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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Monday, January 27, 2003
2003’s Top 50 Prospects
Aaron takes his turn at the crystal ball.
pros?pect (pras pehkt) - noun - Something expected; a possibility.
At some point, for every single Major League Baseball team, the phrase "wait til next year" is uttered, sometimes quite often. That saying is the mantra of some franchises, a constant wish for better things ahead that just never seem to actually arrive.
For other teams, it is a phrase that represents the hope of finding that missing piece for next year, the thing that can push a team over the top or give them that little something they lacked the year before.
And for one team every season, "wait til next year" is a warning to the rest of the league, a notification of reinforcements that will soon arrive and make last year?s World Series champions even stronger.
The 50 men discussed in this article are the "wait til next year" for their teams. They are that middle-of-the-order hitter that a team has been lacking, that dominant starting pitcher they have never had, that slick fielding shortstop that will rejuvenate the whole team.
These men are the hopes, prayers and dreams of many and while several of them will succeed, some to extraordinary heights, others will fail miserably and become nothing more than a nightmare, a tease of something that "coulda been."
For every guy that was a "sure thing," there is another guy that was a "sure thing."
Before I get to the prospects, I want to say a few words about my rankings.
To be "eligible" for this prestigious list, a player must meet the Rookie-of-the-Year qualifications, which means he has a total of less than 150 at bats or 50 innings pitched at the Major League level (so no Hank Blalock, Sean Burroughs, Josh Beckett or Mark Prior).
In addition to that, I do not rank players that have yet to play professional baseball in America, which means no Hideki Matsui, Jose Contreras or B.J. Upton. It is hard enough trying to rank players that play in the minor leagues, so I won?t even attempt to rank someone that has been playing against high school kids or in foreign leagues. It is just too difficult.
There is definitely no set formula for how I rank players as it is an extremely inexact science.
Of course, there are several key things I tend to look at for each player (in no particular order):
1) Age and level of competition.
Quite simply, a 21 year old hitting .330 at Double-A is just more impressive than a 24 year old doing the same. That?s not to say that every young player is a good prospect or every older player is a non-prospect, but it is a significant consideration for all players.
2) Plate discipline/control of the strike zone.
Despite what the old cliché might tell you, a walk is usually not as good as a hit. However, for a player in the minor leagues to show some semblance of discipline at the plate is a very important factor in their development and is thus a very important factor in these rankings. This is certainly not a must for every single prospect, but it is important.
3) Defense and the future position.
Accurately judging a player?s defensive abilities at the Major League level is a difficult task at best and tedious at worst, so doing the same for minor league players is like trying to come up with the perfect simile, it?s almost impossible. In the minors, shortstops routinely make 40 errors in a season, many players are learning new positions on the job and it isn?t like there is a place to find defensive Win Shares for center fielders in the Florida State League. But defense is a huge part of a player?s value and it is just as big a factor in how good a prospect is.
Another important aspect of defense for prospects is trying to determine which position the player will end up playing in the Major Leagues. Many players find themselves shifting down the defensive spectrum as they advance up through the minor leagues and a player?s overall status as a prospect must at least attempt to take into account their eventual position(s). A minor league shortstop that is a great hitter is a wonderful thing, but less so if the player is unlikely to stick at shortstop in the Majors.
4) Offensive performance and the factors involved.
The performance part is pretty self-explanatory: At some point, a "prospect" has to play like a prospect, because whether or not he was a first round pick or a highly touted foreign signing isn?t going to help him hit or pitch in the Major Leagues.
In addition to that, there are many things in a player?s performance beyond the obvious, which is to say that not all .300 batting averages or 30 home run seasons are equal. Just as in the Major Leagues, there are many different "park factors" throughout minor league baseball. There are parks that favor pitching and parks that favor hitting, and there are entire leagues that do the same.
5) Strikeouts and walks for pitchers.
For pitchers, the first thing I always look at is the strikeout rate. The more strikeouts the better, it?s as simple as that. Okay, maybe it?s not quite that simple. In general, the higher a pitcher?s K rate is, the better chance for long-term success he has. There are definitely tons of exceptions, but it is a good general rule. In addition to strikeouts, a pitcher?s control is also key. Striking out 10 batters a game doesn?t do much good if you are walking just as many and, at the same time, a pitcher can be very successful with an unexceptional strike out rate if he doesn?t walk very many batters.
There is a balance between the two that needs to exist at some point, although it is very tough to pin down in minor league pitchers. In most cases, a pitcher?s K rate will decrease once he gets to the Majors and his walk rate will increase, which gives added importance to being able to strike out a lot of batters and to keep the walks to a minimum while in the minors.
