February 26, 2004
Top 50 Prospects: A Year in Review (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.
10) Rocco Baldelli | Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Here's a little of what I said about Rocco Baldelli last year:
Rocco Baldelli's "ceiling" is as high as anyone's and he looks like a potential MVP candidate, but he's going to make it very difficult on himself if he doesn't start taking some walks.
Short term, I wouldn't expect him to hit .330 in the majors anytime soon, which is what he'll have to do to make himself valuable with such an atrocious walk rate.
Baldelli didn't hit .330, but he gave it a good fight for a little while. He started the year extremely hot, hitting .368/.389/.509 in April. He cooled down a little but continued to do quite well in May, hitting .314/.348/.438. Through his first two months in the major leagues, Baldelli was batting .340/.367/.474.
He also had a Soriano-esque 45/9 strikeout/walk ratio at that point, which soon caught up to him. Baldelli hit just .263 after May, including .270/.322/.378 in the second-half of the year. Of course, even .270/.322/.378 for a 21-year-old rookie center fielder isn't bad.
Baldelli's final numbers were .289/.326/.416 with 11 homers, 32 doubles, 8 triples and 27 stolen bases. All in all, a pretty damn good year for a guy with less than 200 at bats above Single-A.
Baldelli finished 4 Runs Created Above Position (RCAP), which actually puts him in some fairly exclusive company. In the last 30 years, here's a list of the only 21-year-old center fielders to post higher RCAP totals than Baldelli:
Ken Griffey Jr. 1991 49
Andruw Jones 1998 13
Juan Gonzalez 1991 12
Terry Puhl 1978 9
Barry Bonds 1986 7
Ellis Valentine 1976 5
Rick Manning 1976 5
There are three MVP winners on that list and they've won a total of nine MVP awards. Also, everyone but Rick Manning was an All-Star at least once. And yes, Juan Gonzalez actually played center field in 1991.
9) Brandon Phillips | Cleveland Indians
Wow, that was a bad year. Setting aside everyone who suffered a serious injury, I would guess Brandon Phillips had one of the worst seasons ever for someone who entered the year as a top-10 prospect.
Phillips won the second base job out of spring training and got off to an extremely slow start, going 10 for his first 59 (.167). At various points it looked like he was going to pull it together, raising his batting average to .234 near the end of April and even up to .250 in the middle of May. He just couldn't sustain any productive stretches though, finishing the year at .208/.242/.311 in 112 games.
The amazing thing is that Phillips not only continued to stink when he was sent back to Triple-A, he was actually even worse there. In 43 Triple-A games, Phillips hit .175/.247/.279. This is a guy who came into 2003 a career .280 minor league hitter.
I'm not sure I can begin to explain what happened to Brandon Phillips last year, so I won't even try.
8) Jason Stokes | Florida Marlins
I typically get scared off when power hitters suffer significant wrist injuries. Heck, just a few days ago I was discussing Brad Nelson (my #45 prospect last year) and I rated his stock as "down" and said, "wrist injuries for power hitters scare me."
That said, for some reason season-ending wrist surgery in 2002 didn't stop me from ranking Jason Stokes as the #8 prospect in baseball. It probably should have.
According to what I've heard, Stokes' wrist was healed by the time he started playing last year, but he did reportedly have some slight problems with the wrist early on. After hitting .341 with a homer every 12.9 at bats and an extra-base hit every 6.7 at bats in 2002, Stokes' power declined significantly in 2003. He hit a homer every 27.2 at bats and an extra-base hit every 9.1 at bats.
His batting average also dropped to .258 and his plate discipline (135/36 strikeout/walk ratio) was horrendous. Obviously a wrist injury that was mostly healed by the time the season started can't be blamed for all of Stokes' struggles in 2003, but it certainly didn't help him any.
7) Jesse Foppert | San Francisco Giants
Jesse Foppert came into last season with a career minor league ERA of 2.95 in 210.1 innings pitched. He had 271 strikeouts in those innings, which comes out to an amazing 11.6 per nine innings pitched. He was big, he threw absolute gas and he racked up huge strikeout numbers everywhere he went.
At the end of my comment on him last year I said, very simply:
He's the real deal.
And he was. I watched Jesse Foppert's major league debut on ESPN and came away from it extraordinarily impressed. Foppert came into the game against the Astros in the top of the 7th inning and got the first three batters he faced 1-2-3, including an absolutely dominating performance against Craig Biggio that ended in a swinging strikeout.
Foppert remained in San Francisco's bullpen for just one more game and then made the move to the starting rotation. He was very inconsistent early on as a starter, but managed to work in enough gems (8 Ks and 1 ER in 7 innings at Colorado, 10 Ks and 1 ER in 7.1 innings against the White Sox) to keep you dreaming about his future.
Then it all came to an end. After a brief appearance against the Braves on August 20th, Foppert left the game after experiencing numbness in his right hand. Foppert tried to do some throwing in the bullpen a couple weeks later, but again had problems. Turns out, he tore a ligament in his elbow.
