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April 3, 2001
Top 40 Prospects In Review: Part Five
The Final Eight
Now that we've released this season's Top 40 Prospects list, we're evaluating our list from a year ago to 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:
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.
8. Ben Petrick, C, Colorado (BA: #35, Sickels: #8)
What we said last year: "In an environment that makes boys look like men and men look like supermen, Petrick is the best hitting prospect the Rockies have ever produced. That's not really saying much; the only other hitting prospect the Rockies have developed is Todd Helton...Petrick has the credentials Helton had two years ago, and is nearly 18 months younger than Helton was when he got a job...the signing of Brent Mayne means that Petrick's not going to be given more than a platoon/backup job, at least at the start of the season."
What he did in 2000: He returned to Triple-A to start the season and hit essentially the same there (.315/.390/.536) as he did in 1999 (.312/.403/.606). The Rockies called him up for good in mid-July, and in 52 games he hit .322/.401/.466. His power did drop slightly from the previous year, but far more relevant for Petrick's future is that he quieted the concerns about his defense to the point that talk that he might have to change positions died off. Mayne is the backup now, and Petrick is expected to be a key cog in the Rockies' offense this year.
Take-home lesson: If you can hit, you will play. And if you're a Rockie hitter, you're going to hit. This can be a problem if it means that someone like Neifi Perez gets job security he doesn't deserve, but if the Rockies start developing real prospects, they can rest assured knowing that those hitters are far less likely to stumble when they reach the majors and lose confidence in themselves.
Grade: His overall performance was no better than it was in 1999, but Petrick's bat was not the reason why Baseball America ranked him just 35th overall. His defense may be "just" acceptable, but the key is that the Rockies have accepted it, and have enough confidence in him to make him the first-string catcher, meaning a .330 average and 35 home runs are well within his reach this year. Grade 5 .
7. Ruben Mateo, OF, Texas (BA: #6, Sickels: #12)
What we said last year: "We already got a good look at Mateo's five-tool talent last summer, when he all but took away Tom Goodwin's job before going down with an injury that kept his rookie eligibility intact for 2000. Mateo has a skill set similar to [Vernon] Wells's, and while Wells has the higher upside by virtue of being younger, Mateo is more likely to make an impact this season....Mateo has to be considered the favorite for the AL Rookie of the Year."
What he did in 2000: He played really well--.291/.339/.447 through 52 games, and the early favorite for Rookie of the Year honors--and then broke his leg and missed the rest of the season. For Mateo, it's called "par for the course."
Take-home lesson: Coming into the 2000 season, Mateo's games played totals for the previous three years were 99, 108, and 95. Players with a history of unusual fragility, unfortunately, will usually continue to live up to that history, at least until they are moved to a less demanding position. Think Paul Molitor the infielder vs. Paul Molitor the DH.
Grade: Whatever concerns there were that Mateo couldn't handle major-league pitching have disappeared, but whatever concerns there were that Mateo can't stay healthy have only been amplified. The leg injury appears to have the Rangers concerned enough that they've moved him to a corner outfield spot. A grade 4 for now; long-term, he's looking at a career arc somewhere between those of Jeffrey Hammonds and Ellis Burks, contributing with the bat for maybe 120 games a year.
6. Rafael Furcal, SS, Atlanta (BA: #8, Sickels: #15)
What we said last year: "The bad news: in 242 minor-league games, Furcal has only two career home runs. The good news: just about everything else...Furcal stole 96 bases in 1999, the most by any player in a single season in the 1990s, after swiping 60 in just 66 games in 1998. Furcal is more than a track star; he's a switch-hitting shortstop who hit .322 and had a .392 OBP while moving from the South Atlantic League up to the tougher Carolina League. Furcal did all that despite not turning 19 until August, and while successfully making the transition from second base to shortstop...he's already the top candidate to lead the majors in stolen bases in the 2000s. As with Rickey Henderson before him, the steals may only be a fraction of his real value."
What he did in 2000: Furcal made the defending NL Champions' roster on Opening Day straight out of A ball, played in 131 games, mostly at shortstop, hit .295/.394/.382 with 40 steals in 54 attempts, and won Rookie of the Year honors. He also got arrested for underage drinking, and had to deny an HBO report that he's actually not underage at all. What did you do last year?
Take-home lesson: The HBO report was a legitimate piece of investigative journalism and was quite believable; frankly, there is only one compelling piece of evidence that Furcal may actually be as old as he claims. But it's a pretty strong, if circumstantial, argument: if Furcal really was 22 years old, he should not have been able to jump straight from A ball to be the Rookie of the Year.
If you imagine the talent level of a typical player graphed against his age, you will see a parabolic curve where the steepest upward portion of that curve is at the very beginning, only to slowly taper off before peaking at age 27 or so and beginning its descent. The point is that while the typical player is much better at age 22 than at age 19, his rate of improvement is going to be much higher at age 19. In other words, the players that make quantum leaps like Furcal did--from A ball to quality major-league regular in less than a year--are most likely to be very, very young.
