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.
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.
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.