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February 15, 2001

Top 40 Prospects In Review: Part One

Taking a Look Back at 2000's List

by Rany Jazayerli

Now that we've released this season's Top 40 Prospects list, it is time to return to a tradition we started last season, to objectively evaluate our list from a year ago and see what we can learn.

As we did last season, we will compare our ranking of each player with the ranking given to them by two premier publications, Baseball America and John Sickels's Minor League Scouting Notebook. Both BA and Sickels have widely disparate methods for putting their lists together, but the goal is the same: to identify the best prospects in the land. Keep in mind that BA ranks 100 prospects, and "NR" means not ranked. Sickels ranks 50 prospects, awards "Honorable Mention" to five others, and gives a letter grade ranking (A+ to C-) to more than 800 players.

We're making one significant change from last season: whereas last year, we simply reviewed our comments on each player, this season we'll also assign a grade to each ranking. The point here is not to determine which publication does the best job of putting together a Top Prospects list. (Believe me, we have nothing to gain by doing such a comparison. Remember, we're the ones that ranked Nick Johnson as the #1 prospect in baseball last season.) More than a way to score the prognosticators on how well they rank prospects, this is a way for us to determine which prospects exceed or fail to reach expectations, and why.

We're notorious for ranking pitchers more conservatively than any other publication. Are our fears warranted, or are we overly concerned? If the average grade for pitchers is worse than the average grade for hitters, we have evidence that pitchers really do need to be judged more harshly than hitters. Do catchers do more poorly than other hitters? Do five-tool talents develop better than lumbering troglodytes? By grading our projections from a year ago, we can quantify answers to these questions and hopefully come to a better understanding of what it takes to develop a prospect into a star.

The grades will be awarded on a seven-point scale, which works roughly like this:

  1. Has massively missed projections
  2. Has significantly missed projections
  3. Has modestly missed projections
  4. Has met projections
  5. Has modestly exceeded projections
  6. Has significantly exceeded projections
  7. Has massively exceeded projections

This is a subjective scale, but with only seven grades it's not too difficult to award the appropriate one to a player. Rafael Furcal is a 7: he went from a promising speed burner in A ball to the NL Rookie of the Year. Rick Ankiel is a 6: he, too, had a great season, but whereas Furcal was thought to be at least a year away from the majors, Ankiel was expected to contribute to the Cardinals in 2000. (Any thoughts that he might deserve a 7 were extinguished in October.) Nick Johnson is a 1.

Keep in mind that by "projections," we mean the assumption that a prospect will improve his (translated) performance by a modest amount each season. A hitter who manages a .240 EqA for two consecutive seasons, one in Double-A and one in Triple-A, would be graded as a 3, as you would not expect a prospect's performance to stagnate. The one exception to this involves players who have graduated to the major leagues. While minor-league performance has been accurately translated to major league performance for more than 15 years, when a player performs in the major leagues, he removes "projection" from the equation entirely. Mark Quinn had essentially the same EqA (.269) in 2000 as he did in 1999 (.270), but the latter performance came in Triple-A, while the former was accomplished in the American League: Quinn, had he appeared on anyone's prospect lists, would have garnered a grade of 5.

Also, keep in mind that the degree of improvement expected from each prospect depends on the kind of prospect he is. A prospect that hit .220 with a strikeout-to-walk ratio in double digits but who runs like the wind and hits the ball a mile in batting practice has to show more improvement than a guy like Adam Piatt, who slugged over .700 in 1999 but who had yet to win over many scouts who thought his performance would suffer at higher levels. A player who is a prospect because he is expected to perform in the future has to be graded on a tougher curve than a player who is a prospect because of his past performance.

Don't take these grades too seriously: the point isn't to judge each prospect individually, but to come back at the end and see if any conclusions can be drawn from the pool of prospects as a whole.

Let's get started. Be warned, though: this isn't a pretty list. 2000 was a tough year for prospects and those who follow them.

40. Mario Encarnacion, OF, Oakland (BA: #90, Sickels: B)

What we said last year: "...he's talented enough to beat up on Double-A pitchers at the age of 21, but his rawness was exploited after he was promoted to Triple-A late in the year, where he hit just .241 with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 44/6. Under most circumstances, that would be enough to keep him off this list, but the A's are the one organization in baseball that will not rest until his knowledge of the strike zone improves."

What he did in 2000: He struggled to stay healthy, and while his plate discipline rebounded in his second stab at Triple-A (36 walks in 81 games), his overall performance was disappointing. Hitting .269/.348/.472 in a good hitting environment was not what the A's expected from Encarnacion, who has fallen down the depth chart in the A's outfield plans.

Take-home lesson: Don't listen to Chris Kahrl when making out your prospect list. Seriously, Encarnacion is just another data point that athleticism can only take a player so far, and not even the A's can turn every guy who looks great in a baseball uniform into an offensive machine.

Grade: Encarnacion is still a prospect, but the luster is clearly gone. He earns a 2.

