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November 6, 2007

Wait 'Til Next Year

Breakout Prospects

by Bryan Smith

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During the minor league season, I always keep a document on my computer desktop with the same words in capital letters: "UNDERRATED PLAYERS." As I spend my summers reading box scores and stat lines, I compile a long list of players, usually on the basis of an impressive hot streak. Basically, I do this in the hope that these players fly under the radar just long enough to make sense in my annual article highlighting potential breakout prospects.

Oftentimes, as I re-read the list at the end of the season, I find a lot of names that, once removed from their hot streak, turned out to be rather unimpressive. Or, in less fortunate circumstances, it turns out the player breaks out before I even have the chance to write him up. This April, a player entered my list after a dominant start in which he struck out six and generated nine groundball outs in just six innings. Reports on his stuff were good, and I hoped he would highlight my offseason list. And then something started happening-with every outing, the right-hander would reinforce his previous start with another strikeout- and groundout-heavy outing. By season's end, he had risen high enough to rate as the Orioles' second-best prospect according to Kevin Goldstein: Chorye Spoone.

So, in an attempt to not allow winter leagues to have a Spoone effect on my favorite list of players, I've decided to split my annual article into two parts. Today's six are players that I have confirmed as solid prospects with legitimate breakout potential, and players I worry about becoming "discovered" before I can tout them. This list is always my most prideful-Jon Lester, Francisco Liriano, and Chris Young are past alums. Later in the winter, I'll publish a second half to this list, filled with players that come up in winter talk or take a fine-tooth comb to find. However, I needed to publish my first six newly-purchased bandwagons before Bud Norris could put together another impressive Hawaiian League start.

I'm always asked what type of qualities I look for when compiling this batch of players. The answer is pretty simple: I try to highlight players that were either shadowed by an unlucky context, or players that aren't far from being complete prospects. As a believer in player development, I maintain that many traits can be learned-patience can be stressed, power potential can be realized, secondary pitches can be tightened up, command sharpened, endurance improved. So, as the following six players reach better surroundings and find the right coaches, look for all of them to become relevant prospects, and eventually, productive major leaguers.

Peter Bourjos, CF, Angels, 21 (in 2008)
2007 Line (Low-A): .274/.335/.426, 20 BB, 53 K, 19/9 SB/CS; .272 peak EqA

I had high hopes for Bourjos in 2007, as a few extremely positive conversations last year led me to place Bourjos sixth in my top 20 Pioneer League prospects for Baseball America last year. The conversations acknowledged that Bourjos' offensive game was still raw, but his defense in center field was praised as some of the best the Pioneer League had ever seen; it was rated above Drew Stubbs, who has been touted with all-world defense since his days at Texas. Midwest League fans in Cedar Rapids were only treated to a half-season of Bourjos' glovework, as he missed more than two months with a ruptured ring finger. When he got injured, Bourjos was hitting .275/.346/.375, showing very little power but a ton of speed (12/3 SB/CS). After a lengthy rehabilitation, Bourjos returned with hand at full strength, as he had a .452 slugging percentage the rest of the season. He was likely a little out of shape, though, as he was just 7-for-13 on the basepaths the rest of the season. The Angels now have to get Bourjos focused on putting the full package together-the defense, the speed, the newfound power-while also helping him improve his patience and shortening his swing. If it sounds like a lot, it is, but Bourjos' athleticism will ultimately help forgive him his faults.

Lou Marson, C, Phillies, 22
2007 Line (High-A): .288/.373/.407, 52 BB, 80K, 3/1 SB/CS; .271 peak EqA

One look at Kevin Goldstein's midseason prospect rankings for the catcher position reinforces the widely-held belief that the position is among the shallowest in talent. However, as I matched some of the minors' best defensive catchers with their ages and offensive numbers, two names stood out. The first was Marson, a fourth-round pick by the Phillies in 2004 out of an Arizona high school. Marson has played at four different levels in each of his four minor league seasons, moving up to the Florida State League for his age-21 season despite a .243/.343/.351 line in the Sally League in 2006 South Atlantic League season. At the midseason point, Marson looked destined for a fourth, rather consistent year for him at the plate: .268/.350/.335. However, after returning from the All-Star Break, something clicked, and Marson hit an impressive .305/.395/.477 the rest of the way, stinging the baseball consistently for the first time in his career. Given Marson's fourth-round pedigree, thick build, ad solid patience and contact rate, his slugging turnaround was perhaps merely a question of when. Couple his newfound offensive prowess with his already fantastic defensive skills-Marson has two straight seasons with a 35 percent caught stealing rate, ranking third in the FSL in 2007-and Marson looks a sleeper to become the Phillies catcher of the future.

