Acclaim is a fickle thing in the world of prospects. One good year could have a previous unknown garnering all sorts of attention, from lists of dark horses and "players to watch" to team top-10's and league top-100's. The opposite is, of course, also true—one bad year and a player previously proclaimed a future All-Star is dropped to the realms of the dreaded "PTBNL", from whence few have ever returned (with some exceptions. See: Ortiz, David). After all, in the minor leagues, everyone is unproven. A major leaguer with a good track record slumps, while a minor leaguer "hits a wall". The Sox farm system is, of course, not immune from this. And just as 2009 has seen some pleasant surprises, it has seen some disappointments as well. So, without further ado, and from the smallest to greatest drops, I give you the 5 worst cases.
5. Will Middlebrooks
Who he is: Considered the ultimate toolsy player from the 2007 draft, Will Middlebrooks came into the system with seemingly unlimited potential. Power potential was buried in his seemingly ideal body structure, he was already a good-fielding 3B with the ability to get better, and he seemed to only need some adjustments to his swing and to work on his plate approach.
What's wrong: In 209 rookie at bats, Middlebrooks put up an OPS of .666 with 73 strike outs in Lowell. Through 222 at bats this year, he's piled up 78 Ks and improved the OPS by all of .002. His pitch recognition and plate discipline don't seem to have improved much at all. His above-average speed hasn't translated to stolen bases (3/6), and his power hasn't exactly manifested itself (13 doubles, 1 triple, and 4 homers. .121 ISO).
Why there's hope: Monthly improvement. After a .504 OPS April and .518 May, Middlebrooks has managed a .850 June and then regressed to a .702 July. The power isn't really there, and he's still striking out plenty more than he's walking, but it's better than what he did to start the year and certainly better than '07.
4. Michael Almanzar
Who he is: If Middlebrooks was the ultimate toolsy player from the '07 draft, then Almanzar was his international free agent counterpart. Almanzar came in without much baseball experience as a significant project for the organization. If they could build him up, he could be an all-star. If not, he was likely a bust.
What's wrong: So far, it's not looking good. Almanzar put up good numbers as a rookie in the GCL against similarly inexperienced pitching, but fell apart as soon as he hit A-ball. The trend has continued, as Michael could only manage a .554 OPS in 49 games before being demoted to Lowell, since which he's been even worse at .515. What's perhaps more troubling is the pace at which he accumulated errors when he first arrived in Lowell, suggesting he may be experiencing some sort of frustration-related issues. Almanzar has generally been slow to adjust to instruction so far, and if he can't do that, he's likely done.
Why there's hope: He's still 18. He's still just starting out in organized baseball. He's still got all the tools. That's all there is to it.
Who he is: If you're a Red Sox fan and you don't know, you must've been living in a cave. Lars came into the year almost universally regarded as the top Sox prospect and a top-50 if not top-25 prospect in the major leagues. A big-time lefty bat seen as the heir-apparent to David Ortiz with comparisons to Justin Morneau, Lars was THE Sox Prospect.
What went wrong: Well, 2009 just hasn't been his year. A .753 OPS in Portland after dominating the league in a 100-at bat 2008 stint. Lars just hasn't hit the ball enough or with enough power. 85 Ks, a .263 average and a .397 slugging making for a low Iso of .134 are not Lars Anderson numbers. The OBP is high, but not as high as usual.
Here's why. Oh, and something I forgot to mention there: His BABIP is certainly pretty good right now, but it's not in line with his impressive career averages thus far—likely more a symptom than a cause of the low power numbers, but not completely worth ignoring.
2. Oscar Tejeda
Who he is: Once considered the future SS of the Sox for those who didn't particularly like Jed Lowrie, Oscar Tejeda has fallen off the map like few others have. Considered an advanced shortstop both offensively and defensively, Tejeda put up fair numbers in his 267 rookie at bats.
What went wrong: Perhaps Tejeda is just a victim of overhype. Julio Lugo sent a lot of people looking for saviors, and those who didn't see it in the seemingly solid-but-dull Jed Lowrie went looking for a superstar in the rough and found Tejeda. Whatever the reason, the expectations have proved way above his head. Tejeda is currently following up a .647 OPS in 2008 with a .659 OPS in 2009, and he's doing it with a Lugo-like fielding performance with 21 errors in 70 games. His speed is counteracted by apparently horrible baserunning skills as evidenced by a 16% success rate, and while his K:BB rate is not so bad as some other players (2.75) it's certainly not good. Tejeda's slugging a paltry .337 with a laughable Iso of .080. Basically, as of now, he's doing nothing right.
Why there's hope: Much like Almanzar, Tejeda has age on his side. At 19, he's got time to work out the kinks. The problem is that there's a lot of them to work through. For what it's worth, he's struggled with his health for the last year, which could be a mitigating circumstance.
1. Kris Johnson
Who he is: A former first round pick, Kris Johnson has done anything but live up to the potential. After establishing himself early with a 0.88 ERA in 13 rookie starts, Johnson's career has been something of a roller coaster. Johnson had a poor campaign in 2007, with an ERA of 5.56, but that seemed to be written off as a Lancaster aberration after a return-to-form in 2008, when he managed a 3.63 ERA in Portland.
What went wrong: Everything. Kris Johnson has been plagued his whole career with walks. In '07 and '08, Johnson's K:BB ratio didn't exceed 2. In 2009, it's been even worse, at 1.65. Johnson has wilted especially in disadvantageous positions, performing very poorly in at bats when he gets behind, and with runners on. All this combines for a 6.37 ERA, and one of the biggest disappearing acts this side of Bartolo Colon.
Why there's hope: It's hard to say there is. Johnson walks a lot of guys. He doesn't strike out nearly enough to make up for it. He gets flustered, has middling stuff, and can't seem to go any significant distance as a starter. If there is hope, it's that he's got a future in the bullpen. But generally speaking, don't be expecting to see Kris Johnson coming to a rotation near you any time soon.
There are some dishonorable mentions who managed to avoid making the greater part of the list. Jason Place seems to be cementing his place as another 1st-round bust, but hasn't really been particularly bad—just not good enough. Combine that with a promotion to Portland and a low-stock to begin with, and he stays down here. Che-Hsuan Lin has powered his way back from a gigantic early slump to the point where his numbers aren't bad even with bad luck. And Middlebrooks just barely topped teammate Pete Hissey thanks to the former's bigger hype.
But if this list has you down (which it shouldn't, really), don't worry. As I said, the opposite is true. The Sox system is littered with rising stars and former disappointments that have started to impress. Next week, I'll look at some of the top surprise players in the system.