Written by: Will Scharnagl (@WillScharnagl)
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It’s no secret that Minor League Baseball is by no means an even playing field. Hitting in the PCL in 2019 has essentially become using an on-fire Barry Bonds from MLB Slugfest 2003. Twelve of the sixteen teams in the league have an OPS over .800, and the average OPS currently sits at .833.
Then compare that to the Florida State League, which only has two teams with have an OPS over .700; the average OPS is .667. Because of this, the validity of basic stash lines has decreased significantly when evaluating prospects. Even league adjusted stats, such as wRC+, struggle to pinpoint and precisely assess a player’s performance because it is impossible to quantify the adjustments that must be made. For example, many power hitters will find themselves trying to overcompensate for the environment in order to maintain their power output. Combining this with increasingly advanced pitching causes their K% to skyrocket. Other prospects will also make notable improvements to their game but won’t see major improvements to their face-value stats, which causes their ‘breakout’ to fly under the radar. The player I’ll be discussing in this article fits the latter group. Hidden in the depths of the FSL is Jose Garcia, a shortstop prospect in the Cincinnati Reds’ organization, who I believe has the potential to be a star.
Before we dive too deep, I would just like to point out that I am (unfortunately) a Reds fan. I personally believe that I’m very good at remaining unbiased, and I actually tend to be fairly pessimistic about a lot of Reds’ prospects. Don’t worry: the numbers and comparisons you’ll read about below will speak for themselves. All of my opinions of Garcia are made from the viewpoint of a writer and an evaluator, not a Reds fan.
Now that I’ve cleared that up, let’s talk about Jose Garcia, one of the most underrated prospects in all of baseball.
First, some background information on Garcia: as has become somewhat of a popular tradition with the Reds, the 21-year-old hails from Cuba. He was part of their 2016 international signing class, where they spent about $17 million combined on Garcia ($5 million, you might remember him as Jose Israel Garcia), Alfredo Rodriguez ($7 million) and Vladimir Gutierrez ($4.75 million) alone, a rare splash for the Reds. Although Rodriguez has looked somewhat capable with the bat this season and Gutierrez was solid in A+ and AA before struggling this season in AAA, I would say Garcia has easily been the most successful of this group.
Garcia wasn’t too well-known when he signed (the class itself was headlined by Luis Robert and Kevin ‘Derek Jeter’ Maitan), due to being in Cuba and not playing much professionally. Evaluators and scouts who had seen Garcia labeled him as a plus athlete, a smooth-fielding shortstop and a line drive hitter with gap-to-gap power. He was also seen as a fairly advanced hitter for an international prospect; although he wasn’t considered to be anything special at the plate, he also wasn’t viewed as a possible liability.
Garcia received his first taste of full season ball in 2018, when he was sent to Low-A Dayton. He wasn’t horrible, but he clearly struggled a bit with the adjustment to American professional baseball. His .245/.290/.344 slash line was nothing to get excited about, he didn’t hit for much power at all, and his speed, thought to be his best attribute, didn’t show much as he was very inefficient on the bases (13 of 22 on stolen base attempts).
Follow me for a moment. The thing I really want to talk about here is how undervalued Garcia’s power potential is. For one, let me just address something that is clearly wrong. Garcia is listed at 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds. That seems like a fairly standard height for a shortstop and there’s nothing too special about that. But there’s no way he’s 6-foot-2. Let’s take a look at some pictures Garcia has posted on his Instagram. On the left, he’s posing with Cardinals pitching prospect Johan Oviedo, who’s listed 6-foot-6. In the middle, he’s posing with Reds prospect Michael Beltre, who stands at 6-foot-3. On the right, he’s with Dodgers infield prospect Miguel Vargas, who’s also 6-foot-3.
This obviously isn’t the most scientifically-sound analysis, but I think it’s fair to say Garcia is not 6-foot-2, and I’d argue that he’s more likely about 6-foot-4. This isn’t the biggest difference in the world, but a 6-foot-4 frame obviously has more potential to add muscle than a 6-foot-2 frame. Garcia is still quite skinny, so he could definitely afford to add some more strength as he continues to finalize his physical development. This also arguably makes his athleticism more impressive as well.
Now that we’ve cleared-up the disparity between his listed size and actual size, let’s dive into the main focus of this article: Jose Garcia’s breakout this season that has gone almost completely unnoticed. Let’s start with his slash lines; in 2018, as previously mentioned, he slashed .245/.290/.344 in Low-A Dayton. This season in High-A Daytona, he’s made significant improvements, slashing .280/.343/.436. Despite moving up a level, he also lowered his K% (21.7% to 18.4%) and raised his BB% (3.7% to 5.5%). When you factor in the environment of the FSL, which is extremely pitcher friendly, it makes these improvements even more impressive, as shown by his 50 point increase in wRC+ (81 to 131). He also improved his efficiency on the base paths, stealing 15 bases while only being caught twice (88.2% success rate after posting a 59.1% rate in 2018). This type of improvement from a player who received a $5 million signing bonus would usually signal a huge breakout. One might think he’d be skyrocketing up top prospect lists, yet Garcia’s 2019 campaign has barely been talked about.
