Today we roll along with another stop in my retrospective California League tour.
Last week I wrote about a couple infielders who caught my eye when they came through the circuit last summer, and today we'll switch gears and head to the outfield. Neither guy below projects to a star-caliber future for me, but I found them both entertaining and interesting for different reasons.
Phillips has all the talent to develop into a quality Major League centerfielder, but he also fits the mold of the prototypical player type whose offensive development can be threatened if he spends too much time in the desert. And Gabby Guerrero...well, let's just say I had a lot of fun (and many a flashback) watching him run around last year.
Brett Phillips, CF, Lancaster (Houston Astros)
Popped in the sixth round out of high school by the Astros in 2012, Phillips was seen as a raw, athletic project. He held his own in the Gulf Coast League after signing, and showed flashes of an approach to go along with solid defensive chops the following summer, earning a late-season call-up to Quad Cities. That’s where he returned to start 2014, and he proceeded to dominate the Midwest League. He unlocked playable power, knocking 46 extra base hits in just shy of 450 plate appearances before jumping up to Lancaster for the homestretch. It was an impressive season, and there’s a lot to like in Phillips game despite some significant offensive questions that, at least for now, limit his overall ceiling.
To begin with the positives, the defensive profile is highly intriguing. He plays an instinctual centerfield with good first step quickness from medium-depth. His reads were all on point in my viewings, and he shows a particular propensity for coming in on the ball. The closing speed is not elite, but he tracks balls well and shows an above-average ability to identify angels and trajectory quickly. The tools are there for a solid-average to above-average Major League centerfielder. His greatest asset as a ballplayer is an absolute canon of an arm, easily the best I saw in an outfield last season. His ball shows tremendous velocity, carry, and accuracy, and I’m perfectly comfortable throwing an easy 70 on it.
Offensively, the picture gets a bit murkier. Phillips’ swing is still a work in progress, and the rawness is apparent in a high back elbow and hand set coupled with substantial pre-pitch movement in his upper half. The hands are loose, producing a pronounced bat waggle and some excess motion up top. It’s not a huge deal on its own – I tend to favor hitters with loose hands flowing into the swing. But in Phillips’ case that movement can transition sloppily into a long load that features a significant shoulder dip and culminates with a late final flair of the wrists at cock. He'll dip his back shoulder to carry his bat into the zone, and when that happens it results in some rigidity in his arms through contact, particularly on balls he’s trying to turn on. The swing mechanics aren’t geared to produce a ton of backspin and loft, and he needs to sell out a good bit to get to his raw power. It makes last year’s over-the-fence outburst a tough one to see translating through the high minors without a potentially serious compromise to his hit tool.
There’s plenty to build on here, however. Phillips uses his legs well; he transfers his weight efficiently, generally gets his front foot down early and strong, and uses a classic fulcrum to really drive his hips through impact with good torque. He shows a nice cadence in the box, with patience and signs of an approach. I’m not comfortable putting more than a 45 on his hit tool at present, and there’s some variability tied to how much of his 50 raw power he tries to bring into play. A best-case scenario probably has him reigning in his approach a bit to cap the game power at 40 and give his hit tool a chance to play up to solid-average. He comes up high on his finish, which can limit his out-of-the-box dig despite above-average running speed.
Overall Phillips presents as a player still in search of his offensive identity, but with the makeup and raw talent to develop into a nice player. Between demonstrated success to date, solid bat-to-ball skills, and a strong up-the-middle defensive profile he’ll be afforded plenty of opportunity to figure things out in the high minors. He’ll be one of the more interesting Astro bats to watch once he has a chance to continue his development out of Lancaster next season.
