Every year since 2011, Baseball America has published a new edition of their "Prospect Handbook". The yearly work compiles scouting reports on the Top 30 prospects of every major league franchise, and if you're a true baseball nut, it's a must buy. The writers aren't scouts themselves, but they gather reports from various professional scouts and distill the information down into one concise write-up on each player.
Each player is graded on the 20-80 scale, where a 50 grade on a tool is considered "major league average" and each 10 point increase/decrease is considered one standard deviation better or worse. The book then assigns the prospect one of five rise ratings: safe, low, medium, high, and extreme. For the purposes of this review, I'm looking at the players graded "extreme". While the list comes from BA, all of the scouting reports are of my own eye. Extreme is defined as follows:
"Teenagers in Rookie ball, players with significant injury histories or players whose struggles with a key skill (especially control for pitchers or strikeout rate for hitters) is a significant barrier to them ever reaching their potential."
Generally, "extreme risk" guys are high school players entering their first full pro season or international players newly stateside. They have the tools to become major league contributors, or even impact players, but are very raw. They're easy to dream on with high ceilings, and can provide a glimpse of what the big league club will look like in 4 or 5 years. Because they're so likely to bust, the first full season after garnering the "extreme" label is critically important. Let's see who took a step forward, and who got lost in the shuffle.
CF - Magneuris Sierra - 20yrs - Peoria Chiefs (A)
Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2012 for $105,000, Sierra burst onto the scene in 2014 by slashing .386/.434/.505 in the Gulf Coast League. The Cardinals then challenged him with a promotion to Peoria in 2015, where Sierra struggled and eventually got demoted to Johnson City.
His profile should be familiar to readers of VEB. At 5'11, 160lbs, Sierra is lean and wiry. He possesses plus to plus-plus speed and a plus arm, with endless range in centerfield. So while the 2014 slash line was impressive, the main draw here is the glove. Sierra could probably play plus centerfield defense in the majors right now, if he had to. At the plate, he has a compact, short stroke form the left side and projects to have gap power. The main problem is his plate discipline. His approach is aggressive, but not selectively aggressive, and he has trouble with pitch recognition.
2016 saw Sierra return to the Midwest League with the Peoria Chiefs. In 562 PA's, he posted a .307/.335/.395 to the tune of a 115 wRC+. The performance was a positive sign, given how much he struggled at the level in 2015. The batting average was buoyed by a .367 BABIP, likely due to his speed and ability to leg out infield hits. Some may see this as due for regression, but I believe Sierra will remain a high BABIP hitter. He struck out 17.3% of the time, while his walk rate dipped to 3.9%. Not encouraging signs, and the footage backs it up. In too many at bats, he was fooled and caught off balance by off-speed pitches. He still has youth on his side, so I won't doom him to poor plate discipline forever. If the approach comes around and the BB% rises, he could develop into a potential leadoff hitter. More than likely, he'll stick in the bottom third of the lineup and provide plus-plus defense and value on the bases. Expect to see him at High-A Palm Beach in 2017.
OF - Nick Plummer - 20yrs - Rookie Ball
The Cardinals drafted Plummer in the 1st Round of the 2015 Draft out of a Michigan high school, signing him to a $2,124,000 bonus. At one time viewed as a potential 1-1 candidate, a bought of mononucleosis in the spring of his draft year combined with his cold-weather background pushed him down to #23. He debuted in the Gulf Coast League, where he slashed .228/.379/.344 with a 17.1% walk rate in 51 games.
For a high school hitter, Plummer is remarkably polished. He works with a mature approach and strong strike zone judgement, making him almost patient to a fault (evidenced by a 24.6% strikeout rate in 2015). He features good bat speed with feel to barrel the ball, and should project for at least average power by the time all is said and done. His speed is above average (I'd grade it at 55) which gives him workable range in center field. The club seems to think he'll tick in center, and while the glove could certainly play there, it's not crazy to think he'll shift to a corner. That complicates things a bit, because Plummer features a below-average arm. That'll limit him to left field, where more pressure will be placed on his bat. All in all, Plummer's tools and polish give him a high floor for a high school draftee. I'm not a fan of player comparisons, because each individual player is so unique, but I can see Plummer ended up with a profile similar to Shin-Soo Choo.
