When Julio Teheran was in Triple-A, one of the biggest questions was whether his breaking ball would ever be consistent.
“His breaking ball is inconsistent, which will make him a two-pitch pitcher in some games. Pitch-to-pitch the breaking ball in inconsistent. He’ll fire three or four in a row that are pretty good, then lose it for an inning or two,” a scout said in 2011.
Three years later, Teheran’s curveball was ranked the third best in the National League by National League managers. While Teheran was picked as having best fastball in the Braves’ farm system three times and the best changeup twice, his breaking ball and his command were the two biggest questions facing him.
Teheran’s situation is a reminder that player development does not end when a player reaches the major leagues. Teheran’s teammate Craig Kimbrel, voted the best reliever and the best slider in the National League, might be an even better example. As a minor leaguer, Kimbrel’s control was frighteningly poor at times, especially when you consider those misguided pitches batters were dodging were 95-plus mph fastballs.
Kimbrel walked 39 in 40 innings in 2009 in stops at high Class A, Double-A and Triple-A, then walked 51 in 76 innings the next season in Triple-A and the big leagues. But two years later, he walked only 14 in 63 big league innings while striking out 114. His well below-average control is now above-average.
With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the best tools winners in the American and National League and how they fared in those categories when they were in the minor leagues.
National League Best Hitter
Troy Tulowitzki, ss, Rockies
What We Said Then: “Tulowitzki has inner confidence that allowed him to open his first full pro season at Double-A Tulsa and finish it in the big leagues, never looking overmatched. He has legitimate power, but what’s most impressive is he understands the need to use entire field and can drive the ball to right-center as easily as left-center. At times, Tulowitzki can get too aggressive at the plate. He’ll chase fastballs up in the zone and breaking balls in the dirt, though he improved as 2006 wore on.”
Looking Back: Tulowitzki never won a best hitter award for the Rockies or any league he was in coming through the minors. He was viewed as a potential 30-home run hitter, but his hit tool was less developed at the time. He never hit .300 in a season in the minors, and didn’t hit .300 in the majors until his fifth big league season. He’s hit .300 or better in five of the past six seasons.
Minor League/Team Best Hitter Wins: 0.
National League Best Power
Giancarlo Stanton, of, Marlins
What We Said Then: “Stanton’s power numbers predictably dropped off in the thick Florida air, but he again showed regular flashes of light-tower power. He has the ability to stay back on breaking balls and take them the other way with authority. He has a flat swing and keeps the barrel in the zone for a long time. His performance only brought more comparisons to a young Dave Winfield, while some liken his skill set to that of Jayson Werth or Jermaine Dye.”
Looking Back: Stanton was the Marlins’ best power hitter for three straight seasons as he rose through the minors and he was named the best power hitter for every minor league where he saw significant time (South Atlantic, Florida State and twice for the Southern League). He was considered to have some of the best power in the minors in years, and has carried that same reputation to the big leagues.
Minor League/Team Best Power Wins: 7.
National League Fastest Baserunner
Billy Hamilton, of, Reds
What We Said Then:“Every scouting report ever written about Hamilton has to start with his speed. There may be current players who can run a faster 60-yard dash, but no one is faster on a diamond. He turns in hard-to-comprehend 3.35-3.4 second times to first base on bunts from the left side. His aggressiveness makes his speed play up, if that’s even possible. His ability to turn routine plays into nail-biters forces infielders to hurry, and he’s a threat to take an extra base on any ball to the outfield.”
Looking Back: As you would expect, speed is a tool you have, or you don’t. So it’s not surprising that Hamilton’s speed was obvious from day one.
Minor League/Team Fastest Baserunner Wins: 6.
National League Best Fastball
Aroldis Chapman, lhp, Reds
What We Said Then: “Any discussion about Chapman begins with his fastball. It’s a freak of nature, arguably the hottest heater ever seen. The 20-80 scouting scale fails to fully encapsulate the pitch, because at its best it’s 7-8 mph harder than an 80 fastball. He sits at 99-100 mph and touches 103-105 as a reliever.”
Looking Back: Like speed, velocity is something a pitcher either has or doesn’t. Chapman arrived in the United States with one of the best fastballs any scout had seen, and it only got better as a pro. His minor league/team best fastball honors are limited because he spent only one year in the minors–he won both the Reds and the International League Best Tools categories in the only year he was eligible.
Minor League/Team Best Fastball Wins: 2.
National League Best Curveball
Adam Wainwright, rhp, Cardinals
What We Said Then: “The Cardinals were impressed with Wainwright in spring training last year, the only time he really showed his full arsenal: a 92-93 mph fastball, a curveball with good rotation and a solid changeup. The curve may be his best pitch.”
