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February 16, 2005

Prospectus Roundtable

Top 50 Prospects - Outfielders

by Baseball Prospectus

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Next Tuesday, we'll announce our Top 50 Prospects for 2005. Here's another of the discussions that went on in December, as we compiled the list.

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Rany Jazayerli: I'm as unsure about the ranking at this position as I am of any spot on the field. The only thing I'm sure of is that Delmon Young (Devil Rays) dominates the scene. The only reason I can think of not to make him the #1 prospect is that he spent the entire season four levels away from the major leagues. But the dude can mash.

Jeremy Reed (Mariners) is high on my list of "guys who were probably overrated a year ago, but are in danger of being underrated this year." His average dropped mightily, but the skills that produced that average are intact. He still hit for gap power, walked more than he struck out, and stole bases at a good clip. He also became just the fifth player in the history of baseball to hit .390 or better in his major league debut (min: 50 AB). Don't get too excited; the last player to do so was Phil Clark.

I know we all love the A's Nick Swisher, but he is 25 years old, or will be in a few weeks. It's something to keep in mind.

Will Carroll: That is a great point. It seems we have something of a double standard here. We like young, but we don't like high school guys. Swisher went to college, was drafted famously, and rose quickly through the minors, looking like a lock for the majors in his fourth pro season. This isn't a situation where he'll be better or worse than, say, Young, it's something that's mostly out of his control. His career numbers won't be as good, but I've never seen where that's what we're trying to project here.

Jonah Keri: We like college pitchers. There's nothing wrong with a good Alex Rodriguez/Ken Griffey Jr. high-school hitting prospect.

Chris Kahrl: I think age does matter; Swisher might have a nice five-year run and be a fine player, but I like Reed better, especially now that he's free of the ChiSox. I'm comfortable with Swisher somewhere behind Reed.

Dayn Perry: I think Swisher's bag is too mixed to place him that high.

RJ: My personal fave on the list is Ryan Sweeney (White Sox). His numbers aren't great, but 19-year-olds who hold their own in the Carolina League are players to watch.

DP: Placing Sweeney in the top 50 would be premature at this point, I think. Sweeney hasn't earned his keep yet to belong on the list.

RJ: The player who really gets no love is the Diamondbacks' Josh Kroeger. I knew almost nothing about this guy until I was flipping through my Handbook, but is there a reason this guy gets no attention? He spent most of last season at age 21, ripped through El Paso and Tucson, and smoked 54 doubles, enough to lead organized baseball. I know El Paso and Tucson are friendly to hitters, but still.

CK: I guess I'm generally negative on the Snakes' prospects, since they come out of the bandbox chain that gets them hyped and then struggling. Scott Hairston and Chad Tracy come to mind, and I seem to remember somebody jumping the gun and getting caught up in the Sergio Santos hype last year.

I don't see Carlos Quentin as really better than Kroeger, for that matter. They're the same age, and Kroeger's ahead of him. Mashing in Lancaster when you played college ball at Stanford is not a major accomplishment, and Quentin's OBP is more the product of hitting for high averages in said bandboxes than it is of his ability to draw walks.

However, I would keep both ahead of Conor Jackson. I'd also bump the Mariners' Shin Soo Choo ahead of Jackson.

JK: Even accounting for park and league effects, Quentin should be a lock for the top 20, and should be much closer to Reed than the much older, much less exciting Swisher. There's a very good chance Quentin has a better career than Reed, and I'm on board with PECOTA ranking strong ISO/BB guys so highly. PECOTA's 2005 projection for Quentin includes an untranslated .382 OBP (.374 translated) in the majors, less than two years out of college.

WC: Jeff Francoeur was rated higher than Andy Marte by Baseball America in their Braves' top ten, and the discussion on this surrounding Marte made it sound to me that while we all mostly agreed that Marte was a better prospect, that the difference wasn't so great to have one as a possible #1 and the other about 30 spots back. Either we're overrating Marte or underrating Francoeur.

RJ: Who ought to rank higher: Francoeur, with his overall tools and defensive ability but no plate discipline, or Jeremy Hermida (Marlins), who knows how to walk but doesn't have much power yet (although it appears to be slowly developing)? I don't have strong feelings either way.

NS: Francoeur versus Hermida:

PECOTA will generally prefer a prospect with good power but no plate discipline to a player with good plate discipline but no power.

Players with good power tend naturally to develop somewhat acceptable walk rates, as pitchers will throw around them more often. The opposite effect is somewhat true: players with good batting eyes will tend to work themselves into better hitters' counts, and thus develop more power. On the other hand, these hitters will be challenged more frequently as they move up the ladder, and the pitchers can throw the ball by them more effectively.

