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September 16, 2004

Lies, Damned Lies

Top 50 Prospects Report

by Nate Silver

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Now that the minor-league seasons are complete, and the better prospects are being rewarded with eighth-inning at-bats against Devil Rays to Be Named Later and the tab at the group outing to the strip club, let's take a look at the performances of the position player representatives on our Top 50 Prospects list. This review has been written from a PECOTA standpoint; I am not going to rehash the merits or lack thereof of our particular rankings, a topic we can talk about during the off-season.

For each player, I have provided the weighted mean EqA projection as determined by PECOTA, along with the actual major-league equivalent EqA as provided by Clay Davenport (whom you'll be happy to know is safe and sound in Maryland and not bruising a cornea or something trying to chase down Hurricane Ivan). Players are divided into groups according to where they placed relative to their PECOTA percentile forecast. For players who performed at multiple venues this season, we have combined their production at all levels.

Dramatically Exceeded Expectations (90th percentile or better)


Player              Level      Actual EqA     Projected EqA

Joe Mauer            MLB         .309            .232
David Wright      AA/AAA/MLB     .281            .227
B.J. Upton        AA/AAA/MLB     .268            .222
Neither David Wright nor B.J. Upton are going to win their league's Rookie of the Year award, but they are without a doubt this season's shining stars. Wright is likely to draw some of the same comparables that Miguel Cabrera had before this season: Gary Sheffield, Ron Santo, Eric Chavez, all of whom were above-average major-league regulars by the time that they hit age 21. It is hard to find fault with Wright's performance: all aspects of his offensive game (contact, power, plate discipline) have improved markedly this season, and all have held up beautifully at three levels. The only question is whether he will be "merely" a very good player like Scott Rolen, or a true superstar like Mike Schmidt (who, by the way, did not become a major leaguer for good until age 23).

Upton profiles an awful lot like Roberto Alomar did, with a combination of good athleticism and a great hitting approach that is tough to improve upon. Comparisons to Robin Yount, Alan Trammell and Derek Jeter also work, but might be too modest; Trammell and Jeter were not real offensive threats until they were 22, and Yount until he was 24. So few players become major-league regulars at age 19 that PECOTA may have a tough time getting a handle on Upton until 2006.

Question of the day: is Joe Mauer's value higher or lower than it was a year ago at this time? I vote lower: injury problems tend to compound over time and a catcher with knee problems is a potential disaster.

Markedly Exceeded Expectations (75th percentile through 90th percentile)


Player              Level      Actual EqA     Projected EqA

Dallas McPherson    AA/AAA       .263            .250
Khalil Greene        MLB         .284            .252
Jason Bay            MLB         .305            .282
Dallas McPherson is one of my favorite prospects, and he has a good chance to crack our top five next year. PECOTA likened him to Jim Thome before the year began. His 2004 performance should do nothing to change that. Khalil Greene's performance was a little bit overlooked this year, in part because of the offense-dampening effects of Petco Park. Particularly important was the improvement in his plate discipline, as those changes tend to stick. Greene is already 24, so he's unlikely to experience a huge amount of improvement from this point forward; more likely he will put together a string of six or seven seasons that look an awful lot like this one. Jason Bay's breakout year was news to a lot of people, but not to PECOTA, which found a lot to like in his 2003 performance and gave him a very healthy forecast. He does not profile as the sort of player who is likely to maintain a high batting average, but the power spike is here to stay. Bay is more likely to end up like Jay Buhner than Rusty Greer.

Exceeded Expectations (60th percentile through 75th percentile)


Player              Level      Actual EqA     Projected EqA

Andy Marte            AA         .235            .226
Justin Morneau     AAA/MLB       .283            .269
Bobby Crosby         MLB         .274            .268
Casey Kotchman    AA/AAA/MLB     .250            .244
J.J. Hardy           AAA         .236            .219
Jeremy Hermida        A+         .225            .212
Justin Morneau and Bobby Crosby had very solid forecasts and nevertheless managed to exceed them; I likened Morneau to a left-handed Jeff Bagwell in a recent chat, so I'll stick with that. Crosby has hit for more power than anticipated, something PECOTA should reward in next year's forecast. The system compared him to Jay Bell a year ago; now, I think a sort of souped-up version of Jose Valentin is a more appropriate model, which is more of a compliment than you might think. Casey Kotchman is starting to look an awful lot like Mark Grace.

Andy Marte is the sort of player for whom this exercise can be helpful: he didn't make a ton of noise at Greenville, but was young for his level and put together a very solid campaign that was in excess of PECOTA's expectations. Marte didn't need to have a David Wright sort of season to justify his prospect status; he already possesses a well-rounded game and has not missed a beat as he's moved up the ladder; next year should tell us whether he is really on the fast track. Hardy and Hermida were two players that the system didn't like very well, but who put together reasonable numbers. I am a little bit skeptical about Hermida's power potential and Hardy's injury problems (he was limited to 100 at-bats or so before a torn labrum ended his season).

