Late Sunday night word, came through that the Rockies were calling up top hitting prospect David Dahl to the Major League roster on Monday in advance of a three-game set in Baltimore. Even the casual Rockies fan has likely heard David Dahl’s name (and if you are a frequent visitor to Purple Row you’ve probably read his name a lot), but when it comes to prospects it’s easy for them to just turn into names after a while. What can we expect from him in the short and long term?
Ever since he was drafted 10th overall in the 2012 draft out of Oak Mountain High School in Birmingham, AL, expectations have been high. Dahl only raised those expectations later that summer when he won the Pioneer League batting title and MVP with a line of .379/.423/.625, including nine home runs and 12 stolen bases in 67 games. He lost 2013 due to a torn hamstring but bounced back well in 2014 by hitting .299/.335/.492 with 14 home runs and 21 stolen bases in 119 games for Asheville and Modesto. He seemed back on the fastrack until he lost his spleen after an on field collision in May of 2015. That he came back from the injury to play again in 2015 is shocking enough, but that he put up a .292/.318/.481 line in his return is downright astounding. The Spleenless Wonder began 2016 with the Double-A Harford Yard Goats and lit up the Eastern League to the tune of .278/.367/.500 with 13 home runs and 16 stolen bases in 76 games. His call up to Triple-A Albuquerque was deserved; his 30-for-62 performance in just 16 games bordered on unbelievable.
Expect David Dahl to be inserted right into the starting lineup; you don’t call up a top prospsect with an OPS over 1.400 in Triple-A to have him ride the bench. It helps that his debut will come in an American League park, since Walt Weiss has the DH spot at his disposal, but Dahl’s defensive reputation warrants a start in left field, though his ultimate position will be center field.
Scouts and coaches rave about his range and instincts and rate his arm as “above average and accurate.” Oh, Dahl will certainly flash the leather for the Rockies. As Baseball Prospectus noted, playing Dahl in left is “is sort of a waste, because he’s a pretty good centerfielder,” but in Coors Field no athleticism is wasted. With one of the biggest left fields in the majors, Dahl’s range and speed will be tested frequently, and he’ll be able to take over centerfield if called upon.
Let’s talk about the offense.
No matter who you talk to, everybody considers Dahl’s hit tool his greatest strength. His “smooth, middle-of-the-field swing” will lead to solid contact to all fields with a lot of gap shots. His bat speed from the left side grades out as plus and his natural ability is so great that some wondered if he would be so good that he wouldn’t be truly challenged until the majors.
Coming into 2016, one of the big questions surrounding Dahl’s development has been his power. This offseason, BP had a roundtable on Dahl and debated, among other things, whether his approach would carry to the highest level and whether it would produce enough pop to be more than a glove-first/fourth outfielder type. His 49 extra-base hits, including 18 home runs (the result of a more aggressive approach at the plate), across two levels this season should answer any doubts about whether the ability is there.
One of the remaining marks against Dahl is his plate discipline. His 23 percent strikeout rate at Double-A is concerning for some, and so expect Dahl to swing and miss a lot, especially as he adjusts to major league pitching. However, his 11 percent walk rate for Hartford represents the highest of his career so there is potential for continued improvement here.
Dahl’s hit tool also makes him an attractive target in fantasy baseball. If you’re in a dynasty or keeper league and he’s not currently rostered, do what you have to do to get him on your team. With the strikeout potential Dahl could struggle to keep his average up to start. However, he has the ability to contribute in all five traditional categories (AVG, R, RBI, HR, SB) long term. Even if you’re in a year-to-year league, Dahl’s potential coupled with the #CoorsEffect and an otherwise potent Rockies lineup makes him worth that fifth outfielder spot or possibly even the utility position.
If you want numbers for what to expect, the projection systems don’t offer too much clarity because the only information available is from the minor leagues. Before the season Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system pegged Dahl for 250 plate appearances, six home runs, ten stolen bases and a .251/.273/.398 line, but that was before his excellent performance in the minors this year. Dan Syzmborski’s ZiPS system projected 448 PA, 11 home runs, 20 stolen bases and .258/.283/.402, but also gave Dahl credit for his defense (7.6 RAA) to project him for a 0.6 fWAR.
If you want to get a real picture of what we could see from Dahl, the Pittsburgh Pirates have a pair of toolsy outfield former-prospects that paint an encouraging portrait. Starling Marte made his Major League debut on July 26, 2012 at age 23 (one year older than Dahl, who is 22), and struggled a bit in his first week. Promoted just as much for his defensive ability as his hitting ability, manager Clint Hurdle kept him in the lineup and was rewarded with a lot of extra-base hits and a lot more strikeouts. After being held out of the lineup for two weeks in August, Marte hit .264/.316/.458 with eight extra-base hits, eight stolen bases and 26 strikeouts in 24 September and October games. Similarly Gregory Polanco earned his call-up on June 10, 2014 at age 22, through his first month he produced a .288/.374/.375 with 11 walks and 13 strikeouts, two home runs and four stolen bases; however, Polanco faltered a bit down the stretch and finished the season with a .235/.307/.343 line. Still, he never lost his grip on an everyday spot for the 2014 Wild Card Game hosts.
Realistically, Dahl could be Gregory Polanco or even Starling Marte going forward. Since his debut, Marte has produced over 5 rWAR per season and earned an All-Star game nod this season. Polanco has settled into a nice everyday role over the past few years, producing 2.6 rWAR last season and already 2.0 rWAR this season (mostly by limiting his strikeouts while increasing his power production). If Dahl doesn’t turn into an immediate star the way Marte did, Gregory Polonco would be an excellent consolation prize.
This isn’t a call-up the Rockies are making simply to fill a spot temporarily. This isn’t a call-up that signals the Rockies are ready to contend this year, or that they’re ready to give up on this year. This is a call up made because David Dahl has knocked down the door and earned his promotion to the big league roster. He may struggle a little bit to start, as prospects are wont to do. Could he bust? Of course. But his tools and pedigree suggest that the Rockies just promoted their centerfielder of the future. Even if we temper them for the rest of this season, our expectations should be high for Dahl going forward, and he has only himself to thank for that.