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February 1, 2001

Prospectus Roundtable

How the Sausage Was Made

by Baseball Prospectus

On Tuesday, Baseball Prospectus announced its Top 40 Prospects for 2001. The driving force behind that list is Rany Jazayerli, but the good doctor gets input from everyone on the BP staff.

Below is a sampling of the discussions that took place in December, when the list was being compiled.

Rany Jazayerli: Here is my first iteration of the Top 40 Prospects list. Before you look at it, please keep in mind that this is one of the weakest lists in years, particularly between 1 and 10 and between 31 and 40. #1 is a stretch, but I defy you to come up with anyone who's more likely to have a Rookie of the Year season in 2001. Feel free to make suggestions, complaints, or question my sanity.

1. Ichiro Suzuki, RF
2. Sean Burroughs, 3B
3. Ryan Anderson, LHP
4. Corey Patterson, CF
5. Ben Sheets, RHP
6. Antonio Perez, SS
7. Jimmy Rollins, SS
8. Roy Oswalt, RHP
9. Vernon Wells, CF
10. Jose Ortiz, 2B
11. Jon Rauch, RHP
12. Joe Crede, 3B
13. Josh Hamilton, CF
14. Chris George, LHP
15. Bobby Bradley, RHP
16. Austin Kearns, OF
17. Brad Wilkerson, OF
18. C.C. Sabathia, LHP
19. Kevin Mench, OF
20. Bud Smith, LHP
21. J.R. House, C
22. Keith Ginter, 2B
23. Alex Escobar, CF
24. D'Angelo Jimenez, SS
25. Adam Dunn, OF
26. Nick Johnson, 1B/DL
27. Luke Prokopec, RHP
28. Hee Seop Choi, 1B
29. Albert Pujols, 3B
30. Adrian Hernandez, RHP
31. Craig Wilson, C/1B
32. Michael Cuddyer, 3B
33. Mike Bynum, LHP
34. Luis Rivas, SS
35. Jack Cust, 1B
36. Wilson Betemit, SS/3B
37. Brian Lawrence, RHP
38. Marcus Giles, 2B
39. Dee Brown, LF
40. Nick Neugebauer, RHP

Derek Zumsteg: I'd like option three, "question your sanity," please. To quote BP2K, we're looking for "...those players who are most likely to develop into stars...." Ichiro Suzuki, good as he is, projects to be, what, the tenth-best right fielder in baseball, and at his age it's not like he's Andruw Jones (I know, who is?) with years to get better. Even if you figure he'll have a ten- to 15-point jump in EqA in his second year, Suzuki is still a second-tier outfielder, not close to being one of the best.

And yet Nick Johnson, who could be one of the greatest offensive players I'll ever see, is ranked at 26 because he was injured? In that year did we forget how badly he destroyed Double-A pitching? He made Pat Burrell look bad. I understand dropping him for that lost year of development time, but if Johnson doesn't become the best first baseman in the majors in the next couple of years I will eat my lucky hat. It's not like he's Ruben Mateo, plagued throughout his career with an uncanny ability to injure different body parts--his hand got screwed up and he never came back. It's one injury, not a pattern of fragility.

If you're looking for someone to fill the #1 spot, and you're determined not to take Johnson as a continued show of confidence (and I realize that's not what the list is for), I would suggest Ryan Anderson, who I think is a better greatness bet than Sean Burroughs.

RJ: A fair criticism. But I would point out that Suzuki's DT for last year was .346/.410/.477, with a .298 EqA. No one in the Top 40 came even close (next was Jose Ortiz, with a .278 EqA). Basically, Suzuki is Johnny Damon with the bat and the same age (27) as Damon. That's not a superstar, but it is a star. And unfortunately, not one hitting prospect out there seems guaranteed to become a hitting star.

Joe Sheehan: I guess you're making lemonade with the lemons...I agree that Suzuki is a ballsy pick, but it's also the wrong one. He's 27, for one thing, and frankly if he's the best prospect in baseball right now, then we're idiots for not including him on previous lists.

I disagree with the idea that he belongs on the list just on merit. He's 27. That's not a prospect, that's a minor-league veteran.

I hate the idea of having a pitcher #1. With a gun at my head, I'd probably go with Jose Ortiz, because I like him better than the other middle infielders, with Corey Patterson and Ryan Anderson behind him. Suzuki might be in the 20s, and I'd be comfortable with leaving him off the list. He's twenty-seven years old.

