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March 27, 2001

Top 40 Prospects In Review: Part Four

Almost to the Top

by Rany Jazayerli

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

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. 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:

  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

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.

16. Peter Bergeron, CF, Montreal (BA: #61, Sickels: #28)

What we said last year: "Bergeron has every chance to be the prototypical leadoff hitter for the new millennium, a Brett Butler for his era. He bats left-handed, hits .300 every year, will work the pitcher for a walk every other game, steals bases frequently and efficiently and covers a lot of ground in center field...the only cause for concern is that the Expo organization has no patience for patience; Bergeron's walk totals dropped from 78 to 56 in his first full season in their system."

What he did in 2000: Handed the center-field job in spring training, Bergeron had a mildly disappointing rookie season, hitting just .245/.320/.349 and being caught stealing in 13 of 24 attempts. His plate discipline stabilized, as he drew 58 walks, and he stayed healthy and in the lineup all season, playing in 148 games. Concerns about his throwing arm--and Milton Bradley's overall defensive excellence--moved Bergeron to left field in September. He did play very well in winter ball, and should be leading off for the Expos again this season.

Take-home lesson: Bergeron's struggles were not entirely surprising; he was a 22-year-old with just two months of Triple-A experience. The Expos, as mentioned, are not known for developing patient hitters, and while guys like Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Vidro haven't suffered for it, their natural tendencies at the plate fit the organization's philosophy. Bergeron's do not.

A less well-known but equally pervasive tendency of the Expos organization is their kamikaze style of baserunning; the team was just 58-for-106 (55%) in steal opportunities, the worst in baseball. Bergeron had always been at least a break-even basestealer in the minor leagues, so the problem seems to be less an organizational overaggressiveness and more on coaching methods that are preaching a bad base-stealing technique.

Grade: It wasn't a good year, but it wasn't so bad that Bergeron lost his starting job or diminished the expectations that he will one day become an excellent leadoff hitter. A clear grade 3.

15. D'Angelo Jimenez, SS, New York (AL) (BA: #89, Sickels: #11)

What we said last year: "...Jimenez is an inordinately talented player with a ridiculous lack of hype, especially given that he's a Yankee and therefore divinely ordained to attract media attention. You'd think a 21-year-old switch-hitting shortstop who hit .327 with 15 home runs and 26 stolen bases in Triple-A would get some attention, instead of a polite nod as Alfonso Soriano's teammate."

What he did in 2000: Jimenez suffered a broken neck in a terrible car accident in the offseason. After having to be immobilized for months in a brace, he surprised everyone by returning to play baseball in July. He didn't play particularly well--he hit just .233/.309/.342 in 21 games in Triple-A--but that's 21 more games than Nick Johnson played. He's expected to be at full strength this season, but the car accident is the reason why Alfonso Soriano is getting all the press in Tampa this month.

Take-home lesson: Wear your seat belt. Seriously. As a Kansas City Chiefs fan, I can tell you that a wasted season is not the worst thing that can happen to a professional athlete who gets into a car accident.

Grade: Incomplete. That may seem like a cop-out, but the grades have only two purposes: to provide insight into the process of prospect evaluation, and to evaluate how we did against other prospect evaluators. Jimenez's accident has nothing to do with his status as a baseball player, so there's not much we can learn from it. And while our book goes to press in January, Baseball America doesn't have to make their Top 100 list until late February, which is why Jimenez showed so low in their rankings. (Sickels made a reference to Jimenez's accident in his book, but ranked him even higher than we did. The accident was presumably a last-second addition as the book went to press.)

14. Tony Armas Jr., RHP, Montreal (BA: #27, Sickels: #33)

What we said last year: "It's not going to make anyone think the Red Sox got hosed when they traded for Pedro Martinez, but when you consider that Armas was the lesser of the two prospects acquired by the Expos, you have to admit the Sox gave up some good pitchers. Armas has been handled with kid gloves by Montreal, treatment that is likely to continue under Felipe Alou. In the short term, this means that Armas will probably spend 2000 as a five-inning starter, if not in the bullpen or Triple-A, but it improves his chances of making a long-term impact."

What he did in 2000: After missing the start of the season with arm troubles, Armas tossed a single rehab start in A-ball, touched down for four quick starts in Triple-A (where he had never pitched before), and was immediately shoved into the Expos rotation, where he posted a 4.36 ERA and allowed just 74 hits in 95 innings, albeit with an unimpressive 59/50 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He's looking like the #2 starter this spring, at least until Carl Pavano gets healthy.

Take-home lesson: The flip side of the Felipe Alou regime: the Expos have been able to turn almost all of their pitching prospects into good, if not always healthy, major-league starters. Javier Vazquez had even less minor-league experience than Armas when he was called up, and while he had to take his lumps in the majors, he's set to break out as a legitimate ace.

Grade: Armas did have problems staying healthy, but despite the injury, and despite exactly five games of experience above Double-A, Armas had a better-than-league-average ERA in his rookie season. His performance is similar to that of Brad Penny; like Penny, Armas earns a 5.