It's a fairly complicated sort of interaction. One thing that's especially complicated about it is that PECOTA is really trying to figure out two different things at once: how sustainable is this guy's batting line over the near term as he moves up levels, and how is this guy going to develop over the longer term?

A good batting eye almost certainly is helpful to a player's long-term development potential. On the other hand, if his walk rate is considerably more advanced than his power, he may experience some near-term turbulence in his stat lines until and unless the power catches up. This is a pretty common theme when looking at PECOTAs: the system may think that a prospect had a lucky year (in fact, more "top prospects" than you'd think are thought of as such because they had "lucky" years) but it may also like his skill set quite well after you strip out the luck.

The other thing about power versus walk rate is that power tends to have more room to grow. A guy with pretty good power is frequently a good bet to develop very good power; it's the one offensive skill that really continues to develop throughout a player's early-to-mid 20s. Walk rates also tend to improve throughout a player's 20s, but in a much more modest way.

In terms of Francoeur versus Hermida, I guess I'm just inclined to go with PECOTA's overall conclusion that Francoeur's package is a little bit better. If Hermida had, say, 15% more power of his own, or he struck out less, the result might be different.

RJ: There's definitely a consensus that Francoeur is too low. I'm comfortable with the idea that his tools do belong in the discussion, and that he ought to be moved ahead of guys like Kroeger and Sweeney because of that. But how much stock do we put in a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 83/22 last year, including 14/0 in 18 Double-A games? But I shouldn't make too much of his plate discipline issues, given his age, organization, and the fact that PECOTA doesn't hold it against him *that* much.

Keith Woolner: I'm going to raise the Jason Kubel (Twins) question:

600+ PA of .316/.371/.517 translated production as a 22-year-old, plus a terrible knee injury. .296/.354/.471 PECOTA before the injury. Clay's system has him as an average right fielder. Does the risk of a year of rehab really blow him totally off the top prospects list?

WC: Really valid question. I think the problems with Kubel are the unknowns:

1) Can he come back at all?
1a) How long will it take?
2) What will he be when he comes back?

I think 1 is pretty well established, while 1a is a very open question. 2 is more speculative. I'm not sure if Kubel will be able to come back as anything approaching what he was. If we took all effects of speed out of Kubel's stats, what would he be? Took his defense to the lowest reasonable level?

There's just no good comp that I'm aware of. My best guess is Edgar Martinez, and I'm loathe to compare a kid, even as good as Kubel was, to a Hall of Fame-caliber hitter with an odd career path. Martinez took two years to come back, retained his hitting ability and never had much speed. Kubel can probably do something similar, but will we be willing to call him a top prospect next year if he hasn't played at all in '05? That's pretty much what we're staring at and if so, why or why not rank him in '04?

Joe Sheehan: That's my problem with this. If he's one of the Top 50 this year, having just had the injury, shouldn't he then also be on next year's list, coming off of it, even if he doesn't play?

I think Keith makes some good points, but when I think about it, I keep coming back to having to rank him in both years to be consistent, and that doesn't play well for me.

Not related to that concern is my feeling that Kubel doesn't warrant this treatment, that we've suddenly started mentioning him with Edgar Martinez because of the injury, and mentally linking them in inappropriate ways.

But mostly it's the '06 list thing.

Derek Zumsteg: That brings up an excellent point. We shouldn't be afraid to not rank someone if we don't have enough information to make an informed decision. We're a performance analysis group, after all, and if we don't feel we have enough information to know what Kubel (or any player) will look like after an injury like this, we should consider not rating them entirely, rather than trying to come up with a number by running Monte Carlo simulations.

KW: I disagree. We'll have more information at this time next year to determine whether and where he ranks. If he's still on crutches a year from now, he's probably done, and at the very least not worth ranking. If he comes back early, and is raking in the AFL, then maybe he's potential top 10 material. Some of the prospects we rank this year will make the majors and drop out of consideration. There will be a different set of prospects to compare him against, each with another year's worth of data to analyze their performance with. Let 2006 sort itself out later. Based on what we know, and what risks and uncertainties exist right now in 2005, does ranking Kubel make sense?

We're talking about a guy who's the same baseball age as Conor Jackson and Brian Anderson, a year younger than Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher and Jeremy Reed, and just three months older than Carlos Quentin, and who had at least 100 points of translated OPS on each of them in 2004. His 2004 equivalent VORP was comparable to Carlos Lee. Even if the injury robs him of mobility and he has to shift to first base, his PECOTA "missing a year" projected EqAs are in Paul Konerko/Phil Nevin/Lyle Overbay territory (2004 stats).

Injuries are just another form of risk to discount expected future performance with. If we don't know as much as we'd like to know about how to deal with them, then we can use a larger discount factor, but we shouldn't run scared from ranking an otherwise top talent somewhere on our list. We're talking about an outfielder with a blown-out knee, not a pitcher with an arm injury. Edgar Martinez and Harold Baines have shown it is possible for a hitter to remain productive offensively despite bad wheels for a long time in the majors.