Think of the active hitters today who pulled off that trick. Andruw Jones. Ken Griffey Jr. Alex Rodriguez probably could have done it had Lou Piniella stuck him in the lineup in 1995; instead, it took him 18 months to go from A ball to superstar. Gary Sheffield, sort of; he wasn't that good when he first came up. All four players reached the majors before their 20th birthday. Few 22-year-old players make that jump, and the ones that do (like Mike Caruso and Jose Guillen) usually regress. The oldest active player I can think of who jumped straight from A ball to the majors and stuck for good was Deivi Cruz, who was 21 when he made the Tigers' roster as a Rule 5 pick in 1997. Even Cruz took two seasons before he mustered a .300 OBP or a .360 slugging average.
What does this have to do with Furcal? I'm not sure, frankly; he was either born in 1980 or he wasn't, and all this conjecture isn't going to change that. I guess my point is that I really want to believe he was 19 years old last year, because if he was, he could be be sitting with some of the all-time greats when he's through. If he was 22, he'll have to settle for being an All-Star a dozen times or so.
Grade: A grade 7, as Furcal took the biggest step forward of any prospect. I'll be sure to keep that line about him leading the majors in stolen bases in the 2000s on my resume.
5. Vernon Wells, CF, Toronto (BA: #4, Sickels: #4)
What we said last year: "...Wells now has the best mix of athleticism and performance of any prospect in the game. He pulled off the unprecedented trick of being named the #1 prospect in three different leagues by Baseball America last year, but he struggled a little bit in his September call-up. So did the last hitter to burn through four levels in one year, Andruw Jones. Wells might be well served by another half-season in Triple-A; by July, the Blue Jays will be well served if his name is in their lineup every day."
What he did in 2000: Wells spent the season at Triple-A trying to consolidate his gains from the year before, and hit just .243. On the bright side, his secondary numbers were astonishingly similar:
G AB H D T HR BB SB CS Wells, 1999 129 500 167 30 5 18 48 24 5 Wells, 2000 127 493 120 31 7 16 48 23 4
In essentially the same number of games, Wells's performance in the minor leagues was a virtual facsimile of his 1999 season, with the exception of having 47 fewer singles. As batting average is subject to more season-to-season variability than any of the secondary skills, I wouldn't be too concerned about the dropoff in hits. He clearly needed the full year in Triple-A, and should probably be sent back to Syracuse unless and until Jose Cruz Jr. is traded, but his future is still very bright.
Take-home lesson: Not every young phenom can rush from A ball to the majors in one season. Wells maintained his offensive numbers while rising through the chain in 1999, but his performance in 2000 suggests that he was probably hitting a little over his head at the end of 1999. The Blue Jays were wise not to rush him, as even the best prospects aren't going to be ready after just two months in the high minors.
Grade: Wells definitely struggled to hit for average, but every other skill--including his highly-regarded defense--is still intact, and Jose Cruz is still looking over his shoulder. Wells actually only dropped to #6 on this year's list because of the lack of upper-echelon prospects in the minors right now. Grade 3.
4. Sean Burroughs, 3B, San Diego (BA: #7, Sickels: #9)
What we said last year: "Along with Nick Johnson, Burroughs is one of only two prospects in baseball who have yet to firmly establish limits on what they can do. Burroughs, the son of 1974 AL MVP Jeff, first rose to national prominence as the pudgy slugging star of the Long Beach team that won the Little League World Series in back-to-back seasons. Six years later, he posted a .471 OBP in the Midwest League, reaching base in his last 54 games of the season, in the most polished season by an 18-year-old hitter since Ken Griffey Jr. tore through the minor leagues in 1988."
What he did in 2000: Burroughs spent the entire year in Double-A, and hit .291/.383/.401 despite being the youngest player in the high minors (that is, unless you believe that Carlos Zambrano is really just 19 years old). He still hasn't learned to hit for power--just two home runs all year--but he once again had more walks (58) than strikeouts (45), hit lots of doubles, and handled third base without difficulty. He also played a reserve role on the Olympic team.
Take-home lesson: There isn't much of one here, other than that Phil Nevin should keep that suitcase handy. Burroughs showed the exact same talents as he did in 1999, just at a higher level; by next season, he should be ready to display those talents in the major leagues. Long-term, it will be interesting to see whether the common perception that he should develop into a power hitter proves correct or not.
Grade: Burroughs's numbers dropped quite a bit from 1999, which isn't surprising given that he jumped from low-A ball to Double-A. He showed the exact same skill set, and has the exact same long-term projection. An easy grade 4, and in this year of the fallen prospect, that means he moved up to #2 on our Top 40 list.
