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Each year around this time, we take a look at the young players with no major league experience who have the highest PECOTA on a position-by-position basis. Some of these players are ready enough to pop, while others are still a few years away. Others still are non-prospects who just happen to be the most big-league friendly at their position, but who may never even see the majors owing to age and other factors. We’re also going to look at how the players discussed in 2006 and 2007 fared. To be eligible for inclusion here, a player must have no major league experience, although I reserve the right to waive that restriction if a particular position runs thin. Even with that, it can be no more than a handful of plate appearances or batters faced.

Starting Pitcher: Hiroki Kuroda, Dodgers, 23.3 Projected VORP. As it was last year, the starting pitcher with the best PECOTA is a Japanese import, albeit a less-heralded one than Daisuke Matsuzaka was. Adding Kuroda gives the Dodgers something that no other team in the National League has: four starting pitchers with a PECOTA-projected VORP over 20.0. True, they’re all scores in the low 20s, but it beats the alternative. Chad Billingsley is highest at 23.7, followed by Kuroda; Derek Lowe is next at 21.0, followed closely by Brad Penny at 20.9. A healthier Jason Schmidt would certainly project that high as well. Only one other team has four equally promising starters in their stable, that being Boston with Josh Beckett (44.6), Daisuke Matsuzaka (34.9), Clay Buchholz (22.8), and Curt Schilling (20.2), although Buchholz is behind John Lester and Tim Wakefield on the depth chart.

2007: Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox. PECOTA pretty much nailed his VORP last year, and is looking for a similar season from him in 2008.
2006: Philip Hughes, Yankees. Being only 20 and a Yankee, Hughes didn’t make the bigs in ’06, but the team is changing its ways when it comes to young pitchers, and he got his shot last year and pitched well enough to make it into this year’s rotation.

Relief Pitcher: Randy Wells, Blue Jays (10.8). There are some pretty slim pickings here. All of the relievers with projections higher than Wells have been to the mountain top already. Wells starts spring training in the Jays’ bullpen picture after spending last year with Iowa, where he started nine games and relieved 31 times. He came to Toronto via the Rule 5 draft, and throws a lot softer than one would prejudge from his size.

2007: none listed.
2006: Kevin Whelan, Tigers. Whelan was traded to the Yankees as part of the package for Gary Sheffield, the day before his wedding no less, and he continues to post very interesting in his climb through the minors. He’s walking more men than he did at the lower levels-probably a few too many-but they’re still not hitting him that often. New York gave him seven starts at Tampa last year, but his future still seems to be as a closer.

Catcher: Bryan Anderson, Cardinals (2.5). The Astros‘ J.R. Towles would have been the obvious choice here, but he came up for 14 games at the end of 2007. Jeff Clement of the Mariners predicts a little higher, too, but he played nine games in the bigs last year. So, if we are to stick to players with no major league playing time, we’re left with Anderson, who is one of 10 catchers in camp with the Cardinals this spring, if you count Josh Phelps as a catcher. Having just turned 21, Anderson is at least the youngest of the group. Anderson’s VORP projection is nearly equal that of starter, Yadier Molina (3.5).

2007: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Braves. Freed by the trade to Texas last year, Salty is now getting the playing time he so richly deserves, and has the tenth-highest projection among catchers for 2008.

2006: Kenji Johjima, Mariners. PECOTA saw him as capable of delivering a 24.3 VORP heading into his first year in the North American majors, and he posted a 24.0. He was at 22.2 last year, and is projected at 10.1 for 2008. That’s the problem with being a 30-year old rookie-there’s really nowhere to go but down.

First Base: Gaby Sanchez, Marlins (12.7). This is another position where the pickings are few and far between, leaving us with Sanchez, a 24-year old who has not played above High-A as of yet. He is in camp as a non-roster invitee, though, so at least he’s on the team’s radar. At this age, 2008 better be a bust-out year at whatever level or levels he’s assigned.

2007: Joey Votto, Reds. More on him in the center field comment
2006: Ryan Garko, Indians. At the time of the ’06 article, the Indians were banking on a platoon of Eduardo Perez and Ben Broussard at first, appearing to leave Garko out in the cold. Since then, Garko has amassed 7.1 in WARP3, compared to 5.6 for the other two combined.

Second Base: Matt Antonelli, Padres (23.8). Kevin Goldstein wrote extensively about Antonelli in his roundup of Padres prospects yesterday. Antonelli is in camp with the team, but is not on the depth chart at second where placeholder Tadahito Iguchi will start the season. Even with his defensive shortcomings, Antonelli projects a higher WARP than Iguchi.