Looking Back: Wainwright’s curveball has been considered the NL gold standard for several years–he’s won the category three times since 2010. But when he was coming up through the minors, it wasn’t nearly as consistent as it is nowadays. When he first joined the Braves as a teenager, his changeup was considered more advanced than his curve and when he reached Triple-A he used both a curveball and a slider before junking the slider a few years into his big league career.
Minor League/Team Best Curveball Wins: 2.
National League Best Slider
Craig Kimbrel, rhp, Braves
What We Said Then: “Kimbrel also throws an above-average breaking ball that he calls a curveball but looks more like a slider.”
Looking Back: Kimbrel’s breaking ball has been described as a slider and knuckle curve by Pitch FX over the years, but National League managers have always seen it as a slider—it’s a hard, 85 mph bender with a sharp, late break. But when he was in the minors, his slider flashed plus but too often became slurvy with less bite. A big problem was Kimbrel’s control and delivery were much less refined at the time, so while he had the same blow-you-away fastball he has today, he wasn’t nearly as consistent with his breaking ball. Now, he’s had the NL’s best slider each of the past three years.
Minor League/Team Best Slider Wins: 0.
National League Best Changeup
Cole Hamels, lhp, Phillies
What We Said Then: “Hamels’ best pitch might be his plus-plus changeup, which was neck-and-neck with Ryan Madson‘s as the best in the organization and possibly the minors. Hamels displays exceptional control of his changeup at such a young age, and it drops and fades away from hitters.”
Looking Back: Hamels’ changeup was described as major league caliber when he was still in high school. He’s always had an excellent changeup, one that has been named the NL’s best each of the past four seasons.
Minor League/Team Best Changeup Wins: 2.
National League Best Control
Adam Wainwright, rhp, Cardinals
Looking Back: Control is often the last skill to develop for pitchers, as they have to grow into their bodies, master their deliveries and only then are ready to start repeating consistently enough to find the strike zone regularly. As a 6-foot-7 righthander, that was especially true with Wainwright. While he never had awful control in the minors, he didn’t consistently hit his spots like he has as a major league veteran. Wainwright’s 2.28 walks per nine in the big leagues is a half-walk better per nine innings than his minor league numbers.
Minor League/Team Best Control Wins: 0.
National League Best Defensive Catcher
Yadier Molina, c, Cardinals
What We Said Then: “Molina, the brother of Angels catchers Benji and Jose Molina, handled a strong pitching staff that led the Midwest League in ERA. Molina has the catch-and-throw skills to join his brothers in the big leagues. He receives, throws and blocks the ball well, and he handles pitchers well for his age. He threw out 52 percent (49 of 94) of basestealers and turned nine double plays, showing the strength of his arm.” (Cardinals No. 10 Prospect 2003 Scouting Report)
Looking Back: Molina was considered a defensive wiz from the day he signed with the Cardinals. He was considered the club’s best defensive catcher when he was still playing in the rookie-level Appalachian League and he’s lived up to that advanced billing ever since.
Minor League/Team Best Defensive Catcher Wins: 4.
National League Best Defensive Third Baseman
Nolan Arenado, 3b, Rockies
What We Said Then: “After the 2010 season, the Rockies expected Arenado to move to first base because he was such a defensive liability at the hot corner, with minimal range and no feel for the position. But he got in better shape, worked hard on his first-step quickness and has blossomed into a quality third baseman.” (Rockies No. 1 Prospect 2012 scouting report).
Looking Back: Arenado is an example of how diligent work can change a scouting report. In Class A in 2010, he looked completely overmatched at third base even if he had the organization’s best infield arm. But he lost 20 pounds that offseason, focused on improving his agility and through hard work turned himself into a defensive standout. It’s much more possible to make such improvements at second or third base than it is at shortstop, but Arenado’s improvement is a useful reminder that projection is never easy.
Minor League/Team Best Defensive Third Baseman Wins: 3.
American League Best Hitter
Miguel Cabrera, 1b, Tigers
What We Said Then: “For his age, Cabrera has an advanced approach at the plate. He has a great eye and a compact swing to go with plus power. He could contend for batting crowns and home run titles.” (Marlins No. 3 Prospect Before 2001 Season).
Looking Back: Cabrera’s hitting ability was legendary. He signed for a then-Venezuelan bonus record $1.9 million and was in the big leagues just four years after he signed. Cabrera was considered one of the top international prospects to come out of Venezuela in years, and has lived up to every expectation.
