Today I am bringing out a new feature on the website that I will bring out from time to time throughout the year. What I will do, is look at prospects (not always in a “versus” format) from the past and their development and how they turned out.

Both of these guys were prospects before my time. Well before my time actually. Still, it gets brought up at least once a season about how the Reds were unsure who to go with between Barry Larkin and Kurt Stillwell in the mid-to-late 80’s.

Background

Kurt Stillwell was the 2nd overall pick in the 1983 draft out of high school. He was considered a toolsy player with outstanding defense.

Barry Larkin was selected by the Reds with their 2nd round pick in 1982 out of Moeller High School, but he chose to head to Michigan to play college baseball. The Reds then selected Larkin 4th overall in the 1985 draft out of Michigan. He too was considered a very toolsy player, though he was thought to be more of a hitter than defender.

Minor Leagues

Kurt Stillwell made his debut in 1983 for Billings (they have been a Reds affiliate for a long time) and had a very strong debut as he hit .324/.418/.396 with 42 walks and 28 strikeouts. He showed outstanding plate discipline, but he also showed very little power. That isn’t surprising as he played his MLB career at just 5′ 11″ and 165 pounds and he likely was smaller at age 18. Defensively he posted an .875 fielding percentage.

The Reds sent Stillwell to the Midwest League in 1984 where he played for Cedar Rapids. He struggled at the plate a little bit, hitting .251/.365/.327 but again had more walks than strikeouts with 70 free passes and just 53 strikeouts. The lack of power once again showed up. He was still highly thought of though and his defensive fielding percentage improved to .941 with Cedar Rapids.

Despite a mediocre season, the Reds pushed Stillwell hard in 1985 as he skipped over advanced-A and double-A right to Denver and triple-A baseball. Stillwell was solid, hitting .264/.340/.363, with 21 walks and 23 strikeouts. Given his age, that is a pretty strong season for that level. However, he only played in 59 games as there was some sort of injury that caused him to missed a big chunk of the season. It was the last time he would spend a season in the minor leagues for 9 years. He stuck with the Reds as a 21 year old in 1986 where he hit .229/.309/.258 in 104 games. He posted a .951 fielding percentage for the Reds in 1986.

Barry Larkin made his professional debut in 1985 in the double-A Eastern League with Vermont. He hit .267/.331/.345 in his debut with 23 walks and 21 strikeouts over 72 games. He didn’t show much power, but showed good plate discipline and posted a .942 fielding percentage at shortstop.

The Reds send Larkin to Denver for the 1986 season and he caught fire in his first full season at the triple-A level. In 103 games he hit .329/.373/.525 with 31 doubles, 10 triples and 10 home runs to go along with 31 walks and 43 strikeouts.  He showed power, hitting ability and good plate discipline. He posted a .963 fielding percentage at shortstop as well. He made his debut with the Reds in the middle of August that season and hit .283/.320/.403 with 4 doubles, 3 triples and 3 more home runs over 41 games to finish out the season. He also posted a .972 fielding percentage with the big league club.

Making the decision

The Reds were heading into 1987 with both Stillwell and Larkin, “ready” for the Major Leagues and both of them with actual Major League time under their belts. Both guys were first round draft picks with money tied up in them. Both guys were considered toolsy players.

Kurt Stillwell had tools, and maybe he looked the part, but his performance was underwhelming. He hit well in Billings, but he never really hit for an average anywhere else up to that point and he showed no power at all anywhere.

Barry Larkin had the tools as well, and he also looked the part. The difference was, he has actually shown strong stats on top of his tools in the minor leagues and was a league average hitter in the Majors in his first taste of the Majors in 1986 (in limited playing time).

Ultimately the Reds made the right choice, shipping Stillwell off to Kansas City in 1988 and handing the job of shortstop over to Larkin full time that season. Still, looking back at things, I just can’t fathom how there was ever a real discussion about who was the future at the position. Obviously, I have hindsight that has a Hall of Famer and a guy who racked up 3500 career plate appearances as a below-average Major Leaguer, but the evidence was easy to see on who was more likely to be a good big leaguer between those two guys and it wasn’t really close. Larkin had the tools and he had the production, both in the upper minor leagues with a killer AAA season and more than holding his own in the big leagues his first season. Stillwell hadn’t really hit well since rookie ball and while he had some good tools, Larkin matched all of those tools and had one more, power, that he had already shown off in that 1986 season. It shouldn’t have ever been a conversation on who was “the guy” to keep and thankfully, the Reds did make the right decision.

21 Responses

  1. matchu522

    Seems like a no brainer now, but at the time there was considerable debate. I thought then that they should have kept both and let Ron Oester go. Prolly wouldn’t have made much difference one way or the other having Stillwell at 2B versus the likes of Oester, Bill Doran, and Juan Samuel before the Reds aquired Brett Boone in 1994.

    • Little Earl

      Reds were able to land Danny Jackson for Stillwell, a trade that wouldn’t have happened for Oester. Jackson was injured for much of 1990, but he pitched really well in the NLCS against the Pirates. I don’t believe they could have won the series without him. He also had that great 1988 season.

