One of the principles we’d most like to see baseball embrace is
accountability. All too often organizations make excuses for managers who
let promising young players rot on the bench while some 33-year-old hits
.240 but leads the league in intangibles. They employ GMs who give a good
outfielder coming off one great year $14 million a season, then trade the
team’s #2 starter for nothing in order to cut payroll. Scouting departments
that haven’t signed a quality major-leaguer in six years are allowed to
work with impunity.
Often, baseball teams are run less like a business and more like a country
club. That’s fine if the owners’ main priority is hanging out with each
other and bragging about how rich they are. But when millions of dollars
are wasted for the sake of protecting cronies and former ballplayers who
don’t know how to build winning teams, you have to scratch your head in
Now, it’s time to hold ourselves accountable. In Baseball Prospectus
1999, we published our list of the top 40 rookies in baseball. We are
hardly unique on that front; many publications print their own list of top
prospects, the two most respected lists being those by Baseball
America and by John Sickels in his Minor League Scouting
Notebook. As we take a look back at our own list, we’ll also include
how those players were ranked by Baseball America and by Sickels, to
provide a perspective of what other experts thought of each player.
Keep in mind that Baseball America actually ranks 100 prospects; an
"NR" means they didn’t make their list at all. Sickels ranks 50
prospects, and awards an Honorable Mention (HM) to 10 additional prospects.
Beyond that, he lists a letter grade from A+ to C- for several hundred
prospects; prospects from #18 to #50 and all of his Honorable Mentions
grade out as a B+, so players not making his list range from a Grade B
Once we’re done looking at our own list, we’ll take a look at the players
who didn’t make our list but who ranked highly with either Baseball
America or Sickels.
40. Jackie Rexrode, 2B, Arizona (BBA: NR, Sickels: C+)
What we said last year: "…an on-base machine, posting a .430+
OBP at two levels last year, and he’s only 19. He was 41-for-45 in stolen
base attempts. His power is nonexistent…similar to but significantly
better than the Marlins’ Luis Castillo as a prospect…if he starts to
drive the ball at all and survives the jump to Double-A, he could become
one of the majors’ premier leadoff hitters."
What he did in 1999: It’s a very bad sign as a prospect when your
organization loans you out to another farm system that’s short a player.
Rexrode spent half the season with the White Sox’s Double-A team in
Birmingham, where he hit .268/.347/.347. (He did hit .319/.431/.438 in the
high altitude of El Paso.) On the plus side, he set a career high with 23
extra-base hits. Despite his on-base ability, neither BBA nor Sickels were
particularly impressed with him, and while he’s far from done as a
prospect–he’s still just 21–he was probably a bit of a reach last year.
Take-home lesson: no matter how high a minor-league hitter’s OBP is,
his status as a prospect remains tenuous if he doesn’t show at least a
little power. Also, A-ball performance doesn’t mean as much as Double-A.
39. Luke Prokopec, RHP, Los Angeles (BBA NR, Sickels B)
What we said last year: "Rany got to see Prokopec on a minor
league jaunt with John Sickels, and neither one of them knew too much about
him going in, but afterwards they wanted to find out more…after switching
to the mound in the middle of the 1997 season, he throws in the upper 80s,
has an excellent curveball, and almost unbelievable mound instincts for
someone with barely a year’s experience under his belt."
What he did in 1999: After putting up a 1.38 ERA in five starts for
San Antonio to end 1998, Prokopec was pretty awful in his return to
Double-A, with a 5.42 ERA and 172 hits in 158 innings in a decent pitchers’
park. The Dodgers left him off their 40-man roster, and while he was
rumored to be on many teams’ Rule 5 draft lists, no one took him off the
Dodgers’ hands. Keep in mind that he was just 21 and had a
strikeout-to-walk ratio of 128-to-46. He’s not nearly the prospect we
thought he was, but he is a prospect.
Take-home lesson: Don’t get too excited over what you see in one
outing. (Sickels, by the way, was not quite as impressed by the outing,
saying in his book, "I was more impressed by his tenacity and
determination than his raw stuff, which didn’t look that hot.")
Prokopec is a converted catcher, and despite all the hullabaloo surrounding
hitters-turned-pitchers in the last several years, only three have really
been successful. Both Trevor Hoffman and Troy Percival are relievers, while
Tim Wakefield is a special case. Ron Mahay, who made it to the majors as an
outfielder and now has a career 2.70 ERA as a pitcher, is also used
primarily in relief. Prokopec still may make a fine major-league pitcher,
but it’s clear that you should probably see at least two full years from a
converted pitcher before getting too excited.
38. Tom Evans, 3B, Toronto (BBA NR, Sickels B)
What we said last year: "…he’s been one of the best third
baseman in the minor leagues for three years now…he’s what he was three
years ago: a good glove man with excellent patience and solid power. While
he doesn’t have star potential, he can be an above-average third baseman
for several years to come."
What he did in 1999: After the Blue Jays inexplicably released him
in spring training, Evans signed on with the Rangers’ organization and did
what he usually does, hitting .280 with lots of walks (66 in 128 games) and
a fair amount of power (12 home runs, 35 doubles). He still doesn’t appear
any closer to a major-league opportunity; Todd Zeile is a Met, but Mike
Lamb is the Rangers’ third baseman of the future.