13. Jack Cust, OF/1B, Arizona (BA: #31, Sickels: #35)

What we said last year: "Purely in terms of offense, Cust is nearly as unstoppable as Nick Johnson. Cust's career OBP in the minors is .463, and he has hit for substantially more power (77 extra-base hits last year) than Johnson has. There are several mitigating factors: Cust has played one classification below Johnson at the same age in excellent hitters' parks, and he has nowhere near Johnson's defensive value. The Diamondbacks already have two excellent young first basemen in the major leagues, so Cust is desperately trying to learn left field."

What he did in 2000: He was promoted to the Diamondbacks' new digs at El Paso, arguably the best hitters' park in the minor leagues, but the widely-expected pyrotechnic display sort of fizzled. Cust had a .440 OBP and drew a career-high 117 walks in just 129 games, but after hitting .334 with 77 extra-base hits in 1999, those numbers dropped to .293 and 58, and a piddling .526 slugging average. He spent the entire season trying to learn to play left field, and because this is a family site we won't discuss how he looked out there. Still, he was a 22-year-old who posted a .440 OBP--a career-low .440 OBP.

Take-home lesson: Cust's bat is his only ticket to the majors, and as lethal as that bat is, he was downgraded by the others because 1) the Diamondbacks keep amassing players at the bottom of the defensive spectrum, limiting his opportunity, and 2) his defense is so bad that he really doesn't fit on an NL team. Both of these are legitimate issues.

Our take on the first is that talent like Cust's will find its way to the top. Regarding the second...you'll notice that we wrote last year that the "Diamondbacks already have two excellent young first basemen." Travis Lee is now in Philadelphia, and Erubiel Durazo is on the bench so that Mark Grace can play. Cust doesn't need a trade because he was born to DH; he needs a trade because his current organization thinks Mark Grace better fits the mold of a first baseman than Erubiel Durazo.

Grade: Cust survived the jump to Double-A, and as much as his numbers dropped, they were still awfully impressive. So impressive, in fact, that even when you let the El Paso air out of them, his EqA was .250, almost the same as in 1999 (.253). Concerns about his eventual position and the general disdain with which the Diamondbacks regard their minor-league operations gives Cust a 3, but anyone who writes him off as a disappointment is being awfully premature.

12. Kip Wells, RHP, Chicago (AL) (BA: #14, Sickels: #7)

What we said last year: "In his first pro season--he didn't sign with the White Sox until well into the 1998 offseason--Wells pitched his way to Comiskey Park, winning four games in September in the most impressive pro debut by a Sox pitcher since Jack McDowell in 1987. His strikeout-to-walk ratio tumbled a little as he moved from A ball to Double-A, suggesting he wouldn't be hurt by a few more months in the minor leagues. Otherwise, there's no reason to think he won't be an above-average starting pitcher by the end of the year."

What he did in 2000: Wells opened the season in the White Sox's rotation, but struggled from the get-go, and was dispatched to Triple-A on May 8 with a 7.28 ERA. He was recalled two weeks later, but was sent back down at the end of June with a 4-7, 6.02 record, with 46 walks and 93 hits allowed in just 75 innings. He was recalled in September and didn't fare any better, finishing with a 6.02 ERA, 126 hits in 99 innings, and a 71/58 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Even in Charlotte, where he made 12 starts, Wells gave up 67 hits and 10 home runs in 62 innings, and his K/BB ratio was hardly more impressive at 38/27.

Take-home lesson: See the reference to Jack McDowell's debut in 1987, when he finished his first pro season by going 3-0, 1.93 ERA in the majors? In 1988, McDowell went just 5-10 with a 3.97 ERA back when a 3.97 ERA wasn't very good, and he spent all of 1989 in the minors. Don't get fooled by a good cup of coffee. Especially by a good cup of coffee from a starting pitcher who has zoomed up the minor-league chain so fast that no team has had a chance to see him twice. And if that's not warning enough, Wells's unimpressive strikeout-to-walk ratio of 44/31 in Double-A should have been a warning sign that, despite his great September and a great fastball, he wasn't ready to stick yet.

Grade: No one is giving up on Wells yet, certainly, but a year after he was the crown jewel in an impressive tiara of White Sox pitching prospects, he's become an afterthought. He wasn't just bad last season, he was bad without any sign in his peripheral numbers that he was putting it together. He looks like he was badly rushed now, and while he's still in the fight for the role of fifth starter, he hasn't yet proven that he can handle Triple-A hitters. A grade 2, and C.C. Sabathia fans--that means you, Charlie--should take note.

11. Dee Brown, OF, Kansas City (BA: #11, Sickels: #6)

What we said last year: "...he won't win any awards with his glove, but with a bat in his hands no award is out of his reach. He hit .308/.431/.548 in one of the toughest hitters' parks in the minor leagues, then hit .353/.440/.591 in Double-A. Brown, a former running-back recruit in high school, is also a good bet for 30 to 40 stolen bases a year, which may be just the selling point he needs to find a way into the Royals' crowded outfield."

