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January 19, 2000

Top 40 Prospects of 1999

Part two of a five-part series

by Rany Jazayerli

Part two of our ongoing review of our Top 40 Prospects from Baseball Prospectus 1999:

32. Rob Bell, RHP, Cincinnati (BBA: #35, Sickels: HM)

What we said last year: "Bell had the best curveball in the Carolina League and led the circuit with 197 K's last year...between Bell and Scott Williamson, and the addition of Neagle as their best starter, the Reds are suddenly looking at having one of the best rotations in the division by 2000."

What he did in 1999: Bell missed the first half of the season with arm woes. He returned in the second half, and after making two brief starts in rookie ball, was very good at Double-A (3.13 ERA, 68 strikeouts and 17 walks in 72 innings). It was far from a lost season: Bell is actually being taken more seriously as a prospect this off-season, and is expected to join the Reds' rotation by the end of 2000.

Take-home lesson: Pitchers can get hurt at any time, especially pitchers that the Braves allow to get away. More importantly, always take a 197-to-46 strikeout-to-walk ratio seriously, especially when the scouting reports are good.

31. Dernell Stenson, RF, Boston (BBA: #22, Sickels: #27)

What we said last year: "Your classic Red Sox outfielder prospect: a pretty swing, always reaching for the fences, and indifferent on defense. He impressed a lot of observers in the Eastern League with his power and knowledge of the strike zone, and he doesn't turn 21 until June...Stenson should be no worse than Mike Greenwell, and could be a lot better."

What he did in 1999: Stenson recovered from a terribly slow start at the plate to hit .270/.356/.466 as one of the youngest players in Triple-A. More of an issue was his defense as the Red Sox, settling on Trot Nixon as their right fielder, moved Stenson to first base, where he made a mind-boggling 34 errors in just 121 games. His offensive potential is immense--remember, he's younger than most college seniors--but the Red Sox have to decide whether to make him a full-time DH before he turns 22, or leave him at first base and risk hurting his development as a hitter by the constant distractions of playing defense.

Take-home lesson: We ranked Stenson a little lower than the others, in large part because of defensive concerns. Defense can have a dual impact on a prospect: it may force him to move to a less-demanding position, and it may distract him from developing offensively, either of which can cause an organization to sour on his potential.

30. Freddy Garcia, RHP, Seattle (BBA: #61, Sickels: #30)

What we said last year: "The most impressive of the three prospects acquired by the Mariners for Randy Johnson, Garcia is a Venezuelan right-hander with an excellent curveball and a fastball known to get up to 98. His control is good and getting better, and he's almost ready for the major leagues. In Seattle, pitchers get promoted before they're ready, so don't be surprised to find him in the rotation out of spring training."

What he did in 1999: Garcia was arguably the best rookie in the AL, going 17-8 with a 4.07 ERA and 170 strikeouts in 201 innings. Despite a heavy workload placed on him by Lou Piniella, Garcia actually got better as the season went on, posting a 5.15 ERA before the All-Star Break and a 2.97 ERA afterwards.

Take-home lesson: It seems strange that Baseball America would rank Garcia so low, given that Garcia's stuff was as good, if not better, than his minor-league performance indicated. Piniella gets a lot of deserved abuse for rushing young pitchers before they're ready, but he also remains intensely loyal to players who have been successful for him. In the case of a prospect with stuff as nasty as Garcia's (or, for future reference, Ryan Anderson), if they can establish a degree of success early on, Piniella's not going to jerk them in and out of the rotation. On the contrary, he's going to work them as hard as he can, which becomes an issue further down the road.

29. Ronnie Belliard, 2B, Milwaukee (BBA: #49, Sickels: B)

What we said last year: "Rafael's cousin, but don't be frightened: he's actually a very good hitter, and in fact a very similar player to Carlos Febles. Belliard walks a little less but has more power and may play even better defense--if they can trade Vina and get Belliard into the lineup, they'll improve the team."

What he did in 1999: The Brewers foolishly kept Vina, leaving Belliard in Triple-A (where he hit just .241/.331/.306 in 29 games) before Vina was slowed and ultimately stopped by injuries. Belliard came up in May and may have had the best rookie season that no one heard about, hitting .295 with eight home runs, 29 doubles and 64 walks in 124 games. Vina is now a Cardinal, one year too late.

Take-home lesson: The world is filled with ex-Brewer prospects who put up terrific numbers in the minor leagues but flopped in the majors. The reason is quite obvious: for years, the Brewers have had their Double-A affiliate in El Paso, the best hitters' park in the high minors, and their Triple-A affiliate in the old Pacific Coast League. Belliard hit .282/.379/.406 at Tucson in 1997, which isn't impressive at all in light of the ballpark. The key is that he hit .321/.408/.503 in 1998, when the Brewers had moved their Triple-A affiliate to Louisville. Long-term, this will probably help the Brewers develop hitting prospects, or at least help them to evaluate their talent better. Multi-dimensional hitters who play good defense up the middle are golden, and Belliard is one of them.

28. Calvin Pickering, 1B, Baltimore (BBA: #38, Sickels: #9)

What we said last year: "For a first baseman, he makes a fine offensive lineman. He's listed at 6'5" and 283 pounds, and that's after losing some weight in an off-season training program last year. Still, a left-handed power hitter in Camden Yards who's just 22? Memo to Peter Angelos: there's a way to cut payroll and improve the team."