Met Expectations (40th percentile through 60th percentile)


Player              Level      Actual EqA     Projected EqA

Grady Sizemore     AAA/MLB       .234            .236
Alexis Rios        AAA/MLB       .234            .249
Edwin Encarnacion     AA         .225            .228
Russ Adams           AAA         .229            .237
Alexis Rios was the most heralded prospect of the bunch entering the season, and is just barely ahead of the 40th percentile bar. Two things to note about him: first, the 24 doubles and six triples he has hit for the Blue Jays remind us that Rios has pretty good power potential despite his having hit just one home run. Second, major-league stats have more predictive value than minor-league stats for a developing player, so his poor performance while at Syracuse can be discounted somewhat. I don't think that Rios has much superstar potential, but I didn't think that to begin with. Grady Sizemore generated as much debate as any player during BP's internal discussion of the Top 50 Prospects list, and the same will likely hold next time around. I'm a skeptic because I think power is an essential skill for an outfield prospect; he hasn't shown much of it yet.

Underperformed Expectations (25th percentile through 40th percentile)


Player              Level      Actual EqA     Projected EqA

Prince Fielder        AA         .229            .235
Kaz Matsui           MLB         .263            .279
Franklin Gutierrez  AA/AAA       .219            .242
David DeJesus      AAA/MLB       .249            .272
Dioner Navarro      AA/AAA       .206            .223
Gabe Gross         AAA/MLB       .236            .264
Scott Hairston     AAA/MLB       .241            .257
This is an eclectic group of players. Prince Fielder underperformed his forecast by a slim margin--there's a joke in there somewhere--but there's no particular reason to write him off; hitting 23 homers at Double-A as a 20-year-old is no small feat. Franklin Gutierrez's power, on the other hand, all but disappeared, a troubling occurrence considering that his strikeout rate increased. He will deserve no better than an honorable mention next year. Gabe Gross and Scott Hairston graduated to the major leagues, but are too old to be considered high-ceiling guys; the same can be said, frankly, about David DeJesus and Kazuo Matsui.

As for Dioner Navarro...I'm beginning to wonder whether it's a coincidence that all three of the non-Mauer catchers on our list had very disappointing seasons. To a certain extent, catchers are like pitchers in that it's probably best to wait until they have achieved a certain level of performance rather than extrapolating their performance forward; there have been an awful lot of Javier Valentins and A.J. Hinches over the years. If PECOTA used stricter rules about position matching, I'd expect it to be more pessimistic with the backstops.

Markedly Underperformed Expectations (25th percentile or worse)


Player              Level      Actual EqA     Projected EqA

Rickie Weeks          AA         .214            .258
Guillermo Quiroz     AAA         .204            .237
Jeff Mathis           AA         .191            .227
James Loney           AA         .185            .223
Josh Barfield         AA         .204            .232
Jeremy Reed          AAA         .231            .269
J.J. Davis           AAA         .212            .266
This is the level at which a player's performance has deteriorated enough that it almost certainly reflects a fundamental overestimation of their ability level rather than some sort of unlucky season. I still do not think that the White Sox did well for themselves by trading Jeremy Reed, but this year seems to validate the skeptical point of view, which is that he does not have quite enough to offer as a corner outfielder unless he hits for a very high batting average. I'll be curious to see just how far PECOTA downgrades him next year; at first glance, he's looking like a Todd Hollandsworth clone. Reed's swing is not designed for power, so it would be interesting to see how he'd do with some different batting instruction.

It is quite possible that we should not have run a forecast for Rickie Weeks at all, given that we were working with a sample of fewer than 100 professional plate appearances; we eventually hope to be able to translate college stats but we're not there yet. Even if we could, the low quality of opposition that Weeks faced at Southern University would have presented a particularly daunting challenge. Frankly, there isn't much reason to consider him a premium prospect if we evaluate him based on his professional record alone, especially since opinions on his defense are mixed. If you're looking for a silver lining, Weeks did hit 35 doubles at Double-A.

I won't comment on the other players individually, all of whom were hit-or-miss types who wound up missing, the one exception being James Loney, who would probably edge out Reed and Weeks in the Most Disappointing Prospect balloting. The good news is that Loney stayed more or less healthy at Jacksonville. The bad news is most everything else, as he posted a line of just .238/.312/.327, before translation. Perhaps he is still suffering from the lingering effects of his wrist fracture in 2002; perhaps the Dodger Way just isn't what it used to be.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Related Content:  Casey Crosby,  The Who,  Year Of The Injury

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