February 22, 2004

Top 50 Prospects: A Year in Review (Part One: 31-50)

--- Part Two: 11-30

--- Part Three: 1-10

I have always been very interested in minor league prospects. I like to watch them, I like to read about them, I like to compare their numbers, and I like to think about what kinds of players they can become in the future.

It's fun tracking prospects. You follow them through the minor leagues for years and then you actually know who they are when they show up in the big leagues. You know what type of player they are and what type of numbers they've put up. You know their injury history and their defensive reputation. You know where they were drafted and whether or not they've been traded. You know all sorts of interesting stuff about some 22-year-old rookie that the average fan just doesn't know, and there's something rewarding about that.

Last year, right around this time, I did my very own "Top 50 Prospects" ranking for the very first time. Actually, that's not entirely true. I suppose I had been doing similar rankings in my head for at least a few years, but last year was the first time I decided to put it down on paper, along with some comments on each player.

Now that it's a year later, I think it's time to see how the players on my first official Top 50 Prospects list faired in 2003 and how that has impacted their "stock" for the future.

50) Travis Blackley | Seattle Mariners

Thinking back on it, one of the toughest things to do while compiling last year's rankings was deciding who was going to make the list at spots 45-50, and which guys, essentially ranked 51 and up, were going to be left out.

The difference between the guy ranked #1 and the guy ranked #25 is significant, but the farther down the list you get, the less of a difference there is (at least in my mind). So, while someone like Travis Blackley snuck onto the list as #50 last year, he was basically in a group of about 20-30 guys who all could have been put there.

That said, I am very glad Blackley made the cut. He had an extremely impressive season as a 20-year-old at Double-A San Antonio in 2003, going 17-3 with a 2.61 ERA in 162.1 innings pitched. He posted great strikeout numbers (although down from 2002) and a very solid 144/62 strikeout/walk ratio.

I feel very good about Blackley's inclusion in my top 50 from last year, not only because he did very well in 2003, but also because he was a relatively unknown prospect heading into the season.

Stock: UP

49) Jonny Gomes | Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Jonny Gomes is one of my personal favorite prospects, mostly because he is a "Three True Outcomes" player, meaning he walks a lot, strikes out a lot and hits a lot of homers. Plus, he also gets hit by a ton of pitches (31 in 2002, 18 in 2003), which is even better. I ranked Gomes 49th on last year's list, after he hit .276/.431/.572 at Single-A in 2002.

Gomes moved up to Double-A last season and his numbers fell, across-the-board. His batting average dropped all the way down to .249 and he walked just 53 times, after drawing 91 walks in 2002. His power was still good (17 HRs, 48 XBHs in 120 games), but even his isolated slugging percentage fell from .296 to .192.

Last year I said 2003 would be a big year for Gomes because we'd "see if he can be the next Rob Deer or possibly something more." He definitely took a step towards Rob Deer, and he is no longer a top 50 prospect.

Stock: DOWN

48) Wilson Betemit | Atlanta Braves

After very good 2000 and 2001 seasons, Wilson Betemit was one of baseball's top prospects. Then he hit just .245/.312/.370 in 2002 and his stock dropped quite a bit. In putting him #48 on my list last year, I actually got quite a bit of heat from people saying he still deserved to be much higher and that my reasons for dropping him were flawed.

Betemit followed up his poor 2002 season by hitting just .262/.315/.414 at Triple-A Richmond last year, which means, if anything, that #48 ranking was too high. He will not be in my top 50 this season, although I'm sure some people will have a problem with that as well.

Stock: DOWN

47) Kevin Cash | Toronto Blue Jays

In ranking Kevin Cash #47 last year, I said the following:

Ultimately, the quality of Kevin Cash's career is going to depend on his batting average. Cash is a phenomenal defensive catcher, he is going to take walks and he is going to hit for pretty good power.

Whether he hits .220 or .280 is going to determine what his legacy will be. A Gold Glover catcher who hits .225 with 25 homers and a lot of walks is nice, but a GG catcher hitting .275 with 25 homers and a lot of walks is something special.

Cash hit .270/.331/.442 with a very impressive 38 extra-base hits in 93 games at Triple-A Syracuse last year, before joining the Blue Jays. His performance in Toronto was as disappointing as his Triple-A performance was impressive. Cash hit just .142/.179/.198 in 117 plate appearances, posting a 22/4 strikeout/walk ratio while generally looking lost at the plate.

Still, 117 bad plate appearances for a rookie isn't the end of the world, and Cash's performance at Triple-A last year was very encouraging. I'm not sure I still think he can become that .275 hitter with power, walks and Gold Glove defense, but I'm holding out hope he can provide all of those other things, along with a .250 batting average.


