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March 21, 2001
Top 40 Prospects In Review: Part Three
Into the Top 20
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.
24. Ryan Anderson, LHP, Seattle (BA: #9, Sickels: #22)
What we said last year: "...Ryan Anderson is, without question, the most intriguing prospect in baseball. He's just a week older than [Rick] Ankiel, and his stuff, on a good day, makes Ankiel's look positively pedestrian. Only Anderson's idol, Randy Johnson, can match him in both velocity and movement. But Anderson is flaky, arrogant and has a reputation for being hard to coach. He's also just 20, and while he might anger a lot of people, he did hold his own in Double-A last year."
What he did in 2000: In 2000? He jumped a level to Triple-A and improved all of his ratios: ERA, hits per game, walks per game, and strikeouts per game. He did miss some time with some mild tendinitis and made only 20 starts, but he showed enough in those 20 starts to be named our #1 prospect in this year's book. As for 2001...did we mention what a fine season he had in 2000?
Take-home lesson: The usual: young pitchers get hurt. Even, sometimes, young pitchers who have been handled with all due caution.
Putting the injury aside for a moment, Anderson is a good example of why it's important not to read too much into concerns about "immaturity" in a high-school player. Anderson slipped to the late portion of the first round primarily because he was a bit of a flake in high school. When someone is 24 and is pulling his pants down to amuse people, that's a pretty good indication that said player might have some maturity issues (which makes him perfectly suited to be a Fox Sports anchor). When he's 18, that might just be a sign that he's got some growing up to do, and that when he does, like Anderson, those maturity issues will take care of themselves.
Grade: Based on his 2000 performance only, Anderson might be deserving of a 6, but he did miss some time with an injury and got neither a September call-up nor an Olympic invite, so we'll award him a 5.
23. Chad Hermansen, CF, Pittsburgh (BA: #33, Sickels: #41)
What we said last year: "...Hermansen appears to have settled at a position--center field--and his power continues to develop. He's still only 22, and still has the base of skills that made him one of the five best prospects in the game just three years ago. The Pirates have imparted to him their own bizarre sense of offensive aggressiveness, as his walks have dropped from 69 to 50 to 35 over the last two years. His ranking is probably the least stable of any hitter on this list."
What he did in 2000: Sucked rocks. Not quartz or jade or some other semi-precious stone: we're talking playground gravel here. Hermansen started the year as the Pirates' center fielder, and 33 games later he was sent to Triple-A hitting .185/.226/.296. The worst season of his professional life continued, as he hit just .224/.304/.384 for Nashville, after slugging above .500 in each of his first two years there.
Take-home lesson: An organization that doesn't understand the importance of preaching pitch selection and suffers from poor instruction in its minor-league system can absolutely destroy a prospect's career. Between Hermansen and Aramis Ramirez, the Pirates have two compelling data points that the organization has no clue how to develop hitters. Hermansen's strikeout-to-walk ratios at ages 18 and 19 were 121/67 and 136/69; since then his ratios have been 152/50, 138/42, and 126/31. There might not be a dozen players in the last 30 years who have hit more than Hermansen's 53 homers as a professional before the age of 20. Now, still only 23, Hermansen's career--or at least his career as a Pirate--is very much in jeopardy.
Grade: Ordinarily, a grade of 1 would be reserved for players who suffered a major injury, but it's hard to overestimate just how far Hermansen's stock has fallen since 1999.
22. Milton Bradley, CF, Montreal (BA: #36, Sickels: #25)
What we said last year: "...Tools is a former #1 draft pick and a switch-hitting outfielder, but lately Tools has become Performance, hitting .329/.391/.526 in Double-A last season. Bradley then went to the Arizona Fall League and was one of the best players there, hitting .352 and even drawing a fair amount of walks. The Expos will cure him of that annoying habit soon; what they're more concerned about is a temper that has resulted in annual run-ins with umpires, coaches and those vendors who can throw a bag of peanuts across three sections."
