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February 2, 2000

Top 40 Prospects of 1999

Part five of a five-part series

by Rany Jazayerli

The final segment of our review of the Top 40 Prospects from Baseball Prospectus 1999:

8. Jeremy Giambi, LF, Kansas City (BBA: #64, Sickels: #17)

What we said last year: "If [Eric] Chavez doesn't have a smooth transition to the major leagues, Giambi may be the next best bet to win AL Rookie of the Year honors. He's a little old for a rookie, largely because the Royals had their heads buried in sand last year and didn't bring him up until September. But he was the first minor leaguer to clear an 1100 OPS since Billy Ashley in 1994, and Giambi wasn't playing in Albuquerque. He's not likely to have a fifteen- or twenty-year career, because he's getting a late start and has no defensive value. But for the next ten years, he could be as good a hitter as anyone."

What he did in 1999: Giambi started the year on the disabled list, recovering from the hamstring that he severely pulled in 1998. The injury gave Mike Sweeney the chance to re-establish himself in the major leagues. Giambi returned to Omaha in late April, and hit a ridiculous .346/.472/.685 in 35 games, even as he adjusted to playing first base for the first time.

The Royals finally called him up in June, but still couldn't leave well enough alone, whining about how poor his defense was, and flipping him and Sweeney between first base and DH to ensure that neither would ever learn the position. Giambi let all that negativity accompany him to the plate, where hit .285/.373/.368, with just three homers in 288 at-bats.

Take-home lesson: As much as Giambi struggled last season, he still put up a .373 OBP. The question now is not so much whether he'll become a great hitter, but simply whether he'll do so in a Royals uniform, or with the Athletics or Red Sox or some other savvy organization.

It's hard to not find fault with Baseball America, who somehow deemed 63 other minor leaguers to be more valuable than Jeremy Giambi. That's like calling Ted Williams the 64th-best player of all time. Yes, Giambi is slow and has no defensive value. But to suggest that one of the two or three best hitting prospects in the minor leagues is only the 64th-best overall prospect is to suggest that offense represents an absurdly small fraction of a position player's overall contribution.

7. Octavio Dotel, RHP, New York (NL) (BBA: #45, Sickels: #22)

What we said last year: "Dotel was coming off a very promising 1996 when injuries and ineffectiveness almost threw him off the prospect radar entirely. He came back healthy and in a big way in 1998, with improved command of both his curve and slider. Given that his fastball was already in the mid-90s, it isn't surprising that he overmatched both the Eastern and International Leagues...he's ready for a major league job now, but hopefully it will be in middle relief as a rookie."

What he did in 1999: The Mets returned him to Triple-A to start the year, with the understanding that he would be called up by midseason. Despite a 3.84 ERA in Norfolk, Dotel actually pitched extremely well, allowing just 52 hits in 70 innings, with 34 walks and 90 strikeouts.

Dotel was recalled in July and used in middle relief for a few weeks before entering the Mets rotation. For the season, he went 8-3 despite a 5.38 ERA, but in this case, the ERA may actually be the deceptive number. A single start against the Cubs in which he allowed nine runs in one inning raised his overall ERA by more than a run. Dotel gave up just 69 hits in 85 innings and struck out 85, though his command (49 walks, 12 home runs) hurt him. Now an Astro, he's slotted as their #3 starter, and with Larry Dierker and Vern Ruhle around, he's an excellent bet to double his wins while cutting his walk rate in half.

Take-home lesson: Dotel's three-year record before last year included an outstanding 1996 and 1998, but a poor 1997. While you like to see consistency in your top hitting prospects, there are so many explanations--many of them benign and temporary--for a pitcher's off-year that we didn't put too much weight on it. Dotel's ranking with other publications was not a reflection of his stuff, which is excellent, but may have been a reaction to the Mets' horrible track record with the Young Guns (Bill Pulsipher, Jason Isringhausen and Paul Wilson). We were less worried about Dotel's health, because unlike the Young Guns (who were overworked to a surreal degree) Dotel topped out at 168 innings in 1998, averaging around 26 batters per start, which was a reasonable workload for a 22-year-old.

6. Nick Johnson, 1B, New York (AL) (BBA: #18, Sickels: #7)

What we said last year: "Larry Bowa's nephew may be the best pure hitting prospect in the game. He picked apart the high-A-ball Florida State League as a teenager. He has incredible power potential, and already commands the strike zone authority: 68 walks in just 92 games, and 19 hit-by-pitches to boot. By 2000 he'll just be wasting time if he's still in the minors. He has a chance to be the Yankees' best first baseman since Lou Gehrig."

What he did in 1999: Johnson registered a .525 OBP, and if that doesn't get your attention, it should: it was the highest OBP by any player, at any full-season level, in the 1990s. Johnson reached base by any means necessary, both non-violent (.345 batting average, 123 walks) and violent (37 HBPs). All that, and he played the entire season in Double-A at age 20. His power wasn't nearly as impressive, but with 33 doubles and 14 home runs, his slugging average was still .548, which is nothing to sniff at.

