Toolshed: Early struggles don't equal doom

Looking back at big-name players who overcame slow starts

Gleyber Torres' rough start to 2016 didn't mean much in terms of the shortstop's rising stock. (Patrick Cavey/MiLB.com)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | April 19, 2017 12:30 PM ET

The third week of the Minor League season starts Thursday. Depending on local weather and league scheduling, most clubs have played about a dozen games -- about eight or nine percent of a full season. That might feel like enough time to start making declarative statements about who's hurting their stock with a string of tough opening performances.

But is it time to panic? Absolutely not.

Last Wednesday's Toolshed looked at some worrisome early trends among the game's top prospects but took care to note how these players can turn things around given their talent levels. This edition provides further antidote to early-onset panic, looking back at some notable players who struggled in the first two weeks of seasons past and quickly proved there was little reason for worry.

Gleyber Torres, Myrtle Beach 2016: This might be tough to remember, given all that followed for MLB.com's No. 2 overall prospect, but Torres didn't enjoy a dream introduction to Class A Advanced a year ago. He went 6-for-49 with 19 strikeouts in his first 13 games with Myrtle Beach, leading to a .122 average that was fourth-lowest among all hitters at that level through April 20. He was also the second-youngest player in the Carolina League to start the season, which explained why it took him some time to warm up. He figured things out to the tune of a .300/.374/.463 line the rest of the way before being dealt to the Yankees in late July and winning Arizona Fall League MVP honors after the season.

Seth Lugo, Las Vegas 2016: Everyone knows pitching in the Pacific Coast League (and Vegas in particular) is no fun, and Lugo proved to be a prime example last year. The Mets right-hander, who made five Triple-A starts the season before, allowed 15 earned runs on 26 hits and five walks in 12 2/3 innings over his first three starts back with the 51s. Things never totally clicked for the then-26-year-old as he finished the season with a 6.50 ERA in 73 1/3 Triple-A innings, but he ended up being a valuable piece of the Mets' Major League staff down the stretch while switching between the rotation and bullpen. He finished with a 2.67 ERA and 1.09 WHIP over 64 innings in the Majors (though a 4.33 FIP indicated he might not have been quite as good as those other numbers would indicate). Lugo was Puerto Rico's starting pitcher in the final game of the World Baseball Classic but is on the disabled list with a partial UCL tear in his pitching elbow.

Rafael Devers, Salem 2016: Like Torres, Devers got the bump to the Carolina League as the circuit's third-youngest player on Opening Day 2016 but didn't make a smooth transition in his second full season, going 7-for-48 (.146) with a .548 OPS in his first 13 games. It wasn't until the second half of the season that the left-handed-hitting third baseman finally took off, and he finished with vastly different splits between the two halves: .233/.300/.355, 14 extra-base hits vs. .326/.367/.539, 37 extra-base hits. Still, that second-half performance was much more indicative of Devers' capabilities, and he's climbed to the No. 15 spot in MLB.com's overall prospect rankings as a result.

Jon Gray, Albuquerque 2015: This might look like a lesson in not trusting PCL pitching numbers more than not trusting small samples, but Gray will be the last pitcher that fits both categories here. The 2013 third overall pick entered his second full season as MLB.com's No. 15 overall prospect before getting shelled in his first three Triple-A starts. Gray allowed 14 earned runs on 22 hits and six walks (while adding 14 strikeouts) over 14 innings with the Isotopes as the season entered its third week. By May, the hard-throwing right-hander with a wicked slider was much better, by PCL standards or otherwise, with a 3.17 ERA and 93 strikeouts over 96 2/3 innings in his final 17 starts before being called up to The Show that August. He led all rookie pitchers last season with a 3.7 WAR, per FanGraphs.

Francisco Lindor, Columbus 2015: Yes, this was the same year that Lindor ended up finishing neck-and-neck in the American League Rookie of the Year race with Carlos Correa. (Correa won by a nose.) But there wasn't a quick jump out of the gate in the International League. Entering as MLB.com's No. 4 overall prospect that season, the switch-hitting shortstop went 9-for-47 (.191) with three extra-base hits and a .602 OPS in 13 games with Columbus. A .216 BABIP had a hand in repressing those numbers, though Lindor wasn't exactly known for his bat in those days. However, he caught up quickly with 10 hits in his next four games and finished with a .308 average and .791 OPS over his remaining 46 games with Columbus before a big-league promotion in June. He's been a .300 hitter ever since and is the face of the defending American League champions.

Franklin Barreto, Stockton 2015: The A's wasted no time getting aggressive with Barreto, who they acquired that winter from the Blue Jays in the Josh Donaldson deal, by sending him to Class A Advanced as a 19-year-old in 2015. Perhaps predictably, it wasn't a seamless transition from playing Class A Short Season the previous season as Barreto went 7-for-46 (.152) with a homer, triple and .465 OPS in his first dozen games with the Ports. The shortstop was back to showing plus abilities with the bat by May with a .326/.375/.533 line that month and was at .302/.333/.500 with 13 homers in July when a left wrist bruise put him on the disabled list for the rest of the season. MLB.com's No. 49 prospect is now with Triple-A Nashville, where he started the season as the second-youngest player in the PCL.

Michael Fulmer, St. Lucie 2014: Fulmer is known now as the reigning AL Rookie of the Year. Back in 2014, he was a Mets pitching prospect trying to stay relevant in a system loaded with arms. After ending the 2013 season as New York's No. 13 prospect, the 6-foot-3 right-hander stumbled out of the blocks in the Florida State League, giving up seven earned runs on 11 hits in 3 2/3 innings in his opening start on April 5. He was even worse in his third start with eight earned runs allowed in 2 1/3 frames on April 18. At the time, only three Class A Advanced pitchers had yielded more earned runs in 2014 than Fulmer's 16 over his first three starts with St. Lucie. However, he didn't allow more than four earned runs in any of his remaining 16 outings and posted a 2.84 ERA with 75 strikeouts in 84 1/3 innings the rest of the way. One season later, he was the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year and was traded for Yoenis Cespedes. Two seasons later, he was winning hardware.

Nomar Mazara, Hickory 2013: The Rangers right fielder has been young relative to nearly every stop he's made, and that was especially the case in 2013 when Texas pushed him to the South Atlantic League for his age-18 season. Mazara struggled to acclimate to Class A pitching, going 8-for-52 (.154) with 18 strikeouts over his first 13 games for Hickory. He improved as the season went on and finished with a .236/.310/.382 line that equated to a near-perfectly average 101 wRC+, pretty impressive given his age. The Rangers had Mazara repeat Class A the following season, but three years after those initial struggles, he made his big league debut and has been one of the Majors' best hitters to start this season.

Matt Harvey, Buffalo 2012: Before the Dark Knight ascended on Gotham in 2012, he had to find his footing at Triple-A Buffalo, and that proved to be no easy chore. In his first three starts with the Bisons, the then-23-year-old right-hander, who began the season as MLB.com's No. 38 overall prospect, completed five frames only once, despite eclipsing the 90-pitch mark on three occasions. He allowed 11 earned runs on 12 hits and eight walks over 13 innings for a two-week ERA of 7.62 and WHIP of 2.15. Opposing batters hit .357 off the future All-Star, a number that dropped to .214 over Harvey's final 17 Triple-A starts as he missed bats more regularly to the tune of 103 strikeouts in 97 innings. Harvey was called up to the Mets in late July and hasn't been back in the Minors since.

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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