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March 1, 2001
Top 40 Prospects In Review: Part Two
The Evaluation Continues
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. 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. 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.
The grades will be awarded on a seven-point scale, which works roughly like this:
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.
32. Adam Piatt, 3B, Oakland (BA: #93, Sickels: #49)
What we said last year: "Piatt got all the hype for winning the first Texas League Triple Crown since 1922, but more impressively, he won the Quadruple Crown by tying for the league lead in walks. Make all the cracks you want about Midland's ballpark, but if you hit .345/.451/.704 on the moon, you're a prospect. He's not going to move Eric Chavez off third base, but his bat and batting eye should get him to the major leagues in some capacity."
What he did in 2000: Piatt started the year in Triple-A and his numbers took a tumble, particularly his power, as he hit just eight home runs in 65 games. Nevertheless, he was called up in late April for an audition and went 10-for-30 with three triples and two homers. He was sent back to Sacramento in early May, but returned for good in mid-July and played all four corners while batting .299/.392/.490 in 60 games, including an astonishing .369/.470/.643 against left-handed pitchers.
Take-home lesson: Minor-league numbers do matter, and even when Piatt's Double-A performance was adjusted for his home park and his age, his numbers were too good to be ignored.
Grade: Piatt is a good example of how we can't grade a player based simply on whether his on-field performance improved. No one expected Piatt to hit as well as he did in 1999, and even with his 1155 OPS at Midland, there was considerable skepticism as to whether he could handle major-league pitching. While Piatt did stumble in Triple-A, his EqA with the A's in 2000 (.296) was actually higher than his EqA with Midland in 1999 (.285). He went from a Double-A slugger with some question marks to the A's #1 right-handed bat off the bench with a chance at a full-time job this year. That's a 5 in my book.
31. Jon Garland, RHP, Chicago (AL) (BA: #32, Sickels: B)
What we said last year: "...Garland was scuffling a bit when the Cubs traded him, but 18-year-old pitchers usually do. In 1999, Garland moved all the way to Triple-A, throwing one of the most impressive outings of the Triple-A World Series, something 19-year-old pitchers don't usually do. He's a high-risk commodity, both because he's so young and because the light switch turned on awfully abruptly."
What he did in 2000: The youngest pitcher in the International League for the first half of the season, Garland went 9-2, 2.26, albeit with peripheral numbers (99 hits, 32 walks and 63 strikeouts in 104 innings) that weren't that impressive. The White Sox looked at his record and ERA and ignored the baserunners and the modest strikeout totals, and rushed him to the majors, where he went 4-8, 6.46 and kept the Indians in the AL Central race for a little longer than the Sox would have liked.
Take-home lesson: Don't trade 18-year-old former #1 picks for middle relievers. I think the Cubs have finally passed that lesson. While we harp on how risky young pitchers are, teams will always be seduced by them as long as guys like Garland make quantum leaps from one season to the next. Garland's struggles in the major leagues is a reminder that ERA doesn't tell you everything: Garland led the International League in ERA when he was called up, but his mediocre peripherals were a red flag that he wasn't ready for the promotion.
Grade: Despite his excellent performance in A ball and seven good starts in Double-A in 1999, few expected Garland to come on this quickly. His strikeout-to-walk ratio in Double-A was only 27/18, a sign that he was still a long way from the majors. Instead, by mid-season you could argue that Garland was the best pitching prospect in baseball, and even though he was rushed to Comiskey, he has an excellent shot at making the rotation this spring at age 21. After only a little debate, Garland is awarded a 6.
30. Michael Restovich, OF, Minnesota (BA: #26, Sickels: #42)
What we said last year: "The last of the Twins' troika of outstanding young hitters, Restovich is a Minnesota native who 'slumped' to a .312/.412/.513 performance in the Midwest League last year, after hitting .369/.489/.613 In his 1998 debut. There were several players who hit as well as Restovich did in the low-A leagues, but few of them were as young and multi-talented as Restovich, and none of them could claim that they were having an off-season."
What he did in 2000: Like almost every top prospect in the Twins' organization, he struggled. Restovich showed up to camp in less-than-perfect shape and spent the rest of the season trying to melt away the fat, hitting just .263/.350/.408 in the Florida State League and having his defense called into question. The FSL a tough hitters' league, especially for power, but those numbers are just not that impressive for a player whose calling card will always be his bat.
Take-home lesson: There will be plenty of time to sit on the couch and do nothing after you retire, fellas. Intangible-bashers that we are, there's something to be said for a player who shows a commitment to excel 12 months out of the year, and those who take the off-season literally do so at their own risk.
Grade: Restovich's EqA in 2000 dropped from .236 to .215, a significant drop for a player ostensibly in the rapid-growth phase of his career. He's gone from future All-Star to a guy who may never be more than a role player in one season. That's a bad year, and it earns Restovich a 2.