Finally, my rankings reflect my feeling about a player’s long-term chance for success at the Major League level and the degree of that success. There are players on this list that will play in the Major Leagues next season and there are players that won?t sniff the bigs for another couple of years. I look at every player the same way: How good do I think this guy has a chance to be and how likely do I feel he is to reach that level?
Without further adieu, my top 50 prospects in all of baseball (and may your team?s "next year" be a good one)?
#50) Travis Blackley
The Mariners signed Travis Blackley out of Australia in 2000 and he did very well in his 2001 pro debut, striking out 90 batters in only 79 innings pitched. He suffered a fractured elbow during the 2001 off-season while pitching in an instructional league and missed the start of the 2002 season. Once healthy, Blackley continued to pitch extremely well and racked up huge strikeout numbers as the California League?s youngest pitcher.
Blackley is not a scout favorite because his fastball tops out at about 88 MPH. However, he has a super changeup and a good curveball and his performance thus far has certainly been great. Major League Baseball history is littered with successful lefties that had troubling reaching 90 with their heaters and Blackley?s command and secondary pitches should be more than enough for him to join that long list.
Blackley will likely start the year at Double-A San Antonio, which will be a real test to see if his performance continues to out-weigh his fastball. He?ll have to continue to pitch well, because guys like him don?t get as many chances or as much leeway as someone that can dial it up to 95 MPH.
#49) Jonny Gomes
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Fans of the "Three True Outcomes" (aka the Rob Deer fan club) that are reeling from the news that Russ Branyan will be out several months with an injury may have a new 3TO hero to latch on to.
Along with 173 whiffs and 91 walks, Jonny Gomes was also hit by a pitch an amazing 31 times last season.
When he wasn?t walking, whiffing and hitting the dirt, Gomes was crushing the ball. He hit over .450 when he actually put the ball in play and finished second in the California League with 30 homers.
Striking out 173 times in less than 450 at bats is a bit disturbing, but Gomes still managed to hit for a good average (.276) and got on-base at a very good clip, thanks in large part to that combo of 122 walks and hit by pitches.
He isn?t much of a defender and will probably be limited to LF, 1B or DH. Despite his subpar defensive skills, Gomes is actually a decent runner, further evidenced by his 9 triples in 2002 and 15 steals in each of the past 2 seasons.
2003 will be a huge year for Gomes as he makes the move to Double-A and we get to see if he can be the next Rob Deer or possibly something more. He isn?t overly young and Tampa actually has quite a logjam of outfielders coming up through the system, so he?ll need to make good on any chance he is given.
#48) Wilson Betemit
Not many prospects saw their stock drop as far as Wilson Betemit?s did in 2002. Despite that, Betemit still makes this list, but just barely. Which tells you how high his stock was before 2002.
Betemit?s 2002 season is a perfect example of why you shouldn?t get overly excited about a player that shows absolutely no ability to control the strike zone. Prior to 2002, Betemit walked a grand total of 121 times in 350 minor league games. He still performed very well and his natural ability was reason for great optimism. At Triple-A in 2002, his lack of plate discipline began to hurt him against the more experienced pitching and his offensive attack, which had been almost entirely based on batting average, completely disintegrated. Betemit?s average was stuck below .200 for much of the season and he ended up hitting only .245 and walked 34 times in 93 AAA games. Various injuries kept him from playing in more games and also probably affected his performance when he played.
He still has a ton of potential offensively. He is a switch hitter, he?s still very young and he has a ton of natural skills. Many scouts still think he has 25+ home run potential.
Defensively, Betemit has decent range and a very strong arm. As he matures and gets bigger, he may move over to third base, which he should be able to handle with ease.
There is no doubt that Betemit still plays a big role in the Braves? long-term infield plans, but he?ll need to bounce back in a big way in 2003. Expect him to have a good season, although he may never live up to the hype he was receiving in 2001.
#47) Kevin Cash
Toronto Blue Jays
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 that 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 was originally a third baseman at Florida State and went undrafted. The Blue Jays saw him play as an emergency catcher in a summer league game and liked what they saw so they signed him and made him a full-time backstop.
Because he is relatively new to the position, Cash is still somewhat raw behind the plate. However, scouts rave about his cannon arm and athleticism and he definitely has the potential to be very special defensively. Cash threw out 56% of base runners in 2001 and 40% in 2002.
