The can't miss kids
By Jeff Ellis
February 3, 2012
These are the "can't miss kids". Players that are former members of the Top 100 Prospect club as named by Baseball America. With over a thousand players in the minors every season, at one time these "can't miss kids" were considered the best 100 prospects going into that season and were thought to end up being at worst solid major leaguers.
Each player had a pedigree and now has a few flaws which have prevented them from being major leaguers. I am sure the hope for the Tribe is that things will finally click for one or more of these guys and they will pull a Ryan Ludwick and become a late in life All Star.
Here is a listing of five Indians' prospects that were once included in a Top 100 listing. My hope is to show why these players have not lived up to expectations and why they could still end up helping the Tribe at some point.
Thomas Neal - Outfielder
BA peak rank: 96
Flaws: power, declining production, injury
Thomas Neal burst on the scene with a great year in 2009 where in High-A he showed power, contact, and a solid glove. The problem is since he has advanced the power has evaporated, the average has dropped, and his walk to strike out ratio is 1:2. The upside for the Indians is that he should be a guy that is a major league back up at worst. The Indians acquired him for very little cost because he had a down year thanks to injuries. Even in his declined year at Double-A he still posted an OPS near .800. He is a free swinger that does not walk much, but thanks to a solid glove and a right handed bat, he strikes me as a guy who could find a place on the Indians or else were as a 4th outfielder.
Aaron Cunningham - Outfielder
BA peak rank: 55
Flaws: average, strike outs, lack of power
Cunningham’s peak rank came after a great year that he split between Double-A and Triple-A, which would have seemed to make him a sure bet. He could play all three outfield positions, posted good numbers, and demonstrated doubles power that people thought would develop into home run power. He basically has played extremely well at every level in the minors, but his success has failed to translate to the majors. In the majors he has posted a line of .231/.290/.375, but it should be noted this has only been through 355 at bats. With his prospect pedigree it is surprising that he has never been given a full season to see if he can put it together. As for what he brings to the Tribe, he is a right-hander that has crushed lefties and he can play all three outfield spots which is important with Sizemore’s health issues. I think he has a great chance to make this team as a 4th outfielder thanks to what he can do. I know a lot of people disliked this deal, but the Tribe got a great athlete that can hit lefties for a pair of six inning arms (which typically have zero trade value).
Nick Weglarz - Outfielder
BA peak rank: 58
Flaws: defense, injury, contact
Nick Weglarz for a long time has been one of the most interesting prospects in the Indians system. The reason was simply because he had a ton of raw power and has been the only major power prospect to come through the Indians system in awhile. Plus he had the bonus of an extremely advanced eye at a young age. He did strike out but his strike out rate typically was 1:1 with his walk rate. But injuries have derailed his once promising career. He just finished his 7th year in the minors and most would have expected him to have made the majors two to three years ago. It’s hard to get in a groove when injuries keep occurring, and I am sure this has lead to some frustration which could have affected him last season. The decline in stats and the fact he actually spent a year at a lower level than the year before makes his chances seem grim unless he breaks out this year. There is a very good chance he could be out of the system by this time next year. His .179/.360/.303 line last year shows that he still has a good eye at the plate, but the power loss makes one wonder if injuries have robbed him of some of his power.
Andy LaRoche - Third Baseman
BA peak rank: 19
This might be a bit cruel as LaRoche was such a huge prospect, but it just hasn’t come together for him. At one point he was the top third base prospect in the entire game, but as we saw with Andy Marte this does not guarantee success. He does play a solid third base, but after one solid season with Pittsburgh where he posted a .731 OPS he has failed to ever come even close to those numbers again. In his time in the majors he has shown no home run power, a 1:1.8 strike out to walk rate, and a low batting average. I don’t think much is expected of him as not many guys would sign with a team that has two third basemen clearly blocking you no matter what you do unless you’re just looking for any job out there. He is the player on this list who might be considered the most talented, yet he has the least chance of helping the Tribe this year and going forward.
Matt LaPorta - First Baseman
BA Peak: 23
Flaws: eye, defense, consistency
Matt LaPorta is one of the more hotly debated players in Cleveland. A lot of people still believe in him at first base, but as I write this the Indians have signed Casey Kotchman (my quick analysis is this is a good signing). This signing shows me there is very little support in the organization for LaPorta as his lack of consistency will be the reason he will be ticketed for Triple-A. He posted a .719 OPS last year, which is not bad. He hardly ever takes a walk but his .299 OBP was still several points above Mark Trumbo, a player many Indians fans wanted the Tribe to get (yes, that's right, LaPorta makes less outs than Trumbo). When you look at his power I think LaPorta could easily project for 17-20 home runs with 35-40 doubles, and while his numbers are solid they just don’t impress for first base. Add in the fact he will look dazed for three weeks, then good for two weeks, and so on. If he was a better defender this might not matter because as they say defense never slumps, but the below average defense mixed with his inconsistency means he could be ticketed for Triple-A for a long time this year. The hope is that he can gain consistency this year and get back to his days in the minors where he still didn’t walk but he also didn’t strike out. If he can do this, then he is a prime candidate to take over as DH after Pronk leaves next season.
The Tribe has had success with this approach in the past with relief arms where they grabbed a bunch of tarnished gems and hoped for them to reestablish value. As this season goes on, some of these players will be counted on to help the Tribe in their quest for the playoffs, so the hope as fans is that at least one of these guys will be able to turn themselves into at worst a league average player.
If I were to bet on one player to do this it would be Matt LaPorta. This might surprise some, but his ability to control the strike zone - which he showed in the minors - is a skill that typically forecasts a degree of future success. Add in that he has shown a degree of success in the majors, then he really only needs some tweaks to go from a slightly below average player to a guy who can be the right handed bat this team is desperate for, and was the reason the Indians acquired him in the first place.
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