On the first day of the 2014 first-year-player draft, the Milwaukee Brewers chose three teenaged prospects: left-hander Kodi Medeiros of Waiakea HS in Hawaii (12th overall), shortstop Jake Gatewood of Clovis HS in California (41st overall), and outfielder Monte Harrison of Lee’s Summit West HS in Missouri (50th overall). Medeiros, whose selection at the time was regarded as a bit of a reach, signed for $305,700 less than MLB’s recommended slot value, which enabled Milwaukee to save pool money to then sign both Gatewood and Harrison to deals that exceeded their respective slot values by a combined $1.15 million. As a result, the two teenaged position players, Gatewood and Harrison, though very different in skill-sets and projections, received nearly identical signing bonuses, became the objects of great expectations, and now appear destined to be linked in the minds and hopes of Brewers fans in the foreseeable future.
All three promising teenagers opened the 2015 season with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, Milwaukee’s affiliate from the Low-A Midwest League. While Medeiros has performed well — he owns a 2.87 FIP and ranks second in WHIP (1.28) and first in strikeouts (9.60 K/9) — Gatewood and Harrison at times looked so overmatched that Reid Nichols, Milwaukee’s Director of Player Development, informed the pair in early June that they would be reassigned to a lower level of competition.
What should Brewers fans make of the struggles they have seen from Gatewood and Harrison? Baseball will always tease and disappoint us in some way, so it is important to maintain the proper perspective. Statistics do tell part of the story, and yet every story has a context.
In some ways, it is unhelpful and even unfair to analyze Gatewood and Harrison together. “Both will be good players,” Nichols told me, but that’s about where the meaningful similarities end. A high-school shortstop who, at 6-foot-5, could wind up anywhere from third base to a corner OF spot, Jake Gatewood has displayed prodigious raw power that already is the stuff of home-run-derby legend. At the professional level, however, that power (by far his loudest tool) has yet to play in games. Unlike Gatewood, Monte Harrison appears ticketed for centerfield and profiles, at least initially, as a top-of-the-order table-setter.
Nick Faleris and the Baseball Prospectus Prospect Staff apparently did not see enough from Gatewood to include him on their preseason list of the Brewers’ top-10 prospects, but they were bullish on Harrison, ranking him #5 on that list and praising “the eagerness with which he took to his initial round of pro instruction,” among other things. They are, in short, two very different players who carry different expectations.
If they are to be compared, however, as their ages (born six weeks apart) and draft statuses suggest they will be, then Gatewood and Harrison deserve to be evaluated not by their isolated slash lines in two months of full-season A-ball but in comparison to their true peers: other high-school position players chosen within the first one-hundred selections of the 2014 draft and assigned to the Midwest League in 2015. This narrows their peer group to a small handful of players, elite talents whose respective big-league clubs chose to challenge, to assess, and perhaps even to humble them by pitting them against older competition. “You’re taking guys out of high school,” Nichols observed, “and putting them against some Latin American players who have 5-6 years of professional experience, plus college guys who have experience.” Indeed, the vast majority of players in the Midwest League are between twenty-one and twenty-three years old, equivalent to college seniors or recent graduates. Gatewood, Harrison, and their peers, on the other hand, had they attended college, would be freshmen. In this case, they would be freshmen competing against only those seniors and graduates who were good enough to play professional baseball. No matter how promising they might be, Gatewood and Harrison should not be judged against that elite group.
On June 12, Milwaukee reassigned its two young prospects to Helena of the short-season Pioneer League. Here are their numbers through June 11, the date of their final game with the Midwest League’s Timber Rattlers:
SS Jake Gatewood: (128 AB) .227/.288/.305, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 9:49 BB:K
OF Monte Harrison: (162 AB) .148/.246/.247, 2 HR, 11 RBI, 14:77 BB:K
Such numbers are to be expected. “We knew they probably would struggle,” Nichols said, and “if they did, we’d send them to Helena.” Hence the reassignments.
