February 24, 2004
Top 50 Prospects: A Year in Review (Part Two: 11-30)
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.
30) Rafael Soriano | Seattle Mariners
After being a starting pitcher in the minors, Rafael Soriano spent last year pitching out of Seattle's bullpen. He came up for a couple weeks at the end of April, went back down to Triple-A for about a month, and then rejoined the team for the remainder of the year. In all, he pitched 53 innings in 40 games with the Mariners, all in relief, going 3-0 with a 1.53 ERA.
The miniscule ERA is extremely impressive, but do you want to know the two numbers I like the most? 11.55 strikeouts per nine innings and a .162 batting average against. The only pitcher who pitched as many innings as Soriano did and had a higher strikeout rate or a lower opponent batting average was Eric Gagne, the NL Cy Young winner.
After watching Soriano pitch and after staring at his amazing numbers, I would love nothing more than to proclaim him the next John Santana, and to campaign for his place in Seattle's starting five, just like I did for Johan over the past two seasons. Unfortunately, Rafael Soriano appears to be more interested in becoming the next Mariano Rivera.
I'd like to see Soriano start, but once a team and a player begin to agree that the best spot for him is in the bullpen, it's usually a done deal. While Santana held strong to his belief that he deserved to be a starter, often talking to the media about it, Soriano was quoted earlier this week as saying, "I just feel comfortable [in the bullpen]. I want to be a closer, but I'll do anything they want."
29) Michael Restovich | Minnesota Twins
Stuck with no place to play in Minnesota's crowded outfield/DH/1B picture, Michael Restovich repeated Triple-A in 2003 and saw his numbers drop. Part of that was likely due to Minnesota's Triple-A club switching from the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League to the pitcher-friendly International League. Stagnating at a level he already succeeded at while looking up at a big league club with no openings probably didn't help any either.
After hitting .308/.357/.538 with a homer every 17.8 at bats at Triple-A in 2002, Restovich's numbers there fell to .275/.346/.465 with a homer every 28.4 at bats. The good news is that he cut down on his strikeouts dramatically (although he still struck out in 25.7% of his at bats).
With most other organizations, Restovich would be playing everyday at the major league level in 2004 and would probably have been doing so in 2003. With the Twins, he's at least second on the waiting list for everyday playing time, with Michael Cuddyer ahead of him should a spot open up.
28) Khalil Greene | San Diego Padres
After hitting .317/.368/.525 at Single-A in 2002, Khalil Greene hit a combined .283/.342/.427 split between Double-A and Triple-A last season, with 13 homers and 36 doubles in 548 at bats.
Those are certainly solid numbers for a 23-year-old shortstop playing in the high minors for the first time, but they are also nowhere near what many thought he was capable of coming out of college (where he was the National Player of the Year his senior season at Clemson).
In 768 career minor league at bats, Greene has 22 home runs and a .444 slugging percentage. Again, good numbers, but definitely not great. Greene also hit .215/.271/.400 in 20 games with the Padres at the end of last season and appears set to become their starting shortstop in 2004.
I still like his potential, but Greene is probably never going to be known for his defense and I am no longer as confident in him becoming an offensive force as I once was.
27) Clint Nageotte | Seattle Mariners
Clint Nageotte moved up to Double-A in 2003 and continued to pile up strikeouts. He whiffed 157 batters in 154 innings (9.2/9 IP), bringing his career totals as a pro to 617 Ks in 520 innings (10.7/9 IP).
The two things you always hear about Nageotte are that his slider is perhaps the best in all of minor league baseball and that he can be a pain in the butt to people who try to get him to rely on his other pitches more. What he throws and when he throws it aren't as important to me as the overall results, which have been extremely good.
The one concern is that his strikeout/walk ratio has gone from 3.74/1 in 2001 to 3.15/1 in 2002 and then to just 2.34/1 last year. That's not the type of pattern you like to see. Still, it's hard to argue with more than a strikeout per inning and a 3.10 ERA for a 22-year-old at Double-A, so...
26) Justin Huber | New York Mets
The heir apparent to Mike Piazza behind the plate in New York, Justin Huber began 2003 at the same place he ended 2002, Single-A Port St. Lucie. He did extremely well there, batting .284/.370/.514 in 50 games, before moving on to Double-A Binghamton.