Gabby Guerrero, RF, Seattle Mariners (High Desert)
From a strict "fan of the game" perspective there was no more enjoyable prospect to come through the desert last summer than Guerrero. After going unsigned at the July 2nd international deadline in 2010 Guerrero was plucked by Seattle for $400,000 the following January, and after an initially unremarkable DSL debut that summer he demolished the league in 2012 return engagement to earn a stateside debut. Despite an uneven 2013 performance in the Midwest League he was promoted to California last year and held his own despite checking in almost three years younger than his peers. The performance earned him a borderline B/B- grade from John and the #5 spot on the Marines list. I’ve previously noted in comparing Guerrero to his uncle Vlad that Gabby’s "body, swing, approach, and mannerisms – right down to wearing no batting gloves and running like a gimpy T-Rex – are mirror images," and that seems like an appropriate jumping-off point here. He has a thick middle and powerful hips that help him unleash an extremely potent swing, but that leads to awkward athletic movements in the field and on the bases that my limit his overall projection.
Describing Guerrero’s setup in the box as "loose" is an understatement. He approaches his pre-pitch routine with the swagger of a lumberjack about to take his axe to a dead stump, lackadaisically stretching his back with hands on shoulder, shifting his weight around, and looking downright annoyed at times that he has to wait to unleash another swing. He finally settles with hands low and somewhere in the vicinity below his back shoulder, while his weight coils off the back leg as the pitch is delivered. Everything that happens next is long: the hands cock up to add length on the back end, his stride is enormous, and the bat hurtles through the zone for what looks and feels to be an eternity. The torque is ferocious, the raw bat speed explosive. But it’s anybody’s guess what plane the bathead will be on from swing to swing. With so many moving parts, so much length, and an ultra-aggressive approach that has him chasing pitches within and beyond every quadrant, each swing is a unique beast unto itself. Like his uncle the contact skills rely heavily on superior hand-eye coordination and bat speed. While both are assets for the younger Guerrero, however, neither element approaches the superfreak level that allowed Vladimir to excel as a borderline Hall of Fame hitter.
In terms of approach…well, there really isn’t one, to be honest. Guerrero will swing at anything. He has the ability to "adjust" pitch to pitch, in that beating him on one pitch certainly doesn’t guarantee a pitcher will be able to do it again on the next. But he was already susceptible to High-A spin, particularly against same-handed pitching. Despite the backside leverage he creates the upper body will stay fairly perpendicular through his swing, and it leads to a lot of rolled-over ground ball contact when he doesn't square the ball. Upper minors stuff and sequencing will be a tremendous challenge without some big steps forward in developing some semblance of an approach. It’s a 35 or 40 hit tool projection right now, though a sneaky amount of his easy 60 on the raw power can play even as-is by virtue of his mistake-hitting ability. Without strides in approach, however, he's a fringe corner outfield bat. The unchecked aggression threatens to make him a significant on-base liability at higher levels despite above-average power potential.
He’s a solid-average to slightly better runner currently, with times out of the box consistently in the 4.20 to 4.30 range. His start-up can be choppy, and it takes him a couple strides to get everything synched and moving efficiently, but once underway he shows solid foot speed and acceleration at present. It’s an open question how the whole package will translate into stolen base attempts against better quality batteries, and the body type leads me to believe his playable speed will slide into fringe-average territory sooner rather than later. In the field he’ll take rough routes to balls in right, but while it isn’t always pretty he covers ground and has the running speed to cover for some of his mistakes. The arm strength is easy plus with good carry, but his footwork in setup is inconsistent and can lead to accuracy issues. It isn’t a great defensive profile, though the raw talent is there to develop into an average defender with an arm that will play comfortably in right if he maxes it out.
Ultimate projection here is really a crapshoot, as he profiles as a high variance prospect with a gigantic range of potential outcomes. The raw talent is quite exciting – that he held his own at the plate in a full season of High-A ball as a 20 year old with zero offensive approach should tell you all you need to know about what he’s capable of. But he remains quite raw in all facets, and given an uninspiring defensive projection he’s going to need the bat to carry him if he’s going to develop into a Major League regular. The bloodlines and raw bat-to-ball ability certainly give cause for optimism, but the wild ways aren’t typical of a hitter I generally feel comfortable betting on.