Drew Miller, RHP, Padres, 22
2007 Line (Low-A): 4.69 ERA, 80 2/3 IP, 74 hits, 24/87 BB/K, 12 HR

Hoping to add pitching to their shallow farm system, in 2006 the Padres spent just south of a million dollars on a trio of draft-and-follows: Miller, Aaron Breit, and Robert Garramone. However, the three pitchers greatly disappointed in 2007, posting a cumulative 5.76 ERA in just 253 innings spread across the Northwest and Midwest Leagues. Miller is the only one who should still inspire any hope, as his numbers are far better than his ERA (and ugly 81 ERA+) indicates. On July 5, through half of Miller's sixteen starts, he had a 3.13 ERA and 1.75 groundball/flyball ratio. Just six weeks and eight starts later, the ERA was up a point and a half, and his groundball ratio had dropped 30 percent. The Padres cleared Miller of any need for elbow surgery after he had some issues with the joint that shut him down in May for six weeks; as his confidence in his elbow returns, so should his numbers. [Ed. note: It turns out that initial reports from May that it was his elbow were incorrect; Miller's initial problem wound up being diagnosed as shoulder bursitis, with some subsequent back and oblique issues as well.] When healthy, Miller has all the things you need in a fastball: good command and velocity reaching 96 mph. His secondary stuff is developing, and while it's not entirely there yet, his breaking ball has shown the requisite bite in the past. If the Padres push Miller up a level in 2008, look for his fastball to rank among the best in the California League.

Bud Norris, RHP, Astros, 24
2007 Line (Low-A): 4.75 ERA, 96 2/3 IP, 85 hits, 41/117 BB/K, 8 HR

If you're looking for the person to blame for this list coming in two parts, blame Norris. It was his first five starts in the Hawaii Baseball League (18 2/3 IP with only nine hits and 28 Ks) that concerned me about a potential Spoone effect. A sixth-round pick from Cal Poly in 2006, Norris was injured for much of his collegiate career, drafted high more on the basis of the potential in his arm than his junior season numbers (4.55 ERA, 4.96 K/9). However, since turning pro, Norris has been a revelation, with 165 strikeouts in 140 2/3 minor league innings. While Norris stayed under the radar for the season, don't expect his arsenal to be ignored much longer. It starts with a fastball that touches 94 mph and has good movement, but Norris also had a 1.48 groundball/flyball ratio. The strikeouts are a result of a pair of solid secondary offerings: perhaps the system's best change up, and an improved curveball. Norris has work to do as far as developing consistency and command, but he has the makings of a real pitching prospect in a shallow system. When he breaks out in 2008, we can only hope Houston doesn't continue their snail-like pace at promoting prospects.

Wilson Ramos, C, Twins, 20
2007 Line (Low-A): .291/.345/.438, 19 BB, 61 K, 1/1 SB/CS; .279 peak EqA

A raw Venezuelan catcher, the Twins planned on keeping Ramos in extended spring training before moving onto the Appalachian short-season league. However, an injury to the starting catcher in Beloit coupled with an impressive performance in that extended spring work led to an early June assignment to full-season ball. Ramos was brilliant in his full-season debut, hitting two home runs in just his fifth game at the level. The Twins like Ramos' ability behind the plate, where his strong arm led to an impressive 40.9 caught stealing percentage. At the plate, Ramos' plate discipline-only 19 walks in 318 PA-shows his lack of refinement, but his power numbers reflect that there's some pop in his bat. Ramos was hurt in August, but he continued to get at-bats in the Twins instructional league. While hellish hitter's environments in Fort Myers and the Florida State League delay a 2008 breakout, Ramos' ability will be widely recognized soon enough.

Chris Tillman, RHP, Mariners, 20
2007 Line (Low- and High-A): 4.84 ERA, 135 2/3 IP, 138 hits, 61/139 BB/K, 13 HR

If Houston is among the slowest organizations in terms of promotions, Seattle is certainly the quickest, with an organizational strategy that believes a little bit of challenge-related adversity is good. I'll allow the reader to decide if the prospects are beneficiaries or victims of the system, but it's certainly a good system for finding underrated prospects. While Carlos Triunfel's quick ascent from the Midwest to the California League didn't go unnoticed, I'm a bit surprised by how Chris Tillman's seems to have. Tillman was solid in the Midwest League, showing command in the zone, keeping the ball in the park, and striking out hitters. For that, after just a month and a half, Tillman was promoted to the California League, to a hitter's park in a hitter's league with a bad defense behind him. The initial results were predictably horrible: 41 hits and 30 earned runs in six starts (29.1 IP). Then Tillman rebounded nicely, posting a 3.68 ERA the rest of the season, with 86 strikeouts in 76 1/3 innings, thanks in part to one of the minor's best sliders. Look for that pitch and this prospect to become a lot better-known in 2008.

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

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