2016 was a lost year for Plummer's development. He suffered a broken hamate in his right hand that required surgery, forcing him to miss the entire season. That pushes his timetable back and keeps him in the "extreme risk" category for 2017. Look for him to start the season at Johnson City, and don't be surprised if he hits his way to Peoria by seasons end.
RHP - Junior Fernandez - 19yrs - Palm Beach Cardinals (A+)
Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2014 for $400,000, Fernandez made his stateside debut in 2015. That season he struck out 10.24 K/9 in the Gulf Coast League before being pushed to Palm Beach as an 18 year old for a brief 2 game assignment.
Despite his small size (6'1, 180lbs), Fernandez features a high-90's fastball that bumps triple digits at times. He mixes the four-seamer with a two-seamer that has good sink and arm-side movement. His best off-speed pitch is his plus-changeup, which he throws with excellent arm speed and late tumble. His third offering, a slider, is still a work in progress. He throws it with tight spin and good tilt, but it's still inconsistent. Mechanically, his delivery has smoothed out since signing at 17 but there's still plenty of effort in his motion. His command is also improving, though more control than command at this point, but if all breaks right he should grade out with average command at maturity.
The precocious fireballer opened the 2016 season in Peoria. Through 78.1 innings of work, he posted a 3.33 ERA/3.86 FIP with a 7.24 K/9 and 3.91 BB/9. He was then promoted to Palm Beach, where he worked 43.2 with a 5.36 ERA. The strikeouts dipped and the walks increased in High-A ball. I'm not reading too much into the struggles, because I still believe in Fernandez's pure stuff. It could just be a case of a very young pitcher developing his command, or a possible directive to work on his breaking ball at the expense of statistical results. If the command improves and the slider develops to average, Fernandez should profile as a no. 2 starter. However, in my humble opinion, I think the high-effort delivery persists, pushing Fernandez to the bullpen where he is a future closer.
RHP - Jake Woodford - 20yrs - Peoria Chiefs (A)
Woodford was drafted with the 39th pick of the 2015 Draft, just 16 spots behind the aforementioned Nick Plummer. Woodford debuted in the GCL where he threw 26.1 innings of 2.39 ERA ball with a 7.18 K/9 and 2.39 BB/9.
At 6'4, 210lbs, Woodford possesses an ideal pitchers frame. He throws a four pitch mix, headlined by his fastball. It rides in the low 90's currently, but with good downhill plane and terrific heavy sinking action. The offering generated an absurd amount of ground balls in his debut. As he continues to fill out his frame, his velocity could increase a few ticks. He throws both a curveball and a slider. The curve features 11-5 break with good spin, and should become an average offering with more reps. The slider lack shape too often, but with his youth and arm speed it could become average one day as well. His fourth pitch a is change up, which receives good marks, but will most likely never be a true out pitch as much as it will be a way to key hitters off of his excellent fastball.
Woodford spent 2016 with the Peoria Chiefs. He logged 108.2 innings of work, posting a 3.31 ERA/3.99 FIP. the K/9 dropped slightly to 6.79 and the BB/9 rose slightly to 3.06. The plus fastball, three potentially average off-speed offerings, workhorse build and average command gives Woodford the ceiling of a no. 3/4 starter. Look for him to begin 2017 at Palm Beach.
Verdict: Overall, this first crop did well to improve from their "extreme risk" ratings. Sierra took a step forward, albeit small, in at least proving he can handle full-season ball. Plummer is the only negative of the group, but his makeup and relative polish bodes well for a bounce-back campaign. Fernandez was challenged, but acquitted himself well enough for a such a young pitcher. He hasn't made the big leap into being a top pitching prospect, but that could happen as soon as 2017. Youth, time, and athleticism are on his side. Those same three traits are also working for Woodford, who should continue to generate healthy ground ball rates and improve his secondary offerings. The future is bright.