I have more disagreement with this list than with any that preceded it...I'm certain that reflects the talent pool and not Rany's work.

Gary Huckabay: This is a tough year to do one of these things. I'd have to include Carlos Pena in this, somewhere below Kevin Mench. Other than that, I'd probably go with:

1. Ryan Anderson, LHP
2. Sean Burroughs, 3B
3. Antonio Perez, SS
4. Nick Johnson, 1B (One injury, no matter how awful, shouldn't erase what
he did to pitching before 2000.)
5. Jon Rauch, RHP
6. Corey Patterson, CF
7. Jose Ortiz, 2B
8. Roy Oswalt, RHP
9. C.C. Sabathia, LHP
10. Ben Sheets, RHP

Suzuki is a tiny little slap hitter. I'll be surprised if he hits 10 home runs during the season. Yes, he might hit .340 in Safeco, but he has to in order to be valuable. He's Tony Gwynn Lite if everything breaks his way, and I think the upside/risk metric should favor upside. Anderson's arm history is a little scary, but I haven't seen anyone with more potential upside, and he is going to a pitchers' park with a tremendous outfield defense (assuming the left fielder isn't a total disaster) behind him.

I don't think a top prospect list should be about predicting the likely Rookie of the Year. It should be about identifying the guys that have a chance to be kick-ass, take names, plunder-the-coastline stars.

Then again, this is somewhat picking nits. The error bars on all these guys are far greater than the demonstrated performance difference.

DZ: I understand why you [Rany] have Suzuki #1 but I question the reasoning. I don't think he has a chance in hell to be as good over his MLB career as some of the guys below him. Is the Top 40 designed to showcase Rookie of the Year contenders or budding great careers?

RJ: I do think Anderson is a very reasonable choice, maybe the only other one, for the #1 slot. It came down to whether I wanted a hitter or a pitcher atop the list, and after Johnson missed all of 2000 with an injury, I thought it best to go with the safest pick.

DZ: I would argue that we shouldn't make safe choices, we should make the best choices, and Ryan Anderson is the best choice for the #1 prospect.

JS: I would submit that there are no circumstances in which a pitcher is the best prospect in baseball.

DZ: Really? Because they're injury risks? I don't see any of the other hitters at the top of the list who have Anderson's potential to dominate, and Anderson hasn't been worked hard in the minors.

I'll be the first to admit it's a ballsy choice, because he could flame out, he could be Todd Van Poppel, he could get injured...but if our criteria is "highest ceiling," not "most likely to achieve a high ceiling," or even "highest ceiling mitigated by injury risk," the #1 is Ryan Anderson.

If a pitcher can't be the best prospect in baseball, can he be the #2? Can he be the #3? Are they automatically kept from being the top two, or do we just dock them two spots over what they'd be considered if we didn't think they were such risks? If there were no great hitting prospects, and a spectacular pitching prospect, would a pretty good hitting prospect be ranked higher than the pitcher?

JS: In ranking prospects, this isn't far from what I actually do (and Rany can attest to my team-building practices in applying these principles). If I have a group of N prospects, I tend to bump comparable hitters ahead of comparable pitchers, because of the increased likelihood that the pitchers will get hurt.

I should clarify that I believe the phrase "spectacular pitching prospect" is an oxymoron.

As to the specific case, I don't feel a 21-year-old pitcher who throws a ton of pitches per inning can be considered a better prospect than some high-ceiling hitters (Ortiz, Burroughs, Patterson) with positive positional value.

DZ: I know much of this is touchy-feely selection, but if our objective is to identify the best and brightest, and not necessarily just the surely bright, I draw two #1-specific conclusions:

--Ichiro Suzuki is not as big and bright as Ryan Anderson. Or as tall.

--If you want to dock Anderson for being a pitcher, I think there are even better hitting prospects in the top ten.

That's clearer.

I don't think that we should try to avoid making predictions for pitchers because it's difficult and subject to much more uncertainty and injury, because the rewards for striking it rich with a pitcher are just as good as they are with a hitting prospect. Why not just retreat entirely, and take pitchers off the Top 40 list? Or have a separate list of pitching and hitting prospects, so we can rank Ryan Anderson #1 among pitchers, who all might get hurt or flame out, or eat the jagged Krusty-O.

