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December 1, 2006

Future Shock

Los Angeles Dodgers Top Ten Prospects

by Kevin Goldstein

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Excellent Prospects
1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP
2. Andy LaRoche, 3B
3. Scott Elbert, LHP
Very Good Prospects
4. James Loney, 1B
Good Prospects
5. Jonathan Meloan, RHP
6. Josh Bell, 3B
7. Preston Mattingly, 1B
Average Prospects
8. Blake DeWitt, 2B/3B
9. Bryan Morris, RHP
10. Chin-Lung Hu, SS

1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP
DOB: 3/19/88
Height/Weight: 6-3/210
Bats/Throws: L/L
Draft: 1st round, 2006, Texas HS
What he did in 2006: 1.95 ERA, 37-28-5-54 at Rookie-level
The Good: The ideal high school lefthander: Tall, long-armed, with clean mechanics. His fastball already sits at 92-94 mph, touches 96, and there is room for more. The urveball is also a true plus offering, and his change has progressed by leaps and bounds since being all but non-existent during his prep career. Beyond the stuff, his command and understanding of his craft is well beyond his years.
The Bad: Nothing glaring. The only real weakness with Kershaw is his age and inexperience.
The Irrelevant: After missing some time in his high school season with an oblique strain, Kershaw pitched five perfect innings in his return, striking out 15. You do the math.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A true No. 1 starter.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: High. While I put Elbert ahead of Kershaw on the midseason lefthander rankings, it's impossible to temper my enthusiasm for Kershaw. Within two years, Kershaw has a significant shot at looking just as impressive (if not even more so) as elite prospects like Homer Bailey and Philip Hughes look today.

2. Andy LaRoche, 3B
DOB: 9/13/83
Height/Weight: 6-1/215
Bats/Throws: R/R
Draft: 39th round, 2003, Grayson County Texas JUCO
What he did in 2006: .309/.419/.493 at Double-A (277 PA); .322/.400/.550 at Triple-A (230 PA)
The Good: An excellent hitter with that much-desired combination of strength and bat control, as evidenced by his slugging .500+ while totting up more walks than strikeouts. He should hit .300+ annually in the big leagues, with OBPs nearing or above .400. He's not a future Gold Glove winner, but is a solid defender with a plus arm who won't have to move off the hot corner anytime soon.
The Bad: Power profiles as above-average, in the 20+ home runs annually range, but no more than that. He's slow afoot.
The Irrelevant: Drafted in the 39th round as a flyer, the Dodgers gave LaRoche a cool $1 million to sway him away from transferring to Rice.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: An All-Star third baseman.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Low. LaRoche is an all but finished product, and he'll get a shot in spring training to move Wilson Betemit into a super-sub role.

3. Scott Elbert, LHP
DOB: 8/13/85
Height/Weight: 6-2/190
Bats/Throws: L/L
Draft: 1st round, 2004, Missouri HS
What he did in 2006: 2.37 ERA, 83.2-57-41-97 at High A; 3.61 ERA, 62.1-40-44-76 at Double-A
The Good: Elbert misses tons of bats using both a 91-94 mph fastball with heavy boring action and a hard-breaking curveball. His changeup should develop into an average pitch. Has a good body with impressive arm action.
The Bad: His control is below average, and at times well below. Like the Cubs' top prospect, Donald Veal, the high walk totals have yet to bite him because of his ability to prevent balls from going into play.
The Irrelevant: In his last five Florida State League appearances, Elbert allowed six hits over 19.2 innings while striking out 30.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: An upper-echelon starter.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average. The Dodgers have little reason or desire to rush Elbert, so he'll return to Double-A with the mission of simply throwing more strikes.

4. James Loney, 1B/OF
DOB: 5/7/84
Height/Weight: 6-2/220
Bats/Throws: L/L
Draft: 1st round, 2002, Texas HS
What he did in 2006: .380/.426/.546 at Triple-A (406 PA); .284/.342/.559 at MLB (111 PA)
The Good: He's the owner of as pretty a swing from the left side as you'll ever see. Loney is a consummate hitter with an advanced approach and tremendous plate coverage, and also an outstanding defensive first baseman with excellent range, footwork, and a plus arm that is wasted at the position. He has the athleticism for the outfield, but is still raw there.
The Bad: His power ceiling is the source of much debate. He rarely drives balls against lefthanders.
The Irrelevant: Half of Loney's 18 big league RBI came in one game when he went 4-for-5 with a double and a pair of home runs in a 19-11 win at Colorado on September 28th.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A first baseman in the mold of John Olerud, and far more likely to win a batting title than a home run crown.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Low. After years of nagging injury problems, Loney is finally living up to the promise of his first-round selection in 2002 and impressive pro debut. The re-signing of Nomar Garciaparra clouds his immediate future, but he could make the big league squad as a player who gets 300+ at-bats while filling in at three positions.

