Part 4 of our ongoing review of the Top 40 Prospects from Baseball
16. Chad Hermansen, OF, Pittsburgh (BBA: #37, Sickels: #46)
What we said last year: "A year ago he was one of the top five
prospects in the game, and he recovered from a terrible start to hit 28
homers, and he was the youngest player in Triple-A. So why has he slipped
so much? Because he doesn’t have a position, and the Pirates aren’t
helping…it’s still an open question whether he can handle center field or
will remain in left…he needs to be put at a position he can handle and
left there, but long-term we still like him a lot."
What he did in 1999: Most importantly, he finally settled into a
position, though the issue now is whether the Pirates will keep him in
center field and Brian Giles in right, or the other way around.
Offensively, he didn’t progress all that much from 1998; his average jumped
12 points and his slugging average was up 10 points, but his walks dropped
from 50 to 35, after slipping from 69 in 1997. In the Pirates’
organization, that’s not a fluke, but a trend. Nevertheless, his offense
wasn’t the part of his game that was holding him back, and it will be a
surprise if he’s not in the Pirates’ Opening Day lineup.
Take-home lesson: Defensive struggles can and will impact a
prospect’s development. Still, we liked Hermansen a lot last year and we do
this year as well, because you can’t overestimate the impact of age.
Hermansen entered pro ball at 17, so despite hitting 20 or more home runs
each of the last four years, despite playing 68 games in short-season ball,
62 games in low-A ball, 66 games in high-A, 129 games in Double-A, 251
games in Triple-A and 19 games in the major leagues, Hermansen is still
just 22 years old. Which means he still has plenty of time to develop into
15. Ben Davis, C, San Diego (BBA: #24, Sickels: B)
What we said last year: "…Davis is turning into a gem. In
1997 he developed power, and in 1998 he did something even more
significant: he learned the strike zone, improving his K/BB ratio from
107/28 to 60/42. He did that while making the jump to Double-A. He’s 21 and
his defense is spoken of with almost as much reverence as Charles
Johnson’s, and he threw out over half of attempted basestealers last year.
He needs another year in the minors to consolidate his gains, but by 2000
you can add the Padres to the list of teams you just don’t want to run
What he did in 1999: The injury that wiped out Carlos Hernandez’s
season gave Davis a chance to accelerate his timetable. Davis got off to an
awful start in Triple-A, hitting under .100 the first two weeks of the
season, then got his act together and was hitting .308/.384/.512 when he
was called up to San Diego in June. He got off to a hot start with the bat,
but cooled off in August and finished at .244/.307/.361. His plate
discipline, which was a big question mark starting the season, was fairly
strong: he walked 49 times in 467 at-bats overall, although his strikeouts
jumped from 60 to 111. Despite his reputation for a cannon arm, he
struggled a bit with major league base-stealers, nailing only 27% of them.
Take-home lesson: Davis is one of the rare players whose outlier
ranking came from John Sickels. There are actually very sound reasons why
all three publications ranked him where they did. Baseball America
loved his defensive tools and power potential. We liked him for his
developing bat and plate discipline to go along with his sound defense.
Sickels felt that, despite his potential, his offense simply hadn’t
developed to the level of a top-tier prospect.
Davis has been compared by some to Jim Sundberg, which is a fair
comparison. Like Sundberg, Davis’s defense is strong enough to keep him in
the lineup, but it’s his offensive contribution that will determine whether
he’s valuable or merely adequate.
14. Brad Penny, RHP, Arizona (BBA: #5, Sickels: #5)
What we said last year: "Penny was the first pitcher to be
named California League MVP in nearly 40 years, and with good reason. It’s
not just his numbers, although he did strike out 207 while walking just 35,
a K/BB ratio Greg Maddux would be proud of. It’s that he did it in a
batting cage known as Mavericks Stadium. High Desert is just that: the air
is thin and hot, and as a result you won’t find a better park for hitters
outside of Denver. On the road, Penny put up a 1.38 ERA and gave up just
one home run all year."
What he did in 1999: Penny started the season at Double-A El Paso, a
notorious hitters park, and his numbers were superficially poor: a 4.80 ERA
and 109 hits in 90 innings. The only two numbers worth looking at, however,
were outstanding: 100 strikeouts, 25 walks. Acquired by the Marlins as part
of the Jerry Colangelo Charity Program, he went to the more-friendly
altitude of Portland and struck out 35, walked 14 and allowed just 28 hits
in 32 innings. Same great prospect, but with one-third less hype!