Take-home lesson: We know that organizations can’t make a prospect
out of a non-prospect simply by giving him the opportunity, but Evans is
another indication that they can ruin a prospect by denying him the chance
to show his skills.
37. Roy Halladay, RHP, Toronto (BBA #12, Sickels #29)
What we said last year: "Normally a pitcher with
strikeout-to-walk ratios as bad as his would never make our list, but
Halladay isn’t your typical prospect. He was rushed by the Blue Jays,
reaching Triple-A at 20, and it’s taken him nearly two years to get
comfortable. He throws a dandy knuckle-curve and featured a new and
improved slider last year, which supposedly helped him become more of a
What he did in 1999: He made the Blue Jays as a swingman and
continued to pitch well in spite of himself, posting a fine 3.92 ERA as a
rookie despite walking 79 men and striking out just 82 while allowing 156
hits in 149 innings.
Take-home lesson: Halladay is a scout’s pitcher–he was very highly
ranked by Baseball America–and with pitchers, you have to weigh the
scouting reports along with their performance. The jury is still out on
Halladay; either he’ll improve his strikeout-to-walk ratio and become a
dominant pitcher, or he’ll regress and turn into Pat Rapp. Bet on the former.
36. Angel Pena, C, Los Angeles (BBA #41, Sickels #38)
What we said last year: "He’s relatively unknown for a Dodger
prospect, but he had an excellent season in the harsh environment of San
Antonio, and he was considered to be the best defensive catcher in the
Texas League. Imagine Terry Steinbach with more power, and you’ve got quite
What he did in 1999: Handed a golden opportunity when Todd Hundley
couldn’t play worth a damn in the first half, Pena blew the shot, hitting
just .208 in 43 games with the Dodgers and throwing out just 26% of
base-stealers. He lost the backup role to Paul LoDuca and was demoted. In
34 games at Albuquerque’s high altitude, Pena hit .291 with only one home
run, while picking up a reputation for a bad attitude.
Take-home lesson: Despite his relative lack of fame, there was a
remarkable degree of consensus as to Pena’s ranking, so we weren’t the only
ones to be overly impressed. Among all hitting prospects, catchers are the
most difficult to project, and Pena may just prove to be another example of
35. Joe Crede, 3B, Chicago (AL) (BBA #46, Sickels HM)
What we said last year: "As good a prospect as Carlos Lee is,
he’s also probably not going to be the third baseman for the White Sox for
very long. That doesn’t have [as] much to do with his limitations in the
field as it does with the presence of mighty Joe Crede. A smooth defender
and a hitter with power to all fields, Crede is adjusting quickly after
neary winning the triple crown in the Carolina League."
What he did in 1999: Well, we were right that Lee wouldn’t stay at
third base very long, but it had everything to do with his defensive
shortcomings and nothing to do with Crede, who struggled with a broken toe
most of the year and hit just .251 with four home runs in 74 games for
Double-A Birmingham. Basically, it was a lost season.
Take-home lesson: Injuries happen. Even to hitters.
34. Daryle Ward, 1B/LF, Houston (BBA NR, Sickels #47)
What we said last year: "Our tough luck listing. Ward’s been
ready to hit major league pitching for over a year, but the world is filled
with first baseman who can hit, and Ward’s in the same organization as Jeff
Bagwell. Trying to broaden their options, the Astros moved Ward to left at
New Orleans in 1998. He didn’t embarrass himself, but if the way to a spot
on the Astros’ major league roster is blocked for Lance Berkman, you can
bet it’s even more blocked for Ward."
What he did in 1999: We finally got one right. He’s not playing
first base for the Astros anytime this millennium, but the tornado that
carried off half the Astros’ outfield gave him a much-deserved opportunity.
He was having arguably the best season in the minor leagues (.772 slugging
average and 28 home runs in 61 games) when he was called up in the second
half. After slugging .473 for the Astros and hitting well in the playoffs,
Ward figures to have the upper hand for a starting job for 2000.
Take-home lesson: It’s the offense, stupid. And good organizations
find ways to give opportunities to good prospects rather than let them
linger in the minors with nothing to prove until they stagnate.
33. Gabe Kapler, OF, Detroit (BBA #34, Sickels #12)
What we said last year: "Baseball Weekly‘s Minor League
Player of the Year is the latest really low draft pick to emerge as a top
prospect. The Tigers have to make room for him, and in that way he
resembles Jeff Conine, who had to wait until he was 27 to catch a break. If
the Tigers wake up and dump Brian Hunter, Kapler’s a decent longshot for
What he did in 1999: The Tigers got rid of Hunter, and while Kapler
was not a viable RoY candidate, he hit 18 home runs and surprised
everyone–something he’s been doing for years–by playing center field and
playing it well. Now a Ranger and probably a right fielder, he’s going to
make Texas fans miss Juan Gonzalez a lot less than they might think.
Take-home lesson: It seems strange that Baseball America
would so closely parallel our ranking for Kapler while Sickels, who
approaches prospects with one foot in our camp and one foot in theirs,
would see him so differently. Sickels was undoubtedly impressed with
Kapler’s work ethic and desire to succeed. Not the phony rah-rah
run-through-a-wall-to-make-a-play way that ends many careers prematurely
due to injury, but the intense struggle within himself, not just to get in
shape to play, but to learn, through practice, how to play the game right.
The skills that "can’t be measured by numbers" are overrated, but
as Kapler shows, you’d be a dunce to pretend they don’t exist at all.