The 2003 season will go down as the final chapter for the New Haven Ravens franchise, as the team will relocate to Manchester, New Hampshire in 2004. The final season will also go down as one of the best as well, having won 79 games, the Northern Division championship, and putting more major league prospects on display than any team in recent memory. The Ravens hosted nearly every notable prospect in the Blue Jays’ system for some length of time, and an outfield trio of first round selections highlighted their lineup.
Alexis Rios, the team’s number one selection in 1999, continued his transformation from project to prospect with a breakout season. The 6’6 Puerto Rican had been projected as a power hitter when selected, but had managed just six home runs and a .362 slugging percentage in 1450 career at-bats prior to 2003. He also had shown little regard for the base on balls, drawing 82 walks in his first 380 professional games, and seemingly did not fit the mold that the Blue Jays were building.
The coaches preached discipline to him, however, and the lessons learned helped him earn the Eastern League MVP. His .352/.402/.551 line translates to a .255 MjEqA, a solid mark for a 22-year-old at any level. He nearly doubled his career home run mark, hitting 11 round-trippers as part of his 54 extra base hit attack. He also set a career high with 39 walks, though his plate discipline deteriorated as the season wore on and he saw his strikeouts rise as well. However, that essentially boils down to nitpicking what was a tremendously successful year.
On September 9th, Edwin Jackson assumed he would be celebrating his 20th birthday with a few friends. Instead, the Dodgers summoned him to join the big club in Phoenix and make his major league debut. Towing the rubber for the Diamondbacks was Randy Johnson, who we’ve heard is a decent pitcher in his own right. The 36,488 people in attendance could hardly be classified as friends, and we are fairly certain that most had never heard of him before game day. Jackson made himself at home anyways, holding Arizona to one run on four hits in six innings to earn his first major league win.
Very few pitchers can make the necessary adjustments to debut by their 20th birthday, but Jackson’s climb up the ladder is even more remarkable than most. He is a conversion, having made the transition from high school outfielder to major league pitcher after the Dodgers selected him in the sixth round of the 2001 draft. Jackson is not alone, as the presence of converted position players on the mound is growing in the major leagues, and more teams are viewing a pitching career as a viable alternative to releasing struggling hitters who were blessed with strong arms.
The Inland Empire 66ers were anointed the ugly stepchild of the Seattle Mariners farm system in 2003, coming out of spring training with few prospects and a roster full of organizational players. When asked about the talent assigned to San Bernardino, Farm Director Benny Looper was quoted as saying, “As far as guys who are ever going to see a big-league uniform, it’s pretty thin.” That is not exactly the overly optimistic glowing that you will see from most front office personnel, but the sentiment was basically accepted; this team just isn’t very good.
After a first month that lived up to expectations, things turned around in May, and the 66ers completed an improbable turnaround by capturing the 2003 California League championship in September. Perhaps the most important decision of the season came in early May, when Ryan Ketchner was rewarded for his excellent relief work with a spot start against High Desert. He proceeded to earn himself another start in the rotation with six strong innings of two-hit baseball. Given the opportunity, Ketchner made the most of it and did not look back. He pitched his way onto the mid-season and postseason All-Star teams before being named the playoffs MVP for his remarkable performance. His playoff line included 13 2/3 scoreless innings, a .167 opponents’ batting average, and four walks against 16 strikeouts.
On July 12, 2002, the Padres and White Sox struck a deal. The White Sox acquired one-time top prospect D’Angelo Jimenez for the non-pitching version of Alex Fernandez and Humberto Quintero, a 22-year-old catcher who was hitting .194 in the Carolina League. While it went unnoticed in most of baseball, I considered July 12th to be a dark day last summer, as the White Sox had just removed, from my own back yard, the most exciting defensive player I had ever seen. Quintero was simultaneously a joy to watch and a pain to endure. He exemplified both what is right and wrong with scouting in every inning, bringing entertainment to his fans and losses to his team. There was no mistaking the entertainment factor of watching him behind the plate. There was also no avoidance of the misery of watching him overmatched at the plate, wondering how someone so good at one part of a game could be so awful at another. Quintero is one of three or four people alive that I would pay to watch play defense. When scouts talk about great catch-and-throw guys, they compare them to Ivan Rodriguez. Quintero is currently on a level that Rodriguez has not seen in a decade. His arm strength is at the top of the scale, and his quick release and footwork have earned him the nickname “Little Pudge.”
This was an abysmal season to be a fan of the New York Mets. Roger Cedeno continued to amaze with his play in the outfield, Tom Glavine complained that umpires actually wanted him to throw the ball in the vicinity of home plate, and Ty Wigginton was the only player to accumulate 500 at-bats. In the midst of disaster, however, shone the bright light of Jose Reyes. The 20-year-old shortstop hit .300 in his major league debut, justifying the hype surrounding his arrival and raising the expectations for the organizational savior. Reyes was the first of the Mets’ “Big Five” prospects to arrive on the scene, beating Aaron Heilman by a few weeks, and has already earned the expectation of stardom from the faithful at Shea.
However, this column is not about Reyes. The subject of this piece is David Wright, who may just be the most under-appreciated prospect in the game. While Wright does not come with the excitement factor that Reyes’ blinding speed brings, there is an argument to be made that Wright is the better bet for a productive major league career. The young third baseman, in two-and-a-half years of professional baseball, has established himself as a premier offensive talent who is improving at all facets of the game.