Take-home lesson: Both Baseball America and Sickels ranked
him as the fifth-best prospect in the land, which is an extremely
aggressive tack to take with an A-ball pitcher, no matter how good he is.
(In this case, they were probably too aggressive, but as you’ll see below,
sometimes it’s best to throw caution to the wind.) Penny serves as an
illustration of what can happen to even the best of pitchers from the low
minors. Even while staying healthy–he had some nagging tendinitis at
mid-season which eventually resolved–Penny struggled through an adjustment
period. It was completely natural, but was worrisome enough that the
Diamondbacks pushed the panic button.
13. Russ Branyan, 3B, Cleveland (BBA: #29, Sickels: #24)
What we said last year: "Just seven years after the Indians
pumped out an outstanding left-handed power-hitting third baseman who draws
a ton of walks, they’re doing it again. Branyan may have even more power
than Jim Thome. It’s not a reach to project him as a 45-home run hitter–he
holds the Sally record with 40 homers for Columbus in 1996. He missed most
of last year with a wrist injury, but still hit 16 homers in just 43 games.
Like Thome, there were early concerns that he’d never play third at the
major league level, and like Thome, he’s improved in the field as he got
What he did in 1999: Whiff. A lot. 187 times in 109 Triple-A games,
to be exact, and he created 19 summer breezes in 38 at-bats for the
Indians. Branyan became just the sixth non-pitcher in history who 1) batted
at least 30 times and 2) struck out in at least half those at-bats. All
told, he struck out 205 times and had just 90 hits; no starting pitcher in
major-league history has had such an impressive ratio of strikeouts to
hits. Despite a .208 batting average, he managed a respectable 773 OPS on
the strength of 30 homers and 52 walks.
Take-home lesson: Strikeouts are not more damaging than regular
outs in the course of a game, but as a tool in evaluating development they
can’t be ignored. Branyan has had more strikeouts than games played in
every season and at every level, and he can’t make it in the big leagues
doing that. Keep in mind that Glenallen Hill struck out even more often
than Branyan in the minor leagues, and learned how to make enough contact
to become a solid major-league hitter.
12. Ruben Mateo, CF, Texas (BBA: #9, Sickels: #8)
What we said last year: "Another tools hitter who can actually
hit, Mateo made a seamless jump to Double-A despite missing over a month
with a dislocated shoulder, and actually hit better on his return to
action. He’s faster than Beltran but doesn’t draw enough walks, though to
his credit he doesn’t strike out much either. He’s not guaranteed a major
league job this year, but if I were Tom Goodwin, I’d keep a suitcase
What he did in 1999: He wreaked havoc on the Pacific Coast League,
hitting .336/.385/.597 for Oklahoma City with 18 homers in just 253
at-bats. His plate discipline remained an issue, though, as he drew just 14
walks, and just eight unintentionally. When Tom Goodwin went down with an
injury in Texas, Mateo took his spot and hit .238/.268/.451 in 32 games
before his other bugaboo, brittleness, reared its head, and he missed the
rest of the season. Goodwin is now a Rockie and Mateo is scheduled to be
the Rangers’ Opening Day center fielder, but his poor performance in winter
ball has the organization a little skittish.
Take-home lesson: Both Baseball America and Sickels ranked
Mateo ahead of Carlos Beltran, while we had Beltran slightly ahead. In this
case, we felt that Mateo’s youth (10 months younger than Beltran) was
trumped by Beltran’s better plate discipline and health record; Beltran
drew 48 walks in 1998, compared to Mateo’s 30. It’s still far from clear
which one will have the better career, but at this point, Beltran’s
willingness to learn the strike zone and durability give him the edge over
Mateo’s more developed power.
11. Rick Ankiel, LHP, St. Louis (BBA: #2, Sickels: #3)
What we said last year: "Ankiel was considered the best high
school lefty in years, but his contract demands scared everyone away–so
the Cards took him in the second round, gave him $2.5 million, and now he
looks like a bargain…Ankiel throws in the low to mid 90s, but his best
pitch is his curveball, which he used to lead the minors in strikeouts with
222. He only just turned 19, making him the youngest player on this list.
If the Cardinals baby him for the next few years, he could be something
What he did in 1999: If you have to read this to find out, you’re at
the wrong web site; you must be looking for www.curling.com. Ankiel went
13-3 between Double-A and Triple-A, striking out 194 men in 138 innings,
with just 98 hits and 62 walks allowed. Brought up to St. Louis for the
last six weeks of the season, he made five starts before wisely being sent
to the bullpen to finish out the year, and posted a 3.27 ERA in 33 innings.