29. Marcus Giles, 2B, Atlanta (BA: #74, Sickels: B)
What we said last year: "After a 1998 season that seemed too good to be true (.329, 37 home runs, 85 walks), Giles's performance in 1999 looks like someone let all the air out of the balloon. That's not the case: Giles was facing a much tougher brand of competition in the Carolina League, and while his homers dropped from 37 to 13, he still hit 40 doubles and had a .326 batting average. The pivotal skill for Giles isn't his power, which is still there, but his defense. He was, by most accounts, an improved second baseman last year."
What he did in 2000: Giles continued his slow, methodical trek through the minors, taking the trickiest step, the one to Double-A. His batting averaged dropped 36 points, but everything else held steady: he hit 17 home runs and 28 doubles, he drew more walks than strikeouts, and he set a career high with 25 steals in just 30 attempts. His EqA dropped from .252 to .242, but his defensive numbers and reputation both improved from marginal to average.
Take-home lesson: A lot of guys put up big numbers in the low minors without great tools, and many of them do wash out. But when a player like Giles puts up big numbers and is young for his level--Giles was just 20 when he pulverized the Sally League--don't let the scouting reports cloud your evaluation of his performance. Giles may be 5'8", but he can play the big man's game at second base.
Grade: Giles's outlook hasn't changed much the last two years; he's the only player to make our Top 40 list three years running. His defense improved a notch last season, his offense dipped maybe a half-notch. Ordinarily you'd like to see a prospect post slightly more substantial gains than that, but that climb to Double-A is not something at which to scoff, and many scouts thought he would crash and burn once he reached the high minors. Giles is the very definition of a 4.
28. Ed Yarnall, LHP, New York (AL) (BA: #55, Sickels: #20)
What we said last year: "...Yarnall was on this list last year, and while the Yankees' depth trapped him in Triple-A for most of 1999, he used his time wisely, improving his control and refining a repertoire that is equal parts power and guile. For a rookie pitcher, he's about as low-risk as they come: he'll be in the low-pressure role of the #5 starter for one of the best-run organizations in baseball."
What he did in 2000: After coming into spring training with a spot in the Yankees' rotation waiting for him, Yarnall pitched so badly in March that he lost his rotation spot and was sent back to Columbus. He was missing both stamina and effectiveness, posting a 4.56 ERA and averaging less than five innings a start. He made a spot start for the Yankees in early July, but got blasted for five runs in an inning, sealing his ticket to Cincinnati in the Denny Neagle deal. Yarnall reported to Louisville and was marginally more effective, but still didn't approach his performance of 1999.
Take-home lesson: Putting too much stock on spring training performances can be very dangerous, but sometimes March work is a harbinger of bad things to come. Yarnall pitched like a man who wasn't fully healthy all season, and clearly that's what the Yankees must have seen in spring training that caused Yarnall to lose a spot in the rotation that was all but guaranteed.
Grade: Yarnall's performance was all the more shocking because his experience and consistency were his most alluring traits. He started the year as a legitimate Rookie of the Year contender and ended it as a project in another organization. We'd be well within our rights to award him a grade of 1, but his modest recovery with the Reds earns him--by the skin of his teeth--a 2.
27. Matt LeCroy, C, Minnesota (BA: #44, Sickels: #30)
What we said last year: "...LeCroy was so impressive in 1998 [his debut year] that he briefly touched down in Triple-A, but was sent back to the Florida State League in 1999. Even for a player with his experience, to hit 20 homers in 89 games in the FSL is impressive stuff, especially for a catcher. LeCroy spent the final month of the season in Triple-A and slugged over .600, which adds bite to the argument that he could be the best power-hitting catcher in the league by 2001."
What he did in 2000: He opened the season as the Twins' starting catcher, but after a hot first week his bat started appearing on milk cartons. His batting average drifted under .200 on May 2 and never re-emerged, falling to a season-low .170 before he was sent down on June 18. He returned in mid-September to go 4-for-20, and in between spent some time in Double-A doing remedial work. He did hit .282/.391/.508 in Double-A and .308/.348/.615 at Salt Lake City, and managed to avoid joining the Gang of Four in whining about Tom Kelly. Nevertheless, LeCroy became just the eighth player since World War I to hit under .180 in more than 150 at-bats in his debut season.
Take-home lesson: Avoid Twin prospects. And remember that not every minor league slugger and respected former first-round pick makes a smooth transition to the major leagues, especially when that player had just 32 games of experience above A ball before the season began. LeCroy might have simply been overrated as a hitting prospect, but don't count out the possibility that he might simply need more time to adjust to the major leagues than most top prospects. Just ask the seventh player since World War I to hit under .180 in over 150 at-bats in his debut season: Phil Nevin.
