The year did not open ideally for Josh Hart. Writers eager to find Spring Training stories to file jumped at the chance to have some fun at his expense after Orioles manager Buck Showalter related that Hart was less than well-versed as to the accomplishments of Frank Robinson. Headlines spread out across the interwebz such as 'Orioles, Buck Showalter give Josh Hart a history lesson', or 'Orioles prospect doesn't know who Frank Robinson is', etc...It was a mildly amusing lede, and, of course, an embellished one. Hart took the attention in stride, produced the 1 page report on Robinson that Buck requested, and showed himself to be mature beyond his 19 years.
Following his selection with the 37th overall pick in the 2013 MLB draft, Hart made brief stops at the Orioles' Sarasota complex in the Gulf Coast League as well as with the Short Season-A Aberdeen Ironbirds. Prospect lists had a wide range of opinion concerning Hart's pre-season ranking, with MLB.com placing him 6th in the O's organizational hierarchy, Baseball Prospectus slotting him in at 10th, and John Sickels placing him at 16th.
The consensus view was that Hart exhibited tremendous potential as a defensive center fielder and a possible speedy lead off hitter with very little power, but that he would face a long journey in translating his athletic abilities into specific baseball skills.
He was assigned to the full season Low-A Delmarva Shorebirds at the start of the 2014 season; a rather aggressive assignment considering he would be facing competition on average 2 years older than him. And the difference in experience showed as Hart's bat, not necessarily struggled but was certainly overmatched at the start of the season, compiling a line of .266 / .301 / .273 with 7 walks to 37 strikeouts over 154 plate appearances and 6 stolen bases out of 8 attempts through late May. In spite of his offensive scuffles he never let his defense go into a funk, making spectacular diving catches such as this.
Then came his first taste of injury at the professional level. On May 26th, in the 2nd game of a double-header Hart tore the meniscus in his right knee. Viewed as a 4-6 week injury, he would ultimately miss just one month of action, returning for a rehab assignment with the Orioles GCL affiliate on June 26th. After a week in Sarasota he proved himself ready to return to action with the Shorebirds. Over the final 2 months of the season he would amass a slash line very similar to his first 2 months: .246 / .302 / .295 with 14 walks to 49 strikeouts over 199 plate appearances and 5 stolen bases out of 8 attempts. He was showing particular statistical improvement over the last month of the season, going .276 / .344 / .333. Baseball Prospectus' Tucker Blair was suitably impressed with Hart's development after seeing him play in late July. In his report he wrote
The consistent, short stroke from Hart works often, although the production remains hollow at this time. Hart makes a ton of contact, but he is still learning the in's and out's of the game. I can see the development from early April simply from his approach at the plate. He is progressing even though there has been little evidence. Hart is going to see production once he gets more acclimated with professional ball. Some of his best AB this series was against Giolito, where he showed progression and refinement from his first AB to the last.
Hart will turn 20 years old in October. It's reasonable to expect that he will begin the 2015 season in Delmarva again. He would still be a year younger than the average competition, it would allow him to demonstrate any adjustments he has made to that level of competition, and possible provide him a chance to build some early confidence in his offensive skills before possibly earning promotion to High-A Frederick.
As for where he will rank come prospect list time, he's not yet even close to sniffing a top-100 overall list. But one will likely find him on the back end of most every Orioles specific Top-10 list. In terms of Orioles positional prospects he likely will trail the likes of the more advanced Christian Walker, Mike Yastrzemski, and Dariel Alvarez. While Chance Sisco's massively successful offensive season with Delmarva will catch a ton of attention, his ultimate defensive home is still an open question. Any potential ranking is still heavily dependent on one's view of his ultimate potential, but he did nothing to dissuade one from believing he could be the heir to Adam Jones as the Orioles center fielder come 2018.