Take-home lesson: While Johnson, offensively, was not significantly distinguishable from Giambi a year ago, Baseball America rated him much higher, in large part because Johnson is a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman. They still had him pegged too low. Remember, with position players, the bulk of their value is determined by what they do offensively, and the ability to get on-base has the greatest impact on their offensive contribution. Of our Top 10 Prospects, Johnson was the only one that remained in the minors in 1999 and actually improved on his performance the year before; we'll let you guess where he ranks on our new Top 40 list.

5. Pablo Ozuna, SS, St. Louis (BBA: #8, Sickels: #15)

What we said last year: "If you expect to be a Top 10 prospect without knowing the strike zone, you better do everything else really well. Fortunately, Ozuna does: he's a great defensive shortstop who won the Midwest League batting title and stole 62 bases as a 19 year-old. He's not a power hitter, but he's not Rey Ordonez either: he had 46 extra-base hits last season, and figures to be a 15-20 home run hitter as he develops. He's still raw, drawing only 29 walks and getting thrown out 26 times trying to steal, but his defense has already pushed aside fellow Cardinals prospect Brent Butler from the position. The shortstop job for the Cardinals will be in a holding pattern until Ozuna arrives."

What he did in 1999: Ozuna was wearing teal before the book arrived in stores, as the Cardinals decided Edgar Renteria would be a better choice as their shortstop-of-the-future. Ozuna skipped a level and went to Double-A, but hit just .281/.315/.400. Most disconcerting was his plate discipline, as his walks dropped from 29 to just 13 in 502 at-bats; he had as many HBPs as walks. His defense at shortstop was also disappointing, and with Alex Gonzalez now entrenched at shortstop for the Marlins, Ozuna is being pegged as a second baseman for 2000.

Take-home lesson: We didn't listen to our own advice, ranking Ozuna in our Top 10 despite his very poor secondary skills. A great power-hitting prospect who doesn't walk much (Corey Patterson) or a very patient prospect with little power (Sean Burroughs) might be a Top 10 prospect. A singles-hitting machine with 62 steals but just 29 walks, like Ozuna, should not have been rated so highly. We also overestimated Ozuna's ability to play shortstop.

Ozuna is still a good prospect; he's only 21, and hit .324 (with 10 walks in 145 at-bats) in the Dominican Republic during winter ball. But his path to the major leagues is not going to be nearly as smooth as we envisioned.

4. Bruce Chen, LHP, Atlanta (BBA: #4, Sickels: #10)

What we said last year: "He's young, he's left-handed, he throws hard, he hasn't been overworked, and he gets nothing but rave reviews for his pitching instincts. And he's a Brave with the #5 starter's job in his lap. He did nothing to disappoint in four major league starts in September, and he's a far beter prospect now than Kevin Millwood was a year ago."

What he did in 1999: On the surface, it was a disappointing season for Chen, who lost the job as #5 starter to Odalis Perez in spring training. Despite a strong performance in Triple-A, Chen had all sorts of trouble for the Braves. Called up in May, he was put in the rotation for six starts, sent back down, called up to pitch middle relief, then sent back down again. His numbers at Richmond (78 innings, 73 hits, 26 walks, 90 strikeouts) were very good, but he had a 5.47 ERA in Atlanta and gave up 11 home runs in 51 innings.

But look deeper, and you'll see that Chen actually had a much better year than almost anyone realized: he gave up just 38 hits in 51 innings (opponents hit just .208), with 27 walks and 45 strikeouts. The problem wasn't just the home runs, but how poorly he pitched out of the stretch. With no one on base, Chen was awesome, allowing opposing hitters to bat just .171/.262/.341. With runners on, they batted .296/.426/.574, and with runners in scoring position, they hit .308/.457/.731! Given the sample size (129 at-bats with no one on, 54 with runners on base) it's a sure fluke, albeit an impressive one.

There's no doubt that Chen can get major-league hitters out, and last we checked, he's still with the Braves. If there's one pitcher in baseball who could surprise everyone with a breakout season, it just might be him.

Take-home lesson: As we discussed with Brad Penny, even the best of pitching prospects can go through rocky stretches in growing into a major-league starter. As with Penny, it might actually have been better for Chen to struggle a little, keeping his overall workload down and allowing him to mature physically before he takes on the responsibilities of a top starting pitcher. And like Penny, his struggles might mean you can get him for pennies on the dollar in a fantasy league.