Grade: It's true that LeCroy was rushed to the majors and it's true that his minor-league EqAs in 2000 (.246 and .250) were slightly better than his minor-league EqAs in 1999 (.234 and .239). But it's going to take time to wash away the bitter aftertaste of his time in Minnesota. LeCroy is one of the few players who doesn't fit nicely into a grade--he's somewhere between a 2 and a 3--but since we had him ranked higher than anyone else, we'll own up to our poor judgment and give him a grade of 2.
26. Aubrey Huff, 3B, Tampa Bay (BA: #98, Sickels: B)
What we said last year: "...Huff went straight to a full-season league after he was drafted in 1998, and immediately hit .321 with power and good defense. The Devil Rays challenged him again in 1999, pushing him to Double-A, and he again hit over .300, this time with 65 extra-base hits and more patience. Without yet developing a seminal skill, Huff has such an impressive overall game that, as a left-handed-hitting third baseman, comparisons to Robin Ventura are not only inevitable, but warranted."
What he did in 2000: He did great. The Devil Rays did lousy, seeking out the overpaid, overrated, over-the-hill Vinny Castilla to play third base while Huff quietly went to Triple-A and hit the stuffing out of the ball once again. His batting average (.301 to .316), OBP (.385 to .394), and slugging average (.530 and .566) all improved even as he made the climb to Triple-A; his EqA improved from .246 to .279. He finally got a call-up in August when Castilla's back mercifully sidelined him, and hit a very respectable .287/.318/.443. His defense did take a bit of a tumble, prompting thoughts that his future may lie at first base if Castilla wins back the third-base job this spring.
Take-home lesson: Huff was overlooked as a prospect by most evaluators, and the only explanation we have for the snub is that his skills are so broad-based that he doesn't have one eye-catching talent that might have attracted more attention. We're frequently dismissed by the old school as statheads, which is silly, because we don't really care what the stats are: we care what the stats mean. We didn't see Huff as a line of numbers on a page, we saw a player with the three essential attributes of a good hitter: average, power, and plate discipline. A player who displays all three of those skills isn't putting all of his eggs in one basket. Huff's across-the-board excellence gave him a strong enough foundation to weather the climb up the minor-league ladder as well as the assault from Castilla.
Grade: Huff's long-term position is less settled than it was a year ago, but even so he took a quantum leap forward. A year ago, he appeared to be a solid prospect that was completely buried by the Castilla trade. But merely solid prospects don't have the talent to create their own destiny, as Huff has, and force their organization to push aside veteran hitters to make room for them. Huff was our #26 prospect last year, and if we had not foolishly assumed he was ineligible this season, would have jumped into our Top 10. That's a clear grade 6.
25. Eric Gagne, RHP, Los Angeles (BA: #49, Sickels: #16)
What we said last year: "...Gagne had Tommy John surgery and missed the entire 1997 season, but in the last two years has averaged well over a strikeout per inning while going 21-11 with a 3.13 ERA in the minors. Burn this into your skull: Tommy John surgery, if the new ligament takes to the elbow, can restore the arm as good as new. In some cases, better. Gagne had the most impressive September call-up of any pitcher, allowing just 18 hits in 30 innings with a 2.10 ERA. He's in a great park, and Davey Johnson has a long history of success with rookie pitchers."
What he did in 2000: His elbow continued to hold up, but Gagne's performance with the Dodgers--5.15 ERA, 166 baserunners in 101 innings in a great pitchers' park--was quite a disappointment, especially after his cup of coffee in 1999. He struggled with both his command and his propensity to give up the long ball, a bad combination, and landed in Triple-A for a time. He pitched quite well there (a 3.88 ERA in Albuquerque is outstanding, as is a K/BB ratio of almost 4-to-1), and given that he had jumped straight from Double-A to the majors, the fact that he handled the PCL as well as he did is a good sign that his future remains bright.
Take-home lesson: As fashionable as it is for teams to promote their top prospects directly from Double-A, it's still a far riskier strategy than giving them a half-season or more in Triple-A first. And for the millionth time, don't get too excited over small sample sizes. Sure, Gagne had a fabulous five-start audition in LA in 1999. And Jimmy Haynes gave up just 11 hits in 24 innings in his debut for the Orioles in 1995.
Grade: There's no doubt that Gagne had a bad rookie season, but in fairness to him, he skipped Triple-A and the lack of experience showed. If he had posted the exact same numbers as he did last year, but had instead started in Triple-A, pitched well, and then gotten promoted to L.A., his season would be perceived more positively. It's a close call, but Gagne's future is still bright, so we'll be charitable and award him a grade of 3.
Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by clicking here.