4 months ago, before the 2009 season started, the position of top Red Sox prospect was reserved for Lars Anderson. Clay Buchholz graduated following his half-season in 2008, Michael Bowden was considered a mid-rotation starter, and Daniel Bard could not threaten the top spot as a bullpen arm. Lars Anderson sat undisputed at #1.
Today, it's not so clear that he is deserving of that distinction, as Lars has dropped to #2 in the SoxProspects.com rankings. To be fair to Lars, a big part of this drop is Casey Kelly's outstanding showing on the mound, but Anderson's offensive slump cannot simply be ignored. He dominated Portland in 133 at bats after his promotion from Lancaster last year, putting up a line of .317/.408/.513. But so far in 2009 he's batting a much less impressive .272/.366/.413.
The reaction from scouts has not been positive, with some calling him alternatively "overrated" and "unathletic". And if their reaction has been somewhat overly quick, than the reaction of some fans has been downright alarmist, with every line of "0-4, K" damning him more in their minds as a non-prospect. While there is certainly some reason to worry, this seems like a dramatic overreaction from the baseball community at large. It seems like everyone is ignoring the actual scenario that's taking place and simply looking at Lars like he's David Ortiz dropping off the face of the earth for the first 2 months of the season. As much as it is legitimate to be concerned for Lars as you would any prospect having a down year, there are more reasons to write this season off.
1. Lars was just promoted.
Last year, Lars showed up to AA and dominated. It was a pleasant surprise that he seemed largely unaffected by the third hardest change in baseball level within the minor leagues, especially given that he was leaving one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the majors. Having been given an offseason to cool down off a great hot streak, it's not entirely surprising that Lars is now showing some signs of needing to adjust. It happens to almost all prospects. It looked like Lars might be immune last year, but the fact that he was not should not exactly hurt his stock.
2. Our expectations power-wise were too high.
I've seen a number of comments on how Lars has "only" 8 home runs so far this season, and how this is a reason to worry. But looking back at his past years, it's hard to figure out why people think he should have more.
2007: 11 home runs in 493 at bats
2008: 18 home runs in 439 at bats (playing in Lancaster)
2009: 8 home runs in 298 at bats
Certainly his ABs/HR has gone up by about 16%, but Lancaster has been known to wreck havoc on those numbers, so it's not all that hard to consider Lars just about on pace to match his typical home run numbers. If there's a problem, it's in a lack of doubles, which can be attributed to a variety of issues. For instance...
3. Anderson was injured.
Early in the year, Anderson suffered a back injury, which can certainly lead to a decline in power, and lead some scouts to call him "stiff and unathletic" if seen in short samples. But Lars is 21, and is not about to be felled by a relatively minor injury. Given time, the injury will almost certainly disappear completely and leave Lars as good as new.
4. He's 21
He's a high-school kid who never once struggled with the transition to professional baseball. Lars has put himself in such a position that he's able to have a slump in the minors—an experience some consider necessary to success in the majors—without putting him behind on typical development timetables. If he puts himself in a position to get to Pawtucket in the second half of 2010, then his ETA has likely only been pushed back about half a year. And Pawtucket in 2010 isn't exactly an unlikely scenarion, for the simple fact that...
5. He's getting better.
April: .293/.341/.453, 6 BB : 15 K
May: .194/.318/.376, 16 BB : 28 K
June: .298/.404/.405, 15 BB : 23 K
July: .348/.434/.435, 7 BB : 11 K
So don't go writing off Lars Anderson just yet. He was a 1st round sort of talent (God love signability issues) who has shown he has power with the potential for more, is considered to have excellent plate discipline, and is just an all-around great hitter. This season—particularly April and May—is a blip. They happen to everyone. The Lars that some scouts are bashing now hasn't changed from the one they praised in '06. Give him a year or two, and he'll be smacking balls off the Green Monster just like we always thought he would.