There is one aspect of baseball that gets almost as much attention as the games themselves. The world of prospects and draft picks. Fans, the media, scouts, and front office executives debate the merits of various prospects year-round in an attempt to project a prospect’s ultimate ceiling.
The process is an inexact science and results in many prospects failing to produce at the MLB level. The process also misses on some players who end up becoming solid major leaguers. The Dodgers have had their share of failed prospects and pleasant surprises.
Let’s take a look at three players who have had vastly different career trajectories: Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy, and Zach Lee–remember him?!
We’ll start with Lee.
Right-handed pitcher Zach Lee was the Dodgers’ first-round pick out of a Texas high school and 28th overall selection of the 2010 draft. Many thought he would bypass pro ball to attend college at LSU as he was a heavily recruited high school Quarterback. Surprisingly, the Dodgers signed him to a franchise record $5.25 signing bonus. This was not only surprising because he was expected to attend LSU, but it was also surprising that then-Dodgers owner Frank McCourt authorized this bonus at a time when he was pinching pennies at the MLB level.
Lee was a heralded prospect, known for his athleticism and potential to serve as a middle of the rotation MLB starter someday. Lee’s command and repertoire of pitches placed him at the top of prospect lists. MLB pipeline graded Lee overall at a 50 on the 20-80 scouting scale. A 50 is essentially a grade for a projected average MLB player.
Lee had a few standout seasons in the Dodgers minor league system. He was the organization’s pitcher of the year twice, in 2013, and 2015. He finally made his debut in 2015, and it did not go well. Lee was smacked around for 7 runs in 4 2/3 innings. That would be his only Dodger MLB appearance. Lee did cement his place in Dodger lore when in 2016 he was flipped to the Seattle Mariners for Chris Taylor.
To date, Lee has an 8.53 ERA in 12 + MLB innings. He is currently pitching for the Rays AA team in Montgomery, AL. Lee is still only 26 so there is still a possibility he can turn his career around, however, his chances of becoming a middle of the rotation MLB starting pitcher appear slim. Lee’s command that elevated his status as a prospect has eluded him at higher levels. There is just no way to predict this type of regression.
Cody Bellinger was a well-regarded draft pick out of a Phoenix-area high school in the 4th round of the 2013 draft and the 124th pick taken overall. Bellinger was considered a raw prospect who was very projectable, hence why the Dodgers drafted him so high despite being a high school player at a non-premium position. Scouts and writers who cover the game were not entirely convinced Bellinger would develop the power to serve as an everyday MLB first baseman.
MLB.com, in a July 2015 article, evaluated Bellinger and provided a mixed assessment. The scouting report on Bellinger was that he was a good hitter for average, and a good fielding first baseman. His ability to hit for power was the primary aspect of his game called into question.
MLB.com stated he possessed above-average but not elite bat speed. The report opined if Bellinger added more upper-body strength, the power may come with it. The report predicted his downside could be he develops into a James Loney-esque first baseman–a contact hitter with very little power. Of course, by now we know Bellinger has a much higher ceiling than Loney ever did.
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Projecting a raw prospect like Bellinger is where scouts earn their keep. Analytics are useful, however, it takes a trained and experienced baseball scout to accurately project what a player like Bellinger can actually become.
Then there are players like Max Muncy.
Muncy is a late bloomer, but if you go back and find old scouting reports on the player, you will see his ability to produce at the MLB level is not a total surprise.
Muncy was drafted out of Baylor U. in the 5th round of the 2012 MLB Draft by the Oakland Athletics. Muncy received good marks from MLB.com Prospect Watch for his eye at the plate and makeup. However, his ability to hit for power at higher levels was always questioned. After two stints in the majors with Oakland, Muncy was released in spring training last season. Muncy has taken a little while to round out his game, but there is no disputing Muncy has shown he can hit at the MLB level. His keen eye at the plate and quick hands that were highlighted as strengths in previous scouting reports have served as tools to carry him to a regular job on an MLB roster.
Projecting MLB talent is an often difficult task. Even the most can’t miss prospect is prone to failure. Debating which prospects will make it and which ones won’t will continue to be a hot baseball topic, both in the stands and in the confines of MLB’s front offices.