Offensively, power has been the only constant from year to year, level to level. Cash hit 10 homers and 10 doubles in only 196 at bats in 2000 and then followed that up with 12 homers and 27 doubles in 371 ABs in 2001. Last season, between Double-A and Triple-A, Cash totaled 18 homers and 33 doubles in 449 at bats.
The other parts of his offensively game are far less stable. After drawing slightly more than 1 walk per 10 at bats in 2000 and 2001, Cash improved his plate discipline last season and drew 61 walks to go along with those 449 ABs. I tend to think that the improved plate discipline is for real and will likely continue, particularly because it is something the Toronto organization feels is extremely important.
His batting average, on the other hand, is incredibly hard to predict. Cash hit .245 in 2000 and then .285 in 2001. Then he hit .277 last season in Double-A, but only .220 in Triple-A. With a gun to my head, I?d guess he will hover around .250 in the Majors, but I would wonder why someone would threaten me with a gun over Kevin Cash?s batting average.
#46) Prince Fielder
Cecil?s little boy is all grown up and he can mash just like his old man.
A lot has been made of what Prince Fielder isn?t - he isn?t a great athlete, he isn?t in very good shape, he isn?t much of a defensive player - but if Prince Fielder is anything, it is a hitter.
The Brewers picked Prince with the 7th pick in the 2002 draft and he started his professional career at Ogden of the Pioneer (rookie) league. His stat line there looks more like something Barry Bonds? son would put up - a .390 average with 37 walks, 10 homers and 12 doubles in only 146 at bats.
Milwaukee promoted him to the Midwest (Single-A) League and Fielder struggled. His average dipped below .250, but he continued to show good power and his walk rate remained decent.
Fielder will have to hit if he wants to play in Milwaukee, because he certainly isn?t doing anything else to help his cause. 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.
#45) Brad Nelson
I am a big believer in projecting future power for a player in the low minors based largely on his doubles totals. So, since I do what I say and say what I do, I have to include Brad Nelson on this list, simply because his power potential looks awesome. Nelson led all of minor league baseball with 49 doubles between 2 levels of Single-A in 2002 and he also managed to bang out 20 homers. Plus, he was the minor league leader in runs batted in, with 116.
There is an incredible logjam of first basemen in the Milwaukee organization, starting at the top with Richie Sexson and working its way down to Nelson and Fielder in the low minors. Because of that, Nelson may be tried in left field (you know Prince Fielder certainly isn?t going to be) or maybe even third base.
Nelson is your typical slow slugger, so he will never be a great left fielder, but he has enough athleticism that he probably wouldn?t be a complete disaster out there. If he stays at first base, he has plenty of glove to handle the position.
49 doubles (and 20 homers) for a guy that doesn?t turn 21 until December of 2003 is extremely impressive and expect those doubles to start gradually turning into homers, starting with this year.
#44) Boof Bonser
San Francisco Giants
First of all, "Boof" is not Bonser?s given name. Wanna take a guess as to what it is?
If you guessed "Ezekiel"?well, you?d be incorrect. His name at birth was John Bonser, but he earned the nickname "Boof" as a kid and decided to officially change his name to it before the 2001 season.
Besides having a really strange name, Bonser is a massive human being that throws very hard, striking out a lot of guys and walking his fair share too.
The Giants decided to start Bonser at Double-A last year and it turned out to be a mistake. He struggled with his control and gave up 3 homers in 24 innings before he and his 5.55 ERA were demoted back to Single-A. Once back in Single-A, he did very well, striking out nearly 10 batters a game and limiting opponents to a sub-.200 batting average. There was some cause for concern even though he was pitching very well, because his velocity was down slightly from past years. His fastball was still clocking in above 90, but not at the usual 94+ that he was capable of in the past.
Bonser did a lot of good work with his curveball and change up last season, possibly because he was less able to just blow people away with his fastball. The loss in velocity is still a concern, as is the drop in his K rate.
After striking out 11.2/9 in 2000 and 12.0/9 in 2001, Bonser?s K rate dropped quite a bit in 2002, as he struck out 9.8/9 in Single-A and 8.6/9 in Double-A. Drops in K rate as a player progresses through the minors is often to be expected and Bonser is still striking out a ton of batters. He did not improve his control in 2002 and he walks too many batters right now.
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.
#43) Colby Lewis
The Rangers drafted Colby Lewis out of Junior College with their supplemental first round pick in the 1999 draft and he has progressed very nicely, posting good K rates and decent control at every stop along the way.
