Baseball BeatMay 20, 2008
Prospects or Suspects? (Part Two)
By Rich Lederer

In Part One of Prospects or Suspects? we profiled four players – Daniel Bard, Jay Bruce, Jamie D'Antona, and Mike Hessman – who are enjoying outstanding starts to their 2008 campaigns. Today, we are going to take a look at another foursome. However, unlike yesterday's piece, these youngsters are experiencing highly disappointing seasons to date.

Matt Antonelli, Colby Rasmus, Travis Snider, and Neil Walker are featured in Part Two. Can they recover and maintain their top prospect rankings or is it time to rethink their status and longer-term potential? Between yesterday and today, eight players on eight different teams. Some of them are progressing, while others are regressing.

Let's take a closer look at Antonelli, Rasmus, Snider, and Walker to determine if the change in direction is temporary or more permanent.

  • After a breakout season in 2007 in which he hit .307/.404/.491 with 21 HR in High-A and Double-A, Matt Antonelli is finding the going much more difficult this season in his Triple-A debut at Portland in the Pacific Coast League. He has failed to hit at home (.205/.347/.308), on the road (.177/.297/.355), vs. LHP (0-for-17) and RHP (.220/.326/.374). His batting average and power are both down. The only saving grace is that he has walked more than he has struck out and his BB/SO ratio is roughly in line with his career norm.

     G   AB   H  2B  3B  HR  BB  SO   AVG   OBP   SLG
    37  140  27   6   2   3  26  25  .193  .325  .329

    Drafted as a third baseman out of Wake Forest in the first round of the 2006 draft, Antonelli was converted to a second baseman last season. A line drive hitter, the 6-foot, 200-pounder's bat plays better at his newer position. The power that Antonelli displayed in 2007 appears to be an aberration as he rarely, if ever, hit home runs in college, in the Cape Cod League, in his professional debut in 2006, or in the Arizona Fall League last year. The 23-year-old excels at recognizing pitches and making contact, making him a classic #2 hitter if he can maintain his walk rate and improve his batting average toward his career mark of .280. Look for Antonelli to do just that as his BABIP (.214) is unlikely to remain this low for long.

    With San Diego second baseman Tadahito Iguchi signed to just a one-year deal, Antonelli is the favorite to earn the everyday job for 2008. He is definitely more prospect than suspect but expectations need to be toned down as it is becoming painfully obvious that his power surge in 2007 was more of a fluke than not.

  • Two months ago, Colby Rasmus had a legitimate shot at breaking camp and earning the everyday job in center field for the St. Louis Cardinals. Although Colby batted .273 with 2 HR and 3 SB during the spring, he was sent to the club's Triple-A affiliate in Memphis of the Pacific Coast League for more seasoning as the 21-year-old sweet-swinging lefthanded hitter had never played a single game above Double-A.

    Whether Rasmus went down with a bad attitude or not is tough to say, but he has strugggled from the get go and his numbers have been getting increasingly worse by the week. To wit, he is in the midst of an 0-for-19 skid with 7 strikeouts and is now "hitting" .133/.194/.200 in May. His overall numbers leave a lot to be desired with only his HR and BB rates showing any signs of hope.

     G   AB   H  2B  3B  HR  BB  SO   AVG   OBP   SLG
    44  165  30   3   0   6  21  38  .182  .270  .309

    Is it time to give up on Rasmus? No, not by any means. A five-tool player who projects as a 20 HR/20 SB type in the majors, his résumé includes leading his high school team to a national championship, being taken 28th overall in the First-Year Player Draft, a Futures Game, Minor League All-Star, Team USA, and universally ranking among the top ten prospects in baseball (with a #3 ranking on our list of best 21-year-olds in February). Furthermore, his BABIP is only .198 so it is quite possible that he has been hitting in tough luck thus far, perhaps adding to his problems.

