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October 31, 2003

Prospecting

The Trio in Toronto

by David Cameron

The 2003 season will go down as the final chapter for the New Haven Ravens franchise, as the team will relocate to Manchester, New Hampshire in 2004. The final season will also go down as one of the best as well, having won 79 games, the Northern Division championship, and putting more major league prospects on display than any team in recent memory. The Ravens hosted nearly every notable prospect in the Blue Jays' system for some length of time, and an outfield trio of first round selections highlighted their lineup.

Alexis Rios, the team's number one selection in 1999, continued his transformation from project to prospect with a breakout season. The 6'6 Puerto Rican had been projected as a power hitter when selected, but had managed just six home runs and a .362 slugging percentage in 1450 career at-bats prior to 2003. He also had shown little regard for the base on balls, drawing 82 walks in his first 380 professional games, and seemingly did not fit the mold that the Blue Jays were building.

The coaches preached discipline to him, however, and the lessons learned helped him earn the Eastern League MVP. His .352/.402/.551 line translates to a .255 MjEqA, a solid mark for a 22-year-old at any level. He nearly doubled his career home run mark, hitting 11 round-trippers as part of his 54 extra base hit attack. He also set a career high with 39 walks, though his plate discipline deteriorated as the season wore on and he saw his strikeouts rise as well. However, that essentially boils down to nitpicking what was a tremendously successful year.

John-Ford Griffin, taken by the Yankees in the first round of the 2001 draft, was acquired in the spring of 2003 after a long-rumored trade with the A's was finally announced. Each of the three teams to acquire Griffin have done so for his bat, which was most impressive during his professional debut in 2001. Injuries hampered his 2002 season, and Toronto hoped a season of health would lead to a return to previous form.

Griffin ended the year with a .279/.361/.461 line that can be viewed as a glass half-full. For the optimistic, he showed more power than in previous years, alleviating one of the main concerns surrounding his major league potential. However, those who tend to look at the negative see a .231 MjEqA from a 23-year-old in Double-A and a lack of defensive value. Like Rios, Griffin saw a sharp increase in his strikeout rate, but did not match it with an improved walk rate, and his lauded plate discipline does not appear as strong as once thought.

Gabe Gross was hoping to rebound from a miserable 2002 campaign that saw him go from a top prospect into an afterthought in five months. After the Jays selected him with the 15th pick in the 2001 draft and watched him tear up the Florida State League in his debut, there was speculation that he could reach the major leagues for good in 2002. An early season slump in Double-A, hitting .141 in April, ended that talk, and the season did not progress as hoped. Gross returned to New Haven to put the past behind him and show why Toronto had selected him in the first place.

His 2003 season gives hope that the previous season was just a blip on the radar, as his .319/.423/.481 line at Double-A is what the Jays were hoping for from him in 2002. His component numbers were similar to his 2002 season, but he managed to turn a lot of line drive outs into singles, helping raise his average 81 points over his previous year. He still showed gap power and solid plate discipline, and he is expected to improve on his low home run total in future years.

Having a loaded outfield in Double-A is a nice luxury, but it is unlikely that the Blue Jays will find room for all three in their future plans. J.P. Ricciardi will have to make a decision about which of these players will find a permanent home in Toronto, and separating one from the others is not an easy task. We will try anyways.


Griffin

Year    Level           Age  ABs  XBH%  AB/BB  AB/K  BB/K
2001    Short-Season    21   238  0.31   5.95  5.80  0.98
2002    High-A          22   255  0.29   8.79  5.67  0.64
2003    Double-A        23   373  0.38   7.61  4.39  0.58

Gross

Year    Level           Age  ABs  XBH%  AB/BB  AB/K  BB/K
2001    High-A          21   126  0.39   8.40  4.85  0.58
2002    Double-A        22   403  0.33   7.60  5.68  0.75
2003    Double-A        23   310  0.33   5.96  5.85  0.98
2003    Triple-A        23   182  0.48   5.87  3.25  0.55

Rios

Year    Level           Age  ABs  XBH%  AB/BB  AB/K  BB/K
2001    Low-A           20   480  0.25  19.20  8.14  0.42
2002    High-A          21   456  0.24  18.24  7.73  0.42
2003    Double-A        22   514  0.30  13.18  6.05  0.46 

Rios has the largest sample to work off, and has also shown the most steady improvement, but that is common considering his comparative youth. Gross runs away with the extra-base hit to hit ratio, showing consistently solid marks and a real spike after his promotion to Triple-A. His drop in batting average after getting moved up was almost entirely a loss of singles, which is a good sign for the future, as they are the most likely to be effected by random occurrences. Griffin's power surge was not just in home runs, as he was driving the ball significantly more often this year. Rios' impressive slugging percentage does not live up to the test, though, as we see his power is still not in line with a future clean-up hitter. We will give him a bit of a break, though, as his 6'6 frame is not close to being filled out.

Gross is also the best at drawing the base on balls, and his improvement at each level is encouraging. However, his inability to make contact at Triple-A is a concern, but we can take solace in the fact that a 182 at-bat sample isn't that meaningful. Griffin is still patient enough to post healthy on base percentages, but the Jays would certainly like to see him return to his 2001 levels of plate discipline. Rios' early season improvement helped, but he is still a free-swinger who will have to hit for a high average to keep his on base percentages respectable. Considering that he makes the best contact of the trio, he has more room to work with than his sidekicks.

Offensively, Gross still projects as the best player of the trio, though the extra year Rios has to catch up cuts into the deficit. Griffin lags behind in most areas, lacking the polish of Gross or the potential of Rios, but still with intriguing upside as a patient, line-drive hitter. Rios is clearly the best defender of the group, but Gross is a solid right fielder in his own right. Due to the presence of Vernon Wells, the Jays won't need to test Rios' range in center, and he should settle in comfortably as an above average corner outfielder with the glove.

If forced to choose between Rios and Gross, I would go with the safe selection and tab Gabe Gross as my right fielder of the future. However, you would not hear many complaints from people who were forced to settle for Alexis Rios, and he certainly has the potential for a long, productive major league career. That John-Ford Griffin is the odd man out of the group is more a testament to the Blue Jays' depth than to his failings as a prospect, and I would imagine 29 other major league franchises would love to have Griffin in their system. The Jays farm system is gaining strength and has become one of the deepest in baseball, and nowhere was that more evident than in the outfield of New Haven, Connecticut. It was a good way for old Yale Field to go out.

Related Content:  A's,  A.J. Griffin

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