What he did in 2000: With no jobs available in the Royals outfield and Mark Quinn ahead of him in the pecking order, Brown was sent to Triple-A to start the season. Brown let the demotion get to him, and suffered through a disappointing season, hitting .269/.324/.491 and getting suspended for a few days at mid-season for failing to run out ground balls. The suspension may have actually focused Brown, who played better in the second half and who has taken advantage of the Johnny Damon trade to vie for a spot in the Royals' lineup this spring.

Take-home lesson: Players are not machines, and we, as analysts, must resist the temptation to treat them as such by completely ignoring the human element when evaluating them. Brown is a very confident hitter who went into last spring expecting to win a starting job, even though it was clear that none was available. It's not surprising, when looked at in that light, that he would try to prove that the Royals made a mistake with every at-bat, as his strikeout-to-walk ratio plummeted from 97/79 to 112/37. The lesson we'll learn this year is whether, if Brown does indeed win get the opportunity to play for the Royals on Opening Day, he can shed the bad habits he picked up last year.

Grade: Brown's star doesn't shine as brightly this spring as last, but relative to, say, Kip Wells, Brown still looks pretty good. Most observers still have Brown on their short list of candidates to challenge for Rookie of the Year honors. A solid grade 3.

10. Michael Cuddyer, 3B, Minnesota (BA: #18, Sickels: #10)

What we said last year: "Scott Rolen Lite. When a young hitter shows preternatural ability to hit for average and power, draw walks and play defense, the chances increase that at least one of those talents will develop into a dominant one. Cuddyer improved every fact of his game while jumping a level last season. Now that a position switch has changed him from an error-prone shortstop to a gifted third baseman, the questions are less about whether his weaknesses will prevent him from becoming a good player, and more about whether his strengths will help him become a great player."

What he did in 2000: Cuddyer caught the 24-week Prospect Flu (not to be confused with Prospect's Disease) that was going around the Twins' minor-league camp, slumping from .298/.403/.470 to .263/.351/.394 while jumping to Double-A. More alarming than the drop in his EqA from .241 to .218 is that his defensive reputation at third base continued to progress towards his defensive numbers, which are so bad as to suggest that another move down the defensive spectrum is likely sooner rather than later.

Take-home lesson: We can make all the cracks we want about the Pirates' inability to develop hitters, but no organization did a worse job with its hitters last season than the Twins. Clay Davenport has made refinements in his evaluation of minor-league defense, which has made Cuddyer's weaknesses at third base more apparent than they were a year ago. There is a positive sign here: just as Cuddyer's across-the-board excellence in 1999 made it more likely that he would develop into a star, it also meant that he could have an all-around off-season and still post league-average offensive numbers as a 21-year-old in Double-A.

Grade: This is a tough one to assign. There's no doubt that Cuddyer regressed last season, but does he deserve the Chin-Feng Chen treatment (Grade 2), or do we cut him the same slack as Jason Romano (Grade 3)? His defensive struggles should not be minimized, but the Twins have not given up on him as a third baseman yet, and his 23-point drop in EqA was smaller than both Chen's (36 points) and Romano's (30). By the skin of his teeth, Cuddyer earns a 3. Just don't expect such generosity next year, Michael.

9. Corey Patterson, CF, Chicago (NL) (BA: #3, Sickels: #1)

What we said last year: "Patterson, the third pick in the 1998 draft, was everything the Cubs hoped he would be in his first full pro season: he hit for average (.320) and power (20 home runs, 35 doubles) and showed off his speed (33 stolen bases, 17 triples). He didn't turn 20 until August, and after playing in the Midwest League all summer, he hit .368 with a .581 slugging average in the Arizona Fall League...the only reason Patterson ranks as low as he does is that while he's everything the Cubs hoped for, the Cubs don't hope for ball four."

What he did in 2000: After tempting the Cubs to promote him directly from low-A to the majors (sound familiar?), Patterson went to Double-A (still skipping a level) and held his own, hitting .261 but with similar power (22 home runs, 26 doubles) and nearly twice as many walks (45 vs. 25) as in 1999. Just as importantly, he continued to build on his already formidable defensive reputation. His performance was impressive enough that a September call-up, in which he went 7-for-42 with a pair of home runs, was fully warranted.

Take-home lesson: Clay Davenport has done some compelling research that suggests that, other things equal, a poor strikeout-to-walk ratio is not a negative indicator in a hitting prospect. A player who has achieved prospect status despite, not because of, his plate selectivity has the potential to make dramatic improvement simply by learning the strike zone. The Cubs obviously don't emphasize that skill very much, but they do a better job than they did five years ago, and Patterson is coachable and intelligent enough that he's slowly figuring it out.

Grade: Patterson's batting average dropped 59 points, but his secondary skills remained completely intact, and his plate discipline improved markedly, despite advancing from low-A ball to Double-A. Our competitors labeled him a Top-3 prospect last season, and this year we joined the bandwagon. Grade 5.

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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