    Although Rasmus has hit .300 just once in his minor league career, he accomplished this feat in the Midwest League, one of the most difficult hitting environments in professional baseball, in 2006 as a 19-year-old. His .885 OPS compared to a league-wide average of .690. The kid can play. Time is on his side, as well as the organization's. With Rick Ankiel (.285/.370/.483), Chris Duncan (.255/.365/.406), Ryan Ludwick (.350/.427/.772), and Skip Schumaker (.287/.353/.389) performing well at the big league level, there is no need whatsoever to rush Rasmus at this point. Let him develop his skills, regain his confidence, and see what he can do with a full year of AAA under his belt.

  • Toronto's Travis Snider has had an up and down season. Only 20, he started the year at Dunedin in the Florida State League (High-A), hit .279/.333/.557, was promoted to New Hampshire of the Eastern League (AA) where he started off 8-for-56, but has regained his footing and gone 11-for-35 with 2 2B, 2 HR, and 7 BB in his last nine games.

    A first round pick out of Jackson HS (Mill Creek, WA) in 2006, Snider's combined stats are as follows:

     G   AB   H  2B  3B  HR  BB  SO   AVG   OBP   SLG
    42  152  36   7   0   8  23  60  .237  .341  .441

    Snider is young for his level and should put up good numbers just like he did in 2006 and 2007 when he impressed scouts and analysts alike by hitting for average and extra-base power. However, there are a few items that raise questions. At 5-11, 245, Snider's body is a negative. Secondly, he has only DH'd this year. Thirdly, Travis has had a prospensity to strike out more often than one would like for somebody who has been labeled – by myself no less – as one of the best pure hitters in the minors.

    A prospect for sure but someone whose value will be tied to his hitting prowess and little else. Think of Snider as a lefthanded-hitting Billy Butler, and I don't think you will go wrong.

  • Another highly touted prospect who got off to a poor start, Neil Walker has begun to turn his season around with a 10-for-33 streak during the past 10 games.

     G   AB   H  2B  3B  HR  BB  SO   AVG   OBP   SLG
    41  150  32   8   4   5   9  30  .213  .258  .420

    A former catcher, Walker has been playing third base full time since the beginning of 2007. However, he has never hit anywhere close to his hype. Call me skeptical, but the former first round draft pick has produced an .800 OPS only once at nine different stops (with the Altoona Curve of the Eastern League last season). His career OPS (.754) is less than 5% better than the league OPS (.720). Sure, he is only 22, but the 6-foot-3, 217-pound switch-hitter lacks patience at the plate, doesn't run particularly well, and has been prone to making errors in the field since moving to the hot corner.

    I'm going to go out on a limb and call the Pittsburgh native no more than a decent – rather than a top – prospect. While he should play in the majors for a number of years, I will be surprised if he ever becomes a star.

  • Comments

    Snider has only DH'd this year due to an elbow injury suffered during the spring. Despite his size, he is generally regarded as an average RF (by KLaw and others).

    Yes, I understand and, in fact, wrote the following myself just three months ago:

    The only rap against him is his body (5-11, 245) although he is an average runner at this point and his arm is good enough to play in right field.

    That said, the elbow injury could still be an issue longer term, even if it only means that he loses playing time in the field and the experience that goes with it. His arm strength and speed are unlikely to improve over time, and I see him being relegated to LF and/or DH duties on a more full-time basis as he advances through the system.

    Antonelli's power had been a question mark coming into last season, so it's likely we're just seeing a correction. He still looks like the new Bill Doran to me.

    I agree, Geoff. I termed his 2007 power an "aberration" as he had "rarely, if ever, hit home runs in college, in the Cape Cod League, in his professional debut in 2006, or in the Arizona Fall League last year."

    Antonelli might turn out to be a righthanded-hitting Todd Walker. Both were first round draft picks out of college, played 2B and 3B, and had similar BB, SO, XBH rates. Or perhaps Antonelli may end up somewhere between Walker and Mark Loretta. I know you would take those 2003 and 2004 seasons from the latter in a heartbeat.

