March 13, 2000
Top 40 Prospects of 1999
Epilogue (Part I)
We've taken a fine-toothed comb to our own list of prospects from last season, but in order to get the complete picture, we need to look at the prospects who didn't make our list, not just the ones who did. For every one of our Top 40 Prospects who neither Baseball America nor John Sickels were particularly enamored with, we left a prospect off our list who was highly touted by one of our fellow publications.
There were eight prospects listed by both Baseball America and Sickels in their respective Top 40s who didn't make ours: Ryan Anderson, John Patterson, Alex Gonzalez, Pat Burrell, Matt Riley, A.J. Burnett, Braden Looper and Ryan Bradley. Let's take these one at a time:
Ryan Anderson (BBA: #7, Sickels: #19) illustrates an important principle in prospect evaluation, the concept of "expected value" vs. "upside," or the concept of risk. Anderson's upside--the impossible-to-miss similarites between him and Randy Johnson--was as big a year ago as it is now. On that basis, he belonged in the Top 40, if not higher.
But on the basis of "expected value," the possibility of Anderson turning into a top-flight major-league starter had to be balanced with other, very real possibilities. Anderson had just completed his first year of pro ball, in the Midwest League, and was just 19 years old. The possibility that such a pitcher would blow out his arm before ever reaching the major leagues (hello, Brien) is very real, as is the chance that he may never harness his control enough to get major-league hitters out (a nod to you, Mr. Pennington).
We were not blind to Anderson's upside a year ago; we simply felt that the risk involved was too high to place him on our list. We also felt that, in Anderson's case, he was so far away from the major leagues that there would be time to place him in our Top 40 if he continued to develop. Which is exactly what happened: Anderson jumped to Double-A in 1999 and held his own, and this year is firmly entrenched on our list.
The argument can be made that it is the job of a prospect evaluator to find those top prospects before their talent becomes evident to everyone, and that is exactly what Baseball America and John Sickels did here. But for every BBA Top 10 young pitcher like Anderson or Rick Ankiel, there is a Matt White (#4 in 1997, #6 in 1998), a Paul Wilson (#2 in 1996) and, yes, a Brien Taylor (#1 in 1992, #2 in 1993). One of the goals for baseball analysis should be to find a better way to pick out the true prospects from the vast sea of A-ball pitchers with great arms.
John Patterson (BBA: #15, Sickels: #23), he of the draft loophole and the great curveball, was an Honorable Mention on our Top 40 list last year. Generally, when a pitcher puts up numbers as good as Patterson did, and is as highly regarded by scouts as Patterson was, he has to be considered a great prospect.
Patterson's slide to HM on our list is another example of our bias against A-ball pitchers, as seen with Anderson, and with even brighter lights like Ankiel: so much can happen to a pitcher on the way from the California League to major-league stardom. Patterson experienced some of that misfortune in 1999, as despite fine peripheral numbers, he posted a 4.77 ERA in Double-A and a 7.04 ERA after a late-season push to Triple-A. He's still a very good prospect, and with pitchers, you have to take what the scouts say very seriously.
Alex Gonzalez (BBA: #17, Sickels: #26) was left off our list because we were concerned that he might never hit at the major-league level. There was also the question about opportunity; at the time we went to press, Edgar Renteria was still in teal.
Gonzalez had a solid rookie season, and any 22-year-old shortstop who hits 14 home runs and eight triples has to be taken seriously. But he did nothing to solve the problems with strike-zone judgment that provoked our skepticism. Gonzalez drew just 15 walks against 113 strikeouts, and a strikeout-to-walk ratio that poor is both very rare and a kiss of death. Stay tuned.
Pat Burrell (BBA: #19, Sickels: #31), like Patterson, was an Honorable Mention on our list. The only thing that kept him out of the Top 40 was his limited pro experience, just 37 games. He deserved to rank highly based on his performance, but for all the time we spend harping on the principle of sample size, we thought it would be premature to lay out the red carpet after one good month. (Though, as J.D. Drew showed, we are not so rigid that we can't make exceptions--especially for a player who slugs .972 in the National League!)
Matt Riley (BBA: #12, Sickels: #20) fell into the Anderson category: great arm, great stats (136 strikeouts vs. just 42 hits allowed!) and a long way from the major leagues. He wasn't nearly as far away as we thought, though, making his Oriole debut in September. In retrospect, his numbers were so dominant in 1998 that we should have found room for him on our list. In the future, we'll have to give more credence to pitchers whose scouting report and stat line are both outstanding, no matter what level they played at.
Everything we said about Riley can be said for A.J. Burnett (BBA: #21, Sickels: #35): fabulous arm an d a strikeout-to-hit ratio of 186-to-74, which should have trumped his status as a low-A pitcher. Burnett, however, was 21 when he abused hitters in the low minors, while Riley was barely 19. Burnett made our caution appear like wisdom for most of 1999, giving up more than a hit an inning and compiling a 5.52 ERA in Double-A, but then got called up to Florida and posted a 3.48 ERA in seven starts. He probably wouldn't be hurt by a half-season in Triple-A, but all reports are that the Marlins are going to throw him in the ocean again and see if he floats.
Braden Looper (BBA: #23, Sickels: #28) is an example of the Matt White class: a pitcher with great scouting reports who wasn't particularly effective on the mound. Looper gave up more than a hit an inning in Triple-A in 1998 despite that great arm, and with our bias against relief-pitcher prospects, that wasn't enough to get it done. Looper gave up 96 hits in 83 innings in his rookie season, but managed a 3.80 ERA, helped in part by his ability to keep the ball down. He's a good set-up man, and his sinker gives him definite closer potential. But there was nothing about him that whispered "Armando Benitez" a year ago, and all we hear now is the wind.
Ryan Bradley (BBA: #25, Sickels: #40) rocketed from the Florida State League to the majors in about two months in 1998, but missed our list because of concerns about opportunity and the fact that he may have been rushed. Still, we didn't expect him to take the first step down the Matt Drews career path, but he got blasted for 28 home runs and a 6.21 ERA in Triple-A last season. Bradley still has his first-round talent, but right now serves as just another example for why we are careful not to get too excited about pitchers who don't have a full season's experience in Double-A or higher.
Looking at the above list, it's instructive to note that six of the eight players on it are pitchers. That's not a fluke. Our list of Top 40 Prospects broke down as 29 hitters and 11 pitchers. By comparison, Sickels had 14 pitchers among his top 40, and Baseball America had 16. It may be hyperbole to say that "there's no such thing as a pitching prospect," but it's a fact that banking your future on a young pitcher is only slightly less foolish than proposing to Darva Conger.
It's easy to look at Riley or Patterson and see Steve Carlton or Bert Blyleven, and scouts get paid to do just that. They're looking for guys with a chance to be great. We're looking at the big picture, and the big picture is that most great young pitchers burn out, whether it's in the minors (Roger Salkeld) or the majors, whether it happens suddenly and painfully (Kerry Wood) or slowly and equally painfully (Dwight Gooden).
There is little doubt that the next generation of great pitchers is toiling in the minor leagues today. It's just that the pitchers who we think will grow into that class of starter usually don't, and the pitchers working in obscurity, the future Smoltzes and Moyers and Limas and Radkes, sometimes do. As long as that's the case, we'll take the chance that we'll get burned by not hyping the next great rookie pitcher. After all, the last great rookie pitcher was Kerry Wood.
Our final installment will take a look at the players who made either Baseball America's or John Sickels's list, but not both.