He had Tommy John surgery in September and is likely out for almost all of 2004. Foppert is now just another in the long line of awesome pitching prospects who went down with serious injuries. Here's hoping he can make it back, because he is a special pitcher.
6) Francisco Rodriguez | Anaheim Angels
Here's a little of what I said about Francisco Rodriguez last year:
Rodriguez looks like a "sure thing" at this point. He has a blazing fastball and a devastating slider that makes hitters look absolutely ridiculous. The Angels appear to have chosen a setup role for him in 2002 and I wouldn't be surprised to see him put up Octavio Dotel-type numbers (~100 IP/2.50 ERA).
Not a bad prediction. Rodriguez pitched 86 innings with a 3.03 ERA.
In fact, his numbers were nearly identical to Octavio Dotel's:
IP ERA SO BB HR OAVG
Rodriguez 86 3.03 95 35 12 .172
Dotel 87 2.48 97 31 9 .172
The amazing thing is that, as good as Rodriguez's rookie year was, it barely got any attention. That is probably due to the incredible hype he had as a result of his amazing post-season in 2002.
Rodriguez had one of the greatest handful of seasons ever for a 21-year-old relief pitcher. Among 21-year-olds who didn't start a single game, here are the all-time leaders in Runs Saved Above Average (RSAA):
Billy McCool 1966 20
Francisco Rodriguez 2003 11
Manny Sarmiento 1977 7
Matt Anderson 1998 7
Edwin Nunez 1984 7
Not exactly a star-studded list, but that's partly because not many great 21-year-old pitchers spend an entire year in the majors with making any starts.
Incidentally, how great is "Billy McCool" as a name for a 21-year-old reliever?
5) Jose Reyes | New York Mets
After hitting .288 with 53 extra-base hits and 58 steals between Single-A and Double-A in 2002, Jose Reyes started 2003 at Triple-A Norfolk and didn't exactly dominate. He hit just .269/.333/.356 in 42 games before the Mets called him up in early June.
Reyes struggled initially with New York, hitting just .205/.211/.342 in his first month, but he turned it up a notch after that. In July and August combined, Reyes hit .343/.381/.477 with 4 homers, 9 doubles, 2 triples and 12 stolen bases. Unfortunately, his season ended on August 31st, when he hurt his ankle trying to break up a double-play.
Reyes finished the year batting .307/.334/.434 in 69 games with the Mets. His numbers projected out to 155 games come to .307 with 11 homers, 27 doubles, 9 triples, 29 steals, 72 RBIs and 106 runs scored. He also walked just 13 times, which is definitely an area he's going to need to work on. Still, it's hard to argue with his rookie numbers.
Jose Reyes is destined for stardom and if you aren't yet convinced, check out this list of the top half-dozen 20-year-old shortstops in baseball history (ranked by RCAP):
Alex Rodriguez 1996 88
John McGraw 1893 45
Arky Vaughan 1932 24
Travis Jackson 1924 21
Tony Kubek 1957 13
Jose Reyes 2003 11
As soon as Alex Rodriguez has been retired for five years, four of the five guys ahead of Jose Reyes will be in the Hall of Fame. The only one who isn't a Hall of Famer is Tony Kubek, who had to settle for being a 3-time All-Star.
Of course, with Kazuo Matsui now a Met, Reyes is no longer even a shortstop. Here's that same list, but with 20-year-old second basemen instead of shortstops:
Bill Mazeroski 1957 12
Rennie Stennett 1971 11
Roberto Alomar 1988 9
Frankie Gustine 1940 4
Bert Myers 1884 4
Not nearly as impressive (although Reyes would rank tied for 2nd), which probably says a lot about where great 20-year-old middle infielders should be playing.
4) Michael Cuddyer | Minnesota Twins
I happen to think Twins GM Terry Ryan is very good at his job. I would gladly take him running my team any day of the week. That said, I am not particularly happy with the way he and Ron Gardenhire have handled Michael Cuddyer.
Cuddyer was Minnesota's first round pick (9th overall) in the 1997 draft. Since then, all he's done is hit. .301/.395/.560 at Double-A in 2001. .309/.379/.594 at Triple-A in 2002. .306/.381/.446 at Triple-A in 2003. Yet despite all that hitting and the fact that he is going to be 25 years old in 2004, he still hasn't had a chance to play on an everyday basis for more than a few weeks at a time.
The Twins have talked about his inability to "establish" himself as a hitter when he has been given an opportunity. Certainly Cuddyer hasn't dominated offensively, but he's been given a grand-total of 232 at bats to prove himself in three seasons.
And his offense, which has apparently been so poor that it has cost him chances for real playing time? Well, he's a career .250/.316/.422 hitter in the major leagues. Again, those are not great numbers, but they aren't disastrous either, especially in such limited playing time.
Meanwhile, Dustan Mohr was given more than 800 plate appearances over the past two years, despite the fact that he hit just .258/.319/.408, numbers almost identical to Cuddyer's.
