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January 29, 2003

Top 40 Prospects

Roundtable

by Baseball Prospectus

Rany Jazayerli: I know I say this every year, but this has to be the most difficult list I've ever put together. There just aren't enough clear, can't-miss prospects to fill out a Top 40 list, so the potential for selections which look absurd through the retrospectoscope is quite high. Please keep that in mind before you rip apart the following list.

I will reserve my comments until later, as I don't want to bias the proceedings. Well, I will make one comment: Yes, I believe Jerome Williams is the best non-Cuban-refugee pitching prospect today. And you'll have a devil of a time convincing me otherwise.

  1. Mark Teixeira, 3B, Texas
  2. Hideki Matsui, RF, New York (AL)
  3. Jose Contreras, SP, New York (AL)
  4. Jose Reyes, SS, New York (NL)
  5. Brandon Phillips, 2B/SS, Cleveland
  6. Hee Seop Choi, 1B, Chicago (NL)
  7. Victor Martinez, C, Cleveland
  8. Jerome Williams, SP, San Francisco
  9. Joe Mauer, C, Minnesota
  10. Chris Snelling, OF, Seattle
  11. Francisco Rodriguez, RP, Anaheim
  12. Jason Stokes, 1B, Florida
  13. Rocco Baldelli, OF, Tampa Bay
  14. Rich Harden, SP, Oakland
  15. Jesse Foppert, SP, San Francisco
  16. Marlon Byrd, CF, Philadelphia
  17. Hanley Ramirez, SS/3B, Boston
  18. Michael Cuddyer, RF, Minnesota
  19. Travis Hafner, 1B, Cleveland
  20. Scott Hairston, 2B, Arizona
  21. Aaron Heilman, SP, New York (NL)
  22. Justin Huber, C, New York (NL)
  23. Rafael Soriano, SP, Seattle*
  24. Shin-Soo Choo, OF, Seattle
  25. Kurt Ainsworth, SP, San Francisco
  26. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Florida
  27. Joe Borchard, CF, Chicago (AL)
  28. Brendan Harris, 3B, Chicago (NL)
  29. Jason Arnold, SP, Toronto
  30. Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Florida
  31. Bobby Jenks, SP, Anaheim
  32. Juan Rivera, LF, New York (AL)
  33. Joey Thurston, 2B, Los Angeles
  34. Brad Hawpe, 1B, Colorado
  35. Jayson Werth, OF, Toronto
  36. Clint Nageotte, SP, Seattle
  37. Khalil Greene, SS, San Diego
  38. Justin Morneau, 1B, Minnesota
  39. Dontrelle Willis, SP, Florida
  40. Michael Restovich, OF, Minnesota

*Soriano threw only 47 IP in the majors last year, but it appears he was on the major league roster from early May until going on the DL in early July. Since the rookie eligibility limit is 45 days before September call-ups, I believe his rookie eligibility is exhausted and he needs to be removed from the list.

My proposed 15 Honorable Mentions, in alphabetical order (16, actually, since one of them needs to be promoted to occupy Soriano's position on the list):

Other guys to consider: Todd Linden, Andy Phillips, Josh Hamilton, Cliff Lee, Mike Gosling, Chin-Hui Tsao, Lyle Overbay. Oh, and B.J. Upton, I suppose.

Let the frenzy begin.

Derek Zumsteg: Honestly, I think putting Nageotte in the spotlight now potentially makes us seers down the road. I'd rank him as high as we can find space: His K-rate is eye-popping, and next year he could be the #1 pitching prospect in all creation.

Kotchman's bad-ass. I'd stick him on the 40.

OK, put down any drinks you may be sipping (or, if it's alcoholic and you're Scherer, guzzling). I'd argue for Drew Henson as an honorable mention. Henson was 22 in Triple-A, showed excellent power, both HR and extra-base, and the walks are on the rise. He strikes out too much and his defense sucks, but that doesn't stop Derek Jeter. If he makes more contact, he's a top-tier batting prospect and you stick him wherever you have to.

