Whenever words like “overrated” or “underrated” are introduced into an argument, objectivity generally takes a holiday. Gauging the amount of hype a certain player is receiving and determining whether it’s tantamount to his abilities is by nature largely an exercise in opinion. Now that we’re all aware that I’m aware that I’m wallowing in subjectivity, I’m going to wallow in subjectivity.

Below is a list of my top five underrated position prospects. The criteria are that the player is toiling in at least High-A this season (meaning the California, Carolina and Florida State leagues or higher) and did not appear in any iterations of our Top 50 Prospect List.

Let’s light this candle…

  1. Brad Nelson, OF, Brewers, Age: 21
    Pre-2004 Stats: 934 AB, .281/.341/.445, .164 ISO, 73 unintentional walks
    2004 Stats: (Double-A-Huntsville) 218 AB, .294/.361/.541, .247 ISO, 20 unintentional walks

    A fourth-rounder in 2001, Nelson garnered Brewers minor league Player of the Year honors after he smacked 49 doubles in 2002. A broken hamate bone sapped his power last season and negatively affected his performance in the AFL. This season, however, Nelson is healthy and hitting. His high isolated slugging points to his raw power, and he’s also on pace to tally nearly 75 extra-base hits this season. He hits to all fields and shows good bat speed. Nelson has limited range in the outfield, but a strong throwing arm. But it’s his bat that will take him places. In a system with ballyhooed prospects like Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder and the injured J.J. Hardy, Nelson doesn’t gain the attention he merits as a power prospect.

  2. Josh Willingham, C, Marlins, Age: 25
    Pre-2004 Stats: 1,168 AB, .269/.400/.472, .203 ISO, 209 unintentional walks
    2004 Stats: (Double-A-Carolina) 156 AB, .288/.450/.571, .283 ISO, 35 unintentional walks

    The Fish drafted Willingham out of North Alabama with a 17th-round pick in 2000. Prior to 2003, he spent most of his time at first and third, but an organizational bottleneck at the infield corners led the Marlins to transition Willingham to catcher. The move went well from a defensive standpoint, and Willingham thus far has dodged the offensive declines that often occur in tandem with a switch to the catcher position. In fact, he’s gotten better. Willingham, with his compact swing and penchant for using the whole field, is posting outstanding numbers in the Southern League this season. Willingham tops the loop in on-base and slugging, and his ISO of .283 is simply tremendous. Although he’s certainly old for a prospect, he’s a deeply patient hitter playing a premium position. Given the fantastic collapse of Ramon Castro this season, Willingham could find himself as the starter in Florida next season.

  3. Brad Eldred, 1B, Pirates, Age: 23
    Pre-2004 Stats: 696 AB, .263/.331/.499, .236 ISO, 50 unintentional walks
    2004 Stats (High-A-Lynchburg): 217 AB, .300/.382/.567, .267 ISO, 20 unintentional walks

    A sixth-rounder in ’02 out of Florida International, Eldred shot up the draft boards after he clouted 29 homers his senior season. Since being signed, Eldred has shown good power at every stop. His high ISOs (.210 in the NY-Penn League in 2002, .252 in the Sally League in 2003 and .267 thus far in ’04) point to his excellent raw power potential. Presently, he ranks fifth in the Carolina League in slugging and is on pace to bash 73 extra-base hits on the season. While Lynchburg itself is something of a hitter’s park, that’s relative to the rest of the Carolina League, which is decidedly a run-suppressing circuit. He has a long swing, which in part accounts for his high strikeout numbers, and he’s vulnerable if pounded inside with fastballs. His defense at first is adequate at best, and he needs to improve his plate discipline (although he has made minor strides with his walk rate this season). Still, caveats aside, the power potential is highly intriguing.

  4. Jason Botts, OF, Rangers, Age: 23
    Pre-2004 Stats: 1,445 AB, .289/.399/.437, .148 ISO, 211 unintentional walks
    2004 Stats: (Double-A-Frisco) 217 AB, .309/.412/.581, .272 ISO, 31 unintentional walks

    Botts, a switch-hitting first baseman by training and inclination, moved last season to the outfield–a switch he made pursuant to the Rangers’ acquisition of Adrian Gonzalez. This season at Double-A-Frisco, he’s back at first base, and he’s also putting up the best numbers of his young career. He stands 6’6″, so some worry he’ll struggle at the highest level as a result of his stature. That’s possible, but it certainly hasn’t hampered him in ’04. He hits much better from the right side, and he may eventually abandon switch-hitting. His biggest selling point right now is his tremendous patience at the plate (the Rangers have even admonished him for being too selective). Botts, obviously, is also flashing more power this season. He actually got off a slow start in April, but he’s been hitting like a house afire since then. Botts did spend a little more than one-third of 2003 in the Texas League, so some degree of repeating-the-league mitigation is in order. Although there’s only one full season of park data for Frisco, it did play last season as a notable pitcher’s park. At this writing, Botts leads the Texas League in homers (he’s on pace for 34 homers on the season) and ranks third in slugging. If the power surge is real, he’s a hitter.

  5. John Nelson, SS, Cardinals, Age: 25
    Pre-2004 Stats: 1,239 AB, .252/.326/.390, .138 ISO, 124 unintentional walks
    2004 Stats: (Double-A-Tennessee) 168 AB, .310/.405/.554, .244 ISO, 25 unintentional walks

    Nelson, a KU product, made the rare transition from outfield to shortstop. He has a very strong arm, and his ability to handle the switch to the more demanding position has increased his value. He followed up a strong season in the Midwest League in 2002 with an awful year at Double-A-Tennessee last season. To his credit, he did skip High-A altogether, which no doubt contributed to his developmental stumbles. This season, despite suffering a broken hand in the AFL during the off-season, Nelson is hitting the ball like never before. He’s hitting for power, both on the raw and absolute level, and drawing walks like never before. And his numbers aren’t the result of an aberrantly hot April; his lines for April and May are quite similar, and he’s been even better in the early days of June. On the other hand, he is repeating the circuit, he’s older than his peer group, and Tennessee is a fairly accommodating environment for hitters. It’s too early to call Nelson a prospect, but he has made quantum strides thus far in 2004. Or, maybe, as a Cardinal fan now residing about a mile from Wrigley Field, I’m being an inveterate homer. I’m open to either possibility.

Next time, I’ll take a look at some underrated pitching prospects. By the way, Nate and I were saying Pistons in seven before it was cool to do so.