March 22, 2000
Top 40 Prospects of 1999
Epilogue (Part II)
Continuing--and finally finishing--our discussion of last year's great prospects, we conclude with the rest of the players who made only one Top 40 list, either that of Baseball America or John Sickels.
There were eight players on Baseball America's Top 40 list who missed our own and John Sickels's. Of those, three (Corey Patterson, Mark Mulder and Alfonso Soriano) had yet to debut in organized baseball--Mulder and Soriano had played in the Arizona Fall League in 1998--so we simply had no data. Of course, Mulder and Patterson were drafted #2 and #3 overall in 1998, and Soriano was highly-touted from his experience playing in Japan, so it's not as if their talent wasn't widely known. All three players made our Top 40 this year.
Evaluating players on the basis of tools alone is Baseball America's strength, and BBA deserves credit for staking their reputation on these players and coming up big on all three.
The other players in this category include:
Carlos Lee (#28), whose defensive shortcomings at third base kept him off our list, but who hit well enough to survive the transition to left field for the White Sox. He's not a great hitter, and he's too old to ever become one, but if he works hard he could improve to passably average.
Odalis Perez (#31) was on our Honorable Mention list after being the youngest pitcher to appear in the major leagues in 1998. He won the Braves' fifth-starter spot out of spring training, but was overworked and blew out his elbow in July. Attention, Jon Garland: making it to the major leagues at the age of 20 is not something to get excited about. Watch your mailbox for our petition proposing that no pitcher be allowed to start a major-league game until his 22nd birthday. We're working on getting it on the ballot in California. Don't all radical proposals get passed there?
Matt White (#32), who after posting a 5.21 ERA in A-ball last year has finally begun to quiet the people who hyped him as "the best high-school pitching prospect of all time." Josh Beckett, listen up: this could be you in three years.
Billy Koch (#33), who is a data point for the wisdom of drafting college pitchers over their high-school counterparts. Koch pitched well in 1998 (3.75 ERA, 108-to-41 strikeout-to-walk ratio), a performance that was even more impressive considering that he had undergone Tommy John surgery in April 1997. In retrospect, his ability to pitch as well as he did just one year after the surgery should have tipped us off that he would be even better in 1999.
After never pitching out of the bullpen before, Koch saved 31 games for the Blue Jays, thereby reminding us of yet another lesson: most great closers were starters once upon a time, and trying to groom closers in the minors--unless their repertoire just screams it, like Armando Benitez--is silly.
Michael Cuddyer (#36) was a great call by Baseball America. Despite his 60+ errors at shortstop in 1998, the broad offensive skills he showed in his first full year out of high school got him the nod, and as expected, the move to third base agreed with him. Cuddyer improved across the board in 1999, and the Scott Rolen comparisons have increased from common to flat-out ubiquitous.
Moving on to John Sickels, Stats Inc.'s minor-league guru ventured alone seven times with players in his top 40. Three of those players--Troy Glaus (#4), Juan Encarnacion (#16) and Richie Sexson (#36)--were on his list because Sickels uses slightly different qualifying criteria. We, like BBA, use rookie eligibility as our benchmark, while Sickels likes to use a cutoff of roughly 50 games in the major leagues.
Glaus, obviously, is a terrific multi-skilled third baseman who should challenge Eric Chavez as the American League's best at the hot corner over the next 10 years. Encarnacion, unless he gets rid of his habit of swinging at anything round and white, won't be the best at anything related to baseball. Sexson is a power-hitting behemoth with a strike zone the size of Gibralter, and it shows: just 34 walks against 117 strikeouts. Still, it's hard not to find merit in a .514 slugging average, as he had last year. Just don't get us started on his RBIs.