Huber hit just .264/.350/.425 in 55 games at Double-A, which doesn't look particularly impressive, but certainly isn't bad for a 21-year-old in his first taste of the high minors. Huber has yet to bust out offensively, but he's moving along slowly and surely, and still looks like New York's catcher of the future.
25) Adam Wainwright | St. Louis Cardinals
Adam Wainwright turned in his fourth straight good season in 2003, throwing 149.2 innings with a 3.37 ERA at Double-A Greenville. He improved his walk rate from 3.6/9 IP in 2002 to 2.2/9 IP last season, which is great. At the same time though, his strikeout rate fell from 9.2/9 IP to 7.7/9 IP. Still, you've got to like a 22-year-old with a career ERA of 3.37 and a Double-A strikeout/walk ratio of 3.45/1.
24) Gavin Floyd | Philadelphia Phillies
After doing very well at low Single-A in his first pro season, Gavin Floyd moved up to high Single-A last year and essentially duplicated his 2002 numbers.
YEAR ERA SO9 BB9 K/BB HR9
2002 2.77 7.6 3.5 2.19 .70
2003 3.00 7.5 2.9 2.55 .59
As you can see, Floyd had an ERA and strikeout rate that were basically the same as 2002. He improved his control and thus also his strikeout/walk ratio.
A young pitcher maintaining his level of performance while facing tougher competition is always a good thing, so Floyd's 2003 is definitely a success. His strikeout rates aren't as high as you'd like to see from a top pitching prospect, but Floyd is still very young. He turned 21 late last month, so he could still be adding some velocity.
23) Scott Hairston | Arizona Diamondbacks
After putting up absolutely obscene numbers in his first two pro seasons, Scott Hairston came down to earth in 2003 and was simply very good. After coming into this season with a career hitting line of .346/.430/.697 in 201 minor league games, Hairston hit "only" .276/.345/.469 at Double-A El Paso last year.
Hairston also missed nearly half the season with a back injury, which may have been part of his declining numbers. Either way, a 23-year-old second baseman who slugs .469 at Double-A (even in a hitter's park like El Paso) and brings his career slugging percentage down to .558 is just fine with me.
22) Adrian Gonzalez | Texas Rangers
At the end of my comment on Adrian Gonzalez last year, I said the following:
Gonzalez has been involved in several trade rumors this off-season and the Marlins do have some other options at first base throughout their organization.
Gonzalez, the former #1 overall pick in the 2000 draft, was traded from Florida to Texas for Ugueth Urbina at last year's trading deadline. It seems hard for me to imagine trading a #1 pick for a half-season of Ugueth Urbina, but the Marlins have a World Series trophy that says they were right, so I won't argue the point.
What the trade does show is that the Marlins lost confidence in Gonzalez's abilities, which is understandable considering his hitting over the past two years. After hitting .312/.382/.486 at Single-A in 2001, Gonzalez dropped to .266/.344/.437 at Double-A in 2002. Then last year, while struggling with a wrist injury, he hit just .269/.329/.365 between Double-A and Triple-A.
Gonzalez is still a good prospect, but there's no doubt his stock has dropped quite a bit.
21) Travis Hafner | Cleveland Indians
Travis Hafner's rookie season with the Indians was disappointing, but actually still fairly good. He won a starting job out of spring training, but then struggled mightily, hitting just .167/.244/.359 in the season's first month. When he went down with a broken toe in the middle of May, he was hitting just .206/.280/.392.
Hafner returned in July and put up some very impressive numbers through the end of the year. In the final three months of the season, he hit .278/.352/.531 with 10 homers and 13 doubles in 194 at bats. Even with his horrible opening month and the injury, Hafner finished his rookie year batting .254/.327/.485 in 91 games, which isn't too bad. His overall production resulted in a .277 Equivalent Average, which was safely above league-average for a first baseman.
I still expect Hafner to become one of the better hitting first basemen/DHs in the American League, starting in 2004.
20) Scott Kazmir | New York Mets
A little of what I said about Scott Kazmir last year:
I fought the urge to include Kazmir on this list, I swear I did. A high school pitcher with only 18 career pro innings shouldn't be a on a list like this right? Well, probably not, but I couldn't stop myself.
