Perspectives: Phillips No. 1 on list of sleeper prospects
Astros outfielder impressed with power, speed in breakout 2014 campaign
There's a good amount of subjectivity regarding baseball prospects. With the evaluation of talent being in the eye of the beholder, finding consensus is often difficult. Even Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo of MLBPipeline.com don't always see eye to eye. They discuss their viewpoints regularly in a feature called Pipeline Perspectives. Submit a topic for them to debate.
In 2012, the initial First-Year Player Draft with radically revamped rules stemming from the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Astros used the No. 1 overall pick on Carlos Correa. They didn't scrimp on talent -- Correa currently ranks No. 3 on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list -- but they did sign him for just $4.8 million, a savings of $2.4 million compared to the assigned value for the top selection.
By getting a discount on Correa, Houston had enough room in its bonus pool to splurge $2.5 million for right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. in the supplemental first round and $1.85 million on third baseman Rio Ruiz in the fourth. McCullers has one of the best arms in the Astros' system, while Ruiz was a key part of the trade package that netted Evan Gattis from the Braves last month.
Though McCullers and Ruiz were Houston's most expensive over-slot signings in 2012, they weren't the only significant one. In the sixth round, the Astros chose Brett Phillips, a Seminole (Fla.) High outfielder who had as much helium as any prospect in the final six weeks leading up to the Draft. It cost them $300,000 to lure him away from his commitment to North Carolina State.
Phillips still gets overshadowed in a deep Houston system, and his all-around tools and breakout 2014 season weren't quite enough to get him on the Top 100. His skills, performance and relative anonymity made him an easy choice for this week's Pipeline Perspective, in which Jonathan Mayo and I identify the best sleeper who missed making the list.
Jonathan tabbed the Mets' Gabriel Ynoa, a finesse right-hander whose control stands out more than his pure stuff. Ynoa doesn't miss enough bats, however, to crack my top five sleepers who could make a move into and up the Top 100 in 2015:
1. Phillips, OF, Astros
2. Ozhaino Albies, SS, Braves
3. Amed Rosario, SS, Mets
4. Spencer Adams, RHP, White Sox
5. Reynaldo Lopez, RHP, Nationals
(It pains me to exclude Jorge Mateo, SS, Yankees)
Phillips didn't exactly take pro ball by storm in his first two seasons, hitting a combined .247/.355/.348 without a home run in 95 games, mostly in Rookie ball. That changed in 2014, when he batted .310/.375/.529 with 17 homers and 23 steals between two Class A stops at age 20. Phillips led the Class A Midwest League with a .521 slugging percentage and the Astros named him their Minor League Player of the Year.
Phillips previously had flashed power in batting practice but not in games, during which he focused on making contact. He has added strength since signing, and he's learning to turn on more pitches and to add some loft to what had been a flat left-handed swing. Phillips has a quick bat and controls the strike zone reasonably well, so he could be a .270 hitter who produces 15 homers on an annual basis.
That kind of production would be enough to make Phillips an extremely valuable big leaguer. The best athlete in Houston's system, he showed his physicality and determination when he decided to join Seminole's football team on a whim as a senior. Phillips wound up earning all-county recognition as a linebacker/running back.
Phillips' best tool is his strong, accurate throwing arm, which earns 70 grades on the 20-80 scouting scale from evaluators. He topped the Midwest League with 14 assists in just 102 games while splitting time between center and right field. Phillips has the plus speed and the instincts to be a basestealer and a quality defender in center, and he is the Astros' best long-term hope at that position.
Phillips is still a couple of years away from the big leagues, however, and he's expected to return to Class A Advanced Lancaster to open 2015. The wind always seems to howl out at The Hangar and the California League favors offense as a whole, making Lancaster the best place to hit in the entire Minor Leagues. Phillips found it to his liking last August, when he batted .339/.421/.560 in 27 games with the JetHawks.
If he continues to improve at the plate and spends most of the season in Lancaster, Phillips will put up monster numbers in 2015. At that point, the question won't be if he makes the Top 100, but how high he can rank on the list.