Former Top Prospects Who Now Look Like Busts
You may have noticed that some former top prospects have seen their values drop in our model – some dramatically so. Why is that?
Because we’ve learned, by close observance of front offices (we watch what they do, not what they say), that prospects only have so much time to prove themselves at the MLB level. In our model, we’ve found that two years is the average window of time spent evaluating whether they can hack it or not. Some leashes are longer, some are shorter, but generally speaking, if they’re not performing by the end of two years, something substantial has gone wrong.
We use a sliding timescale to measure that progress (or lack thereof), such that, at first, their values are entirely based on their prospect projections; once they come up to the big leagues, their major-league performance (and projections based on that performance) starts to matter, weighted lightly at first, then more so as time moves on, until, at the end of two years, that’s all that matters.
So here’s a list of several former top prospects, with a deeper look at why their values have cratered.
Since he was drafted 10th overall in 2017, Jo Adell was expected to be an impact player in the big leagues. But since being first called up in 2020, Adell has accumulated -1.7 fWAR, including -0.5 fWAR in 2022. His WRC+ over those three years is 67, which means he’s 33% below average as a hitter. Defensively, he’s put up negative numbers each of those three years as well.
His biggest problem is poor plate discipline – which is a skill that typically doesn’t change all that much. In his MLB career, he’s struck out over 34% of the time, against only a 4.8% walk rate. That includes a K% over 37% in a large sample size in 2022.
More specifically, he tends to chase balls out of the zone. His chase rate is consistently over 34%, well above the MLB average of 28.4%. His zone contact is in the low 70% range, well below the MLB average in the 80% range. His whiff rate is in the mid 30% range, also well above the MLB average (24.7%). All of that is unsustainable at the MLB level. Weirdly, he is worst against fastballs – his .235 xwOBA is well below average for an MLB hitter, and means pitchers can strike him out easily by just throwing heat. And since he has shown no improvement in any of these metrics, it’s unlikely any team would give up anything of value for him at this point.
Most Likely Outcome: Since he has one option year left after this one, and is still making league minimum, the Angels will probably try one last time to fix him in 2023. If that fails, he’s a likely DFA in 2024, or, at best, traded for a minor prospect, as was Nomar Mazara when the Rangers finally gave up on him.
It’s a similar story for Reds shortstop Jose Barrero, who originally signed for $5M out of Cuba and was the Reds’ top prospect for a while. Instead, Barrero has put up a total of -1.4 fWAR in the big leagues, including -1.0 fWAR this year, with a career WRC+ of only 17. This year, he has a WRC+ of 8, which means he is 92% below average. In other words, he’s been one of the worst hitters in baseball.
Digging deeper, Barrero has a K% well over 30% in his three-season sample size, with a K% of over 43% this year. When you break it down further, he somehow looks even worse. His .246 xwOBA against fastballs this year is bad. But pitchers are throwing him more breaking pitches than ever, because against those he has a ridiculous .112 xwOBA. It’s hard to see any light at the end of this tunnel.
Most Likely Outcome: Much like Adell, Barrero has one option year left after this one, and is still making league minimum, so the Reds will probably try one last time to fix him in 2023 with a possible DFA in 2024 if that fails.
After a promising start in the shortened 2020 season, where he hit for a 152 WRC+, Red Sox slugger Bobby Dalbec fell hard. In the longer seasons of 2021 and 2022, respectively, he put up fWARs of 0.5 and -0.2. His WRC+ in 2022 is 78, which is 22% below league average. Couple that with weak defensive numbers (he ranks near the bottom of the league in Outs Above Average), and he’s become a below-replacement-level player.
So what happened? First off, he’s a K-machine. Even in his more promising 2020, he struck out 42.4% of the time. That pattern has continued, as he’s K’d 34.4% in 2021 and 33.2% in 2022. More specifically, he can’t hit breaking pitches, and word has gotten out about this around the league. Opposing pitchers threw breaking stuff at him 27.9% in 2021, and increased that to 33.0% in 2022. Why? Because that’s where he’s most vulnerable. His xwOBA on breaking stuff in 2021 was .309 (slightly below average), while in 2022 it fell dramatically to only .244. Against sliders specifically, he hit .183, with a .226 xwOBA. It’s a cruel game.
So after two years of solid samples, we now see a below-average player both offensively and defensively, who strikes out repeatedly, especially on breaking pitches, and who hasn’t made adjustments on either side of the ball. In terms of trade value, it’s hard to see any team giving up much value for that profile.
Most Likely Outcome: Dalbec is in the same boat as Adell and Barrero with options and timeline, but unlike those two, Dalbec still has a little bit of trade value. Boston could probably offload him for a low- or mid-tier prospect if they’re out of patience with him.