Henson's PECOTA?

Breakout: 62%   
Improve: 81%    
Collapse: 10%

Yup. He's a weird prospect, and maybe not our standard prospect, but he's a prospect, and to omit someone with that much potential would do us a disservice.

Also some names to toss out of the top of my head: Jim Journell of the Cards and Billy Traber of the Indians.

I also wonder about Ken Harvey--he's 25, his season in Triple-A was like Drew Henson's with 80 Ks turned into contact outs. Henson may not play 3B, but Harvey doesn't play 1B.

Jeff Hildebrand: Isn't Henson's PECOTA a perfect example of what Nate was warning us about in terms of reading too much into the breakout numbers for low-level prospects? He put up a 1.5 VORP last year, he could double that--which would certainly qualify for a breakout the way the numbers are computed--and he would still not be particularly useful.

As far as the rest of the argument goes, even if the trends are in the right direction he has so far to go I just don't see any possible justification for putting him on the list. To compare him to another bad fielding third baseman playing in the International League in 2002, his production was worse than that of Chase Utley and I certainly wouldn't argue for Utley's inclusion. (In fact I'd argue against it.) Sure Henson's 14 months younger than Utley, but at most that difference means they're at roughly the same level of potential. Neither looks like a sure fire candidate to be a major league regular, which to me disqualifies they from inclusion.

Jeff Bower: Maybe I'm Cliff Lee-crazy from covering the Expos last year, but in my mind, he's got to be Top 40. I've never particularly liked Ainsworth and think he's rated far too high, so maybe you can just swap the two. Seriously.

For what it's worth, I expect a huge collapse from Rocco Baldelli this year and wouldn't mind seeing him in the 20s. But No. 13 could be quite prescient.

Nate Silver: Regarding Henson, it's mostly the Ugueto Effect, since Henson sure as hell has a lot of room for improvement. But I think PECOTA's also picking up a little bit on his athleticism, as reflected in his size and his isolated power. The two best major league comps it identified for him were Matt Williams and Albert Belle, which are incredibly favorable of course, although there are plenty of crappy players further down his list.

People forget how young Henson is, since he's been obnoxiously overhyped for about forever, but there are very few players who have profiles similar to his, learn a little bit about the strike zone, and develop into good major league hitters.

Top 40, though? Not sure about that.

Other guys with good forecasts who might merit a mention:

Michael Wolverton: I'd reverse Williams and Foppert, on the basis of "Jerome Williams" and "elbow soreness" appearing in the same sentence recently if nothing else. But I can see it the other way.

I like having Hafner as high as he is.

Ludwick should definitely not get an honorable mention, unless you know that his hip is OK.

I'm high on Linden and I'd be happy having him get an Honorable Mention.

Laynce Nix is another possible candidate for an HM. He doesn't look too far behind Brendan Harris as a prospect.

Also, since I didn't include him on the Ranger list I sent you, I want to make sure you considered and rejected Ben Kozlowski. I think it's fine not to mention him--no such thing as a pitching prospect, peripherals not overwhelming, etc. But I've seen him listed by some as the No. 2 Ranger prospect behind Teixeira, so you should take a look if you haven't already.

Keith Scherer: Journell is a good suggestion. If this were a meritocracy, Henson would be out of baseball within 12 months. If he's ever a productive major leaguer I'll buy out Derek's BP shares at double their value.

Hawpe got a lot of press last year, so I can see why people are watching him. Argument against: He was old for his league, he is blocked as a 1B, he can't play the OF well, he sucked in winter ball both at the plate and in the OF, and the organization itself has said he's slower than Cust and can't play LF in Coors because he'd double its size. He had a monster year, but when we figure this list do we ignore the problems he'll have?