What he did in 1999: After hitting .309/.434/.566 in Double-A in 1998, Pickering was told exactly what the organization thought of him when the Orioles traded for Jeff Conine during spring training. Pickering went to Triple-A and hit a somewhat disappointing .285/.396/.468, in part due to a shoulder injury he fought the entire second half. The drop-off in his power (from 31 home runs to 16) is far less of an issue than Angelos's mission to destroy his franchise. Stuck behind Will Clark, Conine and now, Harold Baines, Pickering needs to find an escape route. Quickly.

Take-home lesson: Prospects in organizations which put little confidence in young talent are remarkably likely to wither away from neglect. Pickering has the same skill set he had a year ago, and if another team were to trade for him and just plug him into the lineup, he would be capable of having a Rookie of the Year season. As long as he's an Oriole, any hopes for major-league success need to be put on hold.

27. Scott Williamson, RHP, Cincinnati (BBA: #97, Sickels: B-)

What we said last year: "Williamson throws a deadly splitter and gave up just six home runs all year. He's pitched well enough to encourage the Reds to move him up quickly, reaching Triple-A in his first full season. The acquisition of Neagle gives the Reds the luxury of giving Williamson another full season in the minors if he needs it, but it wouldn't be a surprise if he surfaced by July."

What he did in 1999: Sparked by a move to the bullpen in spring training, the short (listed at 6'0", more like 5'10") right-hander simply won the NL Rookie of the Year award, throwing 93 innings with a 2.41 ERA and going 12-7 with 19 saves as he slowly wrested more and more of the closer's job away from Danny Graves. Williamson's success was the anchor of a bullpen that led the surprising Reds to within a game of the postseason.

Take-home lesson: We had Williamson ranked well ahead of the consensus, in large part because the conventional wisdom that short right-handers rarely develop into great pitchers is completely unfounded. (Sickels downgraded him partially because he had a sore arm in the Arizona Fall League.) Part of the problem with the perception is that, since every short right-hander has a couple inches added to his listed height, it's hard to tell which pitchers really are short. But Tom Gordon, who at a listed height of 5'9" is the shortest pitcher of the last 10 years, has had a fine career and only blew out his elbow after 11 years and some shoddy medical advice. On the other hand, Gordon didn't become great until he was moved to the bullpen full-time.

Of the 13 other established right-handed pitchers who are listed under six feet tall, only three are starters: knuckleballer Dennis Springer, Juan Guzman and Pedro Martinez. The relievers include Antonio Osuna, Jeff Montgomery, Gordon, Jeff Brantley and Mel Rojas, all of whom have closed at one time or another. There are 10 left-handed pitchers under six feet tall, and the only starters are Jim Parque and Mike Hampton, although Rheal Cormier was one once upon a time. Billy Wagner, John Franco and Ricardo Rincon are the premier relievers in the group.

That isn't conclusive proof that short pitchers are unable to handle the rigors of starting. After all, the Dodgers let Pedro Martinez get away because they believed such a thing. But looking at the names above, one thing is clear: there is no conclusive proof that a pitching prospect should be marked down simply because of his height.

26. Carlos Febles, 2B, Kansas City (BBA: #30, Sickels: #25)

What we said last year: "Here's the Royals' leadoff hitter for the new millennium. Febles is a table-setter of the highest order. He's developing power, and he plays a mean second base...he hit .400 in a brief September audition, and the Royals didn't even pretend to be interested in re-signing Jose Offerman. The job is his to lose."

What he did in 1999: Febles get off to a quick start; he was as viable a RoY candidate as teammate Carlos Beltran before a series of nagging injuries limited his effectiveness and then laid him up for close to six weeks. For the season, he hit .256/.336/.411, with 20 steals in 24 attempts and above-average defense, particularly on the double play.

Take-home lesson: Like Belliard, Febles is a second baseman who can play defense and contribute offensively in many ways, with good strike-zone judgment and developing power. Unlike Belliard, Febles had trouble staying healthy during his rookie season, and historically, young second basemen have more difficulty avoiding injury and developing into stars than players at any position save catcher. This year will go a long way towards determining whether Febles was just unlucky last year, or whether he's another victim of Brent Gates Syndrome.

25. Ed Yarnall, LHP, Florida (BBA: NR, Sickels: B)

What we said last year: "The big prize acquired from the Mets for Mike Piazza, Yarnall could be the Marlins' ace by the end of the year. He struggled to control his breaking ball when he got moved to Triple-A, and would probably be best suited with another three months in Charlotte...if the Marlins bring him along gently he could be the #1 starter they rebuild their staff around."

What he did in 1999: Well, for starters, he went from the worst team in baseball to the best, along with Todd Noel and Mark Johnson, in a peculiar trade for Mike Lowell. The Yankees could afford the luxury of letting him spend a full year at Triple-A, and it proved to be best for both Yarnall and the team. Yarnall went 13-4 with a 3.47 ERA and 146 strikeouts in 145 innings for Columbus, then made a couple of spot starts and long-relief appearances with the big club, allowing a 3.71 ERA in 17 innings. The Yankees have responded by trading away Hideki Irabu and all but handing Yarnall the fifth starter's job.

Take-home lesson: Number one, Brian Cashman completely ripped off Dave Dombrowski, which is a very, very bad sign for the rest of baseball. Number two, this is how good organizations operate: they bring their best pitching prospects (especially starters) along slowly, let them pitch a full year in Triple-A, and give them some low-pressure work in long relief or a meaningless September start before throwing them into the rotation. Yarnall is more likely to contribute as a rookie than any starting pitcher in recent memory: he's the #5 starter for the defending World Champions, he's a left-handed pitcher working in Yankee Stadium, he has a year and a half of Triple-A experience under his belt, and he's simply a tremendous pitching prospect. If ever there was a rookie pitcher worth drafting on a Rotisserie team, this is him.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rany's other articles. You can contact Rany by clicking here

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