39. Travis Dawkins, SS, Cincinnati (BA: #21, Sickels: #50)

What we said last year: "There are some who doubt his bat; Dawkins hit just .272 in the Midwest League for the first half of the season. Few doubt his glove, which is already considered major-league caliber, or his speed, which helped him steal 53 bases last year. What makes Dawkins a Top 40 Prospect is the way he responded when the Reds promoted him all the way to Double-A in August. He hit .364 the rest of the season, a remarkable performance for a 20-year-old at that level."

What he did in 2000: Well, at least his defense didn't suffer. Dawkins returned to Double-A and struggled terribly, hitting .231/.310/.367, and was overmatched by major-league pitchers when he was called on to fill in for an injured Barry Larkin for 14 games. A year after he looked like a potential two-way star, contributing both at bat and on the field, Dawkins has to reestablish himself quickly if he wants to avoid being typecast as Donnie Sadler with a better glove.

Take-home lesson: Don't put too much stock in a player's performance in a small sample size, especially when that performance is heavy on batting average and light on secondary skills. Dawkins's performance in Double-A in 1999 came in only 32 games, and was completely out of line with his performance throughout the rest of his three-year pro career.

Grade: You certainly can't give up on Dawkins, but teammate Pokey Reese more closely resembles his upside than his downside now. An easy 2.

38. Dernell Stenson, 1B, Boston (BA: #66, Sickels: B)

What we said last year: "He regressed some from his breakthrough 1998 season but still has a bright future. The Red Sox moved him to first base in anticipation of making him Mo Vaughn's successor, but he made 30 errors last year. His offense picked up after a horrible first half, and he still has the power-and-walks package that made him so enticing a year ago."

What he did in 2000: About the same as he did in 1999: he continued to show secondary skills (his numbers were almost identical: .270/.356/.466 in 1999, .268/.349/.487 in 2000), and he continued to field like a pregnant Camryn Manheim. The raw offensive talent is still there, but Red Sox Nation is getting impatient with Stenson's flaws.

Take-home lesson: Just as athleticism alone doesn't make for a complete ballplayer, the ability to wait for a good pitch to hit 450 feet isn't enough, either. There appears to be a correlation between prospects without a trace of defensive ability and a tendency for their offensive skills to stagnate. Stenson has what Bill James called "old players' skills," which are power and plate discipline, at the expense of speed, defense, and the ability to hit for average. Young players with old players' skills tend to follow career paths as if they were, in fact, old players.

Grade: Stenson has neither improved nor declined significantly in the past year, which by our standards means he gets a 3.

37. Ramon Ortiz, RHP, Anaheim (BA: #28, Sickels: #21)

What we said last year: "Fine prospect that Ortiz is, he has the battle scars that come with being an Angels' pitching prospect...after completing eight games as a 21-year-old in 1997, Ortiz missed almost all of 1998 with a tender elbow. He returned last year and pitched very well in Double- and Triple-A. He struggled in September with the Angels, but still finished 44 strikeouts in 48 innings."

What he did in 2000: He stayed healthy enough to make 34 starts and throw 207 innings, but his balky elbow made him a start-to-start proposition all season, and he even made a rehab start in A ball during the season. He was just 2-2 with a 6.90 ERA in the Angels' rotation in April and May; after spending some time in Triple-A (4.55 ERA, 89 IP, 74 H, 37 BB, 76 Ks), he was much better in his return to Anaheim, finishing 8-6 with a 5.09 ERA, and allowing just 96 hits in 111 innings. The Angels still project him to be their ace of the near future, but the realization is setting in that he may always be one pitch away from the DL.

Take-home lesson: A young pitcher with a troubling injury history isn't likely to see his arm woes disappear overnight.

Grade: Ortiz really wasn't as impressive as the Angels hoped he would be, with an ERA above 5.00 in the majors and a 4.55 ERA in Triple-A. However, his ERA at both levels was much higher than one would expect from his peripheral stats, and he did manage to make 34 starts and throw more than 200 innings. We still have reservations about his future, but his performance in 2000 earns him a 5.

36. Jason Romano, 2B, Texas (BA: #68, Sickels: B)

What we said last year: "The Quiet Prospect. Romano does nothing spectacular but everything well, and plays a key defensive position. It is quite impressive for such a young player to hit .312 with 13 homers and 14 triples in the Florida State League, a notoriously difficult league for power. Romano's one weakness is his mediocre strike-zone judgment (39 walks, 72 strikeouts), which is the only reason to be cautious in predicting future greatness."

What he did in 2000: Romano made the big jump to Double-A and his numbers took a hit: his batting average dropped 41 points and his slugging average dropped 127 points. But his strikeout-to-walk ratio improved to 84/56, a good sign for the future. Romano remains a multi-talented middle-infield prospect and doesn't turn 22 until June, but the Rangers seem to be going out of their way to bury him, as he now ranks behind Randy Velarde and Frank Catalanotto and has to beat out Mike Young just to win the starting job in Triple-A.

