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January 30, 2000
Top 40 Prospects of 1999
Part four of a five-part series
Part 4 of our ongoing review of the Top 40 Prospects from Baseball Prospectus 1999:
16. Chad Hermansen, OF, Pittsburgh (BBA: #37, Sickels: #46)
What we said last year: "A year ago he was one of the top five prospects in the game, and he recovered from a terrible start to hit 28 homers, and he was the youngest player in Triple-A. So why has he slipped so much? Because he doesn't have a position, and the Pirates aren't helping...it's still an open question whether he can handle center field or will remain in left...he needs to be put at a position he can handle and left there, but long-term we still like him a lot."
What he did in 1999: Most importantly, he finally settled into a position, though the issue now is whether the Pirates will keep him in center field and Brian Giles in right, or the other way around. Offensively, he didn't progress all that much from 1998; his average jumped 12 points and his slugging average was up 10 points, but his walks dropped from 50 to 35, after slipping from 69 in 1997. In the Pirates' organization, that's not a fluke, but a trend. Nevertheless, his offense wasn't the part of his game that was holding him back, and it will be a surprise if he's not in the Pirates' Opening Day lineup.
Take-home lesson: Defensive struggles can and will impact a prospect's development. Still, we liked Hermansen a lot last year and we do this year as well, because you can't overestimate the impact of age. Hermansen entered pro ball at 17, so despite hitting 20 or more home runs each of the last four years, despite playing 68 games in short-season ball, 62 games in low-A ball, 66 games in high-A, 129 games in Double-A, 251 games in Triple-A and 19 games in the major leagues, Hermansen is still just 22 years old. Which means he still has plenty of time to develop into a star.
15. Ben Davis, C, San Diego (BBA: #24, Sickels: B)
What we said last year: "...Davis is turning into a gem. In 1997 he developed power, and in 1998 he did something even more significant: he learned the strike zone, improving his K/BB ratio from 107/28 to 60/42. He did that while making the jump to Double-A. He's 21 and his defense is spoken of with almost as much reverence as Charles Johnson's, and he threw out over half of attempted basestealers last year. He needs another year in the minors to consolidate his gains, but by 2000 you can add the Padres to the list of teams you just don't want to run on."
What he did in 1999: The injury that wiped out Carlos Hernandez's season gave Davis a chance to accelerate his timetable. Davis got off to an awful start in Triple-A, hitting under .100 the first two weeks of the season, then got his act together and was hitting .308/.384/.512 when he was called up to San Diego in June. He got off to a hot start with the bat, but cooled off in August and finished at .244/.307/.361. His plate discipline, which was a big question mark starting the season, was fairly strong: he walked 49 times in 467 at-bats overall, although his strikeouts jumped from 60 to 111. Despite his reputation for a cannon arm, he struggled a bit with major league base-stealers, nailing only 27% of them.
Take-home lesson: Davis is one of the rare players whose outlier ranking came from John Sickels. There are actually very sound reasons why all three publications ranked him where they did. Baseball America loved his defensive tools and power potential. We liked him for his developing bat and plate discipline to go along with his sound defense. Sickels felt that, despite his potential, his offense simply hadn't developed to the level of a top-tier prospect.
Davis has been compared by some to Jim Sundberg, which is a fair comparison. Like Sundberg, Davis's defense is strong enough to keep him in the lineup, but it's his offensive contribution that will determine whether he's valuable or merely adequate.
14. Brad Penny, RHP, Arizona (BBA: #5, Sickels: #5)
What we said last year: "Penny was the first pitcher to be named California League MVP in nearly 40 years, and with good reason. It's not just his numbers, although he did strike out 207 while walking just 35, a K/BB ratio Greg Maddux would be proud of. It's that he did it in a batting cage known as Mavericks Stadium. High Desert is just that: the air is thin and hot, and as a result you won't find a better park for hitters outside of Denver. On the road, Penny put up a 1.38 ERA and gave up just one home run all year."
What he did in 1999: Penny started the season at Double-A El Paso, a notorious hitters park, and his numbers were superficially poor: a 4.80 ERA and 109 hits in 90 innings. The only two numbers worth looking at, however, were outstanding: 100 strikeouts, 25 walks. Acquired by the Marlins as part of the Jerry Colangelo Charity Program, he went to the more-friendly altitude of Portland and struck out 35, walked 14 and allowed just 28 hits in 32 innings. Same great prospect, but with one-third less hype!
