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April 12, 2006

Future Shock

The Clock is Ticking

by Kevin Goldstein

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After three full seasons, teams have a fairly good idea of what they have in a player they drafted. Looking at the 2002 draft today is almost like looking at a historical document. For the most part, we now have a very good idea of who these players are, and what they will be. Top high school hitters like Prince Fielder (No. 7 overall), Jeremy Hermida (No. 11) and Jeff Francoeur (No. 23) are in the nascent period of very promising careers, and nearly all of the college first-rounders have already established themselves, or look like they may never will. Twins outfielder Denard Span, whose career was delayed by a late signing, is the only player still a prospect who's on the traditional minor league path. The others who haven't made it to the big leagues have either been slowed by injuries, or by pure lack of production.

Moving forward just one year to the 2003 draft, a number of questions remain. For many of these players entering their third full year, 2006 is a make or break season--not as far as getting to the big leagues, but in giving us a much better idea if the player is closer to being a future star or a future bust. With that in mind, here are 10 players from the first round of the 2003 draft whose careers are currently pointing in the wrong direction in one form or another.

Kyle Sleeth, rhp, Tigers (No. 3 overall pick, $3.35 million bonus)

Sleeth was the first pitcher drafted in 2003, and with good reason. He has the body (6'5", 220), the stuff (mid-90s fastball, plus breaking pitch) and command. The only knock against Sleeth was his mechanics, as he throws across his body. Sleeth signed too late to debut until 2004, where he pitched relatively well in nine Florida State League starts, but got hammered at Double-A Erie, posting a 6.30 ERA in 13 games as his control went south. Not soon after, the mechanical flaws caught up with him and he missed all of 2005 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. He's still not ready to pitch, but is throwing in extended spring training. As Under The Knife devotees know, the track record for TJ survivors is good and constantly improving, but even in a perfect situation, Sleeth won't be able to contribute in the big leagues until late 2007. The glass-half-full guy would point out that if things work out, the Tigers could have Sleeth locked up into his early 30s. Or point out that the following year, they struck gold with Justin Verlander, and in the world of pitching prospects, one ace out of two ain't half bad.

Tim Stauffer, rhp, Padres (No. 4, $750,000)

While he was the fourth overall pick in the draft, we need to judge him more as a second-round pick, as Stauffer admitted to a shoulder problem after being selected and agreed to a bonus roughly one quarter of what he would have received if healthy. While he didn't need surgery, he's never shown the same stuff as he did in college at Richmond, and he's gotten worse across the board at each higher level:

Level   IP   ERA  H/9  W/9  K/9
Hi A  35.1  1.78  7.1  2.3  7.7
AA    51.1  2.63  9.8  2.3  5.8
AAA  156.2  4.32  9.9  2.5  6.5
MLB   81.0  5.33 10.2  3.2  5.4

His 15-game stint in the big leagues last year earned him a return engagement at Triple-A Portland. He's one of those guys who is going to get plenty of looks and chances because of what he once was, and he could still be shuttling back and forth between Triple-A and the majors ten years from now if he wanted to. Sounds like John Wasdin.

Ryan Harvey, of, Cubs (No. 6, $2.4 million)

Harvey was the best power prospect in the draft, but he's been much slower to develop than your average sixth overall pick. He spent two years in short-season leagues, hitting 16 home runs in 292 at-bats while racking up 103 strikeouts. His full-season debut last year at Low Class A Peoria was good in the sense that he led the Midwest League with 24 home runs, but he also hit just .257 with a completely unacceptable K/BB ratio of 24/137, including an 11/112 mark in 379 at-bats against righties. Those numbers can work if you are hitting 40 jacks, but not 24. Harvey was an old 18 when drafted, and he'll turn 22 this season. It's ridiculous to call him old, but he's still a number of big adjustments away from living up to his potential.

Michael Aubrey, 1b, Indians (No. 11, $2.01 million)

Aubrey's talent certainly is not to blame here--his health is. Chronic back problems (the last thing a 24-year-old needs) have limited him to just 164 games as a pro, but in those games, he's hit .314/.392/.507 with 24 home runs and 121 RBI. A healthy Aubrey would probably be close to unseating Ben Broussard for this first base job, but instead he's in extended spring training nursing yet another injury (rib cage) and won't report to High Class A Kinston until at least May.