    A left-handed Billy Butler? That seems like an extremely odd comparison - Butler's as highly-rated as he is in large part because of his ability to hit for average, which owes a lot to him making consistent contact (and in the minors he struck out just 260 times in 1431 at-bats, or a respectable one K every 5.5 AB). Butler's strikeout rate steadily progressed as he moved up the minor league levels, and indeed in the big leagues so far too. Snider meanwhile has already gotten to 239 strikeouts in just 806 minor league at-bats (a very poor K every 3.3 AB), and he's seen the whiffs get consistently worse and worse with every promotion. His 63 strikeouts in 155 at-bats so far this year (one every 2.5) aren't just "more than one would like", they're positively crippling to chances of him hitting over .260. Maybe the rest of Snider's game is good enough that he can overcome that, but besides being young and not known for his fielding, I don't see much to suggest that Snider's game is going to resemble Butler's at all.

    A left-handed Billy Butler? That seems like an extremely odd comparison

    I guess we differ on this one. As I see it, Snider's and Butler's strikeout rates are about the only difference I can come up with. Both were not only drafted out of high school but were the 14th players selected overall. They have similar frames with big trunks, below-average speed, and defensive shortcomings. Both players have also been on a similar course of progression with each playing Rookie League their first season with Butler making a somewhat larger leap the following year (High-A and AA vs. Class A), AA as 20-year-olds, and the likelihood that Snider will match Butler next season at AAA (and, possibly, MLB).

    One note in Snider's favor is the fact that his league environments have consistenly been more difficult for hitters than Butler's. For example, Snider played Rookie ball in the Appalachian League (league OPS of .702) whereas Butler played in the Pioneer League (league OPS of .799); Snider played A ball in the Midwest (.696) and Florida State (.696) vs. Butler in the California League (.809); Snider is playing AA in the Eastern (.735) vs. Butler in the Texas (.749 and .763). Snider's MiL OPS is .895 vs. a league average of .702. Butler's MiL OPS was .977 vs. .786. Snider's ratio (1.275) is actually better than Butler's (1.243).

    The more difficult league environments will also affect such things as strikeout rates. While conceding the fact that Butler makes better contact than Snider, the difference may not be quite as dramatic as you stated. Their K/PA rates were not all that dissimilar in Rookie (.208 for Snider vs. .199 for Butler). Butler then improved his K rate (.186 in High-A) while Snider regressed (.250 in Class-A) in their second professional seasons. Butler continued to cut down on his whiffs in his third year whereas Snider has gone in the opposite direction. However, it is still early in the season and the potential remains for Snider to begin making better contact (although perhaps not to the same level as Butler). If his K rate continues to worsen, then I will have to re-examine my expectations for Snider.

    In the meantime, I think these two players are much more alike than not and stand by my comps.

    As of right now, Snider is looking much better then he did 3 weeks ago. He just took a wee bit to get used to the new pitchers.

    He's gonna rake.

    I think at the least he can be an average right fielder for the prime of his career then moved over to left and then onto 1b or DH for the twilight part of his career. While he is big, most of the comments you read view him as very athletic for a big man. Not clumsy and awkward.

    As a Jays fan, I know a lot of hope rests with Snider. But, all things point to one thing.

    He's gonna rake.

    Snider went 6-for-16 with 2 2B, 3 HR, 2 BB/6 SO and ranked seventh in Baseball America's Prospect Hot Sheet for the week of May 16-22. Here is what Baseball America had to say about him:

    "Still playing DH because of a sore elbow, Snider has continued to show the type power that gets prospect watchers and Blue Jays fans worked up—and he's doing it as one of the EL's youngest players. Though Snider's strikeout rate has been just as prodigious as his slugging thus far, he has taken small steps in the right direction in May, and he's starting to fall back to the pack of overall minor league strikeout leaders. In third place overall, he now leads Cameron Maybin by one whiff. Snider has batted .228/.350/.465 in 101 Double-A at-bats, even with strikeouts (42) about 40 percent of the time. Just imagine what he'll do when that rate levels off. Coming in to the year, he had fanned in 27 percent of his at-bats."