46) Prince Fielder | Milwaukee Brewers

I ranked Cecil's "little" boy #46 last year and said the following about him:

He has arguably the most power potential of anyone in the minor leagues right now, but still has to prove he can hit in a full-season league.

Consider it proven.

Prince Fielder batted .313/.409/.526 in 137 games at Single-A Beloit last year, hitting 27 homers and 22 doubles while driving in 112 runs.

Fielder basically did everything you like to see from a big-time hitting prospect. He hit for a big batting average, smacked 51 total XBHs, and had a strikeout/walk ratio of 80/71. He even went 2/3 stealing bases, which must have been interesting to watch.

Stock: UP

45) Brad Nelson | Milwaukee Brewers

Brad Nelson caught my attention last year after hitting 49 doubles (and 20 homers) between two levels of Single-A in 2002. My general feeling with hitting prospects is that doubles in their early 20s become homers down the road, so Nelson's power display in 2002 was quite impressive.

Nelson's 2003 season was ruined by a broken wrist, which limited him to a total of just 80 games and sapped him of most of his abilities at the plate.

Nelson did hit .311 in 41 games at Single-A High Desert, but he managed just one homer and nine doubles in 167 at bats there, producing a lowly .395 slugging percentage. He played 39 games at Double-A Huntsville and hit just .210/.274/.315.

I'm willing to chalk 2003 up as basically a "lost" year for Nelson, but wrist injuries for power hitters scare me.

Stock: DOWN

44) Boof Bonser | Minnesota Twins

In ranking Boof Bonser #44 last year, I expressed concerns about his declining strikeout rates and said:

Bonser has a ton of potential, but the Giants have lots of good arms in the system and he'll have to cut down on the free passes at some point and work on finding that extra zip on his fastball again.

Bonser had a relatively good season in 2003, pitching 158 innings with a 3.87 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A. His strikeout rate continued to drop though, and the pattern is very discouraging.

YEAR      SO/9

2001 11.98
2002 9.55
2003 7.46

Losing two strikeouts every nine innings two years in a row has caused him to go from having an incredible strikeout rate to one that is really quite sub par for someone considered a top prospect.

Bonser was traded to the Twins in the off-season deal that sent A.J. Pierzynski so San Francisco, which means I'm even more concerned about the falling K rates than I was before.

Stock: DOWN

43) Colby Lewis | Texas Rangers

Colby Lewis had a very interesting season in 2003. He spent much of the year in Texas' starting rotation and was absolutely horrendous, making 26 starts and pitching 127 innings with a 7.30 ERA. On the other hand, he became one of the poster boys for won/loss records being fairly meaningless by going 10-9. Lewis also made seven starts back at Triple-A and, as usual, was very effective, going 5-1 with a 3.02 ERA.

I still think Lewis can be a quality pitcher in the major leagues, but the early results are pretty scary. In two years, he has a combined 7.10 ERA in 161 innings pitched and has given up 27 homers with an uninspiring 116/96 strikeout/walk ratio. He might be better suited for the bullpen.

Stock: DOWN

42) Chris Snelling | Seattle Mariners

Chris Snelling made it to the majors for eight games with the Mariners in 2002, but blew out the ACL in his left knee and missed the rest of the season. The same injury limited him to just 65 games between Double-A and Triple-A in 2003 and, from most reports, bothered him quite a bit when he was able to play.

As usual though, Snelling was a very good offensive player when he was on the field. He hit .333/.371/.468 in 47 games at Double-A, before hitting .269/.333/.433 in 18 Triple-A games.

Despite missing huge chunks of time in several seasons and having his development severely stalled, Snelling still doesn't turn 23 until December. I still think he can be an impact player, but he's going to have to show he can stay healthy first.


41) Josh Hamilton | Tampa Bay Devil Rays

I think it's safe to classify Josh Hamilton's story as a "saga" at this point.

Hamilton was the #1 overall pick in the 1999 draft and his raw physical tools have always matched up with anyone in baseball. After missing a lot of time with injuries in his first few pro seasons, Hamilton missed all of 2003 with "personal problems," the details of which have been kept pretty quiet.

Hamilton is reportedly back and ready to play in 2004, but obviously there are still some pretty massive question-marks surrounding him. His talent is undeniable and he has performed very well wherever he has played, but with the injuries and the personal issues, his stock has certainly dropped quite a bit.

Stock: DOWN

40) Cliff Lee | Cleveland Indians

A hernia kept Cliff Lee out of action early in the year, but he eventually returned to the mound and went 7-1 with 2.82 ERA in 14 minor league starts and 3-3 with a 3.61 ERA in nine starts with the Indians.

