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July 8, 2009

Future Shock

Great Leaps Forward

by Kevin Goldstein

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As the baseball season has reached the halfway mark, it's a good time to look back at some rankings. However, I'm not going to provide a full re-ranking, the reasons of which I went into detail during a recent interview with the good folks at Phuture Phillies:

PP: As a quick parting question, your current Top 5 Phillies prospects list would be… ?

KG: I don't know. I realize that comes off as a crappy answer, so let me explain myself. I'm never comfortable with off-the-cuff rankings because they kind of lessen the value of the real ones I do. When I do the Phillies Top 11 in the offseason, it's going to involve pages and pages of notes, statistical analysis, as well as somewhere between five and ten phone calls to scouts. It's important to me to put that much work into them because I really want to get them right, so to just throw five names out right now would be incomplete and sloppy, not to mention six months from now I'd get, "you have this dude here, but now you've moved him there, what changed?" when nothing actually changed with the player as much as I did the work to try to rank him properly

Instead, let's identify the players who have taken the biggest steps forward and those who have seen the largest declines. To start off with today, here are ten from the pre-season Top 100 that have seen the biggest jumps up in their prospect status; we'll look at the bad side of things later this week. Note, these are players who began the year as Top 100 Prospects. I'll cover those who have moved their way into Top 100 consideration later in the week.

Brett Anderson, LHP, Athletics (Pre-season ranking: 24)
While his 4.86 ERA, .277 opponent's average, and 13 home runs in 831/3 innings might fail to impress, Anderson is the real deal, as anyone who saw the 21-year-old on Monday night now knows. If anything, he's learning on the job, and the two-hitter in Boston was a culmination of many steps forward for the southpaw. If anything, he has seen his upside increased considerably with his performance thus far. Often miscast as a command/control lefty, Anderson has that kind of ability to throw strikes, but he's been touching 97 mph with his fastball of late while sitting at 92-94. That's not a finesse pitcher, that's plus stuff and plus command, a formula that usually equates to stardom.

Daniel Bard, RHP, Red Sox (Pre-season ranking: 97)
Bard was one of those players who ranked low because it was impossible to fully trust his 2008 performance after the Blass-esque nightmare that was 2007. He clearly seems to be over that now, allowing earned runs in just three of 18 big-league performances and being absolutely dominant of late, as he's struck out seven over four perfect innings in his last three appearances. He seems to be slowly gaining more and more of Terry Francona's trust, and could be setting up Jonathan Papelbon by the end of the season.

Gordon Beckham, INF, White Sox (Pre-season ranking: 28)
This is a matter of the quickness of his arrival more than anything else. While most 2008 college draftees are in Double-A at best, Beckham started the year there after a monster spring training, went 13-for-28 in seven Triple-A games, and was in the big leagues by early June. He's done an admirable job defensively while learning to play third base as he goes, and after beginning his major league career by batting .172 in his first 18 games, he's batting .405/.436/.622 since and looks like a not-so-distant future All-Star.

Kyle Drabek, RHP, Phillies (Pre-season ranking: 92)
It's strange what kind of information can help you, as one of the reasons I ranked Drabek as the third-best prospect in the system entering the year despite his missing most of 2008 while recovering from Tommy John surgery was a conversation I had with his father Doug Drabek at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas. It was an honest talk about Kyle's old and new mechanics, and what was working and what still needed to be worked on. By the time spring training arrived, Kyle had already tweaked his breaking ball back to plus status with the new delivery, as well as rediscovering his mid-90s velocity, which has led to a breakout year. Many scouts see stardom in his future, but expect less from him in the second half, at least on a workload level, since while his 109 strikeouts currently ranks third in the minors, his 1081/3 innings leads all minor leaguers and will need to be monitored.

Desmond Jennings, OF, Rays (Pre-season ranking: 49)
Jennings needed his 2008 season to prove that 2007's breakout was for real, but instead he had a lost season that was undermined by injuries. It was somewhat surprising to see him begin the year at Double-A Montgomery, but he was clearly up to the challenge, as his impressive .308/.384/.467 line is brought down by a recent slump. His tools are off the charts, as he boasts both plus-plus speed and average power, with one scout calling him, "Carl Crawford with a good approach."

Mat Latos, RHP, Padres (Pre-season ranking: 38)
The Padres' top prospect entering the year, Latos missed the first month of the season with an ankle injury, but after shaking the rust off by allowing one run in 251/3 innings in A-ball, the 21-year-old was moved up two levels past High-A to Double-A San Antonio, where he continues to dominate. He has put up a 2.14 ERA in eight starts while limiting batters to a .211 average without a home run in 152 at-bats. He's one of the better power pitchers in the game right now, but his service-time clock most likely won't be started until next year.

Jesus Montero, C, Yankees (Pre-season ranking: 38)
After a big full-season debut last year, Montero has gone from one of the better hitting prospects around to simply one of the best period, as after going off in the Florida State League with a .356/.406/.583 line, the 19-year-old hasn't missed a beat as one of the youngest players in Double-A, batting .312/.379/.527 for Trenton, including a recent four-game stretch in which he hit five home runs. "He has improved his plate discipline, he's making more contact, and he's still going to get better," said Mark Newman, Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations for the Yankees. "His balance is going to get better, he's going to have a better plan at the plate... offensively, he's as good as anyone we've had here." Montero's defense behind the plate has often been the bigger story, but he continues to make strides there, with a handful of scouts believing he could at least start his big-league career behind the plate. "He's got a ways to go still," admitted Newman. "But his arm accuracy and delivery times are much better. We knew that was an issue when we first signed him, but my confidence in his ability to stay at catcher grows all the time."

Justin Smoak, 1B, Rangers (Pre-season ranking: 22)
While a strained oblique cost last year's first-round pick around a month of at-bats, Smoak was a middle-of-the-order force for Double-A Frisco, batting .328/.449/.481 in 50 games for the RoughRiders, far more production than some of the big bats taken ahead of him last June (notably Pedro Alvarez, Yonder Alonso, and Eric Hosmer). He was promoted to Triple-A last week just as incumbent first baseman Chris Davis was sent down to join him. Smoak could be a huge addition to the Rangers' playoff run, and is looking more and more like one of the steals of the 2008 draft.

Michael Taylor, OF, Phillies (Pre-season ranking: 55)
Like Bard, Taylor's ranking was brought down a bit by "is it real?" syndrome, as his 2008 campaign was seemingly out of nowhere. Now, with a .339/.402/.582 line at Double-A Reading, he's seen as a proven commodity with star potential, as his numbers have now consistently matched his tools for over a year. He's a bit of a strange player, as a 6-foot-6, 250-pound monster athlete who nonetheless focuses more on contact at the plate than power, Taylor's natural strength sends balls out of the yard. His surprisingly low strikeout rate keeps his average high, and he's a good runner to boot, with 14 stolen bases and good range in an outfield corner.

Josh Vitters, 3B, Cubs (Pre-season ranking: 34)
One of the most impressive bats in the minors this year, Vitters hit .316/.351/.535 at Single-A Peoria before moving up to the Florida State League last week, including an incredible streak in which he hit 11 home runs over just 15 games. Reviews of his defense have been mixed, but most believe he's the kind of player who could at least begin a big-league career at third base before moving over to first, like Jim Thome or Albert Pujols. As for his bat, everyone is a believer, including Cubs Vice President of Player Personnel Oneri Fleita, who admits that players like Vitters are at times best left alone. "You just let guys like that play," observed Fleita. "I learned a long time ago that guys who can hit .300 with power, you can teach them to hit .200 with no power, so when they have that much talent, you let them write their own script."

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

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