Will they ever make it?
Like the lure of the siren's song, we are drawn to the hotshot prospect.
Problem is, like those ships pulled near, there's a breaking point, a "last chance to let it go" moment, a point at which, once crossed, lies no better fate than oblivion.
OK, a bit overly dramatic, but once you're past that point, just try shopping that ex-prospect around to your fellow league mates. Truth be told, you might stand a better chance escaping those aforementioned sirens once they've got you in their claws.
But when, pray tell, does that precious moment occur? How is one to tell the difference between time to bail on that soon-to-be ex-prospect, or defining his sluggish performance as simply a first stage of his development?
As someone who remembers Hensley Meulens, Sam Militello and Ruben Rivera catching every scout's eye in the minor leagues, then watched them in the bigs as they promptly stunk up the joint -- yes, I've watched a lot of Yankee games -- I've seen many signs of a future star beginning to fade. There are telltale indicators along the way, and catching them is your best chance at avoiding those pitfalls.
But don't you worry, I've been tracking a few of recent history's top prospects, ones who, to this point of their careers, have been more bust than boom. Let's take a closer look at each, providing my "yes" or "no" verdict to this simple question: Will he ever manage to come even close to the player scouts once forecasted he'd become?
Homer Bailey: He's back with the Reds, finally, but in his first start of 2008 he looked no closer to the future ace once predicted than he did in a nine-start stint with the big club the year before. Bailey walked four hitters, struck out one, and allowed five runs (only two earned, so his ERA doesn't look bad), and that's coming on the heels of a 4.15 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in 12 starts for Triple-A Louisville to begin the season. At this point I've lost count of the newspaper reports I've read questioning Bailey's attitude and dedication to improving himself as a player, and with a ballpark like Great American challenging him every start, he's got his work cut out for him. It's a bad mix, so he's probably a lot bigger project than you might think he is. Verdict: No, but with a qualifier. Bailey might someday be a great pitcher, but it wouldn't be surprising if it takes so long it isn't worth being patient until it happens.
Jeremy Hermida: From July 1 last year through season's end, Hermida looked like he had finally figured it out, batting .338 with 12 home runs and a .962 OPS in 80 games. This year, though, the popular breakout pick has done little but disappoint, registering an OPS more than 225 points beneath that 2007 late-season number. Plus, he continues to strike out way more and walk way less than he ever did as a minor leaguer. Some things to like: Hermida is 24, young enough to improve, and his road rates (.301 AVG, .837 OPS) are in the ballpark of his 2007 numbers (.324/.949). In addition, the man scouts most often compared him to, Paul O'Neill, took awhile to develop, and wasn't a truly complete hitter until he was 30 years old. So be patient. Verdict: Yes, and he won't take nearly as long as O'Neill. I'm still on the bandwagon.
Phil Hughes: For all the advance buzz, Hughes has become somewhat forgotten lately, passed by Joba Chamberlain on the "most hyped Yankee prospect" scale. Health has been a real question mark for him through a year-plus in New York. In between the DL stints he has a 5.29 ERA, 1.43 WHIP and 6.91 strikeout-per-nine inning ratio, and that counts his brief 2007 postseason work. Still, if you've watched any of Hughes' exploits in his limited time on the mound, you've probably seen the occasional glimpse of ace talent that's hiding in his right arm. Sure, such glimpses have been few and far between, but they so often are for a pitcher so young (he's 21). With a little better luck dodging the DL, Hughes still brings real-deal future ace talent. Verdict: Yes.
Howie Kendrick: He's another player for whom health is the big question, as Kendrick was promoted to the big club for good on July 16, 2006, and of 298 Angels games since, he has appeared in 169 (56.7 percent). Plus, he has made three separate DL stints since the start of last season, not that his batting average was poor in between, .325 in 107 healthy games. So does that make Kendrick the "Rich Harden of hitters," a guy great when healthy, but who so rarely is healthy? Perhaps, to be fair, all of his 2007 problems were flukes, so let's not condemn him yet. More disconcerting should be his low walk rate (21 in 713 career plate appearances) and mediocre power. He might never be much of a power hitter. Verdict: Yes, but that's the gut talking.
