Scouting in baseball is far from an exact science, especially when it comes to evaluating prospects prior to the MLB Draft. That’s even more so the case when it comes to players coming out of high school. Scouts have to see raw tools and assess how they will develop moving forward. One of the craziest things is that evaluators have to get a handle not just the actual ability of the players, like their bat speed and athleticism for a position player and their fastball and breaking ball for a pitcher, but their projection.
What is projection? It’s how lean they are, how much weight they will gain as they fill out their body, and how that will affect the rest of their game. For pitchers, projectability is what determines how much velocity they’re going to add on their fastball- a lean prospect with a fastball that ranges from 90-94 MPH might be deemed a better prospect one who’s in the 93-94 MPH range consistently but is maxed on physically even if their breaking pitches are exactly the same because the former pitcher is more projectable. The problem with projectability, though, is that you can never be sure exactly how a player will mature physically- some will remain lean while others bulk up considerably- and sometimes that extra velocity simply never comes. That was exactly what happened with Jason McEachern, who the Rays released on Friday as the projection they thought he had simply never panned out.
McEachern, 22, was a 13th round pick by the Rays in 2008 out of St. Stephens High School in North Carolina, signing for $90,000. His fastball fluctuated between the mid-to-high-80′s and he never was much of a prospect at all until the tail end of his draft year, but the Rays saw projection in him at 6’2″, 160, and decided to take a flier on him. They quickly began to look smart. McEachern managed a 1.80 ERA in 25 innings at Rookie Ball in his pro debut, standing out for good polish and some promise with his curveball and changeup and the velocity the Rays hoped was coming made him an interesting sleeper prospect. That was even more the case when McEachern kept his strong performance up between Short Season-A and Low-A in 2009, managing a 2.35 ERA and a 62-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 72.2 IP.
The Rays were interested to see what McEachern as he made his full season debut at Low-A Bowling Green in 2010. But instead of continuing his strong pitching as his velocity came along, McEachern’s stuff just didn’t cut it against Low-A hitters as he managed just a 5.68 ERA with a 7.1 K/9, a 4.5 BB/9, and a 1.4 HR/9 in 120.1 innings pitched. McEachern only turned 20 years old that September, so the Rays were content to keep waiting on McEachern and for that velocity spurt to come. However, McEachern split 2011 between Short Season-A and Low-A again as that once again failed to materialize and a move to the bullpen didn’t help matters much either. In 2012 for Bowling Green, McEachern managed a 2.80 ERA and a 10.3 K/9 but also a 4.6 BB/9 and more importantly mediocre stuff that still had not come along. In four and a half minor league seasons, McEachern still could not get past Low-A and his arsenal, despite how effective it might be me if he ever added fastball velocity, simply wasn’t good enough for him to keep going. With his career going nowhere, the Rays released McEachern, watching a once-promising career come to a sorry end.
The Rays had nothing to lose with Jason McEachern- he was an unheralded draft pick and the odds of him contributing for the major leagues someday were very long from the start. The Rays looked for upside and thought they found it in McEachern’s projectability, and they were wrong. What did the Rays lose? Almost nothing, only McEachern’s signing bonus, and in baseball terms that’s negligible. He was worth a shot from the start, and for all the Rays know, maybe the next projectable pitcher they sign actually will add velocity and morph into an impressive prospect and a possible big league contributor. In McEachern’s case, though, it didn’t happen and that’s something we can learn from.
How McEachern’s career played out can teach us a few interesting things. The first is that results in the low minor leagues mean almost nothing- it’s all about the players’ talent level, and if they’re not good enough their careers will stall at higher levels. That’s especially the case with a player drafted in a late round of the MLB Draft- maybe they could turn out to be a steal and vastly exceed expectations, but you need a lot more than numbers at Short Season Ball to conclude that. What McEachern perfectly exemplifies, though, is that you can’t look at a players’ height and weight or even how skinny he is and make any assumptions about projectability- every person is different, and anything can happen. There are so many different ways a pitching prospect can fail, and especially for high school products, failing to live up to their projectability is right at the forefront.