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Let’s Talk About A.J. Reed

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The former Kentucky Wildcat has been one of the PCL’s most formidable power bats for three years running. Why has he fallen almost completely off of the prospect radar?

A.J. Reed is frozen in time.

It was an exciting moment when the Astros snared A.J. Reed with the first pick of the 2nd round in 2014- the slugger had just dominated the SEC with both his bat and arm en route to a runaway Golden Spikes Award, which puts him between Kris Bryant and Andrew Benintendi chronologically. In the years following draft day, Reed’s rise continued. He carved up low minors pitching with his advanced approach and walloped 34 home runs in his first full pro season, earning him unanimous top-100 prospect status. His star only rose into 2016, where he continued to mash, now at Triple-A, eventually earning a call-up to the big league club. His 2016 tenure with the Astros more or less single-handedly obliterated Reed’s prospect stock. He had doubters all the way up the ladder, and their fears were confirmed when Reed and his slow bat stumbled to a .164/.270/.262 line in 141 PAs. His 34% K rate was dismal and what was even more concerning was his total lack of in-game power. He managed just 3 home runs and a .098 ISO with the big club, and has accumulated just 9 major league plate appearances since.

In a vacuum, Reed’s run in Houston would’ve been little more than a stumbling block, such as Kyle Tucker’s 2018 promotion, but given Reed’s scouting profile it was cause for more significant alarm. Major league projections of Reed always carried one major red flag- his bat speed. While he could handle upper-80s college heat with ease and was able to limit strikeouts in the lower minors thanks to his discerning eye and pitch recognition, his ability to make consistent contact- and consistent hard contact- deteriorated as he reached Triple-A and the major leagues. After posting monumental BABIPs in High-A and Double-A (.385 and .383), evidencing hard contact, his BABIPs at Triple-A have trended down into the upper .200s the last two years.

While Reed was on the rise, most optimists projected his major league upside as similar to his Triple-A numbers- a .250-.260 average, 30+ homers consistently, and a double-digit walk rate that bolstered his OBP, something like a more rotund Rhys Hoskins. Unfortunately, that profile has only materialized in Fresno, and Reed has shown only marginal improvements on his initial Triple-A run in 2016 since that time. The jump from Double-A to Triple-A tends to be a fairly incidental one for most prospects, but it hit Reed like a load of bricks, and one he hasn’t been able to get out from under. When a player displays a nearly identical profile three years in a row at a single level, it becomes harder to project improvements from simple adjustments. In Reed’s case, I believe it points to deficient bat speed, which is unfortunately more or less impossible to remedy. Even to those who don’t find themselves watching a player’s swing often, Reed’s bat speed immediately stands out as below average, and his statistical profile tells the same story.

At this point, I can’t project Reed as a major league contributor without a significant change in his profile, like a successful swing change (not something I like to bet on). Reed has outstanding mental game and an elite approach, but doesn’t seem to be able to make consistent hard contact against premium velocity. While the late-career breakout of Tyler White might give some Astros fans hope for a similar step forward out of Reed, White did not struggle with the same bat speed or contact rate issue that Reed has. Although I was a big supporter of Reed in his initial rise up the ladder, I have more or less thrown in the towel on him contributing to Astros teams in the future. To me, the best way for the Astros to get value from Reed at this point is to keep him in Triple-A again next season and hope to use him as a second or third piece in a trade, a la Jerry Sands, and after drafting Seth Beer in the first round in 2018, I’m guessing that the Astros feel the same. Reed’s case is one to keep in mind when projecting stat sheet dynamos out of college- a common Astros draft archetype.