Photo courtesy of Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports
We’re a little over a month into the 2015 season, so I thought I’d take a look at a few guys whose career paths seem to be going in different directions. We’re talking about the red-hot Billy McKinney, the forever slow-starting Javier Baez, and the guy who just can’t seem to put it together, Albert Almora.
McKinney is coming off an impressive stretch in which he notched five multi-hit games, with four doubles, two triples, and went deep once, all enough to earn him Player of the Week in the Carolina League. McKinney currently holds down the number six spot in BP’s top 10 list for the Cubs organization. The lefty struggled at the beginning of last season at age 19 while a prospect in the A’s organization, playing in the hitter-friendly Cal League. However, after the blockbuster deal that sent him and Addison Russell to the Cubs, McKinney has been on a tear. In 51 games with Daytona last season, he’s put together a .301/.390/.432 slash line. He appears to have carried those hot-hitting ways into this season, and through his first 29 games with Myrtle Beach, McKinney currently holds an impressive .340/.432/.544 slash line.
Some scouts believe that McKinney is a corner outfielder who lacks both the normal plus power that is expected from the position and the speed to make up for said lack of power. However, many believe his plus hit tool and excellent ability to get on base can make him an asset for any team. Well, it’s hard to argue with an on-base percentage of .407 since his move to the Cubs organization. So far this season, McKinney has shown the power that many didn’t believe he had. It’s a small sample size, but McKinney’s .204 ISO is good for third best in the Carolina League. His OPS of .976 and OBP of .432 both lead the Carolina League. And his 1.31 BB/K rate, good for third best in the league, is also quite impressive. He’s flashed some power to go along with his uncanny ability to reach base, which makes his call-up to Double-A on Thursday all the less surprising.
Baez is notorious for being a slow starter at each level. By now, we’re all aware of Baez’s struggles when he got the call up to Chicago last season. There’s no doubt that many are skeptical of Baez because of the plate discipline and contact issues. The demotion back to Triple-A at the start of the season didn’t come as a huge shock as there was plenty of work still to be done.
The sample size is extremely small, as Baez has only appeared in 13 games totaling 56 plate appearances, but he currently has 16 strikeouts, and just five walks. Although that isn’t great, it’s still an early improvement from what he did last year in Triple-A. Due to the limited sample, it’s important to focus on his tools and what he’s shown us so far rather than obsessing over the so-so numbers. Baez launched a home run the other day with a very impressive swing. It was essentially the 80 bat speed, but it was the overall balance on the swing that stood out. He wasn’t cheating and lunging at the fastball, and had very impressive balance on his swing.
Baez looks a little more upright in his stance this season and seems to have gotten rid of the extreme bat waggle for the most part. He still hasn’t shown the ability to shorten up with two strikes, as the aggressive swing looks the same as a 3-1 count. If Baez can limit his early weight shift that is detrimental to him on off-speed pitches and limit his pitch chasing, he can still be the player that Cubs fans had such high hopes for last season. The elite raw power, 80 bat speed, and the rest of his tools are still there, so if he can improve the plate discipline and contact rate, Baez can still has the potential the be the elite player many predicted. It may just take a little longer than many had hoped.
It’s not often that you hear “he doesn’t strike out a lot” and almost be considered a bad thing. Almora’s low strikeout rate would make him a very impressive prospect, if he didn’t couple it with an abysmal walk rate. Through four seasons in the minors, Almora has put together a strong .293 average. It’s pretty rare to see a guy with a .290 or better average with an on-base percentage of only .320, which is exactly what Almora has produced through his first four seasons in the minors from rookie ball through Double-A.
Many scouts have raved about the elite bat-to-ball ability and baseball IQ, however, it’s exactly those elite bat-to-ball skill that have been hurting him due to the over aggressiveness at the plate. Knowing that he can make contact with almost any pitch he sees, Almora has swung freely rather than embracing the selectively aggressive the Cubs preach. This often leads to the center fielder making soft contact on pitches he probably shouldn’t have even swung at, instead of waiting for his pitch and either taking his walks or driving more batter friendly offerings.
There were high hopes for Almora to make the improvements in 2015 and he has shown some, though slightly. His 6.2 percent walk rate and 7.2 percent strikeout rate are his best since his 61 game stint at Kane County in 2013, and his BB/K rate of 0.86 is the best of his career. The drop in strikeout percentage has been impressive to see, and while the walk rate isn’t very good, it’s still an improvement for Almora. However, what has stood out is the lack of power from Almora. In his 97 plate appearances this season, Almora has accumulated just three extra-base hits, all doubles. There are scouts who believe Almora has average to above-average power, but he has yet to display power in game in his professional career. In 241 Double-A plate appearances, Almorea has just two home runs, two triples, and 10 doubles leading to a weak ISO of .088. So while he’s shown an improvement in his walk and strikeout rate, he really isn’t making quality contact or driving pitches when he gets the chance to do so.