      • matchu522

        I forgot about them getting Jackson in that trade. I was just never much of a fan of Oester and saw this a chance to move him along.

    • Doug Gray

      It should have seemed like a no brainer then too. Stillwell hadn’t really hit since rookie ball. Yeah, he was young for where he was playing, but he was a guy with absolutely no power who hadn’t hit much for a few years. Larkin showed he could hit really well at AAA and had power.

      • matchu522

        I’m not disageeing with you that it should have seemed like a no brainer, but it was a much different baseball world then. 95% of people viewed the game the way Dusty Baker does. And I can’t help but wonder if the Reds stunted Stillwell’s growth a bit by rushing him like that. If it happened today there would be the subject of great debate.

    • Jimmer

      Mariano Duncan was a big piece in 90. Solid 2.2 WAR at 2B.

  2. DaveCT

    Still disappointed Ritchie Scheinblum didn’t pan out in the Stillwell trade … Didn’t we include Jeff montgomery in that deal, who became a pretty good closer? Saw Larkin, EDavis et al in the Eastern League a lot in those years via Waterbury, CT and then VT (or the other way round). great memories.

    • MK

      Richie Scheinblum? That was the 70s and included Hal McRae and Wayne Simpson and the Reds also got Roger Nelson.

  3. rgslone

    Yea, at the time there was a lot of debate about it. Everybody liked and thought both had a chance to be very good. People were scared that the wrong one woud be traded and become a good player somewhere else. So fans were always proposing ideas as to how to keep both (i.e., sharing the SS position for awhile, moving one to 2B, etc.). The Cozart vs. Gregorious situation was very reminiscent of the Stilwell vs. Larkin situation. I hope the Reds are right again.

  4. Ryan K

    Good article Doug, really enjoyed reading this and I am looking forward to more like this. I always like to read about how older players were thought of as prospects because it’s a different time now.

    A couple of things or typo’s. In 1986 in Denver, Barry caught fire and hit .329 and you had .239. Just got those numbers mixed up, knew what you meant though.

    Also here “He struggled at the plate a little bit, hitting .251/.365/.327 but again had more strikeouts than walks with 70 free passes and just 53 strikeouts.” I think you meant more walks than strikeouts.

    Really enjoyed this article, keep up the good work!

  5. MK

    I was sure wrong on this one. I thought they would keep Stillwell at short and move Larkin to second. Thought Larkin could be more offensive at second since there would be less defensive strain (ala Brandon Phillips).

    • DaveCT

      Rose (as manager) said, ‘one (Stillwell)can’t play second and the other (Larkin) won’t.”

  6. Fish

    stillwell was 5’11 165, Larkin was ike 6’2 200, I know this was back in the day before shortstop was an “offensive” position, but all things being equal, dont you always take the guy with more tools if production is equal? Obviously I was in no position to even know about this as I was in grade school in ’90 when the reds won the world series. . .

    • Doug Gray

      Larkin was never that big. Larkin was 6’0″ and topped out around 190.

  7. hunr4redsoct

    Reds signed Mark Prior per MLBtraderumors

  8. Jon Ryker

    Well, I can remember two arguments in favor of Stillwell, although I favored neither. First, he looked like a leadoff hitter and walked a lot (Larkin never did walk a lot)….second, the same people who love Pete Rose, Pete Rose Jr, Chris Stynes, Ryan Freel, Jonny Gomes, Ryan Hannigan, Todd Frazier, and other such really, really liked Stillwell and really, really didn’t like Larkin……no explanation was given, but it was a large and vocal contingent….

    • Doug Gray

      Thanks for adding those points to the conversation Jon. Of course, Barry Larkin didn’t look like a leadoff hitter…. just like Jay Bruce didn’t look like one when he came up. He wasn’t a leadoff hitter. That is an old thing that managers couldn’t get out of their way with, and still struggle with at times today, is that just because you play X position doesn’t mean you should bat in Y spot in the line up.

      I wonder if Larkin’s confidence was something that rubbed them the wrong way. I remember stories of him being in the system and being told he wasn’t a shortstop and he stated otherwise rather vocally. I am sure there could be other things, as I am really only picking up information years and years in the future from the time.

      Stillwell did walk a lot. That is certainly good. But he also only walked a lot, at least at the time. He didn’t hit for average or any power at the time either…. but of course, as you stated, you thought they were wrong with their line of thinking too.

      • Jimmer

        Stillwell didn’t walk a lot. Career high was 47. No speed either. Probably one of the best trades in Reds history, as Jackson won 23 games in 1988 and was a key piece in the 90 run.

      • Doug Gray

        Stillwell walked frequently as a minor leaguer though.

      • Jon Ryker

        If I recall, though, Stillwell made an All-Star team with the Royals and hit leadoff….he didn’t have a long career because, although he looked like a middle-infielder/leadoff type, he didn’t run particularly well….he also stopped hitting…