Prospects are fickle things. People who follow prospects are even more fickle.
Take, for example, Shelby Miller. After achieving unqualified success at each stop of his minor league progression, he hit a bit of a road bump in 2012. His velocity was rumored to be down a few mph. His walk rate was slowly creeping upward and there were some public quotes that made him sound at least partially dejected about his performance.
Panic quickly set it.
Shortly thereafter, Miller's luck evened out and as the minor league season wound to a close Miller struck out 70 batters in his final 10 games over 58.1 innings. He walked just 7 in that same time frame. How very fickle of him.
At the start of the year, I asked if Oscar Taveras was underrated. He'd been very successful at Quad Cities in 2011 -- too successful to take it at face value. His batting average was too high. His strikeout rate was too low for the kind of power he showed. The whole package that was Taveras just looked too good to be true. A 19 year old hitting .386 in the Midwest League? Clearly that's lucky.
But the question was less "Is he getting lucky?" and more "How lucky is he getting?" The answer was that even if you thought he was getting very lucky, his adjusted performance would still have him near the top of his league. To wit:
If you aggressively normalize Taveras’ numbers by assuming 1) that balls in play are converted to outs in A-ball nearly the same percentage of time that they are in the majors and 2) that Taveras true talent level on balls in play is no better than an average major league hitter. In that case, Taveras should have recorded approximately 30 fewer hits in 2011: 23 fewer singles, 4 fewer doubles and 1 fewer triples. [..] That puts his batting line at .327/.383/.506. A .889 OPS would have tied him with 12th place in the league (not adjusting anyone else’s statistics).
We assumed something approaching the worst case for Taveras because 1) balls in play are not converted to outs at the same rate as they are in the majors and 2) the nature of Taveras swing and production suggest that he'll have a higher true talent level on balls in play than average. Even when giving him demerits he didn't deserve, he came out ahead.
Those things became more clear as the season went on. Now that the season's complete, well, prospect watchers started to get a little antsy. In late August, amid Carlos Beltran's creaky knees and Matt Holliday's creaky back, people began wondering whether Oscar Taveras -- who was in the midst of what would be his third minor league playoff title -- would be called up. St. Louis Post-Dispatch Columnists were floating the idea. From Kary Booher at the Springfield News-Leader:
So what might help a Jekyll and Hyde offense? St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz recently floated this idea, "Oscar Taveras anyone?"
It seems a stretch but maybe not, if the need is a spark off the bench. The 20-year-old phenom of the Springfield Cardinals — Mozeliak wouldn’t commit to saying whether Taveras would be a September call-up — is a game-changer. Hence, the Texas League MVP award.
Long before this weekend arrived, the thinking in and outside the organization was uniform: When big-league pitchers try to have their fun with rookies — throwing all sorts of nasty sliders and assorted junk, along with their fastballs — Taveras would connect. He’d put a charge into the ball, as old-timers would say.
The idea that a 20-year old would come up and solve the inconsistencies of the Cardinals offense is, I think, a pretty astonishing proposition. It speaks to two things: 1) Oscar Taveras is really quite good and 2) Oscar Taveras is, most likely, over hyped at this point.
It's been a heady second year in the full-season minor leagues for Taveras. At Springfield, a haven for left handed hitters, Taveras put up a .321/.380/.572 line. He showed more power than the previous year and further cut down his strikeout rate. The combination of elite power and elite contact skills is what makes Taveras so dangerous as a hitter. That kind of a line at AA baseball -- while being one of the youngest players -- gets stories in national media that lead like this one:
It's fascinating to think that a statement of that nature might be true. And it might be. The Cardinals may have the next great outfielder in the form of 20-year-old Oscar Taveras.
The most likely truth is that everyone is getting a bit ahead of themselves. In a hurry to find the next Harper or Trout, we forget about players like Alex Gordon who come up and struggle for a number of years before making the final adjustment. The idea that present day Oscar Taveras was the missing piece to the Cardinals 2012 puzzle speaks to the hype that has developed around him this season.
The pendulum has swung too far -- for his offense.
And this is the truly interesting aspect of 'Oscar Taveras, prospect'. While his coronation as official Next Big Thing (TM) seems premature, it's only with regards to his offense. Oscar Taveras, Violent Hitter. Oscar Taveras, Offensive Powerhouse. But what about his defense?
In 2011, while Taveras toiled in the Quad Cities, he was widely regarded as a gifted athlete with above average speed but questionable outfield instincts and a mediocre arm. Perhaps more damning were the questions about how hard he'd work to improve in that arena. Offense was easy for Taveras. Defense, less so.
In the offseason, coaches and trainers talked with Taveras about just this topic. He took those conversations to heart. The shift has been noticable. Instead of consigning him to a corner outfield position indefinitely, caveats and qualifiers are added. Take the CBS article:
The biggest difference between Taveras in 2012 from 2011 is his defense, something he's improved greatly. While he still probably projects as a corner outfielder, he could play center field and has played mostly center field this season at Springfield.
"I try to work on my defense every game, every practice. I'm very excited about my defense," Taveras said.
The improvements in Taveras' defensive game are noteworthy. Instead of being a mediocre corner outfielder, he looks more like a mediocre centerfielder or a very good right fielder. The hard-to-quanitify nature of defense is only magnified when talking about minor leaguers -- fields aren't as well kept, teammates aren't as adept, positioning is less consistent -- but Taveras has made enough changes to move those subjective notes about his defense in a positive direction. Changing a narrative takes time but all indicators point to an upswing for Taveras.
For those clamoring to move Taveras' bat to St. Louis, the nature of prospects is likely to disappoint. Expectations are lofty and prospects that execute on day one are far outnumbered by those that struggle to adjust. The silver lining is that Oscar Taveras is a sneaky good defender. He's been playing sleight of hand with prospect watchers. Pay attention to his offense and you'll miss the trick of his defense.