Take-home lesson: Both Baseball America and Sickels ranked him as the fifth-best prospect in the land, which is an extremely aggressive tack to take with an A-ball pitcher, no matter how good he is. (In this case, they were probably too aggressive, but as you'll see below, sometimes it's best to throw caution to the wind.) Penny serves as an illustration of what can happen to even the best of pitchers from the low minors. Even while staying healthy--he had some nagging tendinitis at mid-season which eventually resolved--Penny struggled through an adjustment period. It was completely natural, but was worrisome enough that the Diamondbacks pushed the panic button.
13. Russ Branyan, 3B, Cleveland (BBA: #29, Sickels: #24)
What we said last year: "Just seven years after the Indians pumped out an outstanding left-handed power-hitting third baseman who draws a ton of walks, they're doing it again. Branyan may have even more power than Jim Thome. It's not a reach to project him as a 45-home run hitter--he holds the Sally record with 40 homers for Columbus in 1996. He missed most of last year with a wrist injury, but still hit 16 homers in just 43 games. Like Thome, there were early concerns that he'd never play third at the major league level, and like Thome, he's improved in the field as he got more experience."
What he did in 1999: Whiff. A lot. 187 times in 109 Triple-A games, to be exact, and he created 19 summer breezes in 38 at-bats for the Indians. Branyan became just the sixth non-pitcher in history who 1) batted at least 30 times and 2) struck out in at least half those at-bats. All told, he struck out 205 times and had just 90 hits; no starting pitcher in major-league history has had such an impressive ratio of strikeouts to hits. Despite a .208 batting average, he managed a respectable 773 OPS on the strength of 30 homers and 52 walks.
Take-home lesson: Strikeouts are not more damaging than regular outs in the course of a game, but as a tool in evaluating development they can't be ignored. Branyan has had more strikeouts than games played in every season and at every level, and he can't make it in the big leagues doing that. Keep in mind that Glenallen Hill struck out even more often than Branyan in the minor leagues, and learned how to make enough contact to become a solid major-league hitter.
12. Ruben Mateo, CF, Texas (BBA: #9, Sickels: #8)
What we said last year: "Another tools hitter who can actually hit, Mateo made a seamless jump to Double-A despite missing over a month with a dislocated shoulder, and actually hit better on his return to action. He's faster than Beltran but doesn't draw enough walks, though to his credit he doesn't strike out much either. He's not guaranteed a major league job this year, but if I were Tom Goodwin, I'd keep a suitcase handy."
What he did in 1999: He wreaked havoc on the Pacific Coast League, hitting .336/.385/.597 for Oklahoma City with 18 homers in just 253 at-bats. His plate discipline remained an issue, though, as he drew just 14 walks, and just eight unintentionally. When Tom Goodwin went down with an injury in Texas, Mateo took his spot and hit .238/.268/.451 in 32 games before his other bugaboo, brittleness, reared its head, and he missed the rest of the season. Goodwin is now a Rockie and Mateo is scheduled to be the Rangers' Opening Day center fielder, but his poor performance in winter ball has the organization a little skittish.
Take-home lesson: Both Baseball America and Sickels ranked Mateo ahead of Carlos Beltran, while we had Beltran slightly ahead. In this case, we felt that Mateo's youth (10 months younger than Beltran) was trumped by Beltran's better plate discipline and health record; Beltran drew 48 walks in 1998, compared to Mateo's 30. It's still far from clear which one will have the better career, but at this point, Beltran's willingness to learn the strike zone and durability give him the edge over Mateo's more developed power.
11. Rick Ankiel, LHP, St. Louis (BBA: #2, Sickels: #3)
What we said last year: "Ankiel was considered the best high school lefty in years, but his contract demands scared everyone away--so the Cards took him in the second round, gave him $2.5 million, and now he looks like a bargain...Ankiel throws in the low to mid 90s, but his best pitch is his curveball, which he used to lead the minors in strikeouts with 222. He only just turned 19, making him the youngest player on this list. If the Cardinals baby him for the next few years, he could be something special."
What he did in 1999: If you have to read this to find out, you're at the wrong web site; you must be looking for www.curling.com. Ankiel went 13-3 between Double-A and Triple-A, striking out 194 men in 138 innings, with just 98 hits and 62 walks allowed. Brought up to St. Louis for the last six weeks of the season, he made five starts before wisely being sent to the bullpen to finish out the year, and posted a 3.27 ERA in 33 innings.
