Fuck It, Let's Write About A.J. Reed
Who would have thought that the first post I wrote on this blog in nearly a year, and only the second in almost two years would be about A.J. Reed? It certainly wasn't me, and I'm surprised by it even as I type these words. I suppose the best way to explain what's happening here is that it's the All-Star break, I've got my work finished up elsewhere, and I'm just fucking bored.
So, yeah, A.J. Reed.
The Sox plucked him off waivers from the Astros on Monday as James and I were recording the latest episode of White Sox Business, and I wish I could say it came as a surprise. It didn't. The moment I saw the Astros had designated Reed my first thought was "that seems like the kind of guy the White Sox would take a shot on."
I mean, we saw Yonder Alonso all season long. We then saw Daniel Palka. And we've certainly seen the team take an approach where it seems to be willing to do anything in its power to make sure Zack Collins isn't getting the at bats, as he's undergoing some weird MLB Catching Internship where he shadows James McCann and learns from him.
Look at me, already rambling and getting off topic. It's like I never left this blog.
Anyway, A.J. Reed is worth a punt, even if I don't have high expectations for him. Reed was taken with the first pick of the 2nd round of the 2014 MLB Draft. That was the year the Astros took Brady Aiken with the first pick, and the White Sox got Carlos Rodon at No. 3. Reed was a player out of college that fits a lot of the criteria the White Sox look for in their draft picks right now. He won the Golden Spikes Award easily in 2014, a year after Kris Bryant did it at San Diego, and a year before Andrew Benintendi did so at Arkansas. He had a bat and the numbers in the SEC that project well for future MLB success. In 117 games at Kentucky, his slashed .309/.431/.629. His senior season he had an OPS of 1.211 with 23 home runs in 62 games.
After entering the Astros farm system, Reed hit the ground running.
In 2014 between low-A he slashed .289/.375/.522. In 2015 he made the jump to high-A and Double-A and hit .340/.432/.612. Those performances led to Reed being ranked as the No. 11 prospect in baseball by Baseball America in 2016 (MLB had him at 40, BP at 55).
But then Triple-A happened. Reed did well his first season there in 2016, hitting .291/.368/.556 over 70 games, posting a wRC+ of 142 with a strikeout rate of 22.6%. It earned him a taste of the bigs, where he struggled in 141 plate appearances, hitting .164/.270/.262 with a K rate of 34.0%. Not surprisingly, he began 2017 back in Triple-A, and he has never been able to rekindle that first season there. His average, OBP and slugging have dropped in each successive season, and his strikeout rate has increased. This season, before getting the boot, Reed was hitting .224/.329/.469 with a strikeout rate of 29.8%.
So what's the problem? I don't know, but after some research on Google, people who have paid attention believe that Reed's primary deficiency is a lack of bat speed. He has trouble dealing with high velocity. While there's plenty of velocity in the lower levels of the minors, there's rarely any command of it. That command tends to increase as you climb the ladder, so while Reed can hit a hard fastball that's left in a bad place by a young pitcher, as he's come across more pitchers who not only have velocity but an understanding of where to place it, he's struggled.
The good news is that Reed's eye has not been affected. Aside from a 34-game stint in Single-A in 2014, he's never had a walk rate lower than 10.8% at any level of the minors. Even through his struggles this season he's walked 12.0% of the time, which has helped keep that OBP afloat even as his average plummets.
What's more alarming is that his groundball rate has spiked this season. It's sitting at 46.5% right now, and the previous high he had at any minor league level was 38.1% in high-A in 2015. Fangraphs doesn't have any data on the strength of his contact, but how hard you hit the ball doesn't matter nearly as much when you're hitting it on the ground. And that groundball rate has been a problem in his limited MLB experience (only 150 PA) where it is at 50.0%.
So what is it the White Sox see in Reed? Well, considering he's from the Astros organization, odds are Houston has not spared any attempts to figure out what works for Reed and help him get there. If there's anything reading Astroball and The MVP Machine teaches you it's that the Astros not only know what they're doing but how to utilize it to improve their players as well.
Still, it's possible that Reed is tinkering things this year in an effort to salvage his once mighty prospect hype and get back to the big leagues. It's also possible that an oblique injury has completely thrown his season off-course. He's been placed on the IL twice this season at Round Rock, once in April and once in May.
So maybe there's something there, maybe there isn't. Perhaps somebody in the White Sox organization has seen something they think they can address and possibly make a useful player out of Reed yet. Or maybe it's not going to work out, and Reed's bat was good enough to crush college and low-level minors pitching, but will never be able to handle what he'll see at the MLB level.
Whatever the case, it's worth a punt. I do expect we see Reed in Chicago at some point (UPDATE: Apparently Reed will join the team in Oakland on Friday). He'll start at Charlotte, but based on how they're treating him, I can't help but believe the White Sox would prefer to have Collins at Charlotte a little longer. You get the sense his promotion was more need-based than it was they felt he was ready, and if he's not going to get consistent playing time here, he may as well get it with the Knights.
Plus, Reed has one option year left. The Sox can call him up and send him down as often as they please this season. So I anticipate he gets an audition in Chicago at some point in 2019, and if it works out, awesome. He'll have a chance to earn a spot next season. If it doesn't, he joins the long line of players who didn't pan out.