Minor League/Team Best Hitter Wins: 1
Jose Abreu, 1b, White Sox
What We Said Then:“Physically, Abreu fits right in with the Chicago’s recent string of all-star first basemen and DHs, from Frank Thomas in the 1990s to Paul Konerko, Jim Thome and Adam Dunn. He derives massive raw power from his physicality and strength, with strong hands and forearms and the ability to hit balls out to any part of the ballpark. He wowed team president Kenny Williams in a private workout with his feel for hitting, not just his pure power. He has a simple line-drive swing without too many moving parts, at least in his upper half. His swing lacks much of a trigger and his hands come from a dead start, but his bat stays in the hitting zone a long time, and he has the strength to compensate.” (White Sox No. 1 Prospect Before 2014 Season)
Looking Back: You don’t have to look back far to a time when Abreu wasn’t a big leaguer since he left Cuba only last year. Abreu broke Yoenis Cespedes’ single-season home run record in Cuba in 2010-11 and now, he’s leading the American League in home runs.
Minor League/Team Best Power Wins: 1.
Jarrod Dyson, of, Royals
What We Said Then: “Dyson is one of the fastest runners in baseball, with an explosive first step that serves him well on the bases and in center field. He stole nine bases in 10 attempts during his September callup with the Royals. A potential Gold Glove defender, he had 10 putouts in his eighth big league start, tying the franchise record held by Amos Otis and Carlos Beltran. And unlike many small, speedy outfielders, Dyson has solid arm strength.” (Royals No. 20 Prospect Before 2011 Season)
Looking Back: Dyson’s one of the rare cases of a speedster who grew into a useful hitter. Signed for only $5,000 as a 50th-round pick (the draft now only goes 40 rounds), he didn’t post a .300 slugging percentage until his third pro season, but he’s always been able to run.
Minor League/Team Fastest Baserunner Wins: 2.
Garrett Richards, rhp, Angels
What We Said Then: “Richards has a loose, quick arm, and scouts graded his fastball at 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale at its best. He hit 99 mph 16 times in one start, and reportedly touched 101 in the late innings against Tulsa.” (Texas League No. 3 Prospect in 2011).
Looking Back: Richards is one of those rare pitchers who just throws harder and harder. He battled some minor shoulder issues early in his minor league career. But once he put that behind him, his velocity got better.
Minor League/Team Best Fastball Wins: 1.
Dellin Betances, rhp, Yankees
What We Said Then: “His curveball is a sharp, power downer that some scouts rate as a 70 on the 20-80 scale, giving him two plus-plus pitches.” (Yankees No. 3 Prospect Before 2011 Season)
Looking Back: Betances ranked in the Yankees’ Top 30 Prospects list eight times before finally making it to the big leagues for good this year. His power curveball has always been his second best pitch behind his fastball, but improvements to his delivery helped him locate it more consistently this year.
Minor League/Team Best Curveball Wins: 1.
Felix Hernandez, rhp, Mariners
What He Said Then: “Observers also praised Hernandez’ changeup, which was nonexistent early in the season but showed signs of becoming a plus pitch.” (California League No. 1 Prospect in 2004).
Looking Back: Remember the need to continue to improve as a big leaguer? Hernandez is another great example. When he reached the big leagues, Hernandez’s fastball, curveball and sliders were his weapons and his changeup was a promising pitch but clearly his fourth best option. Hernandez was named the American League’s best slider in 2009 and 2010. His changeup has gotten better and better to the point that it’s a shutdown weapon now which has made up for any loss in fastball velocity.
Minor League/Team Best Changeup Wins: 0.
David Price, lhp, Rays/Tigers
What We Said Then: “Price has good control and only needs to fine-tune his command and mix in his changeup more effectively to become a true No. 1 starter.” (Southern League’s No. 2 Prospect in 2008)
Looking Back: Price’s fastball and slider were considered so good that his control was good enough, but not really a standout attribute as he rocketed through the minor leagues. But like Wainwright, Price’s control has been significantly better as a big leaguer. He walked 3.15 per nine innings in the minors, but only 2.41 per nine innings as a big leaguer.
Minor League/Team Best Control Wins: 0.
Best Defensive Shortstop
Alcides Escobar, ss, Royals
What We Said Then: “Escobar makes playing shortstop look easy. He gobbles up ground with long strides, getting to balls that other shortstops can’t come close to reaching. He has a true shortstop’s arm, making strong, accurate throws even while on the move. He has soft hands, a good feel for the position and long arms that allow him to scoop up balls that initially appear beyond his grasp.” (Brewers No. 1 Prospect Before 2009 Season)
Looking Back: There was never a question about Escobar’s defensive wizardry. He was named the Brewers’ best defensive infielder for five straight seasons in the minors and he won the best defensive shortstop honors in pretty much every minor league. There were always more concerns about his bat, but he’s proven capable of hitting well enough to let his defense play. While third basemen and second basemen can grow into the role, excellent shortstops generally always excelled defensively. Escobar was consistently voted his club’s best defensive infielder, as was Andrelton Simmons, the NL’s best defensive shortstop. The top three best defensive shortstops in both leagues all won their team’s best defensive infield honors as they were climbing through the minors.
Minor League/Team Best Defensive Shortstop/Infield Wins: 9.