He goes into the new season as the Cardinals’ #5 starter, and Walt Jocketty
has shrewdly provided Tony LaRussa with several veterans for him to take
out his frustrations on in the hopes that Tony will go easy on the new kid.
Take-home lesson: Remember how we talked about the risks of
projecting an A-ball pitcher as one of the game’s top prospects? Maybe we
should amend that rule to make an exception for pitchers drafted out of
high school who put up 222-to-50 strikeout-to-walk ratios in their first
pro season. Especially left-handed pitchers. Ankiel is the real deal; the
only thing standing between him and greatness is an injury. Of course,
that’s what they said about Kerry Wood…and Dwight Gooden…and Don
Gullett…and Gary Nolan…
10. Matt Clement, RHP, San Diego (BBA: #10, Sickels: #13)
What we said last year: "Clement is one of the few top
prospects from a year ago who spent most of 1998 in the minor leagues, made
some adjustments in Triple-A while trying to develop his control. He may
come out of the adjustment period better than ever. He’s got nasty stuff,
with arguably the best slider in the minor leagues, and a great sinking
fastball; he also hit 30–that’s right, three-zero–batters last season.
Ouch. All that intimidation makes him tough to hit, as he led Triple-A with
160 K’s, and opposing batters hit just .245 against him, an impressive mark
in Las Vegas. He’s thrown a ton of pitches the last two years–despite a
strong build, he has to be considered an injury risk, but if healthy, he
should be one of the best rookie pitchers in baseball this year."
What he did in 1999: Of all the top rookies of 1999, Clement may
have made the least noise. He started the season in the Padres’ rotation,
and despite a 6.89 ERA in April, he stayed there all year, getting stronger
as the season went on, and finished by going 4-0 with a 2.23 ERA in
September. For the season, he went 10-12 with a 4.48 ERA, with 181 innings,
190 hits, 86 walks and 135 strikeouts. You may be pleased to know that he
only hit nine batters all year.
Take-home lesson: Clement turned 25 during his rookie season, and
while a 25-year-old rookie hitter would normally be consigned to a
less-than-promising future, age is far less of a concern for rookie
pitchers. Not counting Negro Leaguers, the latest debut by a Hall-of-Fame
hitter since World War II was by Ralph Kiner, who was 23 years, six months
when he reached the majors in 1946. Hall of Fame pitchers since then who
were older than Kiner when they debuted include Gaylord Perry, Jim Bunning,
Phil Niekro and Hoyt Wilhelm (who was 29). Bruce Bochy, one of the most
underrated managers in the game today, did well to remain patient with
Clement. After adjusting for offensive levels, there’s not much difference
between Clement’s rookie season and that of a 24-year-old rookie named
Kevin Brown back in 1989.
9. Carlos Beltran, CF, Kansas City (BBA: #14, Sickels: #11)
What we said last year: "There hasn’t been a great prospect to
come out of Puerto Rico since it was made subject to the draft in 1990, but
Beltran should change all that. A second-round pick in 1995 on the basis of
his tools, he put it all together in 1998 and got better as the season went
along. He played well in September and the Royals love their tools
prospects even if they can’t hit, so he should get every opportunity to
succeed this year. He’s not a threat for Rookie of the Year, but he’s very
young and should have an outstanding career."
What he did in 1999: Win the AL Rookie of the Year award. Although
Beltran was only a slightly above-average hitter for the season, he was in
the lineup for all but five games during the year, giving him impressive
counting stats: 194 hits, 22 home runs, seven triples, 112 runs, 108 RBIs,
27 steals and 16 baserunner kills. He only drew 46 walks, but nearly a
third of them came in September, lending credence to the belief that
Beltran is still learning the game, and still hasn’t put a firm limit on
what his ceiling might be.
Take-home lesson: Even more than Beltran’s better plate discipline,
what led us to believe he was a better prospect than Mateo was his
astonishingly consistent track record of improvement. In Beltran’s first
pro year, he slugged .328 and didn’t hit a homer in 180 at-bats. In every
season after, he either showed marked improvement or consolidated his
performance while jumping at least one level per season. Beltran was
drafted on the basis of his tools, but it was his ability to develop those
tools and translate them into on-field performance that had us excited
about his future.
While we tend to denigrate players with great individual attributes like
speed or power but no real baseball ability, the fact remains that
virtually all great players–Griffey and Bonds and even Jeter and Andruw
Jones–have both tools and the knowledge of how to use them. Beltran has
the tools, and if he doesn’t know how to use them quite yet, he has
certainly shown the capacity to learn.