Overall for the year, he pitched 132 innings and struck out 122 batters (8.3/9 IP), while walking 58. Lee had hernia surgery in October and should be ready to go for the start of 2004. He needs to stay healthy and work on his control a little bit, but I think he's on-track to becoming a very good starting pitcher very soon.

Stock: UP

39) Jeremy Bonderman | Detroit Tigers

Jeremy Bonderman was not good last season, let's just get that out of the way. However, for a 20-year-old rookie making the jump from Single-A, he did relatively well.

He went 6-19, but that's not even worth looking at, considering how awful Detroit's offense was last year. The 5.56 ERA isn't too pretty either, but the strikeout rate (6.0/9 IP) and strikeout/walk ratio (1.86/1) weren't horrible, especially for someone that young and inexperienced.

In fact, in the last 25 years, the only other 20-year-old pitchers to throw 150+ innings in a season besides Bonderman are Dwight Gooden, Ed Correa, Fernando Valenzuela, C.C. Sabathia, Rick Ankiel and Bret Saberhagen. I don't know that I'd call that great company, but it's certainly interesting company.

Bonderman got absolutely lit up in his first two major league starts, going a total of 6.1 innings while allowing 11 runs, all earned. He was 0-2 with a 15.63 ERA. From his third start of the year through the All-Star break though, he was actually pretty good.

He made 16 starts and pitched 97 innings with a 4.18 ERA, striking out 72 batters while walking just 26. Of course, he then fell apart in the second-half of the year, pitching 58.2 innings with a 6.75 ERA and an equally horrible 30/27 strikeout/walk ratio.

I still think he can become a very good starting pitcher and I'm not going to punish a 20-year-old for struggling in the majors.


38) Lyle Overbay | Milwaukee Brewers

Here's a little of what I said about Lyle Overbay last year:

He won't hit many homers, but he is a left-handed-hitting first baseman in the Mark Grace mold - lots of doubles, lots of singles and some walks.

While he has generally hit in very good hitter's parks and leagues and that distorts his numbers somewhat, Overbay is very capable of hitting about .315/.365/.500 as a full-time first baseman.

Overbay never got the chance to be the full-time first baseman in Arizona last year, getting sent back down to Triple-A near the end of July. He hit .286/.419/.479 in 53 games at Triple-A and was called up again in September.

Overbay finished the year at .276/.365/.402, posting the exact same OBP that I said he was "very capable" of. Of course, my proclamation wasn't that great. His batting average was off by about 40 points and his slugging percentage was almost 100 points lower. Not quite the level of production I think he's capable of, but still not that far off either, especially for his first year.

Now in Milwaukee, Overbay should get a chance to play everyday for the first time and I think he'll improve upon his rookie numbers in 2004.


37) Jason Arnold | Toronto Blue Jays

Since I ranked him as my #37 prospect last year, Jason Arnold has been passed up by several guys for the title of Best Blue Jays Pitching Prospect. While Dustin McGowan, Vince Perkins and David Bush flourished in 2003, Arnold struggled.

He started the year well, going 3-1 with a 1.53 ERA in six starts at Double-A New Haven. Arnold then got promoted to Triple-A Syracuse, where he finished the year by going 4-8 with a 4.33 ERA in 120.2 innings. The year was certainly not horrible by any means, but it was definitely disappointing.

Arnold's velocity at Triple-A was reportedly down from his previous levels and he struck out just 82 batters in 120.2 innings there (6.1/9 IP) after striking out an average of 9.1 batters per nine innings in his career up to that point.

2004 is going to be a big year for Arnold and it may determine whether his future with Toronto is as a starter or a reliever.

Stock: DOWN

36) Ken Harvey | Kansas City Royals

A little of what I said about Ken Harvey last year:

I don't think Ken Harvey will ever be a truly great player, but he should be an upper-level DH/1B, hitting .300 with 20 homers and lots of doubles.

Well, I got the not being a great player part right last year and Harvey did hit 13 homers and 30 doubles in just 135 games (which would have been close to "20 homers and lots of doubles" if he'd played more). On the other hand, his batting average was nowhere near .300 and he was actually one of the worst DH/1B in the entire American League.

Harvey hit just .266/.313/.408 last year and had a massive platoon split. He beat up left-handed pitching to the tune of .333/.377/.564, but managed a meager .234/.282/.334 against righties.

With Kansas City's off-season additions of Matt Stairs and Juan Gonzalez, Harvey may find himself fighting for playing time in 2004. If he does get a chance to play, I think he'll show himself to be a better hitter than he was last year. His .328 career minor league batting average in over 1,300 at bats still suggests to me he is capable of hitting a lot better than .266.

Stock: DOWN

35) Kevin Youkilis | Boston Red Sox

The Greek God of Walks came into this season with an utterly amazing career minor league on-base percentage of .451 in 325 games. He started the year at Double-A Portland and actually topped that with a monstrous .487 OBP in 97 games.