Andy Marte: At one time he was considered such a talented up-and-comer, he cracked Baseball America's top 15 prospects overall in three consecutive seasons (2004-06), and was regarded as a candidate to bump Chipper Jones to first base. Today, Marte is a little-used bench player for the Indians, out of options so he can't even play regularly in the minor leagues if the team wanted him to, and apparently not good enough to unseat Casey Blake. A fresh start in a different organization -- which would mean his fourth in the past three years -- might help, but then there's the question of Marte's long swing, career .194 batting average and nonexistent power in the bigs. The best-case scenario might have him being the next Richie Sexson, but players like that were far more likely to pan out, say, 10 years ago than they are today. Verdict: Not by a long shot.
Lastings Milledge: So much for the whole "change of scenery" idea boosting Milledge's stock. He's batting .246 with no power and wouldn't be useful at all for fantasy right now if not for his 10 stolen bases. Suddenly that Milledge-for-Ryan Church and Brian Schneider trade isn't looking too bad for the Mets, is it? Let's not be too hasty in the long term, though. Milledge is only 23 years old, leaving time to improve, though concerns that he's not especially patient and is starting to develop a reputation as a platoon candidate are real. So what if he's merely a league-average regular? It's not a bad thing to be, but it's not exactly what we expected from Milledge back when he was picked 12th overall in the 2003 draft. Verdict: No. Good player, but not a special player.
Andrew Miller: Command of his pitches has been a real problem -- he has averaged 5.15 walks per nine for his career -- but it's also not helping that it seems like none of his offerings are good enough to get out right-handed hitters. They're hitting .302 with a .827 OPS against him in his career, and with rates like those, Miller really might not wind up any more effective a big-league pitcher than, say, Paul Maholm. Still, Miller's raw stuff, at its best, can rival most anyone's, and the seeds are there for him to become a solid starter, if not an ace then definitely a No. 2 or 3. Things like his poor early-game numbers, inconsistent command and platoon-split numbers could all be indicators he's overrated, but then they're also typical of many pitchers aged 23 as he is. Verdict: Yes.
Anthony Reyes: He's the one name on my list to currently reside in the minors, but that hardly means we've forgotten about him. Most of us are just waiting for him to escape the Cardinals' organization and get a fresh start in another team's rotation. That's all fine and good, but let's not forget that he's 26 years old, set to turn 27 in October, and the Cardinals, right now, have little reason to let him for little, given their need for some insurance options to their current starting five. Somehow, I can't see his bumping back and forth between bullpen and rotation being good for him, perhaps evidenced by his 14 walks in 28 2/3 innings in six starts since his demotion to Triple-A Memphis. Ultimately, Reyes is an intriguing prospect who could have a few solid years for some team, but, sadly the clock is quickly running out on him having an eventful career. Verdict: No.
Rickie Weeks: Two things hold him back, his propensity for striking out, and his inability to dodge nicks and bruises, like the one that shipped him off to the DL Monday. Still, if you total his numbers from his past 162 games played, he has 19 home runs and 32 stolen bases, demonstrating his power/speed potential. Here's the problem: During that same span, Weeks has a .221 batting average and 157 strikeouts (one per 3.69 at-bats). But there's a wild card in all this: He also has 102 walks and a .356 on-base percentage during that span, so as an on-base type he's not as bad as you'd think. Maybe Weeks won't develop into that perennial All-Star, as he's already approaching his prime (he'll turn 26 in September), but if all he winds up is Juan Samuel plus 50 walks, can we really complain? Verdict: A contentious yes, if only because the health risk could easily override the talent. Let's say if he stays healthy, he'll be OK, but that's a big "if."
Delmon Young: So far, he hasn't been a bad big leaguer, batting .287 and stealing 21 bases for his career. The troubling statistic, though: Through 254 big-league games, he has 17 home runs; he had 59 in 353 for his minor league career. Wasn't Young supposed to be a future MVP candidate, a Manny Ramirez-like offensive force? It hasn't panned out that way, not yet, and the only logical explanation is that he's too impatient at the plate, unwilling to wait for a pitch to drive. It's understandable; Young is 22, and despite his young age did wait awhile for a chance to play at this level. He'll need to improve his pitch-selection skills, but that's not an impossible task. Even Alfonso Soriano did it to an acceptable level, and would any of us really complain if Young became that kind of hitter, but with half the stolen-base output? Verdict: Simply put, yes.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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