Lewis made the big league club out of spring training, but struggled and was sent down after only 34 innings. He went to Triple-A and had another very nice season, improving his control and striking out 8.3 batters per 9 innings. Lewis also limited the amount of long balls he gave up, which is what killed him in his stint with the Rangers. After giving up 4 homers in his 34 big league innings, Lewis only surrendered 4 in 107 Triple-A frames. He has been very good at keeping the ball in the ballpark throughout his minor league career, so I don?t think he will have a huge problem with that once he gets settled in the Majors.
Colby Lewis is a big power pitcher with a great fastball and a lack of secondary pitches, which is a familiar story. He does work with a hard curve and changeup and he?ll need to be able to throw at least one of those for a strike consistently if he wants to stay in the Majors for more than 34 innings at a time.
The Rangers have acquired some pitching this off-season, but they still might have a place for Lewis, perhaps in the bullpen, to start the season.
#42) Chris Snelling
Seattle signed Chris Snelling out of Australia in 1999, at the age of 17. Since then, Snelling has always been one of the youngest hitters in the leagues he has played in and has probably been described as "scrappy" by pretty much every person that has ever seen him play baseball. He hustles like a madman on every play and that is always a good thing, but he also has a tendency to injure himself, which obviously is not so good.
He broke his left hand in 2000 and then hit .336 in 2001 while playing with a fracture in his ankle. Last season, Snelling missed the first portion of the year because he broke his thumb in spring training and when he finally started playing in Double-A and then made it to the big leagues, tearing his knee in only his 8th game as a Mariner.
A torn ACL is a very serious injury and Snelling may miss the beginning of the season (once again) in 2003. Even if he comes back healthy in spring training, he is likely to begin the year in Triple-A.
When he does come back, Snelling might want to tone it down just a little bit. He might need to learn that it doesn?t always have to be "Go Time" and he could do well by not crashing into as many walls or sliding head first into as many bases.
Snelling projects as a solid leadoff or #2 hitter and perhaps a good #3 guy if he develops a little more power. He may never hit 20+ homers, but he should be able to keep his average above .300 and hit lots of balls into the gaps. He also has exceptional plate discipline for a player his age and is a plus defensive outfielder at all three spots, although he will almost certainly end up in one of the outfield corners, particularly if he loses any speed/mobility because of the knee injury.
#41) Josh Hamilton
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Josh Hamilton is like that "Major Project" you had due at the end of a college course.
The expectation was that it was going to be really good and the potential for greatness was always there, but, for whatever reason, it never really got going quite the way it should have.
Hamilton isn?t quite up to the deadline yet, but he is going to be putting in some last minute work if this thing is going to turn out well. Injuries have been a constant during Hamilton?s pro career, putting a very early end to two of his seasons and causing that disastrous .180/.221/.236 line you see for 2001.
A former #1 overall pick in 1999, Hamilton still has all the "tools" and, when healthy, he has actually been a very good player. He just can?t seem to stay on the field for any length of time and that has stalled his development and taken away one of his biggest assets, his youth.
Another injury plagued season and Hamilton will probably drop off of the "Top Prospect" lists for good, but until then he still has too much potential and youth to ignore.
#40) Cliff Lee
Cliff Lee, who came over in the Bartolo Colon trade, is the best of seemingly thousands of left handed pitching prospects in the Cleveland system.
Originally drafted by Montreal in the 3rd round of the 2000 draft, out of the University of Arkansas, Lee has always shown incredible "stuff," but has had bouts with control problems.
Lee breezed through the Double-A, pitched effectively in Triple-A and even made his first 2 big league starts in 2002.
He throws a low-90s heater - two-seam and four-seam, a great changeup and a big, slow curve, plus a slider that he often struggles to control. After seemingly getting his wildness under control while in the Montreal system at the beginning of this year, Lee had a lot of trouble throwing strikes once he joined the Cleveland organization. He walked over 5 batters per 9 innings in his brief stint with Akron (AA) and followed that up with 4.6 walks per 9 with Buffalo (AAA).
With Cleveland in full rebuilding mode, Lee has a good shot at pitching a lot of innings in the big leagues in 2003. If he can?t get the walks under control, he?s going to struggle, but eventually he should be a very good front-of-the-rotation starter.
#39) Jeremy Bonderman
Jeremy Bonderman was the first high school junior ever drafted when the A?s took him with a 1st round pick in the 2001 draft and he came to Detroit, along with Carlos Pena and Franklyn German, in the Jeff Weaver 3-way deal. Pena looks to be Detroit?s first baseman for the foreseeable future, German should be closing out games in 2003 and Bonderman is right behind them - making that deal a very good one for Dave Dombrowski and the Tigers.
Bonderman is extremely young and has already had remarkable success against high S
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