Then he got promoted to Triple-A and everything fell apart. In 32 games there, Youkilis hit just .165/.295/.248. He managed to maintain a good strikeout/walk ratio of 21/18, but he simply couldn't get any hits to fall.

Youkilis is the player for whom the views of scouts and stat-heads differ the most. Stat-heads see the extraordinary OBPs and immediately fall in love. Scouts see the lack of traditional tools and project him as nothing special.

Personally, I think he's going to be an excellent offensive player, despite his struggles at Triple-A at the end of last season. 32 bad games at a new level does not doom a prospect, and Youkilis proved at Single-A and Double-A that he can hit. If anyone wants to bet me right now that he won't get on base at least 40% of the time at Triple-A this year, I'll take the bet in a second.

What happens to a guy's "stock" when he puts up a .487 OBP at Double-A and then stinks horribly at Triple-A? Well...


34) Jerome Williams | San Francisco Giants

Jerome Williams started last season at Triple-A, where he went 4-2 with a 2.68 ERA in 10 starts. He joined the Giants at the end of April, got knocked around in his first start, and then settled into the starting rotation for the rest of the year.

Williams ended up going 7-5 with a 3.30 ERA in 21 starts for San Francisco, an extremely impressive rookie season for a 21-year-old. That said, neither his strikeout rate or his strikeout/walk ratio were particularly good. He struck out just 6.05 batters per nine innings and had just 1.8 strikeouts for every walk.

A strikeout rate of 6.05/9 IP isn't bad for a 21-year-old (remember, Bonderman struck out 6.0/9 IP, but he was only 20 and had zero experience above Single-A), but Williams' minor league track-record is lacking in dominant strikeout numbers too.

In 217.2 career innings at Triple-A, Williams struck out just 7.0 batters per nine innings, which is sub par for a big-time prospect. He also whiffed just 5.8 batters per nine innings at Double-A.

Shortly after Williams' MLB debut last year, I wrote up a report on him for InsiderBaseball.com. What I said then still applies:

I think Williams will definitely develop into a good major league starting pitcher, but I am not so sure about him becoming a dominant, top-of-the-rotation starter like so many think he can be.

Stock: UP

33) Kurt Ainsworth | Baltimore Orioles

Kurt Ainsworth started 2003 with the Giants and did very well in 11 starts, going 5-4 with a 3.82 ERA. He then suffered a fractured shoulder and was put on the disabled list. The Giants dealt him to the Orioles in the Sidney Ponson trade at mid-season, and Ainsworth came back to pitch in one game for Baltimore before the end of the year.

Assuming his shoulder is healthy, Ainsworth should be a lock for the Baltimore starting rotation in 2004. He looks like he'll be a very productive #2/#3 starter-type for years to come.


32) Hanley Ramirez | Boston Red Sox

In ranking Hanley Ramirez #32 last year, I said the following:

The hype-o-meter for Hanley Ramirez is off the charts right now and it is probably unrealistic to project so much on to a player that hasn't even played in a full-season league yet.

To be honest, I probably should have just stopped there. However, I went on:

At the same time, he has incredible natural skills and his performance so far has been incredibly good. The only reason he is ranked this low is because he has yet to prove he can do well against more experienced competition, in tougher leagues. If he proves that in 2003, he'll be near the top of this list next year.

Ramirez did reasonably well at high Single-A last year, but it was definitely a disappointing season compared to what he did in 2002. Ramirez hit .275/.327/.403 with 35 XBHs and 36 stolen bases in 111 games. Of course, for most 20-year-old shortstop prospects, that is a very nice year.

I still think Ramirez is potentially an elite player, but he's a long ways away and yet another example of why people (myself definitely included) should try to avoid getting too excited about players who have barely played above rookie-ball.

Stock: DOWN

31) Andy Marte | Atlanta Braves

The first line of my Andy Marte comment last year:

Andy Marte is probably currently the least well-known player on this list, but at only 18 years old, he has one of the highest ceilings.

Marte is definitely plenty well-known now. He hit .285/.372/.469 at Single-A Myrtle Beach in 2003, smacking 16 homers and 35 doubles in 130 games, while playing in a very difficult ballpark to hit in.

Beyond the overall good numbers, Marte's improvement in plate discipline is particularly encouraging. After walking 41 times in 126 games in 2002, Marte walked 67 times in 130 games last year. He struck out in almost exactly the same percentage of his at bats each year, but his strikeout/walk ratio went from 2.78/1 to 1.63/1.

Marte still has "one of the highest ceilings" of any prospect and, now that he's proven himself two years in a row, he'll move way up my list this year.

Stock: UP

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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