Pache was once one of the top prospects in baseball, but his stock started dropping as soon as it became clear he couldn’t hit major-league pitching. And that has continued. After a cup of coffee in 2020, the Braves brought him up for a more extended look in 2021. In 69 plate appearances, he hit .111/.152/.206, which earned him a rare negative WRC+ number (-8), and which means he was a whopping 108% worse than the average MLB hitter. Most tellingly, the Braves’ front office moves showed zero confidence in him – in 2021, they signed journeymen Abraham Almonte and Guillermo Heredia to play OF instead of him, then traded for four more outfielders at that year’s deadline.
After he was traded to the A’s in the Matt Olson deal, the pattern continued – a 29 WRC+ at the MLB level, and then, after he was sent down to AAA, a 68. Yes, he was 32% worse than the average AAA hitter. It’s true that he brings an elite CF glove to the table, but front offices value offense more than defense, as the latter is easier and cheaper to find. The guy just can’t hit. Even A’s Assistant GM Billy Owens acknowledged that (per Melissa Lockard in The Athletic): “Offensively, he’s barely getting started… Adjustments are immediately necessary.”
Most Likely Outcome: He’s just burned his last option year, which means if he can’t hit at the MLB level in early 2023, he’s a probable DFA. So Pache’s trade value has hit rock-bottom at zero.
Now let’s look at a couple of pitchers whose values have tanked.
Patino was the centerpiece of the Blake Snell trade – his value was in the 40s then. But he has really struggled since then. His surface numbers are all ugly, dramatically so. He’s been getting shelled. His BB% is exceeding his K%, which is so rare it’s terrifying. His xwOBA is up to .350 (average for a starter is .320). He’s allowing a barrel% of 8.3%, compared to the MLB average of 6.7%. He’s not hitting the zone, and when he does hit it, he’s not missing bats. His 4-seamer has been getting hammered, both in 2021 and 2022 (his xwOBA on the pitch is .376), so the Rays have backed him off of it this year, with his usage of it down from 60% to about 40%.
The problem is, when you don’t have confidence in your fastball, you have nothing left to play off of. So now his slider is getting hit hard, too. He’s increased his usage of it, but it’s lost its effectiveness (the 2021 xwOBA on his slider was a good .258; in 2022 it ballooned up to .356).
Now, hitters know they can hit both of his main pitches. He’s a mess. And now he has a shoulder injury to boot.
At this point he seems destined for a relief role. He started out in that role with San Diego, as a 20-year-old, and while the results weren’t great, at least there were some signs of life. He threw mostly four-seamers, on which he had a high-ish xwOBA (.327), but that wasn’t quite as bad as it’s been lately in a starting role; he still walked a lot of guys (a very high 16.5% BB%), and his overall xwOBA was .313 (average for a reliever is around .300).
Most likely outcome: Given his youth and the fact that he has one option year remaining, the Rays will probably try one last time to fix him, but in terms of trade value, he’s almost a lost cause.
As recently as this spring, Pearson was still appearing on Top 100 Prospects lists, because despite debuting in 2020, he still hadn’t earned enough MLB service time to graduate. But therein lies the problem: Pearson hasn’t played enough because he just can’t stay healthy.
In 2019, he threw 62.2 innings, which has turned out to be his high point. That isn’t even half a season in starting pitcher terms. And since then, he’s thrown only 18, 45.2, and this year, 13.2 innings (none at the MLB level). That hasn’t been enough to keep him on the field even as a reliever.
The best predictor of future health is previous health, which suggests that, at best, Pearson is bullpen-only. He shares a lot in common with A.J. Puk at this point, who at least has had a respectable year as a reliever. But in trade value terms, Puk is only at 2.0, while Pearson is at zero. With this type of profile, that’s the range.
Most likely outcome: Somehow, Pearson will still have one option year after this one, so the Blue Jays will likely try one last time to keep him healthy while working him out of the bullpen.
Other potential busts
A few others who fall into this category or may soon: Miguel Andujar, Nick Senzel, Mickey Moniak, Jarren Duran, Alex Kiriloff, Carter Kieboom, Spencer Howard, Taylor Trammell, Jarred Kelenic, Sixto Sanchez, and Luis Campusano (who is finally starting to hit at the MLB level, albeit in a small sample size, so he may see his value go back up if this continues).
The good news is, all these former prospects have athleticism, which suggests there might still be some upside in there somewhere. So maybe a rebuilding team could give them a longer look with a change of scenery and unlock some potential.
On the other hand, as these guys struggle, they burn through minor-league options, until there’s none remaining. In MLB these days, leashes aren’t really that long because that clock is ticking, and most front offices don’t have the luxury to keep giving them chances.
So this is not unusual. There’s a long line of athletic former top prospects who just never figured it out – Lewis Brinson, Keon Broxton, Monte Harrison, Franklin Barreto, and many more. It happens. There will be busts.