Jonah Keri: Getting Victor Martinez that high is very solid, and I think you have a nice read on guys like Scott Hairston, who don't get the ink but deserve lofty rankings.

My peeves:

I couldn't agree more with Bower. There's no responsible way you can have a Top 40 list and not have Cliff Lee. We give Nageotte ample credit for his huge K-rates, and Lee's are likewise huge and he's at least a year or two closer to the majors than Nageotte is. Scouts love him, statheads love him, and I can see at least 10 guys I'd drop without blinking in favor of Lee.

I'm strongly supporting James Loney for the list. The fact that Joey Thurston makes it as the only Dodger only makes it worse. Thurston has a job waiting for him, which is of course key. He also has the skill set of Mark Grudzielanek. Loney may have played just 17 games in the FSL, but he hit .299 in those games two months after prom, more than held his own, projects as hitting for average and power with patience and defense, and our own metrics back that up. It's a bit of a leap, but we look a lot better nailing a guy like this (who'll easily be Top 20 next year) than we do pointing out Thurston's the Dodgers' new 2B, when everyone knows that and he'll likely struggle horribly adjusting to Chavez from Vegas with no walks to help him. At the least I'd axe Thurston if you can't find room for Loney, and make way for Cliff Lee.

Casey Kotchman's a no-brainer. He's Top 30, not Top 40.

If you're looking for another guy to excise, make it Restovich. The guy can't hit a breaking ball at all--scouts will tell you that, and just watching him for a few games in person immediately tells you that. Ample power but he'll be exposed in the majors. His walk rates are OK but not outstanding, and he brings zero defensive value to the table. So unless he goes .240/.320/.550 every year, I don't see it.

Drew Henson sucks. I have slit marks on my wrists, which AFL people tell me came from watching him, though I can't remember now, as I passed out from blood loss, so determined was I to end my life while watching him launch foul ball after foul ball behind 1st, flail at off-speed stuff and handle 3B worse than my 92-year-old bubby after a cup of warm milk.

I may be in the minority here, but I don't think any relief prospect deserves to be ranked that high, ever--even as electric as K-Rod is. I feel very strongly about this.

Another nay on Baldelli. What was it, zero walks in 100 times up at his highest level last year? We're spitting on the BP Constitution if we leave him that high.

I like Phillips of course, but have concerns about his future as long as he's blocked from SS. Second basemen have a knack for nagging injuries which can hurt their futures--the bump down in value from being moved off SS aside - though I feel less strongly about this than some other points.

I'd cut Bobby Jenks too. Too many question marks.

Gary Huckabay: A few comments:

  1. It appears that you're weighting AFL performances very heavily. Probably too heavily.
  2. The idea that Bobby Jenks is worthy of even honorable mention is pretty farfetched. Outside of the AFL, where he made 9 starts, Jenks pitched 123.1 innings in A-ball and Double-A (admittedly in hitters' leagues), walked 90 batters, allowed 99 hits, and struck out 122. I don't see those numbers as defensible for a Top 40 guy.
  3. Rocco Baldelli? 13th? Twenty-seven unintentional walks in 640 PA, and the power isn't overwhelming. He and Kotchman could be swapped. Going down the list, how many prospects 14-40 would you not trade Baldelli for? And above S.S. Choo? I don't see it in any way, shape, or form.
  4. Soriano should be replaced on the list.
  5. No quarrel with Williams as No. 1 pitching prospect.
  6. Michael Restovich above Casey Kotchman? (In case you didn't guess, I see Kotchman as a top 40 guy.)

KS: I concur with Jonah on both Thurston and Loney.

Khalil Greene could be higher. Did great in the Cal League right after being drafted and is on a very fast track. He's also the Golden Spikes winner, and for pedigrees you can't do a lot better than that--see recent winners.

