January 17, 2000
Top 40 Prospects of 1999
Part one of a five-part series
One of the principles we'd most like to see baseball embrace is accountability. All too often organizations make excuses for managers who let promising young players rot on the bench while some 33-year-old hits .240 but leads the league in intangibles. They employ GMs who give a good outfielder coming off one great year $14 million a season, then trade the team's #2 starter for nothing in order to cut payroll. Scouting departments that haven't signed a quality major-leaguer in six years are allowed to work with impunity.
Often, baseball teams are run less like a business and more like a country club. That's fine if the owners' main priority is hanging out with each other and bragging about how rich they are. But when millions of dollars are wasted for the sake of protecting cronies and former ballplayers who don't know how to build winning teams, you have to scratch your head in wonder.
Now, it's time to hold ourselves accountable. In Baseball Prospectus 1999, we published our list of the top 40 rookies in baseball. We are hardly unique on that front; many publications print their own list of top prospects, the two most respected lists being those by Baseball America and by John Sickels in his Minor League Scouting Notebook. As we take a look back at our own list, we'll also include how those players were ranked by Baseball America and by Sickels, to provide a perspective of what other experts thought of each player.
Keep in mind that Baseball America actually ranks 100 prospects; an "NR" means they didn't make their list at all. Sickels ranks 50 prospects, and awards an Honorable Mention (HM) to 10 additional prospects. Beyond that, he lists a letter grade from A+ to C- for several hundred prospects; prospects from #18 to #50 and all of his Honorable Mentions grade out as a B+, so players not making his list range from a Grade B downward.
Once we're done looking at our own list, we'll take a look at the players who didn't make our list but who ranked highly with either Baseball America or Sickels.
40. Jackie Rexrode, 2B, Arizona (BBA: NR, Sickels: C+)
What we said last year: "...an on-base machine, posting a .430+ OBP at two levels last year, and he's only 19. He was 41-for-45 in stolen base attempts. His power is nonexistent...similar to but significantly better than the Marlins' Luis Castillo as a prospect...if he starts to drive the ball at all and survives the jump to Double-A, he could become one of the majors' premier leadoff hitters."
What he did in 1999: It's a very bad sign as a prospect when your organization loans you out to another farm system that's short a player. Rexrode spent half the season with the White Sox's Double-A team in Birmingham, where he hit .268/.347/.347. (He did hit .319/.431/.438 in the high altitude of El Paso.) On the plus side, he set a career high with 23 extra-base hits. Despite his on-base ability, neither BBA nor Sickels were particularly impressed with him, and while he's far from done as a prospect--he's still just 21--he was probably a bit of a reach last year.
Take-home lesson: no matter how high a minor-league hitter's OBP is, his status as a prospect remains tenuous if he doesn't show at least a little power. Also, A-ball performance doesn't mean as much as Double-A.
39. Luke Prokopec, RHP, Los Angeles (BBA NR, Sickels B)
What we said last year: "Rany got to see Prokopec on a minor league jaunt with John Sickels, and neither one of them knew too much about him going in, but afterwards they wanted to find out more...after switching to the mound in the middle of the 1997 season, he throws in the upper 80s, has an excellent curveball, and almost unbelievable mound instincts for someone with barely a year's experience under his belt."
What he did in 1999: After putting up a 1.38 ERA in five starts for San Antonio to end 1998, Prokopec was pretty awful in his return to Double-A, with a 5.42 ERA and 172 hits in 158 innings in a decent pitchers' park. The Dodgers left him off their 40-man roster, and while he was rumored to be on many teams' Rule 5 draft lists, no one took him off the Dodgers' hands. Keep in mind that he was just 21 and had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 128-to-46. He's not nearly the prospect we thought he was, but he is a prospect.
Take-home lesson: Don't get too excited over what you see in one outing. (Sickels, by the way, was not quite as impressed by the outing, saying in his book, "I was more impressed by his tenacity and determination than his raw stuff, which didn't look that hot.")
Prokopec is a converted catcher, and despite all the hullabaloo surrounding hitters-turned-pitchers in the last several years, only three have really been successful. Both Trevor Hoffman and Troy Percival are relievers, while Tim Wakefield is a special case. Ron Mahay, who made it to the majors as an outfielder and now has a career 2.70 ERA as a pitcher, is also used primarily in relief. Prokopec still may make a fine major-league pitcher, but it's clear that you should probably see at least two full years from a converted pitcher before getting too excited.
38. Tom Evans, 3B, Toronto (BBA NR, Sickels B)
What we said last year: "...he's been one of the best third baseman in the minor leagues for three years now...he's what he was three years ago: a good glove man with excellent patience and solid power. While he doesn't have star potential, he can be an above-average third baseman for several years to come."
What he did in 1999: After the Blue Jays inexplicably released him in spring training, Evans signed on with the Rangers' organization and did what he usually does, hitting .280 with lots of walks (66 in 128 games) and a fair amount of power (12 home runs, 35 doubles). He still doesn't appear any closer to a major-league opportunity; Todd Zeile is a Met, but Mike Lamb is the Rangers' third baseman of the future.