A diminutive high school pitcher with almost zero pro experience has no business on this list, but he's on it anyway. He might be the next Sandy Koufax or he might be the next Brien Taylor, who knows.
Kazmir took a very small step towards Sandy Koufax and made me look good last year, dominating the competition at two levels of Single-A. Overall for the year, he made 25 starts and pitched a total of 109.1 innings, striking out an amazing 145 batters (11.9/9 IP).
Whiffing that many guys as a 19-year-old is pretty incredible and was a nice follow-up to Kazmir's 0.50 ERA pro debut in 2002. For a young pitcher who throws pure smoke, Kazmir's walk rate (3.6/9 IP) wasn't even all that bad.
All in all, Kazmir's career is off to about as good a start as possible.
19) Marlon Byrd | Philadelphia Phillies
In ranking Marlon Byrd #19 last year, I said the following:
Byrd is ready, both offensively and defensively, and now that [Doug] Glanville's days of making 500 outs a year are over with - at least in Philadelphia - Byrd can step in as the everyday center fielder.
He did exactly that in 2003, hitting .303/.366/.418 in 135 games with the Phillies.
Byrd's power numbers weren't quite up to his minor league levels, but you can't really complain about a rookie center fielder hitting .303. Byrd ranked 13th among major league center fielders in Runs Above Replacement Position, despite missing several weeks with a knee injury. He hit .313/.369/.438 in the second-half and is a good bet to be a top-10 center fielder for years to come.
18) Jose Lopez | Seattle Mariners
I began my comment on Jose Lopez last year with the following:
I suppose that every person ranking prospects and trying to predict the future gets that "feeling" about certain lesser-known players. I get that feeling about Jose Lopez.
Perhaps the next time I get one of those "feelings," I should just go to a doctor.
Lopez hit just .258/.303/.403 last season, which is certainly not what I had in mind when I wrote that last year. Still, it's important to remember that he was a 19-year-old playing at Double-A, so the fact that he simply held his own is worthwhile in itself.
Beyond his age, there are other bright spots. Lopez hit 13 homers and 35 doubles in 132 games, stole 18 bases and, although he didn't walk much, he also only struck out 56 times. I still think he's got a chance to become a special player, but 2003 was definitely a disappointment.
17) Miguel Cabrera | Florida Marlins
Here's a little of what I wrote last year about Miguel Cabrera, who came into last season with just 18 career homers in 1,162 minor league at bats:
Cabrera spent 2002 playing at Jupiter of the Florida State League, which is a very tough place (and league) to hit home runs. He only hit 9 dingers, but his total of 43 doubles is an extremely good sign for power yet to come. As he develops physically, look for many of those doubles to turn into homers.
Cabrera made the jump to Double-A at the start of last season and absolutely dominated. He batted .365/.429/.609 with 10 homers and 29 doubles in 69 games. That's a 22 homer/65 double pace projected out to 155 games.
The Marlins called him up in late June and Cabrera played both third base and left field. In 87 games with Florida, he hit .268/.325/.468 with 12 homers and 21 doubles.
If you combine his numbers at Double-A with his numbers in the majors, you get .312/.376/.532 with 22 homers, 50 doubles and 121 RBIs in 156 games. Oh, and he also hit .265/.315/.471 with four homers and 12 RBIs in 17 playoff games. Not bad for a 20-year-old, huh?
16) Hee Seop Choi | Florida Marlins
In ranking Hee Seop Choi #16 last year, I said the following:
Don't worry Cubs fans, Eric Karros blocking Hee Seop Choi from the starting first base job would be like asking someone to block Mo Vaughn from the buffet. Choi is too good and it just isn't going to happen.
Choi's rookie season was viewed as a disappointment by most, but I think that's being unfair. First of all, his final numbers (.218/.350/.421) were just fine for a 24-year-old rookie. Beyond that, Choi was doing very well prior to injuring his back in early June, when he crashed into Kerry Wood while trying to field a pop-up. At the time, Choi was at .244/.389/.496. He was out for nearly a month and then found himself on the bench most of the time when he returned.
Hopefully he'll get a chance to actually play everyday for the Marlins in 2004, because he's a very good hitter.