Ryan Wagner, rhp, Reds (No. 14, $1.4 million)

Wagner's record-breaking junior year at Houston (he struck out 149 in 78.1 innings) had the Reds thinking they found their closer of the future, and that future would be soon. He was in the majors after just nine minor league games and after putting up a 1.66 ERA in 17 big league appearances with 25 strikeouts in 21.2 innings and just 13 hits allowed, it looked like the Reds were right. But something happened on the way, and while nobody can quite put their finger on the cause, he's clearly not the pitcher he once was. After a 6.11 ERA with the Reds in 2005, he's back at Triple-A Louisville talking about how they want him to work on his fastball. It's a true crossroads season for him.

Jeff Allison, rhp, Marlins (No. 16, $1.85 million)

There's really nothing to say here. The kid with the golden arm that delivered 97 mph fastballs and two plus breaking balls had a 0.00 ERA and more than two strikeouts per inning as a high school senior. Scouts didn't like his attitude, but nobody expected a heroin overdose and an addiction to oxycontin. Making the story all the more sad is Allison's shocking, almost life-affirming return to baseball last year, followed by him leaving the team once again in spring training. The Marlins won't comment on it, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what happened.

David Murphy, of, Red Sox (No. 17, $1.525 million)

With the 17th pick, the Red Sox were torn between taking Murphy and University of California third baseman Conor Jackson. Whoops. Murphy has a career batting line of .272/.342/.384, but to his credit, he began to at least show some promise in 2005 with a .275/.337/.430 year at Double-A Portland. It's probably too little, too late unless he can make another gargantuan leap at Triple-A Pawtucket this year. Either way, the fact that he has some power and can play center field should be enough for some sort of big league career.

David Aardsma, rhp, Giants (No. 22, $1.425 million), now with Cubs

Of the entire list, Aardsma is the one I have the most immediate optimism for, which is surprising, because he had all but fallen off the map. He was basically the Giants' version of Ryan Wagner. He was drafted in the first round based on what he showed in the Cape Cod League (97 mph) the fall before, as opposed to his junior year at Rice (92 mph with bad mechanics), and was handed a bullpen role in 2004 after just 18 minor league innings. In 11 games with the Giants, Aardsma was brutal (6.75 ERA with 32 baserunners allowed in 10.2 innings), and became persona non-gratis within the system. Aardsma began 2005 down another level in Double-A in a failed attempt to convert to a starter before San Francisco included him in the mid-season trade for LaTroy Hawkins. He was anything but awe-inspiring with the Cubs' Double-A affiliate last year, but Aardsma showed up this spring suddenly pumping 97 mph heat again for the first time in three years. He almost made the team out of spring training, but instead is closing at Triple-A Iowa. In three games so far this year, he's retired 12 of the 13 batters he has faced, striking out six, and things are looking up again.

Brad Sullivan, rhp, Athletics (No. 25, $1.36 million)

Sullivan has really been the worst of both worlds for the Athletics, as when he's healthy, he's been pretty bad, and he hasn't even been healthy all that much. He entered 2003 as a top-10 pick, but a disappointing junior year dropped him to Oakland, and he's never found his former stuff. Limited to just 36.1 innings last year (in which he gave up 53 hits and 27 walks) while he dealt with sinus surgery--to try to correct crippling headaches caused by a childhood auto accident--Sullivan now pitches in the mid-80s, as his mechanics have completely fallen apart. In his season debut back at High A Stockton, Sullivan retired just four of 10 batters faced, walking five and giving up a double.

Brian Snyder, 3b, Athletics (No. 26, $1.325 million)

Few teams saw Snyder as a first-round pick, but the A's loved his polished bat and strong plate discipline. He hit .311/.421/.484 in his full-season debut at Low Class A Kane County in 2004, but was limited to just 101 games due to a number of injuries that were attributed to poor conditioning, which is a nice way of saying that Snyder got fat. His 2005 season was a complete disaster, as he got just two plate appearances in due to a hip flexor and groin injury that never healed. He's healthy and reportedly in good shape, but the lost season means he's seeing his first Double-A action at 24.

Bonus Round - aka, This List Goes To Eleven

Vince Sinisi, 1b/of, Rangers (No. 46, $2.07 million)

I list Sinisi because while he was a second-round pick, his bonus was the eighth highest in the draft as most teams thought he wouldn't sign as a draft-eligible sophomore, and those that thought he might sign didn't want to deal with agent Scott Boras. Because of a broken forearm--and an infection following surgery to repair it--Sinisi has yet to play more than 100 games in a season. He's a career .297 hitter, but as a first baseman, he'll need to show more power (18 home runs in 693 career at-bats) to profile as anything more than the next Greg Colbrunn.

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

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