The MLB draft concludes Wednesday, an exciting and important time for every organization. It's also the annual reminder of how difficult it is to project high school and college players into the future. You know what else is difficult? Projecting players even closer to the majors into the future. Baseball is hard, with so many unknown variables.
This is a list of 10 players, all premium prospects coming up through the minors. I've chosen them more or less at random because their stat lines in 2018 jump out for various reasons. Five of them have negative WAR, one is at 0.0 and another is barely above replacement level at 0.1 WAR. It's still too early to call them busts -- you never know in baseball -- and some of them have had significant major league success at some point.
But they're all at some type of crossroads in their careers. Let's take a look.
Lucas Giolito, RHP, Chicago White Sox
Stats: 3-6, 7.53 ERA, 55 IP, 56 H, 37 BB, 30 SO, 8 HR, minus-1.1 WAR
Peak prospect status: No. 3 (pre-2016) by Keith Law, MLB.com, Baseball Prospectus
Giolito was regarded as one of the best high school right-handers scouts had ever seen when he regularly hit 99 mph during his senior season at Harvard-Westlake High School in Los Angeles, falling to the Nationals with the 16th pick in 2012 only because he sprained the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He made one pro appearance and then needed Tommy John surgery. He rebounded from that to become one of the top pitching prospects in the minors, but after a lackluster debut in 2016, the Nationals shipped him to the White Sox in the Adam Eaton trade.
White Sox fans may remember Scott Ruffcorn. It pains me to say this, but Giolito reminds me a little of him. Ruffcorn was a first-round pick in 1991 (not as highly regarded as Giolito) and dominated in the minors. For whatever reason, he couldn't throw strikes in the majors -- he had 70 walks in 70⅓ career innings. Giolito is averaging 6.1 walks per nine inning and he has hit 10 batters, with more walks than strikeouts. We never see that kind of ratio anymore. We can analyze all the metrics a hundred ways, but I wonder if, like Ruffcorn, he simply lacks confidence at the major league level.
If you want to get into the numbers, he has especially struggled against lefties (.958 OPS), because his curveball and changeup haven't developed into effective out pitches, and because of that he seems timid with the fastball in the zone. The only pitch really working for him is his slider. He has only 22 career starts, so it's too early to give up on him as a starter for a rebuilding team like the White Sox, and maybe he needs to start showing some results.
Buxton has shown flashes of brilliance -- September 2016 when he hit nine home runs and the second half of 2017 when he hit .300/.347/.546 -- but between those flashes have been long droughts of empty results at the plate. I talked to Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey in spring training and one notable thing he said is that Buxton wants so badly to be a great player and can put too much pressure on himself.
Buxton is on the disabled list with a broken big toe, but before the injury he was back into some bad habits at the plate, with a 39 percent chase rate. He was at 32.4 percent in the second half last year -- still high, but at least a figure he could still do some damage on. Buxton now has more than 1,000 big league plate appearances and owns a .285 career OBP. He doesn't have to be great at the plate -- he was worth 5.2 WAR last year even with a .314 OBP thanks to his brilliant defense -- but he does need to be more consistent.
Miguel Sano, 3B, Twins
Stats: .212/.282/.449, 12 BB, 52 SO, 7 HR, minus-0.1 WAR
Peak prospect status: No. 4 (pre-2014) by MLB.com
It's easy to see why the Twins have disappointed when two of their expected cornerstone players haven't done the job. Sano's strikeout rate has gone from extreme to scary. He was at 35-36 percent his first three seasons, but he is now at 40 percent -- and that has come with a deteriorating chase rate and thus a career-low walk rate (he was at 15.8 percent as a rookie but is at 9.2 percent this year). Sano has once again missed some time, but 52 strikeouts in 29 games translates to a mind-numbing 269 over 150 games. Somewhere, Joe Sewell is crying.
Sano was a 2.5-WAR player a season ago in just 114 games, so he isn't a lost cause, but the regression in plate discipline is a big concern. His conditioning is another issue, and while he played an OK third base last season (minus-6 defensive runs saved), if he moves to first that puts even more pressure on the bat. Sano looked like a 45-homer slugger when he was so impressive as a rookie. Will he ever get there?
Glasnow was always a wild card as a prospect given the issues of keeping his 6-foot-8 frame in consistent mechanics. As a starter in Triple-A, he dominated over parts of three seasons: 1.95 ERA, 321 K's in 245 innings, allowing just 155 hits. He did walk 115 batters and that erratic command hurt him at the major league level in 2017, when he posted a 7.69 ERA in 13 starts and 62 innings. Hard to hit in Triple-A, big leaguers hit .319 off him and pounded 13 home runs off him. Ouch.
The Pirates didn't mess around. They moved him to the bullpen, where the fastball velocity has picked up -- averaging 96.3 mph -- and he has limited the home runs and kept the walks somewhat in check. The potential rotation trio of Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Glasnow didn't come to fruition, but at least Glasnow has the chance to be a dominant reliever and a potential closer with better control.
High school catchers drafted in the first couple of rounds don't have a glowing history, but Hedges quickly established himself as a strong two-way prospect after solid seasons in Class A in 2012 and 2013. His hitting tumbled at Double-A San Antonio in 2014, however, and the Padres rushed him to the majors in 2015.