What he did in 2000: In contrast to his reputation for a mercurial personality, his performance has been rather steady, as Bradley moved up to Triple-A and hit .304/.385/.421, and got an August call-up to Montreal, where he slumped to .221/.288/.325. He did set a career high with 59 walks, notable for an Expo prospect, and his defensive play in center field continued to impress.
Take-home lesson: We made a casual remark comparing Bradley to Albert Belle, not on the basis of ability so much as to point out that a surly reputation with the media is not incompatible with steady play on the field. While we haven't gotten to the point of calculating DTs for Arizona Fall League performances, Bradley is just another example of how a prospect performs in a league of his peers is worth taking into consideration.
Grade: His outlook hasn't changed much from a year ago; he still projects to be a slightly above-average center fielder offensively and defensively. Bradley is a pretty clear-cut 4.
21. Brad Penny, RHP, Florida (BA: #22, Sickels: #13)
What we said last year: "...A year ago, Penny was arguably the best right-handed pitching prospect in baseball. He didn't hurt his arm last year, or suddenly walk every hitter in the ballpark; he simply had some mechanical inconsistencies that made his transition to Double-A a little rocky. He still had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 135/39, and a nagging mid-season injury kept him from throwing more than 122 innings. In the long run, it may be the best thing that could have happened for his career, and it was definitely the best thing for the Marlins."
What he did in 2000: Penny made the Marlins' rotation out of spring training, and despite a few bumps along the way (including some shoulder tightness that caused him to miss most of July and August), finished his rookie season 8-7 with a 4.81 ERA, and 120 hits, 60 walks, and 80 strikeouts in 120 innings. He was essentially an average major-league starter (posting an SNPct. of .491) as a 22-year-old rookie, and he had a season-best 3.04 ERA in September. Predictions of future greatness for Penny have become almost passe at this point.
Take-home lesson: Minor and temporary injuries to a pitcher in his early 20s may actually be a blessing in disguise.
Grade: Penny jumped from Double-A to the majors and held his own, but he did miss two months with shoulder ailments and a 4.81 ERA at Pro Player Park isn't that impressive. A solid 5.
20. Lance Berkman, LF, Houston (BA: #37, Sickels: #43)
What we said last year: "...Berkman was the obvious choice to replace Moises Alou after the infamous Night of the Living Treadmill, but he was busy rehabbing his own knee injury. He returned to do what he always does: Beat the cow right out of the cowhide from both sides of the plate. His home-run total dropped as he regained his leg strength, but he had 20 doubles, which is a strong hint that his power didn't leave town, it just went next door. I expect that he'll get a starting job and play 130 games this year, even if I don't know exactly how."
What he did in 2000: Berkman played in 113 games for the Astros, as he beat Daryle Ward for the corner outfield spot opened up by the Carl Everett trade. And boy, did he hit: .297/.388/.561, earning himself a third-place vote for Rookie of the Year even though he wasn't eligible because of a Byzantine service-time rule. He continued to struggle against left-handers, though, hitting just .218/.347/.372 in 78 at-bats; by comparison, he flogged right-handed pitchers to the tune of .320/.401/.615.
Take-home lesson: Berkman is a great example that no matter how shaky your defense is, no matter how unimpressive your athletic tools, they will find a place for you if you hit. As impressive as Berkman's minor-league numbers were, they were made even more impressive by the fact that all three of his minor-league parks--Kissimmee in the Florida State League, Jackson in the Texas League, and New Orleans in the Pacific Coast League--are noted pitchers' parks. New Orleans, in particular, has one of the best pitchers' parks relative to its league in organized baseball.
Grade: Yes, Berkman can't hit left-handers, and like a lot of switch-hitters with big platoon splits, maybe he should consider sticking to just one side of the plate. And yes, Enron Field helped a lot. But the man posted a 949 OPS. Since 1950, just three players with less than 40 games of major-league experience posted a higher OPS in 350 or more at-bats: Mark McGwire in 1987, Fred Lynn in 1975, and Bernie Carbo in 1970. That's a grade 6.