Take-home lesson: We know that organizations can't make a prospect out of a non-prospect simply by giving him the opportunity, but Evans is another indication that they can ruin a prospect by denying him the chance to show his skills.
37. Roy Halladay, RHP, Toronto (BBA #12, Sickels #29)
What we said last year: "Normally a pitcher with strikeout-to-walk ratios as bad as his would never make our list, but Halladay isn't your typical prospect. He was rushed by the Blue Jays, reaching Triple-A at 20, and it's taken him nearly two years to get comfortable. He throws a dandy knuckle-curve and featured a new and improved slider last year, which supposedly helped him become more of a groundball pitcher."
What he did in 1999: He made the Blue Jays as a swingman and continued to pitch well in spite of himself, posting a fine 3.92 ERA as a rookie despite walking 79 men and striking out just 82 while allowing 156 hits in 149 innings.
Take-home lesson: Halladay is a scout's pitcher--he was very highly ranked by Baseball America--and with pitchers, you have to weigh the scouting reports along with their performance. The jury is still out on Halladay; either he'll improve his strikeout-to-walk ratio and become a dominant pitcher, or he'll regress and turn into Pat Rapp. Bet on the former.
36. Angel Pena, C, Los Angeles (BBA #41, Sickels #38)
What we said last year: "He's relatively unknown for a Dodger prospect, but he had an excellent season in the harsh environment of San Antonio, and he was considered to be the best defensive catcher in the Texas League. Imagine Terry Steinbach with more power, and you've got quite a player."
What he did in 1999: Handed a golden opportunity when Todd Hundley couldn't play worth a damn in the first half, Pena blew the shot, hitting just .208 in 43 games with the Dodgers and throwing out just 26% of base-stealers. He lost the backup role to Paul LoDuca and was demoted. In 34 games at Albuquerque's high altitude, Pena hit .291 with only one home run, while picking up a reputation for a bad attitude.
Take-home lesson: Despite his relative lack of fame, there was a remarkable degree of consensus as to Pena's ranking, so we weren't the only ones to be overly impressed. Among all hitting prospects, catchers are the most difficult to project, and Pena may just prove to be another example of that.
35. Joe Crede, 3B, Chicago (AL) (BBA #46, Sickels HM)
What we said last year: "As good a prospect as Carlos Lee is, he's also probably not going to be the third baseman for the White Sox for very long. That doesn't have [as] much to do with his limitations in the field as it does with the presence of mighty Joe Crede. A smooth defender and a hitter with power to all fields, Crede is adjusting quickly after neary winning the triple crown in the Carolina League."
What he did in 1999: Well, we were right that Lee wouldn't stay at third base very long, but it had everything to do with his defensive shortcomings and nothing to do with Crede, who struggled with a broken toe most of the year and hit just .251 with four home runs in 74 games for Double-A Birmingham. Basically, it was a lost season.
Take-home lesson: Injuries happen. Even to hitters.
34. Daryle Ward, 1B/LF, Houston (BBA NR, Sickels #47)
What we said last year: "Our tough luck listing. Ward's been ready to hit major league pitching for over a year, but the world is filled with first baseman who can hit, and Ward's in the same organization as Jeff Bagwell. Trying to broaden their options, the Astros moved Ward to left at New Orleans in 1998. He didn't embarrass himself, but if the way to a spot on the Astros' major league roster is blocked for Lance Berkman, you can bet it's even more blocked for Ward."
What he did in 1999: We finally got one right. He's not playing first base for the Astros anytime this millennium, but the tornado that carried off half the Astros' outfield gave him a much-deserved opportunity. He was having arguably the best season in the minor leagues (.772 slugging average and 28 home runs in 61 games) when he was called up in the second half. After slugging .473 for the Astros and hitting well in the playoffs, Ward figures to have the upper hand for a starting job for 2000.
Take-home lesson: It's the offense, stupid. And good organizations find ways to give opportunities to good prospects rather than let them linger in the minors with nothing to prove until they stagnate.
33. Gabe Kapler, OF, Detroit (BBA #34, Sickels #12)
What we said last year: "Baseball Weekly's Minor League Player of the Year is the latest really low draft pick to emerge as a top prospect. The Tigers have to make room for him, and in that way he resembles Jeff Conine, who had to wait until he was 27 to catch a break. If the Tigers wake up and dump Brian Hunter, Kapler's a decent longshot for rookie honors."
What he did in 1999: The Tigers got rid of Hunter, and while Kapler was not a viable RoY candidate, he hit 18 home runs and surprised everyone--something he's been doing for years--by playing center field and playing it well. Now a Ranger and probably a right fielder, he's going to make Texas fans miss Juan Gonzalez a lot less than they might think.
Take-home lesson: It seems strange that Baseball America would so closely parallel our ranking for Kapler while Sickels, who approaches prospects with one foot in our camp and one foot in theirs, would see him so differently. Sickels was undoubtedly impressed with Kapler's work ethic and desire to succeed. Not the phony rah-rah run-through-a-wall-to-make-a-play way that ends many careers prematurely due to injury, but the intense struggle within himself, not just to get in shape to play, but to learn, through practice, how to play the game right. The skills that "can't be measured by numbers" are overrated, but as Kapler shows, you'd be a dunce to pretend they don't exist at all.