Dave Pease: I also don't really buy not allowing a pitcher to be the top prospect, as long as he's the top prospect when taking an increased injury probability into account. But hey, that's just me.

What I really don't like is making #1 a guy who might have the last half of Johnny Damon's career. I'd rather see Anderson there than Suzuki, and unless I'm misreading their stats and ages there are several hitters in the top 20 who have a good chance of doing better than that.

Greg Spira: I'm also uncomfortable with Suzuki at the top, and I think Alex Escobar should be on the list, albeit near the bottom.

RJ: Regarding Nick Johnson, I should point out that David Rawnsley has him at #51, and in BP2K (before his wrist injury), Joe wrote, "one word of caution: he was hit by pitches 37 times this year and has yet to stay healthy for a complete season."

Look, this was not an isolated injury for Johnson. He has a history of fragility that this injury only emphasized. Compare him to D'Angelo Jimenez: Jimenez was in a car accident and broke his neck, was expected to miss the whole year, but was back in action by August. Johnson suffered his injury while swinging the bat--something you sort of have to do as a hitter--and the injury was so unexpected and strange that they're still not sure what exactly happened. It's a very, very bad sign when a non-traumatic injury should cause you to miss an entire year.

On top of that, he's missed a year of development, and hitters coming back from wrist injuries usually struggle their first season back. That might not happen with Johnson, but I have no way of knowing that. All I know is that his history of injury makes him something less than an ideal prospect.

DZ: Baseball America still has him as the #1 Yankees prospect, but it doesn't matter who ranks him what, my argument here is that our rankings should be self-consistent with our criteria, and certainly not bumped up or down at the whim of the baseball media at large.

I'm not familiar with Johnson's history of fragility. What else has happened? Was it major? Even if he's fragile, that doesn't mitigate his ability to smoke pitching like blunts that cross Cypress Hill. If he's healthy, he'll be a star. I'm with Gary on this, I think he's Top Ten material, barring revelations about his past injury history.

Chris Kahrl: I'm for moving Suzuki out of the top slot, although I could see him in the Top 10 or in the Top 20. When discussing career-value and short-term value, we're usually career value guys.

Overall, I don't mind a lot of these, because there are arguments to be made for almost all of them, and Gary makes a great point: it's a tough year to make these kinds of calls.

However, there are a couple of things I have strong feelings about:

Jack Cust shouldn't be on the list, not ahead of Jason Hart, and Luis Rivas almost doesn't belong on the list, whereas I'd argue Matt Kinney does if "playing in 2001" is the criterion.

Carlos Pena isn't the worst guy to bump up into a slot, but he's a low-30s pick, not someone to feel that badly about overlooking.

Behind Cust, the guy I feel most ambivalent about is having Nick Neugebauer in the Top 40, but I'd leave him just to see what you have to say about him.

Move Hee Seop Choi up. If there's a guy who should be at the front of the 1B/DH "just hit, dammit" class, I'd pick him. I know Mench is the flavor of the week, but he also has no Double-A experience and is neither young nor old for what he's done; picking between Mench and Adam Dunn isn't easy, but I'd probably favor Dunn, and Choi over both. Choi is younger than Mench, more advanced, and more likely to get more than a September cup of coffee.

Clay Davenport: I have to join the chorus in putting Nick Johnson up high. The injury is a risk, playing first base is a negative, but even with big penalties for that I still have to rate him at the top.

I did, however, put Suzuki in second. The difference between Suzuki and the rest of the crowd here is that, being 27, we aren't dealing with growth anymore. When trying to rank prospects, I like to think about how high he can go, but take into account how much of that is already realized and how much is future growth. Suzuki's absolute expected peak would be in the top 10 among position players; the fact that it is already 90% realized pushes him up to the near top.

Corey Patterson is too high, I think; I've got him ninth among position players. OTOH, guys with high-strikeout/low-walk numbers tend to progress a little better than "normal" expectation.

From what I see, I would judge that I put more weight on a down year than Rany does, while Rany puts more weight on injury seasons.

Josh Hamilton's numbers aren't all that good, and he showed absolutely no improvement over his first season. Again, though, the K/BB thing may work in his favor, developmentally.

The scary thing about Albert Pujols is that it is only one year, and he didn't hold value after promotions. What really drove his figure up was the outrageously good fielding numbers he racked up, Gold-Glove-caliber even after a hefty penalty for the Midwest League-to-majors conversion.

