Phillip Ervin and Aristides Aquino entered the Cincinnati Reds' organization in very different ways.
Ervin was the Reds' first round selection in 2013, getting plucked from Samford University with the 27th overall pick and signing for over $1.8 million. Aquino had been added two years earlier, signing as a non-drafted 17-year old free agent out of the Dominican Republic and playing his first two years of pro ball in the Dominican Summer League.
It's now halfway through the 2016 season, and the two players find themselves in very similar positions. They're both outfielders, and bring to the table a broad set of tools that excite many scouts who watch them play, as well as inconsistencies at the plate that will leave those same scouts scratching their heads. Their paths could be crossing very soon, something that could bode very well for one prospect and serve as a troubling sign for the other.
Aquino was always expected to be raw in his early years. As a teenager in the Dominican Republic, he'd shown impressive power and plus arm strength to go with a tall, lanky frame that was easy to dream on. With that power and arm, however, came a swing with multiple holes in it and the typical questions of how young international players will adapt to professional ball in the states.
But, his transition to U.S. rookie leagues is when he began to really take off. His second go-round in the Pioneer League, he OPS-ed .919 with 16 homers and 21 stolen bases in 26 attempts, all as a 20-year old. The performance landed Aquino inside of a few people's top ten prospect lists for the Reds, and led several scouts to start throwing Vladimir Guerrero's name around as a comparison to his skillset. In 2015, things dropped off catastrophically. The Reds gave him a shot in Dayton, where his OPS plummeted to .645, and his K/BB ratio rose to a hideous 4.8/1. With that, many opinions of him dropped off as well, as people considered whether he may be yet another projectable toolchest who was simply going to be allergic to first base.
In 2016, the Reds bumped Aquino up to Advanced-A Daytona, and half way through his first full year of pro ball, it appears to be a breakout year for him. His .852 OPS ranks second in the Florida State League, with his 12 home runs sitting at third. Home runs were never the point of concern for Aquino, however; it was plate discipline. And with that, Aquino has also shown noticeable strides.
He's slowly but surely cut down his strikeout percentage each year of his career, and this season is whiffing in a career-low 22% of at-bats. That's still a high number, but nowhere near the highest mark in the FSL, and a far cry from the 31% of the time he was fanned as a 17-year old in the DSL. He's also doubled his walk total from a year ago, and while that number is still low (a measly 7%), it's still a sign that improvements are coming along steadily for the 22-year old.
That can be credited in large part to some work Aquino put in with Daytona hitting coach Gookie Dawkins to fix his swing this season - namely, to stop Aquino from flying open as badly as he had been. Once the necessary adjustments were made, Aquino was able to not only hit the ball better, but give himself more of an opportunity to see each pitch, which prevented him from chasing as many bad ones.
It's this kind of game-changing adjustment that the Reds have been hoping to see from Ervin since his first struggles in Dayton in 2014.
Ervin was supposed to be a polished bat when he arrived in Billings after his first-round selection. He had a terrific K/BB ratio in his junior year at Samford, had a Cape Cod League MVP Award under his belt, and figured to advance quickly through the minors. His first sniff of pro ball reflected these traits, as he mashed rookie league pitching along with limited full-A experience to the tune of a .331/.425/.564 slash. The following spring, Baseball America ranked Ervin third behind Robert Stephenson and Billy Hamilton on its list of the Reds' top ten prospects.
With 2014 came a wrist injury, however, and Ervin simply hasn't been the same since. An entire year at Dayton netted just a .237/.305/.376 line with two fewer homers than 2013 despite more than triple the plate appearances. He was bumped up to Daytona in 2015, but the results hardly budged (.241/.346/.379).
Ervin will be 24 years old this week, and his crawl through the minors doesn't appear to be picking up anytime soon. His batting average still sits in the .230's, his slugging comfortably below .400. He's striking out in a career-worst 25% of his AB's, and his walks are down from last season. Aside from stolen bases (he has 25 in 30 attempts, the fifth most in the Southern League), Ervin appears to be headed toward another disappointing season at the plate. For context, Brandon Dixon, an almost immediately forgotten throw-in in the Todd Frazier trade, is just seven months older than Ervin, and is OPSing 21 points higher on the same team, even after a nightmarish month of June.
Ervin's tools haven't exactly changed during his time as a professional. They just haven't amounted to nearly as much as they were supposed to. His power is legitimate, but not a game-changer. His ability to get on base is less likely to rival Jesse Winker's than it might have been a couple years ago, and his speed just won't matter much if it's wasted on legs that are always standing in the dugout instead of running on the base paths. It's still a really good bet Ervin makes it to the big leagues. Just how long it takes him to get there, and how much of an impact he makes when he does arrive, are the much bigger questions.
There's going to be a considerable amount of shuffling and promoting that goes on in the Reds' minor leagues in the next couple of months. One of those promotions could very well involve suiting Aquino up in a Blue Wahoos uniform in the outfield next to Ervin. This is something that could strike many as a bit bittersweet. Before the 2014 season, if you'd been told Ervin and Aquino would be teammates in two years, the first thing you might wonder is who Aquino even is. Then you'd probably start asking what went wrong with Ervin.
Both have futures who are far from decided, and hopefully for everyone, both have successful ones. But for the moment, it seems that if Aquino and Ervin take the outfield together sometime this season, they'll be doing so on very different - and surprising - career trajectories.