19. Matt Riley, LHP, Baltimore (BA: #15, Sickels: #17)
What we said last year: "...reached the major leagues in less than two years armed with an amazing curve ball and a 95-mph fastball. He finished 1999 with 189 strikeouts in 177 innings, allowing just 147 hits, but most impressive was the improvement in his control. After walking nearly five men per nine innings in 1998, he cut his walk rate to under three a game in 1999. This is not the organization in which to be if you're a top prospect, and the Orioles took a terrible risk by giving a clearly-worn-out Riley three starts in Baltimore in September."
What he did in 2000: He pissed off the organization with his immaturity in spring training, got sent to Triple-A for two disastrous starts, went back to Double-A and posted a 6.08 ERA in 74 innings, then blew out his elbow and had to have Tommy John surgery. It could have been worse, I suppose; he could have sunk his life savings into the NASDAQ.
Take-home lesson: There is no such thing as a pitching prospect. There is no such thing as a pitching prospect. And if there was, he wouldn't be in an organization that treated its most promising arm so callously that they would call him up to make his major-league debut when all reports were that he was gassed.
Grade: You have Tommy John surgery, you get a 1. It's in the rules.
18. Esteban German, 2B, Oakland (BA: NR, Sickels: C+)
What we said last year: "...From a distance, German is just a speedy, slap-hitting middle infielder. As a 20-year-old second baseman, German hit .311 with 12 triples and stole 40 bases. But he embodies the essence of the A's philosophy: he has made a weapon out of his ability to get on base, leading their minor leaguers with 102 walks."
What he did in 2000: He started the season at Double-A Midland, and despite 18 walks in 24 games, he hit just .213 in a great hitters' park and got sent back to the California League, where he hit .264/.361/.357 after hitting .311/.428/.415 in the same league the year before. His defense improved marginally, from awful to just plain bad. He did have a spectacular year on the basepaths, stealing 83 bases with just 11 times caught on the year.
Take-home lesson: As we learned with Jackie Rexrode the year before, no matter how spectacular a player's on-base ability might be, if he can't generate even marginal power in the low minors, chances are that more advanced pitchers will be able to exploit that weakness.
Grade: German was unable to move up the minor-league ladder and put up weaker numbers than he had in the same league in 1999. He gets a 2 only because he did show some improvement on defense and was an absolute terror as a baserunner.
17. Chin-Feng Chen, RF, Los Angeles (BA: #17, Sickels: #14)
What we said last year: "...The Dodgers' newest find is the best hitter in Taiwan, and the first significant hitting prospect ever developed from Asia. Chen had a phenomenal American debut, becoming the first 30/30 player in California League history, before heading back to serve out part of his military obligation. He's more than a gimmick stat; with 75 walks, 10 triples and impressive corner-outfield defense, he should have no problem living up to the hype while helping to convert yet another nation to Dodger Blue."
What he did in 2000: Flopped terribly, and for no obvious reason. Chen's batting average and OBP both dropped significantly (.316 to .277 and .404 to .355), but neither drop was out of line considering the jump to Double-A and the fact that San Antonio is a tough park for hitters. (By comparison, his DT average (.245 to .242) and DT-OBP (.318 to .302) barely dipped at all.) But Chen's power was MIA all season, as he hit just six homers (down from 31) and saw his slugging average fall from .580 to .376. Just as worrisome, whereas scouts a year before projected him as an All-Star outfielder--BA gave him the exact same ranking as we did--by the end of 2000 Chen's bat speed and baseball instincts had come into serious question within the scouting community.
Take-home lesson: I'm not sure there is one, at least not yet. It will be very interesting whether Chen's power outage will prove to be a temporary blip or a California-sized energy disaster. It is extremely rare for an established power hitter to see his home-run output drop so precipitously without an injury; the only comparison I can think of is Gary Gaetti in 1984, who after hitting 46 home runs in his first two major-league seasons, hit just five taters even while leading the league in games played. Gaetti's power stroke returned the following season, and it isn't unreasonable to suggest that Chen's will as well, but a lot of observers are skeptical that he can do it.
Grade: Proving once again that the jump to Double-A is the trickiest step on the minor league ladder, Chen gets a well-deserved 2.
Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by clicking here.