DZ: I think personal distaste for Henson and Henson-related hype is tainting our evaluation. Henson is a potential monster bat, as much as anyone on the list. He may not look good, he may annoy you, his approach may suck, but the Yankees are invested in helping him, and we'll see what that gets us. I would much rather have Henson on the list than the traditional BP inclusion of some dude like Rexrode who puts up no-power .400 OBP, because the possible return on Henson is as great as anyone.

JK: I don't see any Rexrodes on the list, and the few that people seem to have major problems with (Jenks, Restovich, Soriano will be gone, maybe Lidge) should be replaced with guys who have even more upside than Henson, plus the results to back it up, like Colby Lewis, J. Patterson, Loney, Kotchman and Cliff Lee. I see more guys clearly worth adding over Henson than guys who'd merit getting dropped.

Dave Pease: I think we've covered this ground before, but I hate seeing Matsui and Contreras on this list--not because they won't be good, and not because I hate foreigners (that'll parse weird, but I don't actually hate foreigners), but because their prior performance and solid equivalencies (at least in Matsui's case) make them a lot less interesting than the younger players. I know a lot of our readers use this list to sneak keepers in their fantasy leagues, from a utility point of view, and the foreign vets everyone knows about don't do a lot for that set.

Chris Kahrl: My pet peeve (read: can be ignored, it's just me venting) is that Contreras shouldn't rank this high. Beyond El Duque, has a Cuban pitcher yet lived up to expectations? Is Contreras Top 10? I can probably live with that, but I'd really rather have Phillips and Reyes.

Overall, my more serious complaints would be that we're too high on Baldelli and Werth, premature on Hanley Ramirez (no problem listing him, but Top 20?), and Jenks has no business being on the list. I'd strongly concur with everyone else that Kotchman needs to go up to the Top 40, while I'd like to see Miguel Olivo get up into the 35-40 range, probably at Restovich's expense.

I like placing Williams-Harden-Foppert-Heilman-Ainsworth in that order, don't quite know what to do with K-Rod given my bias against relief "prospects," but to K-Rod's credit, you could argue that he might get used Weaver-style and someday slip into starting.

Clay Davenport: I'd go Matsui at No. 1, and I don't think its close. Players that I rank very differently from you:

Players that don't make my top 28 hitters: Greene, Morneau, Restovich. Players that did: Kotchman, Betemit, Larson. I agree with the others: Kotchman should make this easily--I have him No. 11 among the hitters.

Big rankings differences: Choo (I'm higher), Choi (lower), Harris (higher), Byrd (lower), Baldelli (lower--and just barely on the list), Thurston (higher), Ramirez (lower, largely unknown quantity), Hairston (lower). Most of the lowers are that way because their defense sucks, which I think I'm weighting more heavily.

Even at that, I'd put Jonny Gomes on the HM list, and wouldn't touch Bozied or Gautreau.

Henson might be the most consistent performer of the last four years. His rate stats for 1999-2002, lumping all leagues (including AFL) together:

Year     Avg     OBP     SLG     EqA
1999    .225    .279    .391    .213
2001    .228    .273    .384    .220
2002    .215    .275    .397    .225

Over four years, his batting averages are all within a 13-point range, his OBP within 10, his Slugging within 20, his EqA within 12. That's tight.

Pitchers we're closer on, except on Jenks, but I can see an argument for it.

MW: I agree with others with regard to Baldelli. Not only because of the poor walk rate, but also because of the two years of poor performance before this one, and because he doesn't have the swing and plate presence that someone like Josh Hamilton does.

I don't see the excitement about Dontrelle Willis. The control is nice, I suppose, but he's an 8th-ound draft pick with a low strikeout rate who's barely pitched above low-A.

Keep in mind that, barring the intervention of a benevolent god, Colby Lewis will continue trying to break into the majors with the Texas Rangers, whose record translating minor league pitching talent into major league performance is spotty, to put it kindly. That said, if you ignore the organization, Lewis is at least as good a prospect as several of the pitchers on the list.

To be continued...

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