes tend to look for new additions, for the players who have zoomed to the top — Ronald Acuna and Shohei Ohtani are sexy names, after all — there are also players who drop off the lists each year. Maybe most visible this year was Mickey Moniak, who fell off the Baseball America top-100 list entirely after appearing 17th there last year. Maybe he’ll recover; it wouldn’t be the first time. And even if he doesn’t, maybe there will be the slight solace that his won’t be the biggest such decline in list history.
Look at a collection of the most precipitous drops in the Baseball America list since 1990, and you’ll find the top 30 littered with pitchers. Twenty of them to be exact. Pitchers are injured more often and stay injured longer. That is a big part of many of these stories.
It’s a huge part of the prospect who dropped the furthest.
Right-hander Roger Salkeld was nabbed by the Mariners with the third overall pick in the 1989 draft. The 6-foot-5 high schooler was selected behind only Ben McDonald and Tyler Houston that year — and ahead of Frank Thomas and Charles Johnson, to name two. He was chosen for his “size, his arm, and his makeup,” said Dave Oust to the Los Angeles Times on behalf of the Mariners.
It’s difficult, nearly 30 years after the fact, to reconstruct all the reasons for Salkeld’s failure to live up to his pedigree. Looking back, it seems to have been a product both of outsized expectations and multiple arm injuries. The arm injuries are mentioned in any writeup of the former Mariner. There’s also an interesting discrepancy one finds regarding reports of his fastball velocity. In the Times, for example, the pitch was “clocked in excess of 90 m.p.h.” Later, though — in a Seattle Sportsnet recap from 2008 — he was credited with sitting in the “mid-90s.”
Either way, Salkeld ranked third in the 1992 version of BA’s list before dropping out of the top 100 completely for the 1993 edition, a decline of at least 98 spots. Nobody has matched that since 1990. (Salkeld made one more appearance, at 100th overall, in 1994.)
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In terms of this year’s list, Anderson Espinoza comes closest to approximating Salkeld’s descent. He was formerly 21st on the list but is absent from BA’s latest installment. Like Salkeld, Espinoza has dealt with injury, undergoing Tommy John surgery this past summer.
The situation isn’t precisely the same, though. There have been advances even since the late 90s. Also, Espinoza isn’t even 20 yet. He’s got a chance to jump back on this list with a healthy return. With some thinking he’ll end up in the bullpen, a Darren Dreifort-type career might be a possibility, as well.
If we’re looking for this year’s Livan Hernandez — the success story on this list of droppers — maybe we should consider Yadier Alvarez, who was 26th on last year’s list and dropped off this year’s version after struggling with results in High-A and command in Double-A. As highly ranked Cuban hurlers who struggled at times in the first year in the minors, they at least have some similarities.
Of course, our own Eric Longenhagen has a slightly different take from Baseball America’s, maybe, as he gathers our own top prospects list:
I’m still cautiously optimistic about Alvarez, as I find it hard to quickly abandon elite arm strength paired with this kind of grace and fluidity. It was frustrating to watch him fail to remedy any of his obvious flaws (he’s still 94-97, touch 100 with a plus-flashing slider) throughout 2017, but it sounds like there were some maturity issues that played a role in last year’s ‘failure’ which I put in scare quotes because we are still talking about a 21-year old who had more K’s than innings pitched at Double-A.
Development is rarely linear, so I think there’s a chance he bounces back and starts performing. The Dodgers are working on fastball command and his changeup, which isn’t really news because those are the things Alvarez has needed to work on since he signed. You hope failing for the first time in 2017 lights a fire under him and he finds a way to put things together. Even if he only gets part of the way there, developmentally, the fallback is probably a late-inning reliever. And that’s a fine outcome given what that kind of player is going for on the free agent market right now.
This allows for something between Dreifort and Hernandez, despite the fall. We still haven’t found a good luck charm for Mr. Moniak, though. For him, let’s examine the case of Eric Hosmer, the lone position player who dropped this far and returned to put up a productive major-league career.
Hosmer ranked 24th on the 2009 list, then had a terrible year in the minors. After a better one in 2010, he zoomed back up to eighth in the 2011 rankings. Let’s group 2008, 2009, and 2010 as full seasons so we can see a little bit of what happened back then.
Hosmer had a one-year adjustment period. It was a doozy, but he righted ship the very next season. All of his problems making contact and lifting the ball regressed back to basically the levels he showed in his minor-league debut. His batted-ball results also returned.
Last year, Longenhagen wrote the following about Moniak, when he ranked him 27th on the FanGraphs list:
Scouts see Moniak’s slight frame and wonder if he’ll ever grow into more than 40 game power, but if he hits as well as he’s expected to, it isn’t going to matter. Moniak’s swing is loose and effortless, his feel for moving the bat head around the zone is advanced. He’s a potential plus-plus hitter who runs well enough to play center field, and his instincts for the position make him a potential above-average defender there.
That concern about his power seems important, considering that Moniak put up just a .111 isolated slugging percentage in the minors. But it’s worth pointing out that neither league was very friendly to power. The Gulf Coast produced a collective .095 ISO; the South Atlantic League, a .119 ISO. Moniak only hit 1.4 ground balls for every fly ball in the SAL; it’s still not impossible that he develops some power as he turns 20 this year.
Maybe a little more worrisome were his strikeout rates. Again, though, the league averages are instructive here. Moniak struck out 21% of the time, while the rest of the Sally struck out 22% of the time. The Phillies outfielder might yet show that he can make contact more than most and have league-average power and play a good center field — that describes players like Ender Inciarte, Denard Span, and Lorenzo Cain last year, depending on how close to league average Moniak can push the power.
It’s not a great sign for a prospect to fall off a top-100 list. It’s also not the end of the story, it looks like.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.