Once a week this season, we're going to break down the prospects who have moved the needle on their prospect stock, mostly highlighting players on the rise, but also pointing out a few who are struggling against expectations. Note: All stats are through games played on Monday.
Padres 1B Jake Bauers, Class A Fort Wayne:
Bauers was a seventh-round Draft pick by San Diego in the 2013 Draft out of Marina High School in Huntington Beach, California, the same school that produced Daric Barton, a first-round selection by the Cardinals in 2003. Bauers was one of the youngest players in the '13 Draft class -- he's still just 18 with an October birthday, making him younger than many of 2014's high school draftees.
Despite his age, Bauers is second among all qualified full-season hitters in batting with a .354 average. The left-hander is putting balls in play (just 35 strikeouts in 195 at-bats) and drawing his share of walks (26), showing a maturity beyond his years in the Midwest League.
Bauers' numbers are no mirage. His .401 batting average on balls in play is unsustainable, but it's not entirely surprising given his profile as a hitter. Bauers' hitting coach, Morgan Burkhart, raves about Bauers' ability to put barrel to ball. It's a hit tool that's well above average and exceptionally refined for a player his age.
"Just from watching him, I'm pretty sure he sees the ball well," Burkhart said. "His approach is the right approach. The way he attacks counts, he stays simple, and that allows him to get the barrel to the ball."
Burkhart chalks Bauers' consistency up to his maturity. As success has come Bauers' way, he's placed an emphasis on staying within himself, aiming for simple, strong contact when others might be tempted to drop shoulders and lift balls to the pull side. His focus is an all-fields approach, and he's impressed Burkhart with his willingness to drive easy singles on predictable pitches.
As shown above, Bauers works from a simple, slightly opened stance. His hands start high but drop to near his back shoulder position, and he does an excellent job tracking pitches on the outer half of the plate -- this wasn't the only sharp single to left he hit in the sample I watched.
Projecting Bauers long-term, the question is less about whether he'll hit, but rather whether his bat can profile at first base. The 18-year-old has just six homers for Fort Wayne this season, all but one yanked to right field. There's reason to believe he has more pop than that -- he's one of the youngest players in the Midwest League, meaning he has more time to develop -- and cold weather has helped suppress homers around the league in general.
List at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, Bauers isn't especially projectable -- it looks from MiLB.TV that his lower half is already pretty thick. That said, there appears to be room for growth in his upper body, and even if he doesn't add notable size, every 18-year-old is likely to add strength with age.
Burkhart, for one, is expecting the power to come for Bauers down the road.
"He's going to get stronger," Burkhart said. "He'll add that man strength as he gets older. He's a hard worker. He's getting his strength up and working hard. If he keeps at it, gets strong and stays with his approach, in my opinion, he will hit for power in the future.
"As good as his timing is, as often as he gets the barrel to the ball, he's going to run into a lot of long balls."
Bauers probably will need those long balls to earn a big league job. As coveted as high average, high on-base percentage hitters are, it's tough to make an impact at first base without at least above average pop -- Barton is a good example of how players can fall short without it.
There's a chance Bauers could handle a position change to the outfield -- Burkhart said he thought the athleticism might be there for that -- but if not, Bauers may still wind up with enough stick to provide the Padres nice value out of the seventh round.
D-backs RHP Aaron Blair, Class A Advanced Visalia:
The 6-foot-5 Marshall product has the look of a Major League workhorse and he's pitched like one to date, striking out 112 batters in 93 innings spread across Class A South Bend and Visalia. He's been dominant in the Cal League, posting a 3.61 ERA with 68 strikeouts in 57 1/3 frames.
The 22-year-old isn't much of a groundball pitcher, but his three-pitch mix of a plus fastball and above average curve and change has made him a tough one for Cal League hitters to time. Blair allowed four homers over his first three Rawhide starts, but hasn't given up a round-tripper in seven starts since. Along with 2013 first-rounder Braden Shipley, Blair is charging quickly through Arizona's system, and the duo could battle for Major League rotation jobs by mid-2015, if not sooner.
Astros CF Delino DeShields, Double-A Corpus Christi:
Rumblings from the offseason that lackluster makeup could derail DeShields' advance on Houston are looking justified at this point. The 21-year-old has had a tough 2014 that started with a fractured cheek bone in April. He returned to action in May and has struggled since, posting a .246 average and .689 OPS for the season.
DeShields is striking out more and walking less than last year. He's already matched his 2013 power output with five homers -- shocking, considering Lancaster's The Hanger was his home park last season -- but for the most part, the results have been underwhelming. The Gaston, Georgia, native still has impressive tools and is young enough to change the narrative on his performance. Still, his disappointing results have him falling behind Houston's other outfield prospects.
Mets 1B Dominic Smith, Class A Savannah:
Smith's first full pro season hasn't been a disaster. In fact, there are a number of positive indicators, ranging from a .281 batting average to positive reports on his glove work. But the goose egg left in the home run column is still cause for concern.
The 19-year-old has yet to go long for the Sand Gnats in 278 at-bats. The lack of current power wouldn't be such a concern, except Smith is destined for first base long term, and as was covered above, first baseman need to hit for some power to succeed. Like with Bauers, there's plenty of time for Smith to develop some pop. But when a first-round first baseman to go half a season without a homer, that zero is tough to look past, no matter how shiny some of the silver linings.