These numbers do not look quite so ghastly, however, when viewed alongside those of other Midwest League teenagers through June 11:
OF Alex Verdugo: (187 AB) .225/.264/.305, 1 HR, 16 RBI, 9:31 BB:K
OF Michael Gettys: (214 AB) .220/.239/.360, 3 HR, 23 RBI, 6:77 BB:K
OF Derek Hill: (181 AB) .227/.294/.293, 0 HR, 9 RBI, 18:41 BB:K
OF Alex Jackson: (108 AB) .157/.240/.213, 0 HR, 13 RBI, 6:35 BB:K
Verdugo, selected 62nd overall by the Dodgers, made an impressive debut in the 2014 Arizona League, so his struggles with first exposure to advanced competition are worth noting. The same is true for Gettys, whom San Diego selected 51st overall — one spot behind Harrison — and who, like Verdugo, performed well in the Arizona League, finishing in the top five in batting average. To an even greater extent than Harrison, Gettys struggled to control the strike zone against Midwest League pitching with a 33.6 percent strikeout rate. Hill, Detroit’s first-round selection at #23 overall, did manage 23 steals in his first two months of advanced competition but has done little else to distinguish himself from his peers. Most revealing of all is Jackson, Seattle’s number-two prospect, whose “excellent bat speed” and “plus-plus raw” power helped make him the sixth-overall pick in the draft. It took only 108 AB worth of frustration before the Mariners shut down their young slugger in mid-May and reassigned him to a lower level.
In the Midwest League’s Gatewood-Harrison peer group of teenaged, position-playing, 2014 early draftees, only Minnesota’s Nick Gordon (fifth overall) and Cleveland’s Bobby Bradley (97th overall) produced solid numbers:
SS Nick Gordon: (268 AB) .250/.325/.301, 0 HR, 26 RBI, 22:49 BB:K
1B Bobby Bradley: (187 AB) .273/.369/.540, 11 HR, 37 RBI, 24:67 BB:K
Gordon has also managed 15 steals, yet even these modest-but-respectable numbers come with a caveat. This is not Gordon’s first exposure to older competition; he spent the last few months of the 2014 season slashing .294/.333/.366 for the Elizabethton Twins of the Appalachian League, whereas the others in this group began their professional careers in the teenager-laden Arizona or Gulf Coast Leagues. Bradley’s performance is more difficult to nitpick. His 11 homers and 37 RBI represent an impressive power display for a young man who turned nineteen near the end of May.
Aside from Bradley, whose eye-opening encore to a triple-crown-winning 2014 season in the Arizona League makes him the early frontrunner for steal-of-the-draft, the other teenagers have mostly scuffled to begin their professional careers.
Furthermore, consider the teenaged position players from 2014’s first one-hundred selections who could have been assigned to the Midwest League but were not. The Diamondbacks chose not to send OF Marcus Wilson (69th overall) or SS Isan Diaz (70th overall) to Kane County. OF Gareth Morgan (74th overall), whom the Mariners signed away from a North Carolina State commitment with a $2 million bonus, remained in extended spring training following a 2014 Arizona League season that saw him strikeout a whopping 73 times in 155 AB.
What if Gatewood and/or Harrison had attended college? What might we have expected from them? On Baseball America’s 2014 list of 500 draft-eligible players, the highest-rated high-schooler who eventually opted to fulfill his college commitment was Florida catcher J.J. Schwarz (no relation). As expected, Schwarz enjoyed an outstanding debut season in Gainesville and was named to BA’s first-team Freshman All-America team. In 256 overall AB, he slashed an impressive .332/.398/.629 with 18 HR and 73 RBI. A closer look at Schwarz’s numbers, however, reveals that in games within the Southeastern Conference, littered with future MLB-draftees, he managed only a .229/.298/.404 slash line with 4 HR and 18 RBI in 109 AB. The bottom line, of course, is that we should expect even the most talented teenagers to struggle in their first exposure to any sort of advanced competition.
Finally, it is important to remember that both Gatewood and Harrison have experienced success at the professional level. Between May 19 and June 11, for instance, Gatewood, whom Nichols praised for a strong finish in the Midwest League, raised his batting average by 60 points and was on a six-game hitting streak when he left Wisconsin. Harrison, meanwhile, led the Arizona League by a wide margin with 32 steals in 2014. Neither has any cause for loss of confidence.
Young talent often makes fans restless for results. But baseball, Tom Hanks once reminded us, is supposed to be hard. If disappointment and frustration were the enemies of development, then none of these teenagers would stand a chance. Numbers might never lie, but they are barren without context, and in this case the context provided by their peer group and others suggests that Gatewood and Harrison are doing just fine.