If we're ranking based on 2005 rookies, Kubel obviously doesn't rank at all. If we're looking at long-term prospects, Kubel's demonstrated the talent, but has risk associated with rehabbing from a severe knee injury. Is that risk greater than the projected developmental risk associated with one or two more seasons in the minors for some of the other guys we're considering?

WC: Kubel's an interesting case because of the severity of the injury. From all reports, his knee more or less exploded along the lines of Napoleon McCallum, for those who remember that football injury. Even if he comes back, his game will be changed, he'll be a year or more older, and whatever risk of what usually happens with minor leaguers goes through the roof.

KW: Kubel hit well in the high minors--that would make him a better prospect than a guy two years away who, if he develops, projects to the same level of performance. Is the year of rehab equivalent to two years of development? One year? Is a year of injury rehab significantly more risky (or less risky) than a year of development?

My sense is that injuries, perhaps even as severe as Kubel's, are less an issue for position players than pitchers. If we're ready to take Delmon Young's impressive track record, but in the low minors, and proclaim him a top tier talent, what do we do with a guy who's proven himself at a higher level, but has some significant physical challenges to overcome?

I'm not arguing for Kubel in particular, but using him as an example to consider how we discount injuries versus development.

JK: Kubel's record means he has to make the list. This isn't a torn labrum where we know it's a virtual death sentence, so injury talk can't progress much beyond speculation, and we know he can mash.

RJ: Is it possible to age him a year and zero out the stat line?

NS: Here's what PECOTA comes up with when you do that:

Kubel, healthy:

WARP: 3.5, 4.0, 4.1, 4.1, 4.1
EqA: .287, .291, .289, .297, .296
Comps: Jerry Turner, Tony Gwynn, Paul Blair

Kubel, hurt:

WARP: ---, 1.9, 1.7, 1.8, 2.1
EqA: ---, .285, .286, .293, .299
Comps: Dalton Jones, Rich Chiles, Tony Tarasco

Note that the WARP numbers drop off a lot more markedly than the EqAs do. The lost development is not terribly costly in terms of his rate of production, but the system recognizes that players who miss a full season are likely to miss significant playing time in the future.

WC: I'm not sure if it's the best test, but would you trade Kubel now, straight up, for any of the other outfielders on this list? A GM would be taking one heck of a gamble.

If Kubel is on the list--and Keith makes a great case for it--then there are other players we should consider like the Blue Jays' Dustin McGowan, who's coming back from Tommy John surgery.

James Click: I don't see how Kubel could possibly make the list as anything other than an HM if we know that he won't play a minute in 2005. The differing projections around the injury are very interesting and make for good discussion in the HM section, but I'd say put him as an HM and see how his rehab goes.

RJ: On that note, we should try to rank him as low as can be justified…which still might put him on the lower reaches of the list, or at least HM.

Steven Goldman: Did we give any thought to Lastings Milledge for anywhere on this list? I know he has plate judgment issues, but he did have a very nice season.

JS: I probably undersold him to Rany in submitting my lists, which might account for his absence. I'm not that big a fan, which doesn't mean he shouldn't be in the Top 50.

In looking over what I sent him, I think I rated everyone low.

RJ: Given the fact that none of these outfielders are really knocking our socks off, I agree that Milledge needs to be added to the discussion. I guess I wasn't too enthused with him at first because he spent most of the season in low A ball and because he doesn't command the strike zone yet. I guess he's a poor man's Delmon Young in every way (but with much, much better defense). Given that Young could rank #1, there's nothing wrong with "a poor man's Delmon Young" ranking comfortably on the list.

NS: His profile is very, very similar to Francoeur's. He's a year younger, but isn't quite as big, so some of the big mashers don't rate quite as high on his comparables list. There's something to be said for Francoeur being in the better organization, but I can't see how we'd have them more than a few spots away from each other one way or another.

JK: He hasn't been discussed, but I'll submit Ryan Langerhans as an HM candidate. Was his 2004 at Richmond a fluke? Maybe. But if it isn't, we're looking at a fine player, a true center fielder with a fairly broad skill set. He may never play center field in Atlanta, but he looks to have a good chance to start this year at a corner as the roster's currently constructed. PECOTA sees a translated .267/.357/.462 for him as a part-timer this year, which is pretty nifty for a rookie, even a 25-year-old.

WC: I had the chance to see Langerhans about 10 games here in Indy and was impressed with his defense. Anything scouty beyond that is beyond my powers. How do the Braves look at him? Did Billy Beane ask for him instead of Charles Thomas?

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