Michael Cuddyer appears to be a brutal defensive player. Long-time readers will remember that was a big part of my argument for leaving Chad Hermansen off a prospect list, to much derision. Jack Cust is another totally useless fielder, but enough of a hitter to be a useful DH. Not for the Diamondbacks, though. I don't understand why Marcus Giles is way down at 38; he's not good defensively, but he's nowhere near the Cust/Cuddyer level.

RJ: OK, Ichiro Suzuki is not the #1 prospect in the land. As Clay states, there's no projection necessary here: he's already an above-average major-league outfielder, and the less projection that's needed, the less that can go wrong. Suzuki's consistency has to count for something: he's won six straight batting titles. He's not just the best hitter in Japan, he's the best hitter in Japan by acclamation.

Concerning Ryan Anderson and whether it's appropriate for a pitcher to rank #1...a lot of this gets into a philosophical discussion, but as I see it, what really matters is this: if you were a major-league GM, who would you rather have in your minor-league system, Anderson or Corey Patterson? Anderson or Sean Burroughs? (It's not quite that simple; if you were the GM, you'd keep all your pitchers on strict pitch counts, you would teach Corey Patterson to walk, etc. But the general point stands.)

Sure, Anderson has an inordinately high risk of injury, but I think we agree that he has the highest potential of any prospect of being the best player at his position in the next five years. To me, the question comes down to Anderson vs. Sean Burroughs, the best hitting prospect in the game. Burroughs is going to be an excellent major-league hitter, but he's slow and his defense is questionable. Anderson has the benefit of working with a Mariner organization that is at the exact opposite point from where it was a year ago. I'm confident that Bryan Price gives Anderson the best possible chance of staying healthy, and I'm comfortable with the idea that Anderson should be our #1 prospect.

I've moved Nick Johnson up to #13. I know some of you think that's an injustice to the first guy to post a .525 OBP in professional baseball in who knows how long, but I think that's a reasonable compromise between his immense talent and his eerie ability to injure himself, his year of lost development, and his continued rehab from a tender wrist.

Jeff Bower pointed out that there are legitimate concerns about Antonio Perez's age, which knocks him down a few slots.

Jimmy Rollins is a personal favorite pick; he's not a great player yet, but he's a switch-hitting shortstop with above-average skills across the board, similar to D'Angelo Jimenez a year ago. But whereas Jimenez was #15, the weakness of this year's list means that Rollins ranks a little higher.

Carlos Pena slots in at #17, and Hee Seop Choi was moved to #19; both are ahead of Kevin Mench, who in turns ranks ahead of Brad Wilkerson (Ed. note: this was before Wilkerson's shoulder injury.) Dee Brown gets the axe, as we have too many guys at the bottom of the defensive spectrum as it is.

I know a lot of you think that Luis Rivas has no business being on this list, and I was inclined to bump him instead of Dee Brown, but look closely: we're talking about a good defensive shortstop turned great defensive second baseman who smoked 50 extra-base hits and drew 47 walks in 123 minor-league games, and played the whole season at age 20. As Chris told me, "we shouldn't leave off a guy who could be Rookie of the Year." Considering the Twins' other options at the position, Rivas has every opportunity to win the starting job in spring training and win RotY honors if no one else steps up. (I think Suzuki has about a 60-70% chance of winning, though, after which I think they'll change the rules after that to disqualify JL veterans.)

Brian Lawrence is on as my annual homage to a pitcher who's light on reputation but strong on performance. Anybody with a career K/BB ratio greater than 5-to-1 can't be ignored, and his performance with Triple-A Las Vegas late in the year (1.93 ERA, 46-to-7 K/BB ratio) has me convinced that he could make a dent with the Padres this year. There will be plenty of time for Josh Beckett to make this list next year. Dave, any thoughts?

DP: I buy this, as far as him breaking with the Pads. Hell, with all the injuries they've had over the last couple of seasons, he might be the number-one starter at the All-Star break.

He'll have a fair chance of making the team out of spring training; the chances of the brass doing something they may regret with Matt Clement before then are good.

RJ: Finally, even with the off-year, Jack Cust had virtually the same EqA (.250) in 2000 as Jason Hart (.251) did. Cust had the better 1999 and is a year younger, and to my mind that makes up (barely) for the defensive difference.

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