5. Jonathan Meloan, RHP
DOB:
7/11/84
Height/Weight: 6-3/225
Bats/Throws: R/R
Draft: 5th round, 2005, University of Arizona
What he did in 2006: 1.54 ERA, 23.1-9-7-41 at Low A; 2.50 ERA, 18-15-4-27 at High A; 1.69 ERA, 10.2-3-5-23 at Double-A
The Good: Brought back very slowly from elbow soreness in the spring, the power righthander dominated out of the bullpen by striking out 91 and walking just 16 in 52 innings spread across three levels. His two-pitch arsenal consists of 92-94 mph fastball that he can reach back and hit 97 with, and a spike curveball that one scout classifies as "a sinking monster."
The Bad: Meloan's injury history leaves him as a bit of an unproven commodity, as he was pitching two-to-three inning stints on four days' rest during most of the season, so we're unsure as to whether or not he has the ability to maintain his stuff on shorter notice. He was used at a more normal pace in the Arizona Fall League, and still dominated. He struggles with control at times.
The Irrelevant: He has no need to be spotted by a LOOGY, as left-handed batters went 6-for-70 (.086) against Meloan in 2006 with 43 strikeouts.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A power reliever with set-up and closer potential.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Low. Meloan will be given a shot at a bullpen job at the big league level in the spring, with the expectation that he can work his way up to being used in high-leverage innings in short order.

6. Josh Bell, 3B
DOB:
11/13/86
Height/Weight: 6-3/205
Bats/Throws: B/R
Draft: 4th round, 2005, Florida HS
What he did in 2006: .308/.367/.544 at Rookie-level (276 PA)
The Good: A broad-shouldered third baseman with big-league power from both sides of the plate. His raw power ranks with anyone in the system, and he's already shown a knack for identifying pitches he can drive. Athletic in the field, with a strong arm.
The Bad: Although he's potentially a good defender, he's not there yet, thanks to sloppy footwork and erratic accuracy on his throws. His power-happy swing led to way too many whiffs.
The Irrelevant: There were two highly-regarded kids named Josh Bell in the 2005 draft. This one went in the 4th round, and the other one, a college catcher, was selected by Toronto in the 6th.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A middle-of-the-order power threat.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: High. Bell's performance in the Pioneer League was an eye-opener, but he remains a raw yet exciting product. We'll know much more after his full-season debut.

7. Preston Mattingly, SS (not really)
DOB:
8/28/87
Height/Weight: 6-3/205
Bats/Throws: R/R
Draft: 1st round, 2006, Indiana HS
What he did in 2006: .290/.322/.403 at Rookie-level (199 PA)
The Good: Like his father in name only, Preston is right-handed, much bigger, and a far better all-around athlete. Luckily, he can hit too, with a smooth swing, quick bat, and plus power potential.
The Bad: A shortstop because he was the best athlete in his high school, he has no shot to stay there as a pro, and his arm is short for third base, leaving him likely to become a first baseman or left fielder in the end. He can be overly aggressive at the plate, and needs to learn that in the pros he'll see far fewer hittable pitches.
The Irrelevant: Preston played his high school ball at Evansville High School, whose most famous baseball alumni is 14-year big leaguer and former No. 1 overall pick Andy Benes.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: An above-average hitter for whatever position he ends up at.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: High. Almost sheltered by his father, Mattingly gave scouts few opportunities to see him against upper-level competition, but he was one of the talks of the Dodgers recent instructional league. He'll require patience, but the Dodgers think he'll be worth it.

8. Blake DeWitt, 2B
DOB:
8/20/85
Height/Weight: 5-11/175
Bats/Throws: L/R
Draft: 1st round, 2004, Missouri HS
What he did in 2006: .268/.339/.442 at High A (478 PA); .183/.241/.221 at Double-A (112 PA)
The Good: Provides a quick bat from the left side that saw his power come alive this year, as he belted a career-high 19 home runs. Scouts praise his swing and approach, and he's noted for his good makeup and work habits.
The Bad: Despite high marks from scouts, his performance has yet to match his reviews, and his power won't be 100% proven until he does it away from the friendly confines of Vero Beach. He moved from third to second base this year, and he's still grasping the fundamentals of the position, but should become at least adequate.
The Irrelevant: The second Missouri prep player on this list, along with Elbert; both players were scouted and signed by former big league outfielder Mitch Webster.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A solid hitter with above-average power for a middle infielder.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Higher than it should be. DeWitt will return to Double-A for 2007, where he struggled mightily at the end of the season. It's time for him to step it up.