2007: Eric Patterson, Cubs. He got a cup of coffee last year, but does not appear to be in Chicago’s plans for ’08. His projection isn’t as bright after a full year at Triple-A, but he’s still projecting in the same range as Mark DeRosa and Mike Fontenot, the two men slated to get the most playing time at keystone. Patterson turns 25 soon, so time is of the essence.
2006: Howie Kendrick, Angels. More interesting to me than Kendrick was his runner-up in ’06, Dustin Pedroia. The 2007 AL Rookie of the Year had the second-highest projection of any player with no major league experience in 2006, and was highest overall in 2005. His story has turned out better than Kendrick’s so far.

Third Base: Evan Longoria, Rays (25.4). If Longoria hits his projection, he will have posted one of the top 20 seasons in team history. To be fair, by the end of 2008, there will have only been about 100 Rays player seasons to choose from. Still, he could turn out to be the best player in team history, although B.J. Upton will have something to say about that.

2007: Alex Gordon, Royals. Gordon missed his projection by 10 miles, but I still think it was worth the gamble putting him in the lineup. His PECOTA expectation is much lower this year, accordingly.
2006: Rob Crosby, Blue Jays. He was a default pick due to a paucity of alternative candidates.

Shortstop: Brent Lillibridge, Braves (18.4). Free Brent Lillibridge! For the second season in a row, the former Pirate finds himself atop the shortstop list. Where does this get him? Wearing the number 68 in camp as a non-roster invitee. He’s got a higher projected WARP than the team’s starter, Yunel Escobar. In fact, he’s higher than about a third of the starting shortstops in the bigs. Such is fate.

2007: Brent Lillibridge, Braves.
2006: Brandon Wood/Erick Aybar, Angels. Aybar is the front runner for the shortstop job this year, but after a rough showing in winter ball, he’s being pushed by Wood and Maicer Itzturis.

Left Field: Chad Huffman, Padres (10.3). Huffman is not in the Pads’ camp, but is coming off a nice year at both High-A and Double-A, hitting 22 homers and driving in over 100 runs. He’s not on Kevin Goldstein‘s top prospects list for San Diego, but in terms of right now, PECOTA likes him a lot better than most other Padres outfield options-when your top projected outfielder is Scott Hairston, you know there isn’t a lot going on there. At 3.5, Huffman has the highest projected WARP of any Padres outfielder on the BP list. His 10.3 VORP is behind Hairston and Brian Giles, and just ahead of Jim Edmonds and NRI Chip Ambres.

2007: Jonathan Jay, Cardinals. Jay’s high projection last year was as a result of a great showing in Low-A. His progress was slowed by injuries last year.
2006: Alex Romero, Twins. You know, maybe for some guys, the high-water mark of their careers is having a decent projection one spring and appearing on this list. Romero figures to spend another season as an outfielder for Tucson, the D’backs’ Triple A affiliate, but he could get a cup of coffee one of these days.

Center Field: Jay Bruce, Reds (29.9). Bruce has the highest projected VORP of any player with no major league experience. He has the fourth-highest projected VORP of any center fielder, and third if you count Hunter Pence in right field, where he is currently residing on the Astros ‘depth chart. The only other players projected as more productive than Bruce in center are Carlos Beltran and Grady Sizemore. The Reds are in an interesting situation: they’ve hired a manager who is known for going with experienced players at the exact moment when they have one of the better prospects in the game is coming of age in their system. Is Bruce ready already at 21? I’ve long subscribed to the theory that the truly great players belong in the majors early, and I think that Bruce is the best choice this organization has for its center field job on Opening Day. The Reds could be breaking camp with the wrong person at three positions, because along with Bruce it’s time for Joey Votto to be handed the first base job, and Jeff Keppinger that at shortstop. Instead, current depth charts list Ryan Freel, Scott Hatteberg, and Alex Gonzalez at those positions. That’s about a four-game difference in the standings between those trios. The Reds just might be good enough this year that four games could make the difference.

2007: Felix Pie, Cubs. Not a memorable showing, but Pie is slated for the job this year, albeit with a slightly less ambitious projection (25.3 to 21.4).
2006: Chris B. Young, Diamondbacks. By coincidence, he follows Bruce on the 2008 projection chart among center fielders.

Right Field: Kosuke Fukodome, Cubs (29.2): It’s a good thing the Cubs brought him over from Japan, at least for the purposes of this list. If not for his presence on these shores, the choice would have to be Brian Barton of the Cardinals, a 26-year-old with a 4.8 projected VORP. If PECOTA is as accurate with Fukudome as it has been with Matsuzaka and Johjima, then the Cubs should have a solid outfield this year.

2007: Hunter Pence, Astros. Sometimes, things work out exactly as we think they should. This is what last year’s piece said: “Pence is getting to the point where he’s just about ready for the show. His projection is nearly as high as Luke Scott‘s. Better yet, he’s three years younger. If Jason Lane doesn’t revert to 2005 form and Scott does, Pence could find himself with a job sooner rather than later.”
2006: Delmon Young, Devil Rays. Young was just 20 when he found himself on this list, and he played well in limited duty that year before finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting last year.

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