3. Pat Burrell, 1B/LF, Philadelphia (BA: #2, Sickels: #3)
What we said last year: "...After posting the second-highest career slugging average in NCAA history, Burrell put on the same power display in Double-A and showed he could take a pitch as well, drawing 83 walks in just 127 games. Those lovable Phillies have moved Burrell to left field to avoid displacing the indispensible Rico Brogna. While Burrell is still adapting to left field, the early returns are that his defense isn't bad enough to keep him out of the Phillies' lineup. Word out of Philadelphia is that they plan to have him start the year in Triple-A, which is about the only thing that's going to keep him from being Rookie of the Year."
What he did in 2000: Burrell started the year in Triple-A and hit .294/.420/.497 for 40 games before the Phillies finally realized that this Rico Brogna character whom they had been paying millions of dollars a year couldn't actually hit. Burrell was called up in May and played every day the rest of the year, splitting time between left field and first base, and hit .260/.359/.463.
Take-home lesson: Pat Burrell can hit. Well, duh. More specifically, Burrell has shown prodigious secondary skills since the day he signed his pro contract, and secondary skills are much easier to project from the minors to the majors. A guy who hits .320 in the minors can easily hit .230 in the majors, but you never see a player who slugs 30 homers in the minors turn into a punch-and-judy hitter, or a guy who draws 90 walks a season in the minors become a brain-dead hacker.
Grade: Burrell's EqA with the Phillies (.261) was a little lower than his performance in Double-A in 1999 (.278), but you can't ignore the difference between a projection and the real thing. Last spring, the Phillies were still talking about Burrell in the future tense; this season, he's expected to be one of the best left fielders in the National League. Grade 5.
2. Rick Ankiel, LHP, St. Louis (BA: #1, Sickels: #2)
What we said last year: "You've heard all the hype about Ankiel, and we're here to tell you it's all warranted. At the age of 20, he has one of the five best fastballs of any left-hander in baseball, and his breaking stuff may better than his fastball...let's put it this way: Ankiel is a better prospect, at a younger age, than Kerry Wood was two years ago. Unfortunately, that's a potential problem: Ankiel is so good, so young, that he's at an enormous risk to blow out his arm in the next three years. Until and unless that happens, though, he should be an above-average starter as soon as this year."
What he did in 2000: Ankiel was plugged straight into the Cardinals rotation and proved he belonged right away, going 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA and 194 strikeouts in 175 innings. Just as importantly, Tony La Russa did a much better job limiting Ankiel's workload than Jim Riggleman did with Kerry Wood in 1998, particularly after Scott Boras made headlines. The best thing we can say about his October meltdown is that the Cardinals probably would have lost to the Mets anyway.
Take-home lesson: Ankiel is the reason why teams continue to take high-school pitchers in the first round despite the poor odds: when they come through and stay healthy, they can electrify baseball. There's no real lesson to learn from Steve Blass Disease, except that it can strike almost any player, at any time, and no combination of medical science and traditional baseball coaching has come up with a definitive cure for it yet.
Grade: No matter how wonderful a prospect Ankiel might have been before the season, it was still a stretch to assume that he would go on to become one of the 15 best starters in the NL, as he was last season. Prior to the playoffs, you could make a case that he deserved a 7, but even so, his performance in the regular season clearly earns him a 6.
1. Nick Johnson, 1B, New York (AL) (BA: #5, Sickels: #5)
What we said last year: "He's been described as a souped-up Jim Thome, a left-handed Jeff Bagwell and Don Mattingly with an extra 100 walks a year. But to best expres how historic Johnson's talents are, take Frank Thomas--back when he was Frank Thomas--and throw in a Gold Glove, a little speed, make him a left-handed hitter and put him in Yankee Stadium. Oh, and imagine he was ready for the major leagues at 21, not 22...his .525 OBP is the highest of any player, at any level, in recent history...Tino Martinez still has another year on his contract, so Johnson may have to wait until 2001 for a full-time job. Then again, he may not. Hall of Fame talent has a way of forcing its way into lineups."
What he did in 2000: Swung and missed a pitch in spring training, heard something pop in his wrist, and didn't play the rest of the season.
Take-home lesson: If we didn't learn our lesson two years ago with then-#3 prospect Alex Escobar (who played in all of three games in 1999), we've definitely learned it now: durability is a skill, and a player's injury history must be taken into account when evaluating his status as a prospect. In fairness, Johnson had only missed significant playing time once in his career, in 1998, when he was accidentally hit in the face with a bat and suffered a broken jaw. But Johnson had a history of nagging injuries that refused to heal, and that history came crashing down on him last season.
If we didn't learn that lesson with Nick Johnson, we'll definitely learn it next year with Ryan Anderson.
Grade: Nick the Stick gets a 1 because the rules don't allow for a grade 0.
That finishes our look at our own rankings from last season, but don't worry: we'll be back soon with a look at those players that didn't crack our list, but who John Sickels and/or Baseball America ranked in their Top 40.
Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by clicking here.