15) Joe Borchard | Chicago White Sox
2003 was an absolute mess for Joe Borchard. He came into the season a career .286/.372/.498 hitter with a home run every 21.6 at bats, and spent 2003 repeating Triple-A after hitting .272/.349/.498 with 20 homers and 35 doubles there in 2002.
The results the second time around were awful. Borchard hit just .253/.307/.398 and, as usual, struggled to make contact, striking out in 24% of his at bats. In addition to that, his walk rate, which was once quite good, deteriorated to the point that he walked a total of 27 times. Even his power, which was always his best asset, vanished. He hit just 13 homers in 114 games.
14) Jeff Mathis | Anaheim Angels
It's always risky ranking young catchers who have yet to play above Single-A highly, but Jeff Mathis really impressed me in 2002, when he hit .287/.346/.444 with 54 XBHs. I ranked him 14th overall and third among catchers.
His 2003 season was even more impressive. Mathis started the year at high Single-A and hit .323/.384/.500 with 11 homers and 28 doubles in 98 games. He then moved up to Double-A and finished the year hitting .284/.364/.464 in 24 games there. Overall, he batted .315 with 13 homers and 39 doubles in 122 games.
The great thing about Mathis is that his defense is usually what people rave about. At this point, he looks like the total package and, if it weren't for that kid from Minnesota, he'd be the best catching prospect in baseball.
13) Rich Harden | Oakland A's
My comment on Rich Harden last year turned out to be one of my best predictions of the year:
Harden appears to be on the same path as Tim Hudson and Barry Zito - start the season in Triple-A and, if all goes well, make a second half Major League debut, pitch around 100 innings with the A's and then join the rotation full-time the next year.
Well, okay, it wasn't 100% on the money. Harden actually started the season at Double-A, not Triple-A. Of course, he was promoted to Triple-A after two Double-A starts in which he combined to throw 13 perfect innings (that's right - no hits, no walks).
All went well in Triple-A (9-4 with a 3.15 ERA in 88.2 innings) and Harden made his major league debut in the second-half. He pitched a total of 74.2 innings for Oakland (does that qualify for "around 100"?) and will be a full-time member of their starting rotation this season.
He's the next great Oakland starter (as if they needed another one).
12) Casey Kotchman | Anaheim Angels
Here's a little of what I said about Casey Kotchman last year:
If real life worked like a Playstation game, the Angels could just turn injuries to "off" and Kotchman would have nothing to worry about. Barring some technological and biological advancements that I am unaware of, that is not yet an option, so staying on the field will be a huge key for Kotchman throughout the rest of his career.
Kotchman once again was injured in 2003. It was his wrist in 2002 and this time it was a broken hand and a torn hamstring. When he was healthy, Kotchman hit just like he always does, batting .350/.441/.525 in 57 games at high Single-A.
I am of two minds on Kotchman. On one hand, .350/.441/.525 for a 20-year-old at high Single-A is damn impressive, and he has basically hit the snot out of the ball wherever he has gone. On the other hand, for whatever reason, he simply hasn't been able to stay healthy. Some of that is bad luck. Heck, maybe all of it is bad luck, I don't know.
Either way, not staying on the field should impact a prospect's status in my opinion, although Kotchman is so good that it doesn't drop him much. If you promised me he'd be healthy for the next 10 years, there are very few prospects I'd take over him.
11) Justin Morneau | Minnesota Twins
Justin Morneau started 2003 on fire. He began the year at Double-A and hit .329/.384/.620 in 20 games there before being promoted to Triple-A. Then he hit .297/.377/.623 in 37 games at Triple-A, before being called up to the big leagues for the first time.
At the time of his being called up, Morneau was batting .309/.380/.622 with 19 homers in 57 total games. His hot hitting continued for a little while with the Twins and he was batting .353/.398/.588 through his first 12 games.
Morneau then went into a tailspin, going 12 for his next 72 (.167) and was sent back to Triple-A. His struggles continued there and he hit just .236 in his final 127 at bats of the year.
There is no doubt Morneau struggled during the last part of the year, but his dominance in the first-half should not be forgotten. He is still just 22 and definitely on-track for stardom.
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