9. Bryan Morris, RHP
DOB:
3/28/87
Height/Weight: 6-3/175
Bats/Throws: L/R
Draft: 1st round, 2006, Motlow State Tennessee JUCO
What he did in 2006: 5.13 ERA, 59.2-64-40-79 at Rookie-level
The Good: Advanced for his age, Morris averaged over 12 strikeouts per nine innings in his pro debut, and did it utilizing a low 90s fastball with excellent movement that touches 96, as well as a curveball that some scouts considered among the best in the draft.
The Bad: Morris felt a twinge in his elbow during last start, and required Tommy John surgery, so he'll miss all of 2007. Despite the nifty strikeout rate, he still struggled to retire hitters due to control problems and a tendency to groove fastballs when he fell behind in the count.
The Irrelevant: A third-round pick by the Devil Rays in 2005, Morris decided to pitch one season at Motlow State, where his father is the head coach.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A middle-of-the-rotation starter.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: High. At this point, many see the Tommy John procedure as simply a delay in development as opposed to having any sort of long-term career impact. We'll just have to wait.

10. Chin-Lung Hu, SS
DOB:
2/2/84
Height/Weight: 5-9/150
Bats/Throws: R/R
Signed: 2003, Taiwan
What he did in 2006: .254/.326/.334 at Double-A (556 PA)
The Good: Arguably the best defensive shortstop in the minor leagues, with remarkable instincts, range, and an above-average arm. He's fundamentally sound (making just 10 errors on the season), while also capable of the spectacular play. Despite his offensive downturn, he made great strides in his plate discipline, more than doubling his walk rate from previous season.
The Bad: The question remains as to whether he'll hit enough to be a starter. Even if he does, he'll be forced to bat in the lower part of the order due to his limited secondary skills.
The Irrelevant: Despite his .326 on-base percentage, Hu still finished fourth in the Southern League with 71 runs scored, thanks to batting second in what was an otherwise powerful lineup.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A guy who shows up a lot in Baseball Tonight's Web Gems segment.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average. Defensively, Hu is ready now, so it's all about how he comes around with the bat. Triple-A Las Vegas should at the very least make his stats look better.

The Sleeper: The son of a 15-year veteran, shortstop Ivan DeJesus Jr. inherited his father's slick-fielding ways, and while his power is limited, he had a .361 on-base percentage in his full-season debut at 19 thanks to an excellent approach at the plate and a compact, line-drive swing.

The Big Picture: Rankings Combined With Non-Rookies 25 Years Old Or Younger (As Of Opening Day 2007)

1. Chad Billingsley, RHP
2. Clayton Kershaw, LHP
3. Matt Kemp, OF
4. Andy LaRoche, 3B
5. Scott Elbert, LHP
6. Russ Martin, C
7. Jonathan Broxton, RHP
8. James Loney, 1B/OF
9. Hong-Chih Kuo, LHP
10. Andre Ethier, LF

If you were saying to yourself that this year's Top 10 prospect list pales in comparison to previous years, now you know why, as this list is a monster. Billingsley had an up-and-down rookie campaign, but the pitcher you saw in August, when he went 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA in five starts, is the real deal and he's poised for a breakout with his No. 1 starter potential. Kemp continues to grow into his remarkable tools, and he did good work at Triple-A in correcting his tendency to chase breaking balls, which led to his big league slump. Martin had a far more consistent rookie campaign, and should gain another 5-8 home runs and 15-25 walks annually in future years, which makes him a star-level player. Broxton is just an improvement in his control away from being a closer candidate, while Kuo has power possibilities as both a starter and reliever. As impressive as Ethier was in his rookie campaign, he's limited to left field, and his secondary skills just don't fit the profile.

So, in the end, the Dodgers are once again loaded, and there are a numbers of impressive players from the last two drafts who could move themselves into next year's top 10 with big performances as the Dodgers track record of scouting and developing impact players is nearly unmatched and will make them a perennial contender in the National League West for many years to come.

Next: The Milwaukee Brewers

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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