Hedges retooled his swing at Triple-A in 2016 to add more power and then hit 18 home runs for the Padres in 2017 -- albeit with a .214 average and .262 OBP. He has never been much of a walker, but now his offensive game is a one-trick pony, kind of a National League version of Mike Zunino. We'll give him a pass on 2018 as he has just 81 plate appearances and is on the DL with elbow tendinitis. The old cliché goes that catchers often develop late with the bat, so the Padres will have to continue to show more patience.
The Padres have one of the deepest farm systems, but the previous wave of prospects have yet to make a major impact -- Hedges, Hunter Renfroe, Manuel Margot (who hasn't hit after a promising rookie season in 2017), Cory Spangenberg, Dinelson Lamet (Tommy John surgery this spring). Hopefully the next generation will learn to take a few more walks.
After a promising debut behind the plate in 2015, Swihart missed much of 2016 and '17 with injuries, getting just 453 plate appearances over the two seasons. He's healthy this year but has hardly played (just 56 PAs), and in May his agent asked the Red Sox to trade him. Even though Red Sox catchers Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon have both struggled at the plate, Swihart has caught just two innings.
What's the future here? There just isn't an opening for playing time. He's blocked in the outfield, maybe no longer a catcher in the eyes of Red Sox management, but of use as a bench player. It becomes a dilemma of sorts: Do the Red Sox owe Swihart a chance to play somewhere else, or do they let him waste what could be his prime seasons as the final player on the bench?
Profar became the top prospect after excelling in Double-A at 19, hitting for some power (14 home runs), showing good plate discipline (70 walks) and playing a good shortstop. Profar actually received a few plate appearances while still a teenager, although his rookie season in 2013 produced a lackluster .234/.308/.336 line in 85 games.
Then came shoulder surgeries in 2014 and 2015, with him missing one entire season and most of another. It's impossible to know what that missed development time meant for his career trajectory, but he simply hasn't hit as once projected. He has gotten a chance to play this season with Elvis Andrus out, and while he has shown doubles power (18 of them), his 21.8 percent fly ball rate and mediocre exit velocity average (86.2 mph) mean he's not going to be a home run guy. His defensive metrics at shortstop also have been very poor (minus-8 DRS). When Andrus returns, Profar may go back to the bench -- although given Rougned Odor's awfulness, I'd let Profar play second.
Wheeler is the oldest guy on this list, but he's trying to get through his first full season since 2014. He had Tommy John surgery in the spring of 2015 and then was shut down in 2016 with a strained flexor muscle after making just one minor league appearance. He made 17 starts in 2017 with a 5.21 ERA, but he was twice on the DL with arm injuries and shut down in late August with a stress fracture.
So, this one is pretty easy: He has never been able to stay healthy enough to get the most out of his ability. It's worth noting that Wheeler's 2014 season also wasn't as impressive as it looks on the surface. He posted a 3.54 ERA in 185⅓ innings with 187 strikeouts -- all good numbers for his full season. But that was the notorious pitchers' year, and he did it in a pitchers' park and the walk rate (3.8 per nine) was a little high. His WAR was just 0.9.
As for 2018, maybe he needs to rethink his approach. He has thrown his fastball 55.5 percent of the time, but batters are hitting .311/.368/.508 against it. Out of 113 pitchers with at least 50 innings, he's 13th in percentage of fastballs thrown and 82nd in wOBA allowed.
Or maybe this is a Mets thing: Noah Syndergaard has allowed .454 wOBA on his four-seam fastball (.364/.407/.636).
Russell is different from the other guys in that he has proved to be a valuable big leaguer -- 11.5 WAR since he came up in 2015, ranking tied for 50th among position players in that span. He has been an All-Star and a World Series champ and Gold Glove-caliber shortstop (although he hasn't won one).
So this is mostly about his bat. Coming up through the minors, his bat was raved about more than his defense. He popped 13 home runs as a rookie and 21 in the title year 2016, but the power has evaporated this season (although the average and OBP have gone up). He's swinging a little less this season, but it's remarkable how his underlying metrics have basically remained unchanged in his four big league seasons. The one exception is he's hitting fewer fly balls this year and more line drives (which explains the low home run total and the higher average), although his average launch angle is the same.
Basically, this is probably who he is: an elite defender with a so-so bat, not enough power and not enough contact to significantly improve, so he'll remain on that next tier of shortstops behind Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa and a healthy Corey Seager (no shame in that). He's under team control through 2021. The defense is important. The Cubs lead the NL in runs scored. Would you trade three years of Russell for three months of Manny Machado?
Gausman is kind of the Addison Russell of pitchers. He's a quality major leaguer: 4.1 WAR in 2016, 2.0 last year, 1.1 so far this year. Still, it seems like we're left wanting more. As with Russell, maybe that's unfair. Gausman will have a big game -- he tossed nine scoreless innings of two-hit baseball against the A's -- and then follow it up with clunkers (19 runs in 19 innings in his past four starts, which actually includes 6⅓ scoreless frames against the White Sox).
Gausman is a fastball/slider/splitter guy, and when he gets ahead in the count, the splitter is a big wipeout pitch. But batters are hitting .364/.415/.599 against his fastball and he doesn't throw the slider enough to make it a major weapon. That often turns him into a two-pitch guy, and his primary pitch is too hittable, despite plus velocity.
My first thought: Maybe he just needs to get out of Camden Yards. Well, he has a 3.65 career ERA at home and 4.77 on the road. His home run rates are similar. Like Russell, it seems this is who is: a good player who is going to make a lot of money in his career if he stays healthy. He's just probably not going to turn into that ace.