He goes into the new season as the Cardinals' #5 starter, and Walt Jocketty has shrewdly provided Tony LaRussa with several veterans for him to take out his frustrations on in the hopes that Tony will go easy on the new kid.
Take-home lesson: Remember how we talked about the risks of projecting an A-ball pitcher as one of the game's top prospects? Maybe we should amend that rule to make an exception for pitchers drafted out of high school who put up 222-to-50 strikeout-to-walk ratios in their first pro season. Especially left-handed pitchers. Ankiel is the real deal; the only thing standing between him and greatness is an injury. Of course, that's what they said about Kerry Wood...and Dwight Gooden...and Don Gullett...and Gary Nolan...
10. Matt Clement, RHP, San Diego (BBA: #10, Sickels: #13)
What we said last year: "Clement is one of the few top prospects from a year ago who spent most of 1998 in the minor leagues, made some adjustments in Triple-A while trying to develop his control. He may come out of the adjustment period better than ever. He's got nasty stuff, with arguably the best slider in the minor leagues, and a great sinking fastball; he also hit 30--that's right, three-zero--batters last season. Ouch. All that intimidation makes him tough to hit, as he led Triple-A with 160 K's, and opposing batters hit just .245 against him, an impressive mark in Las Vegas. He's thrown a ton of pitches the last two years--despite a strong build, he has to be considered an injury risk, but if healthy, he should be one of the best rookie pitchers in baseball this year."
What he did in 1999: Of all the top rookies of 1999, Clement may have made the least noise. He started the season in the Padres' rotation, and despite a 6.89 ERA in April, he stayed there all year, getting stronger as the season went on, and finished by going 4-0 with a 2.23 ERA in September. For the season, he went 10-12 with a 4.48 ERA, with 181 innings, 190 hits, 86 walks and 135 strikeouts. You may be pleased to know that he only hit nine batters all year.
Take-home lesson: Clement turned 25 during his rookie season, and while a 25-year-old rookie hitter would normally be consigned to a less-than-promising future, age is far less of a concern for rookie pitchers. Not counting Negro Leaguers, the latest debut by a Hall-of-Fame hitter since World War II was by Ralph Kiner, who was 23 years, six months when he reached the majors in 1946. Hall of Fame pitchers since then who were older than Kiner when they debuted include Gaylord Perry, Jim Bunning, Phil Niekro and Hoyt Wilhelm (who was 29). Bruce Bochy, one of the most underrated managers in the game today, did well to remain patient with Clement. After adjusting for offensive levels, there's not much difference between Clement's rookie season and that of a 24-year-old rookie named Kevin Brown back in 1989.
9. Carlos Beltran, CF, Kansas City (BBA: #14, Sickels: #11)
What we said last year: "There hasn't been a great prospect to come out of Puerto Rico since it was made subject to the draft in 1990, but Beltran should change all that. A second-round pick in 1995 on the basis of his tools, he put it all together in 1998 and got better as the season went along. He played well in September and the Royals love their tools prospects even if they can't hit, so he should get every opportunity to succeed this year. He's not a threat for Rookie of the Year, but he's very young and should have an outstanding career."
What he did in 1999: Win the AL Rookie of the Year award. Although Beltran was only a slightly above-average hitter for the season, he was in the lineup for all but five games during the year, giving him impressive counting stats: 194 hits, 22 home runs, seven triples, 112 runs, 108 RBIs, 27 steals and 16 baserunner kills. He only drew 46 walks, but nearly a third of them came in September, lending credence to the belief that Beltran is still learning the game, and still hasn't put a firm limit on what his ceiling might be.
Take-home lesson: Even more than Beltran's better plate discipline, what led us to believe he was a better prospect than Mateo was his astonishingly consistent track record of improvement. In Beltran's first pro year, he slugged .328 and didn't hit a homer in 180 at-bats. In every season after, he either showed marked improvement or consolidated his performance while jumping at least one level per season. Beltran was drafted on the basis of his tools, but it was his ability to develop those tools and translate them into on-field performance that had us excited about his future.
While we tend to denigrate players with great individual attributes like speed or power but no real baseball ability, the fact remains that virtually all great players--Griffey and Bonds and even Jeter and Andruw Jones--have both tools and the knowledge of how to use them. Beltran has the tools, and if he doesn't know how to use them quite yet, he has certainly shown the capacity to learn.