When the Colorado Rockies jumped David Dahl up to Double-A New Britain in 2015 after he'd posted only 125 plate appearances the year before at High-A Modesto, it was clear that the team thought the lefty outfielder was once again on the fast track to the Show.
It appeared that the 21-year-old Dahl was back on the path he seemed certain to follow given his first round pedigree and phenomenal debut season, when he won Pioneer League MVP honors at the age of 18 in 2012 with a .379/.423/.625 (161 wRC+) line. That led to national prospect writers ensconcing Dahl firmly in their top 60.
Unfortunately, after that scorching 2012 debut, Dahl was limited to only 10 games in 2013 when he tore his hamstring at Low A Asheville. This led to a drop in prospect lists and seemingly delayed his MLB ETA by a year. Despite the setback, Dahl set out to prove this assumption wrong. In 2014 he played well at both full-season Class A levels, finishing with a combined .299/.335/.492 line (including a 133 wRC+ in Asheville), 63 extra base hits, and 21 steals against older pitchers.
This success not only restored the shine to his prospect status (he was the preseason No. 22 prospect for Baseball America and No. 24 for Baseball Prospectus before 2015), it also convinced the Rockies to put him back on the plan he had been on before the hamstring injury.
In New Britain, Dahl was on his way to another season of holding his own against advanced pitching with a .269/.296/.372 line in 182 at-bats over 40 games for the Rock Cats when baseball again took a back seat to his health. In a late-May game, Dahl was hospitalized after a scary on-field collision with one of his teammates that lacerated his spleen. It was thought that this collision would end Dahl's season and that he would have to be very careful with the spleen for the rest of his career and life in general, but Dahl ultimately made the decision to have his spleen removed entirely, which of course carries its own complications.
The upshot of that decision was that Dahl was back on the field for a rehab assignment in Short-Season A Boise in early July. He struggled in his brief cameo, but the fact he was back on the field at all was the most important development. Dahl returned to the New Britain lineup later in July and hit well enough to raise his total Double-A line to .278/.304/.417 (106 wRC+) in 302 plate appearances. That's a good line considering the circumstances, though the low walk rate (3.8%) and elevated strikeout rate (23.8%) are concerning.
In mid-August, Dahl was shut down for the remainder of the season (which at that point was only about two weeks) with patella tendinitis, according to a source close to the situation. Originally considered a candidate for an Arizona Fall League spot, Dahl was ultimately held out of that competition to maximize his rest and recovery time. The good news is that the actual injury is relatively minor, and that the organization's shutting down of its top position project has more to do with the fact that he hasn't fully regained the strength he lost after recovering from the splenectomy.
In all, it was a challenging campaign for Dahl. John Sickels summed it up well in his 2015 top 20 Rockies system in review article:
"The numbers aren't terrific but they aren't terrible and he earns a mulligan given the circumstances."
This kind of a season does present a dilemma for the Rockies in terms of what to do with Dahl. Do they start him next year back in Double-A for the Hartford Yard Goats (and their never-ending road trip) or do they move him up the ladder right away to the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes? I'm guessing the former, if only to give the Rockies more of a sample size to evaluate his progress after the injury at a lower level. It's possible that, even with a AA start, Dahl could see the majors late in 2016, though a 2017 debut is more likely.
From a scouting perspective, Dahl still grades out highly on prospect lists despite the injuries. He placed in the midseason 2015 top prospect lists (which didn't include 2015 draftees) of Baseball Prospectus (26), Baseball America (27), Minor League Ball (44), and MLB.com (56). In the more recent rankings, Dahl has moved up in MLB.com's list (up to 46th) and fell slightly in BP's top 101 (down to 31st). Both placements are an encouraging vote of confidence in Dahl's ability to come back full strength from his injuries.
MLB.com (who had Dahl as the third best prospect in the system) had this to say:
Though he has yet to post big numbers since his debut, Dahl has the potential to make an impact offensively defensively. He has a sweet left-handed swing, impressive bat speed and a line-drive, all fields approach. If he improves his plate discipline and adds some loft to his swing, he has the upside of a .300 hitter with 20 or more homers per season.
Dahl's plus speed and baserunning savvy make him a threat to steal. His quickness and instincts give him fine range in center field, and his strong, accurate arm is better than most at that position. If he can stay healthy, he could do a lot of damage and run down a lot of flyballs at Coors Field.
Here's what Baseball Prospectus commented on about Dahl in their preseason 2016 ranking:
Dahl missed a month in 2015 after having his spleen removed, the result of a bad outfield collision in New Britain. He was one of the youngest players in the Eastern League and more than held his own on the field. Dahl is a true center fielder with advanced instincts to match his plus speed and strong arm. At the plate he struggled with more advanced sequencing from Double-A arms and was vulnerable to fastballs out of the zone with two strikes. When he does make contact, he does so with exclamation marks, and he may grow into more power as he matures. He needs to make adjustments to his approach to fully tap into his offensive potential, but the defense and athleticism should make him a good regular in center even if the bat never fully develops.
Combine that with this profile of Dahl BP had before 2015:
Strengths: Easy barrel delivery with extended pitch plane overlap; regular hard contact and comfort spraying line to line; good athleticism boosts the aggregate skillset; run is legit plus, showing up on the grass and rounding the bases; glove could play to plus at maturity with continued improvement in reads off the bat; already shows understanding of how to let power manifest naturally; arm plays across the outfield with carry and solid accuracy.
Weaknesses: Lacks leverage in swing so power will be reliant on ability to barrel ball and might be limited to pull; routes are improving, but still limit full utilization of natural speed; can get aggressive, particularly early in count when hunting fastballs; advanced arms will work to expose with spin.
The Alabama prep product's true five-tool potential alone provides enough reason for evaluators to lock in, but it's the combination of athleticism and baseball acumen characteristic of impact major leaguers that could see the profile emerge as one of the elite talents in the game ... There is work to be done smoothing out the reads and routes in the outfield, and the approach at the plate will need to be focused, but most of these potential issues reside in developmental areas commonly addressed through reps.
In that evaluation, Dahl was given average or above-average tools across the board, as he did in the MLB.com list and elsewhere (there's an interesting debate on Dahl's future that was posted on BP today). My personal evaluation is that Dahl, who was third on my ballot, is a five-tool talent who projects to be plus in center field defensively and comfortably projects as a MLB regular with the potential for much more. That's obviously an exciting profile, and it's a testament to the abilities of Jon Gray (spoiler alert) that Dahl hasn't topped this list since the fall 2012 list immediately after he was drafted. We can only hope that he will make Coors Field a Dahl's house for years to come.
We will have a bit more on Dahl later today.