Take-home lesson: We already knew that A ball is a long way from the majors, and that staying healthy is battle enough for most second-base prospects. Despite his off year, Romano remains an extremely intriguing prospect because he has shown the ability to contribute in so many ways, and because he has proven to be a very durable player so far.

Grade: A little dropoff is not unexpected when a player is promoted to Double-A, and Romano still remains a solid prospect. But there's a difference between "solid" and Top 40 material. He gets a 3.

35. Jayson Werth, C, Baltimore (BA: #48, Sickels: B)

What we said last year: "...he has three lines on his resume that most don't: 1) he plays a key defensive position well; 2) he knows the strike zone; 3) he has been much younger than most of his competition, reaching Double-A at 20. His final numbers were brought down by playing through a late-season wrist injury…the flip side is that tall catchers don't develop very well, probably because the biomechanics of squatting and standing takes a lot out of their knees."

What he did in 2000: Werth started the year as the O's catcher of the future and by the end of the year he was traded to Toronto for John Bale, a 27-year-old minor-league left-handed reliever. That's what you call a bad year, as much for the Orioles for making such a stupid trade as for Werth, who is still a legitimate prospect. He struggled to hit .228 in Double-A and was briefly demoted back to A ball, but he continued to draw walks and showed the first flashes of power. His OBP (.364 to .361) and slugging average (.355 each season) with Bowie was virtually identical to his performance in 1999.

Take-home lesson: Catchers are risky. Tall catchers are riskier. Tall catchers who don't hit for much power are unacceptably risky. Tall catchers who don't hit for much power playing for an organization that doesn't know its ass from its elbow are riskiest of all.

Grade: Werth's performance was essentially the same between 1999 and 2000, and ordinarily that would earn him a grade of 3. But his outlook as a prospect was affected by more than just his offensive performance; there are increasing doubts that he can physically handle the demands of catching. We'll give him a 2, and he's lucky to earn even that grade.

34. Mike Meyers, RHP, Chicago (NL) (BA: NR, Sickels: HM)

What we said last year: "Meyers led the baseball world with a 1.73 ERA last season, but ranks this low on our list because the scouts are skeptical that he has much mojo. Most finesse prospects hit the wall at Double-A; in five starts in the Southern League at the end of the year, Meyers struck out 51 men in 33 innings with a 1.09 ERA. Frankly, his numbers last year were so good that they're hard to take seriously."

What he did in 2000: Meyers got off to a great start once again in Double-A (5-2, 2.44), but struggled after he was promoted to Triple-A Iowa (2-6, 7.28), which coincided with a battle with tendinitis in his right arm that didn't go away until the season ended.

Take-home lesson: Well, gee, young pitchers get injured a lot. More pertinent, though, is that Meyers was able to repeat his success in Double-A from 1999, showing that while a pitcher's stuff is still the most important piece of information when evaluating a young pitcher, performance, even in the low minors, matters too. His awful performance in Triple-A might be a sign that more experienced hitters figured him out, but you can't ignore the fact that he was pitching through an injury, much like the Dodgers' Luke Prokopec did in 1999. Prokopec (who, like Meyers, has only average velocity) came back very strong in 2000.

Grade: Meyers proved that his Double-A performance in 1999 was not a fluke, which means more given the skepticism that accompanied his performance that season. However, his health woes and struggles in Triple-A mean that, despite continuing to move up the ladder, Meyers can't be awarded a grade higher than a 3.

33. Alfonso Soriano, SS, New York (AL) (BA: #16, Sickels: #23)

What we said last year: "In a perfect world, D'Angelo Jimenez would have Soriano's hype, and vice versa...Soriano has a slight edge in power, slugging over .500 in Double-A in his first year on American soil, but his poor showing in Triple-A (.183 average in 20 games) shows that Soriano still has some things on which to work. Jimenez, in all honesty, doesn't...[Soriano] needs a full year in Triple-A to silence the doubts about his plate discipline and his defense."

What he did in 2000: Soriano got that full year in Triple-A to silence the doubts about his plate discipline and defense, and failed miserably. He walked just 25 times in 111 games with Columbus, had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 15/1 in a bitter cup of coffee with the Yankees, and the defensive questions swirling around him picked up to the point where his future position probably ends in "Field." The only real strengths he continued to show were his power and his youth, and there are questions about the latter.

Take-home lesson: Don't believe the hype. We never fully understood why Soriano was talked up so much, and we certainly don't understand it now. We can be accused of missing the boat on some players because of our insistence on using cold, hard analysis to judge them, but clearly, our natural skepticism served us well when it came to becoming overly excited about Soriano.

Grade: Soriano hit .290 with 12 homers in Triple-A, and is listed as only 23; he's still a prospect. But a year ago he was named by many otherwise reasonable baseball man as the Yankees' best prospect, which looks absurd today. He doesn't have the glove to be a star middle infielder and he doesn't have the bat to be a star corner outfielder. A fall from grace that steep has to earn him a 2.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by clicking here.

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

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MORE BY RANY JAZAYERLI
2001-03-27 - Top 40 Prospects In Review: Part Four
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