One of the favorite terms of baseball officials is “development path,” used to describe the gradual improvement of a prospect into a major league player. As Nate Silver’s PECOTA system shows us, most players follow a somewhat normal path of improvement and can be classified into a certain type of player depending on their skill set. Some low-level shortstops are that in name only, really possessing offensive skills destined for a corner spot. Others are highlight-reel defenders who hit like pitchers, but amaze and entertain with their prowess in the field. Occasionally, though, we run across a prospect that simply bewilders, showing wildly different skill sets in different years, and making future projections a bit trickier. Jose Lopez is one of these players. The 19-year-old shortstop from Venezuela has made a name for himself and has responded well to the Mariners’ willingness to push him quickly through the system, being one of the youngest players in the league during each of his first three professional seasons. However, his performances have been anything but consistent, and the reports on him are nearly as confusing.
One of my favorite parts of the recent Cleveland Pizza Feed was a conversation I had with one of our readers about the impossibility of this position: “There are nearly 5,000 players in organized minor league baseball. How on Earth can you possibly know something about all of them?” This was intended as a compliment, but the question is accurate, and is a truth that all minor league junkies face; we are bailing with a teaspoon. I see a lot of baseball games, talk with a lot of people who see more games than I do, and try to get a feel for every important player that you might want to know about, but it does not matter. Someone will always slip through the cracks, and I will inevitably jot down the lineup on my scorecard and ask myself, “Who is he?” Occasionally, one of these anonymous names stands out, and I go home intrigued by this new name to follow. Last year, I made that remark when I scribbled the name Andy Marte on my scorecard during a game between Greensboro and Macon. I had made the drive to see Carlos Duran, who was drawing comparisons to Andruw Jones (which are, at this point, laughable), and because Macay McBride was pitching for Macon that night. I knew a little about Marte before the game started; he was listed at age 18, had spent 2001 hitting like a pitcher in the Appalachian League, and had a pretty solid start to the 2002 campaign. After watching him flash the most impressive package of tools and performance I had seen all year, I made sure to find out more about “this Marte kid” when I got home.
Due in part to the popularity of Moneyball, Kevin Youkilis has become something of a cult hero. Dubbed “Euclis, The Greek God of Walks,” the Red Sox third-base prospect was made larger than life in Michael Lewis’ best-selling book. His propensity for drawing the base on balls led to on-base percentages usually reserved for Little League, and the fact that he was largely ignored by scouts simply added to his lore. In some circles, Youkilis is viewed as the poster child of statistical analysis, leading the fight against the old guard who were so unimpressed after his junior year at the University of Cincinnati that he went undrafted. However, as Dayn Perry penned last week, the opposing trains of thought on Youkilis are best served when they are brought together. Rather than focusing on what Kevin Youkilis may tell us about the state of evaluation techniques in baseball, let’s actually attempt to quantify what Youkilis is likely to become. After all, basing theories around the development patterns of a man who has yet to don a major league jersey is premature at best.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have invested heavily in pitching the past decade, including the use of their last six first round draft choices. Since 2000, they have used 14 of their top 20 selections on pitchers. They haven’t selected a position player in the first two rounds since they used the 59th pick in the 1999 draft on Ryan Doumit, a catcher from the storied Moses Lake, Wa. team that also featured B.J. Garbe and Jason Cooper. The Pirates have twice had the number one choice in the draft in the past decade, and twice they have found a college pitcher to use it on. They haven’t discriminated either, drafting high school pitchers (Bobby Bradley and Sean Burnett) along with more polished college arms (Bryan Bullington and Paul Maholm and John Van BenSchoten) and immediately put them on the mound. Though they’re lacking in hitting prospects, the Pirates’ emphasis on acquiring hurlers has paid off in a sense, in that they have a collection of almost-ready major league arms knocking on the door of PNC Park. Lost in the shuffle of the first round bonus babies, however, is a little-regarded right-hander who was known as Ian Snell when the Pirates selected him in the 26th round of the 2000 draft. Now known as Ian Oquendo, since adopting his wife’s name, he has managed to find nothing but success as a professional.
Last season brought us the worst-kept secret of the draft, when the Braves selected Jeff Francoeur and bought him out of a football scholarship to Clemson University.
Francoeur is the prototypical Braves prospect. Besides being born and raised in suburban Atlanta, he’s a tremendous athlete who could excel at multiple sports. The Braves covet players with physical skills, trusting their player development personnel to translate the natural abilities into baseball productivity. While many organizations have attempted to copy this philosophy, few, if any, have managed to pull it off. Regardless of the lack of success of their imitators, however, the Braves have held firm to their beliefs. The high-risk, high-reward philosophies instituted in the early 90s helped produce the crop of homegrown talent that led to 11 consecutive division championships. While one could argue that there are more cost-effective ways to develop talent, the Braves certainly have reason to feel vindicated in their methods.
He’s compiled a line of .286/.322/.451 this season, with a .272 Major League EqA. That line reveals the major flaw in Francoeur’s game though. In 455 at-bats, he has managed just 22 walks, impatient even by the Braves’ standards.