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.
Nationals OF Michael Taylor, Double-A Harrisburg
Since Washington selected him in the sixth round of the 2009 Draft, Taylor has been one of the most athletically gifted players in the Minor Leagues. Originally a shortstop, Taylor was moved to the outfield as a pro, where he's become one of the better defensive centerfielders in the Minors thanks to his speed -- I clocked him at 3.78 seconds home-to-first on a bunt single last Thursday -- and strong throwing arm. The latter is on display below.
His performance prior to this year was a mishmash of well-showcased tools and glaring holes. He stole 51 bases in 58 tries while clubbing 41 doubles in repeating the Carolina League in 2013. He also batted just .263 while striking out in 22.5 percent of his plate appearances.
His output with Harrisburg in 2014 has been markedly better, although not without some caveats. On the down side, he's striking out even more. Through Monday, he was striking out in 32.7 percent of his plate appearances.
The increase in strikeouts have been more than offset, though, by the extra charge Taylor has put into the ball. Taylor is tied with Bowie's Christian Walker for the Eastern League lead in home runs (15) and boasts an impressive triple-slash line of .325/.405/.629. He's also stolen 14 bases in 16 tries. Some of his success is due to an unsustainable BABiP (.449), but there's no denying Taylor is making the loudest contact of his career.
Prior to this season, Taylor's issues with strikeouts had been two-fold. For starters, his pitch recognition has been underwhelming. As the MLB.com prospect team noted in ranking Taylor fourth in the Nationals' system, "Taylor is susceptible to good breaking balls and too often swings at pitches out of the zone." The other issue was that, even when he swung at pitches in the zone, he'd either miss completely or make weak contact.
Taylor's pitch recognition is still subpar, but he seems to have improved the latter issues thanks to an adjustment in his stride. In video I watched of Taylor in June 2013, he employed a toe tap while getting ready to swing. At first, his left foot would lift slightly and he would bring it down on its toes, then he'd lunge forward from there, returning the left foot flat on the ground.
As the split-screen photo shows below, that's no longer the case. Both photos were screen grabbed as the ball left the pitcher's hand. On the left, from 2013, Taylor is in the middle of his toe tap; on the right, from 2014, his left leg is raised a few inches off the ground.
The leg lift appears to have made it easier for Taylor to go from deciding to swing to actually swinging. In watching a few 2013 at-bats, it appears Taylor was often late bringing the bat to the hitting zone and would be forced to hurry his swing to catch up. When he did this, he had a tendency to jerk his head while trying to whip the barrel into the zone, and that kind of head movement can make it difficult to make solid contact. Note how well his head stays on the ball in the embedded video below:
Taylor still has a proclivity to swing and miss, and his pitch recognition still needs work. All that said, his early power surge can't be ignored. With what he can contribute defensively and on the bases, Taylor won't need to be a .300 hitter to be a valuable Major League asset. His overall value, though, will be tied to the progress of his hit tool and whether it's good enough to let his raw power actualize against Major League pitchers.
Pirates RHP Adrian Sampson, Double-A Altoona
Sampson has quietly been putting together an outstanding season with the Curve. The 22-year-old turned in his best outing of the season last Friday, posting eight scoreless innings, while scattering six hits and striking out five against New Hampshire.
The righty was a fifth-round pick in 2012 out of Bellevue Community College (Washington). He posted lackluster numbers in his full-season debut with Class A Advanced Bradenton last year -- a 5.14 ERA with 85 strikeouts, 22 walks and 18 homers allowed in 140 innings.
He's been much improved this season, posting a 1.98 ERA with 48 strikeouts, 16 walks and just two homers allowed over 63 2/3 innings.
Sampson came out of college with a quality fastball and a sharp breaking ball, but, per the folks at Pirates Prospects, he struggled last year while trying to develop a changeup. The offspeed pitch has apparently come a long way, and Sampson has been outstanding with the three-pitch mix.
All of Sampson's strengths were on display last Friday, and two of them stood out from the below at-bat against Jon Berti. He begins with consecutive curveballs, and both pitches show slightly different shapes but equally sharp break. He then comes back with consecutive fastballs, the first of which Berti is way behind. He eventually gets the strikeout on another fastball, and the movement on the pitch is notable, especially given it's upper-zone location. That movement helps explain Sampson's 51-percent ground ball rate (per MLBFarm.com).
And now, because the universe, as Rust Cohle tells us, is circular, here's an at-bat from earlier this year of Sampson using his breaking ball to set up a strikeout of Michael Taylor. In it, you can note both the effectiveness of Sampson's curve and Taylor's inability to recognize it out of Sampson's hand on strikes one and two.
Twins RHP Jose Berrios, Class A Advanced Fort Myers
Berrios is pitching in the Florida State League, where sadly there is limited video. Ashley Marshall did his best to tell you about it, though, in writing about Berrios' latest gem -- a 13-strikeout one-hitter Sunday.
This season, Fort Myers pitching coach Gary Lucas has challenged Berrios to embrace the transition from thrower to pitcher, and the competitive Berrios has proven up to the task. While he can run his fastball up to the mid-90s, Lucas wanted Berrios to focus more on his command, sacrificing a few ticks on the radar gun if necessary.
Over his past five starts, Berrios has a 0.86 ERA and a 45-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Sunday was by far his best start in that stretch.
"He threw his fastball to both sides of the plate and he was down in the zone," Lucas said Sunday. "He overpowered a bunch of hitters. He was hitting the outside corner against right-handed batters and he was down on the corners against left-handed batters.
"I love to watch good pitching ... and this kid put on a show tonight. He hit legitimate spots. It's not like they were chasing everything. He made them chase in certain counts when he was ahead, but he got ahead by hitting legitimate zones. It was something to watch, no doubt about it. I enjoy being a small part of his development."
Astros RHP Mark Appel, Class A Advanced Lancaster
Appel's struggles this season have been pretty well documented. The hope is that the Stanford product hit rock bottom in allowing 10 earned runs in 1 1/3 innings on Saturday -- a start he said "humbled" him. Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow told MLB.com he's still optimistic about Appel's future, but at this point, it's clear that last year's No. 1 overall pick faces a tougher path from college to the Majors than most envisioned.
Padres RHP Keyvius Sampson, Triple-A El Paso
Things have not gone well for the 2009 fourth-round pick in the Pacific Coast League. He made nine starts there last year and posted a 7.11 ERA with a 25-to-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He hasn't been much better in 11 starts this season, posting a 5.82 ERA with 46 strikeouts, 36 walks and 12 homers allowed over 51 innings. Sampson was torched for six runs (five earned) over three innings by Las Vegas in his last start.