3. Alex Escobar, CF, New York (NL) (BBA: #11, Sickels: #18)

What we said last year: "He's not very well known yet, but hey, that's why you bought the book. Escobar is a phenomenal talent, arguably the best package of tools (49 steals) and production (.310 average, 27 HRs) since Andruw Jones, and like Jones he could easily rip through four levels this year and make the major leagues by September. He hit just .229 with 1 homer in his pro debut in 1997, but that was blamed on an injured hamstring. He was healthy last year, and his work ethic is considered excellent. He may have to move to an outfield corner in the long run, but at the plate and on the basepaths, he doesn't need to change a thing."

What he did in 1999: Escobar missed the first half of the season with a bad back, returned to action and went 5-for-11 with two doubles and a homer, and then separated his shoulder on his home-run swing and missed the rest of the year.

Take-home lesson: It would be easy to say "injuries happen" and leave it at that, but Escobar already had a checkered health record before last season: he played in only 36 games in 1997, and even in his stellar 1998 season that rocketed him this far up our list, he only appeared in 112 games. The Mets are of the opinion that Escobar's muscular physique is predisposing him to injuries, and have him working with a trainer to gain more flexibility in the hopes that the Eric Davis comparisons are restricted to his on-the-field play.

Despite losing virtually the entire year, Escobar is still held in extremely high regard: Baseball America has ranked him as the Mets' #1 prospect once again. But you can't be a Top 10 prospect if you're not in the lineup, and in the future we'll make durability a more important factor when deciding who belongs at the top echelon of our list.

2. J.D. Drew, OF, St. Louis (BBA: #1, Sickels: #1)

What we said last year: "It sounds silly to call Drew the 'sure thing' when he has fewer than 200 at-bats in organized baseball to his name...but you have to appreciate how remarkable it is for a player to sign a pro contract, go straight to Double-A, and immediately become the best player in the league. The Cardinals think so highly of his defense that they're talking about moving Lankford to right. The odds-on favorite for NL Rookie of the Year."

What he did in 1999: He didn't win rookie honors, and in fact he didn't stay in the major leagues all year, spending some time at Memphis recuperating from an injury, where he hit a relatively unimpressive .299/.371/.448. While in the major leagues, he showed flashes of the power, speed and defense--he did, indeed, bump Lankford out of center field--which made him all the rage in 1998, but for the season hit just .242/.340/.424. Somewhat disturbing was the fact that he hit just .218/.327/.335 from August 1st on, but his talent is so undeniable that few people are predicting anything other than stardom in his near future.

Take-home lesson: While he had spent the better part of two seasons (but only 74 games) in the Northern League, Drew had earned his All-World reputation as a prospect on the strength of just 59 games in organized baseball. That he was as highly thought of as he was is testimony to just how impressive his performance in 1998 was, but it can hardly be considered surprising that he would struggle a little in his second go-round. Despite his struggles, he's already an above-average major league center fielder; whether he's able to take a leap forward will determine whether he becomes a very good player or a superstar.

1. Eric Chavez, 3B, Oakland (BBA: #3, Sickels: #2)

What we said last year: "Chavez is the complete package at the plate, capable of hitting .300 right now, with 25-homer power, and his plate discipline is decent and rapidly improving. The A's organization does a good job of stressing that players work on taking walks as part of their offensive arsenal. In only his second pro season, Chavez increased his walk rate by nearly 50%. His season last year was eerily similar to that of his teammate, defending AL Rookie of the Year Ben Grieve, the year before...the only thing between Chavez and superstardom is his defense at third, which is raw but improving, and needs to be smoothed out."

What he did in 1999: Chavez got off to a slow start, hitting .214/.304/.329 in April, and Art Howe decided that getting Olmedo Saenz at-bats in a platoon role was worth retarding the development of a future superstar. Chavez almost never started against left-handers, and for the season had just 49 at-bats against southpaws. He began to catch fire at mid-season, hitting .302/.371/.563 in July and August, before he was hobbled by injury and played just 13 games from September 1st on.

For the year, Chavez hit .247/.333/.427 and walked 46 times in 356 at-bats, a significant achievement for the one-time free-swinger. Equally significant was that, far from struggling on defense, Chavez was very sure-handed at third base, making only nine errors all year, though his range was only adequate.

Take-home lesson: We went against the grain in ranking Chavez ahead of Drew, and it was by no means an easy decision. But in the end, our decision was made on the basis of that frequently-underestimated factor: age. Chavez is 25 months younger than Drew, and as we said in last year's book, "it's possible Chavez could struggle for two or more years before he establishes himself in the major leagues. But if he doesn't struggle--and we don't think he will--by the time Chavez is as old as Drew is right now, he'll already be the best third baseman in the American League." A year later, both Chavez and Drew are coming off promising, albeit somewhat disappointing, rookie seasons. But Chavez enters the new season as a 22-year-old third baseman, while Drew goes in as a 24-year-old center fielder. If we were building a team from scratch a year ago, we would have selected Chavez over Drew. We'd make the same decision today.

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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