Once again in 2004, Cuddyer appears to be the odd man out. Shannon Stewart is in left field. Jacque Jones is in right field. Corey Koskie is at third base. Doug Mientkiewicz is at first base. And Matthew LeCroy is at DH. I would like to see Cuddyer given a shot at playing second base, but we all know that's not going to happen.
The Twins seem committed to using Cuddyer as a "super utility" player this season, but I'm not at all confident he'll be given any more of a chance to establish himself as a major league hitter than he was given during the past two years.
At some point, you have to give a guy like Cuddyer a legitimate chance to prove himself. Not for 100 at bats and not under the condition that he has to hit .300. That the Twins wasted 804 plate appearances on Dustan Mohr over the last two years while guys like Cuddyer struggled to find playing time is one of my biggest problems with how things have been run in Minnesota. I'm still holding out hope for Cuddyer getting a real chance to play, but I'm not holding my breath.
3) Victor Martinez | Cleveland Indians
Victor Martinez was in the middle of his third straight great offensive season in the minors when the Indians called him up at the end of June. He didn't hit for any power in 49 games, but did bat .289 with a .345 on-base percentage.
Here are Martinez's numbers for the past three years in the minors:
YEAR LVL AB AVG OBP SLG
2001 A 420 .329 .394 .488
2002 AA 443 .336 .417 .576
2003 AAA 274 .328 .395 .474
The power he showed in 2002 may have been a bit of an anomaly, but there's no doubt that Martinez can hit. I expect him to be one of the best catchers in baseball for a long time, starting in 2004.
2) Joe Mauer | Minnesota Twins
In ranking Mauer #2 last year, I talked about the fact that his game was complete, offensively and defensively, except for his lack of power. A year later, that is still true. Mauer hit .338 between Single-A and Double-A last year, posting a fantastic 49/49 strikeout/walk ratio while playing incredible defense behind the plate. Yet he hit just five homers in 509 at bats.
Scouts, teammates, Twins officials and just about anyone else you would want to hear from still talk about the fact that they think Mauer will add power as he matures. Some even go so far as to say they think he could hit 40+ homers a year at some point. Still, regardless of the potential, the results simply haven't been there thus far.
With A.J. Pierzynski in San Francisco, Mauer will be Minnesota's starting catcher in 2004. I wouldn't expect any sudden power surges this year, but I do think he'll eventually add significant power to complete his all-around resume.
I will no doubt have tons more on Mauer here in the future, but I just wanted to show how his power has changed as he has advanced through the minors.
AB/HR AB/2B AB/XBH
Rookie-Ball 18.3 13.8
Low Single-A 102.8 17.9 14.7
High Single-A 233.0 17.9 15.5
Double-A 69.0 16.2 12.5
The good news is that Mauer showed a whole lot more power at Double-A last year than he had everywhere else. Mauer hit four homers in 276 at bats at Double-A, compared to a total of five homers in his previous 754 at bats.
It's not exactly huge power development, but it's something at least. The guy has a career batting average of .330 with a .406 OBP and he'll be a starting catcher in the major leagues before he turns 20, so I'm willing to be patient waiting for the power to arrive.
1) Mark Teixeira | Texas Rangers
Mark Teixeira had a very good rookie season. He batted .259/.331/.480 with 26 homers, 29 doubles and 84 RBIs in 146 games. At the same time, it was a disappointing year in my mind, which might say more about what type of hitter I was/am expecting him to become than the quality of his rookie season.
The two things that surprised me about Teixeira's rookie year were his low batting average and his lack of plate discipline. He drew just 39 non-intentional walks in 598 plate appearances, after being a walking-machine in college and after walking 46 times in just 368 plate appearances in the minors two years ago.
Here's an interesting little tidbit: The only switch-hitters in baseball history to hit more homers than Mark Teixeira as 23-year-olds are...Mickey Mantle and Ruben Sierra. How's that for a mixed bag?
I'll be shocked if Teixeira doesn't improve his numbers across-the-board in 2003, and I suspect he'll be one of the best power hitters in the American League.
Some notes on last year's Top 50:
The "stock" changes break down as follows:
UP - 10
DOWN - 16
NEUTRAL - 24
Obviously my method isn't scientific, but it should at least give a decent estimation of things.
Nearly half of the players saw their stock stay basically the same, which seems about right to me. The fact that only 10 guys went "up" might seem low at first, but when you're already among the top 50 prospects in baseball it's pretty tough to soar even higher.
Guys like Mauer, Reyes and Rodriguez had great years in 2003, but they were already ranked so highly that they really had no room to anywhere but down. Meanwhile, for guys like Stokes, Foppert and Phillips, it's easy to fall when you start so high.
As you might expect, pitchers were the most volatile position. 10 of the 16 pitchers (62.5%) in the top 50 either went up or down, while just 16 of the 34 position players (47.0%) saw their stock move.
Here is how I would rank the biggest gainers and losers:
1) Prince Fielder
2) Andy Marte
3) Miguel Cabrera
4) Rafael Soriano
5) Scott Kazmir
1) Jesse Foppert
2) Josh Hamilton
3) Brandon Phillips
4) Joe Borchard
5) Jason Stokes
*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****