While his overall improvement has been great, the 21-year-old found ways to get better as the season progressed. Outside of a slight hiccup in July, Garcia’s OPS has been steadily increasing. He even found a way to end the regular season with a bang, posting an OPS above .900 in his last 30 games (and over 1.000 for his last 15 games).
This upward trend can be traced partially to his FB%, as he’s seen more success as he hits the ball in the air more, but the main thing I’ve found is that Garcia is finding the most success while being aggressive and attacking the ball early in counts. His BB% recently has been very low (hovering around 5%), but his strikeout rate has also plummeted (it’s under 10% since the beginning of August). I worry a little bit if this aggression will be exploited by better pitching next season in the Southern League, but given how good he’s been recently at limiting his strikeouts, I’m not too worried.
As you dig deeper into Garcia’s stats, you begin to see that his breakout is no fluke either. While you won’t see it with a simple glance at his season stat line, Garcia’s biggest improvement has been his average fly ball distance, demonstrating power potential that he hadn’t previously shown. His average fly ball distance during the 2019 regular season was 304.4 ft, a 7.9% increase from his 281.1 ft mark last season. This increase was the 19th highest among minor leaguers under 25, and the 3rd highest in High-A. This is substantial. Garcia’s average fly ball distance is also 18th highest amongst all High-A hitters, with only MJ Melendez, Heliot Ramos, Sherten Apostel and Jarred Kelenic being younger out of the 17 ahead of him. Each of those prospects are widely considered to possess above average or plus raw power (the graph below and graphs above are courtesy of Minor Graphs).
His other batted ball data isn’t that of an elite power hitter, but none of them are reason for concern. His FB%, GB% and LD% are all about average, although he has improved all three since last season in the world of optimizing power. While I wouldn’t bank on him continuing to improve these numbers, simply maintaining these current rates shouldn’t be hamper his offensive potential at all.
His batted ball direction also points to a breakout in power. Earlier this year, P365 staff writer Mac Squibb published an article identifying prospects with power potential, and his main parameter was searching for players who rank highly in FB% and Pull% on fly balls. Garcia isn’t quite the extreme pull hitter that some of the players mentioned in the article are, but his 34.7 Pull% on FB and 35.8 FB% both point to the potential to be a solid power hitter.
Despite this multi-faceted growth, Garcia only hit 8 home runs this season. His HR/FB has only increased from 4.7% to 6.7%. For reference of how low that is, Dee Gordon’s HR/FB this season is 7.3%. It’s fair to assume that a factor of the shortstop’s microscopic HR/FB is simple misfortune, which, paired with hitting in the Florida State League, forms the perfect recipe to mask a power breakout. If Garcia had the luck (or the MLB ball) of a prospect like Ryan Mountcastle (similar FB distance, 17.5 Pull% on FB, 18.6% HR/FB), and was sitting in the 15-20 HR range for the season, people would be talking about him as one of the biggest risers in the prospect world. Instead, he hasn’t been talked about at all. In a way, it reminds me of the masked power breakout Dylan Carlson experienced last season in the same hitting environment.
I created this chart to give some context to Garcia’s numbers, comparing him to a variety of MLB shortstops, most of whom are former top prospects:
Obviously fly ball distance isn’t linear, and it isn’t guaranteed that Garcia keeps improving. But especially with the current state of the juiced ball at the big league level, it’s currently fairly difficult to predict the 21-year-old to not increase that number as he climbs the rungs of the minor league ladder. For the other players on that list, the average difference between their fly ball distance of their Age-21 season and their fly ball distance in 2019 was about 29 feet. While I’m not convinced Garcia improves that much, if he winds up in the 320-330 foot range, where his HR/FB would likely be somewhere between 17 and 25 percent, 25+ home run seasons are not outside the realm of possibility.
When you combine that hypothetical power potential with the fact Garcia is a great athlete and has the potential to be a plus defender at shortstop, you’re suddenly talking about a prospect who should either be included or on the cusp of top-100 prospect lists. Instead, Garcia is nowhere to be found on top-100, top-200 or top-400 lists. In terms of an MLB comp, I would say the upside resembles a faster version of Marcus Semien. In other words, a solid all-around shortstop who can put up a 20/20 season any given year.
To this point, Garcia has been ignored by the entire industry, currently ranking towards the tail-end of the top-10 in a relatively shallow Reds’ system on all major prospect websites. Let’s change that. I personally put together my end-of-season top-125 (real life) list recently, and I ranked Garcia 50th. I think I’ve presented my case for that ranking pretty well in this article. I don’t expect everyone to be as high on him as I am, but I really hope this article helps steer the discussion in the right direction, and people start giving Jose Garcia the respect he deserves.
Follow P365 contributor Will Scharnagl on Twitter! @WillScharnagl
Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365
Featured image courtesy of photographer Aldrin Capulong and MiLB.com