Other players high on Sickels's list:
Joe Lawrence (#21) was a 21-year-old shortstop in the Blue Jays' chain who had changed his batting stance into a Rickey Henderson-style crouch and drew 105 walks, to go along with 48 extra-base hits and a .308 average. Defensive concerns kept him from being a top-flight prospect, but we certainly considered him for inclusion based on his offensive performance. Those defensive concerns, as well as incredible organizational depth in the middle infield, moved Lawrence to third base in 1999, and his stock was further downgraded by most analysts because of an injury which cost him half the season. Still, he moved to Double-A, drew 56 walks and roped 25 extra-base hits in 70 games, implying that his core secondary skills are still there. He's still a strong buy in our book, but don't sell your portfolio to get him just yet.
Jason Grilli (#34) made Sickels's list as a reflection of his melding of the two schools of prospect evaluation. Grilli, the Giants' #1 pick in 1997, had a terrific fastball/curveball repertoire to go along with a performance that propelled him to Triple-A in his first pro season. Grilli struggled a bit with Pacific Coast League hitters in 1999, allowing the Marlins to snag him as part of the ransom on Livan Hernandez's right arm, but pitched even worse (7.68 ERA, 27 strikeouts and 23 walks in 41 innings) after the trade. Grilli only turned 23 in November, and his off year may be just a speed bump on the way to future success, much as we've postulated it was for Brad Penny. But in any evaluation based on performance, Grilli is still far from Top 40 consideration.
Enrique Wilson (#37) has intrigued evaluators for many years, ever since the Indians got him included as the PTBNL in a trade with the Twins. (Minnesota, apparently quite fearful of losing him, tried to hide Wilson in spring training by having him change uniform numbers, shave his head, and once play shortstop in a dress.) Wilson is an exceptionally adroit and versatile defensive player, and any shortstop who can hit .306 in Triple-A at the age of 21 is doing something right.
Wilson's absence from our list is a reflection of the kinds of skills we like best in young hitters, especially young middle infielders: secondary skills (power, walks, speed) above the "primary"skill of hitting for average. Wilson's main value is in his ability to hit .300, but batting average is a much more variable skill than either power or walks, and so when Wilson hits .262, as he did for Cleveland last year, he has few other contributions to fall back on. He's still a fine young player, but the positions he can contribute most at are filled by Omar Vizquel and Roberto Alomar, so barring a trade it's likely he won't get the playing time to improve his skills.
Ramon Hernandez (#39) first showed up the prospect radar when he hit .361/.427/.572 for Visalia in 1997. Our enthusiasm was tempered then, both because of Visalia's high-offense environment and because Hernandez flopped (.193/.281/.286) in 44 games at Double-A. He returned to Huntsville in 1998, and hit .296/.389/.445 despite playing with assorted injuries that forced him to DH most of the time. Sickels was impressed with his ability to hit despite his injuries, and was confident that his defensive skills were still intact.
He was right on both counts; Hernandez continued to hit in Triple-A in 1999, and moved back behind the plate without any difficulty. With A.J. Hinch kissing his days as a first-string catcher goodbye, Hernandez got a late season opportunity, and his .279/.363/.397 performance has earned the starting nod this season.
Given his age (he turns 24 in May), we're still not prepared to call Hernandez a top prospect. But he does have secondary skills, which are even more important for a catcher than other hitters (how many catchers hit .300 regularly?). He's in a good organization, and he has an opportunity. In retrospect, we probably still wouldn't have put him on our list last year, but Sickels worked a little harder to get a little more information on him, and for that he deserves credit.
And with that, we're done. It's impossible to condense the lessons of this exercise into one sentence, but we'll try: In evaluating prospects, everything matters. Everything. Performance analysis, scouting reports, player opportunity, injury risk and the name of the diner in Scranton that the player ate breakfast at every morning. When a scout proclaims that Juan Encarnacion is going to be a superstar because he runs like the wind and looks great in a uniform, ignore him. But when a performance analyst tells you that Mike Bovee is a great pitching prospect because he has a pretty strikeout-to-walk ratio--never mind if he's never broken 90 off a golf course in his life--ignore him, too. Everything matters, and you won't know everything unless you've heard both sides of the equation.