Tag Archives: Mike Montgomery

The Curious Case of Steven Souza

26 Sep

Prior to the 2015 season, Baseball America rated Steven Souza — a 25-year-oldĀ  outfielder in the Washington Nationals system — as the No. 37 prospect in all of baseball. Souza was drafted in the 3rd round by the Nationals out of high school in 2007 and struggled in his first couple of years in professional baseball.

Souza hovered around a .700 OPS from 2007-2010 in Rookie, A- and A ball, culminating in 2.5 seasons with Hagerstown in the South Atlantic League. He struck out in nearly 25 percent of his plate appearances in that time and hit just 26 home runs (in over 1,300 plate appearances).

His value during those seasons lied mostly in his surprising basestealing ability for his size (69 stolen bases over those four years) and his walk rate (around 10 percent). As Souza progressed (slowly) through the minor leagues, he started to get on base more and hit more home runs. Unfortunately, though, he continued to strike out at an alarming rate.

Then, in 2014, across A+, AA and AAA, Souza slashed .345/.427/1.004 and hit 18 home runs (with 28 steals) to earn a much deserved September call-up to the Nationals, in which he struggled mightily over his 26 plate appearances in the big leagues

Still, his incredible play that year in the minors maintained his value and Washington sold high on him that December, sending him to the Rays in the many-player deal that shipped Trea Turner and Joe Ross from the Padres to the Nationals and Wil Myers to San Diego from Tampa, among other parts.

In that deal, Washington essentially dealt Souza for Turner and Ross, who have already turned into valuable pieces for the Nationals. The Padres got former top prospect Myers, who — besides injury problems that have followed him his entire pro career — has shown signs of the potential that convinced Tampa Bay to send James Shields and Wade Davis in a package centered around Myers.

At the time, the Souza trade was viewed as a great one for the Nationals, who turned a high-strikeout, older prospect into two younger pieces that more fit the traditional high-upside mold. However, it was viewed as a bit of a confusing one for both San Diego and Tampa Bay but now, almost two years later, it’s the Rays that have been the clear loser in the swap.

Turner, who has since been transitioned from a shortstop into a center fielder by Washington, has posted an OPS of .917 this season in almost 300 plate appearances and has shown flashes of defensive greatness. But, his major tool is his bat which never profiled for much power in the minors but has exploded in the majors (.225 ISO in 2016). Oh, and he also steals a ton of bases. Ross has struggled with injuries but has posted 3.4 WAR in under 200 innings over the past two seasons.

After limping through an injury-filled 2015 campaign, his first in San Diego, Myers broke out this year, hitting 28 home runs, stealing 27 bases and posting over 2.5 WAR. The Padres have, to minimize his injury risk, made him a first baseman which limits his positional value but should keep him healthier for a longer period of time. Both Washington and San Diego have, from that trade, obtained key franchise cornerstones. Tampa Bay, well, hasn’t.

Unfortunately, Tampa Bay expected Souza to be a bigger corner outfielder version of Turner, but it just hasn’t panned out that way for him or the team. The power has come in waves (career .171 ISO) but the inability to make consistent contact has dragged his OPS+ below the league average of 100.

Alarmingly, the strikeout rate has gone up to around 34 percent through his abbreviated MLB career. Had Souza not suffered a season-ending hip injury that has prevented him from qualifying for Fangraphs’ leaderboards, he’d lead the league in strikeout rate, with one higher than that of Chris Davis, Chris Carter and Justin Upton, to name a few players. To boot, his once-stellar walk rate plummeted from 10.8 percent in 2015 to under 7 percent in 2016. The Rays probably could deal with Souza’s strikeouts if they came with a decent amount of walks. 6.6 percent wouldn’t qualify as “decent.”

Injuries have played a major role in Souza being a relative disappointment for Tampa Bay, but his weaknesses in the minors should have been glaring red flags for what has happened so far in the majors. Players that have trouble avoiding strikeouts against AA and AAA pitching likely are going to have the same problem when they face the likes of Chris Sale or Noah Syndergaard.

Why the Rays viewed Souza as a higher upside option than Myers is unknown. Maybe they thought Myers’ injuries were never going to stop nagging him, or that Souza’s plate discipline would improve. Regardless, right now it looks like Tampa Bay made the wrong move, as the guy the Rays have is out for the rest of the season with a hip ailment — which could lead to a position change, much like Myers’ — while the Padres’ end of the deal is finishing up a very impressive first full campaign.

There are a multitude of reasons as to why Tampa Bay is stuck in what seems like a perpetual rebuilding phase. The lackluster fan base — partially owing to the political mess surrounding Tropicana Field, and the ballpark itself — is one explanation but another is trades like the Souza one.

For small- and mid-market teams, highly valued prospects and homegrown stars are worth their weight in gold. Tampa Bay turned (then) star James Shields and top prospect Wade Davis into prospects Myers, Mike Montgomery and Jake Odorizzi. Myers was traded for Souza and Montgomery was traded for the replacement-level Erasmo Ramirez after having run prevention issues with AAA Durham, while Odorizzi has stayed with the Rays and improved over the past three seasons.

To recap, all the Rays have gotten for an All-Star pitcher and the (pre-2010) No. 34 prospect in MLB are a right fielder with hip and strikeout issues, a starter with a 102 ERA+ in two seasons and Odorizzi. If a team like the Rays is going to try and sell high on a superstar — and package a highly touted starter-turned-reliever into a horde of prospect talent — it better work. When it doesn’t, it can set an organization back for years.