Top 50 Prospects of 2005: 1-10

Also In This Series:
- Top 50 Prospects of 2005: 11-20
- Top 50 Prospects of 2005: 21-30
- Top 50 Prospects of 2005: 31-40
- Top 50 Prospects of 2005: 41-50

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Prospect (pra spekt) – noun
Something expected; a possibility.

“Wait ’til next year” is the mantra of some franchises, a wish for better times that never seem to actually arrive. For other teams it represents the hope of finding a missing piece, that player who can push a team over the top. The 50 players on this list are the “wait ’til next year” for their teams. They are that middle-of-the-order hitter a team has been lacking, that dominant starting pitcher they have never had, that slick-fielding shortstop who will rejuvenate the entire organization. But for every player who was a sure thing, there is another guy who was a sure thing. For each prospect who can’t miss, there is another who did. Both last year (Greg Miller) and this year (Adam Miller), an elite pitching prospect went down with a major injury right before I released my rankings — reminders from the baseball gods that things are far from guaranteed.

Before I get to the prospects, a few words about my rankings. To be eligible for this list, a player must meet the playing-time qualifications for the Rookie of the Year award, but not the service-time qualifications. That means a prospect has to have a total of fewer than 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the majors. In other words, no David Wright or B.J. Upton, but Joe Mauer remains eligible. In addition to that, I don’t rank anyone who has yet to spend a day in the minor leagues (or Arizona Fall League) or never will, such as Jered Weaver or Tadahito Iguchi. There is definitely no set formula for how I rank players, but there are five key things I tend to look at for each player:

Age and level of competition: Quite simply, a 21-year-old hitting .330 at Double-A is just more impressive than a 24-year-old doing the same. That’s not to say every young player is a good prospect or every older player is a non-prospect, but it is a significant consideration for all players.

Plate discipline and/or control of the strike zone: I tend to think of plate discipline as the ability to work counts and draw walks, whereas I view strike zone control as the ability to balance walks and strikeouts. A hitter with 75 walks and 165 strikeouts has a lot of plate discipline, but not a ton of strike zone control; a hitter with 30 walks and 40 strikeouts is lacking in plate discipline, but does a fine job controlling the strike zone. Neither skill is a must, but together they are important.

Defense and future position: Judging defense in the majors is difficult enough, doing the same for minor leaguers is almost impossible. In the minors, shortstops routinely make 40 errors in a season, players are learning new positions on the job, and it isn’t as if there’s a place to find Defensive Win Shares for second basemen in the Carolina League. Many prospects also find themselves shifting down the defensive spectrum as they advance through the minors and a player’s overall status as a prospect must at least attempt to take into account their eventual position(s). In other words, a minor-league shortstop who is a great hitter is a wonderful thing, but less so if the player is unlikely to stick at shortstop.

Statistical performance and the factors involved: At some point, a “prospect” has to perform like a prospect, because being a first-round pick or looking good in a uniform isn’t going to help him hit or pitch in the major leagues. In addition to that, there are many things in a player’s performance beyond the obvious, which is to say that not all .300 batting averages and 3.00 ERAs are equal. Just like in the majors, there are many different types of “park factors” throughout the minors. There are parks that favor pitching and parks that favor hitting, and there are entire leagues that do the same.

Strikeouts and walks for pitchers: For pitchers, the first thing I look at is the strikeout rate. In general, the higher a pitcher’s strikeout rate is, the better chance for long-term success he has. There are plenty of exceptions, but it is a good general rule. In addition to strikeouts, a pitcher’s control is also key. Striking out 10 batters a game doesn’t do much good if you’re walking just as many. At the same time, a pitcher can be very successful with an unexceptional strikeout rate if he doesn’t walk anyone. There is a balance between the two that needs to exist at some point, although it is very tough to pin down in minor-league pitchers.

Finally, these rankings are by no means authoritative and I am no more an expert on prospects than anyone else who follows the minor leagues closely. My rankings reflect my feeling about a player’s long-term chances for success in the major leagues and the degree of that success. There are players on this list who will play in the majors next season and there are players who won’t sniff the big leagues for several years. I look at every player and ask the same question: How good do I think this guy has a chance to be and how likely do I feel he is to reach that level?

10) Dallas McPherson, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Position: Third Base | Bats: Left | DOB: 7/23/1980 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2002       A     499     .277     .381     .427     15      42     78     128
2003       A     292     .308     .404     .606     18      45     41      79
          AA     102     .314     .426     .569      5      15     19      25
2004      AA     262     .321     .404     .660     20      43     34      74
         AAA     259     .313     .370     .680     20      47     23      95
          ML      40     .225     .279     .475      3       4      3      17

Because of his strikeout totals, Dallas McPherson is one of the more controversial prospects around. There are many who feel that a player who strikes out as often as McPherson did in the minors last season (31.6% of his at-bats) will have too much trouble making contact in the majors, but I don’t think it necessarily means he can’t become a dominant hitter. While striking out 31.6% of the time is pretty rare and definitely a concern, plenty of players have turned into outstanding hitters after striking out in a quarter of their at-bats in the minors. Below is a look at some of the more strikeout-prone major-league hitters and how often they whiffed between Double-A and Triple-A:

                          SO      AB      SO%      AVG     IsoP
Russell Branyan          522    1314     39.7     .250     .297
DALLAS MCPHERSON         194     623     31.1     .316     .337
Preston Wilson           219     715     30.6     .284     .270
Dean Palmer              329    1074     30.6     .253     .252
Craig Wilson             271     951     28.5     .285     .260
Pat Burrell              154     608     25.3     .311     .266
Brad Wilkerson           266    1096     24.3     .266     .181
Geoff Jenkins            177     738     24.0     .274     .179
Troy Glaus                96     407     23.6     .307     .334
Adam Dunn                 82     350     23.4     .334     .337
Jim Thome                227    1010     22.5     .326     .188
Richie Sexson            273    1296     21.1     .276     .223

Note: This year’s #28 prospect, Ryan Howard, has struck out in 34.2% of his AA/AAA at-bats, with a .346 Isolated Power and .291 batting average.

The worst-case scenario is probably another Russell Branyan and even that wouldn’t so horrible — Branyan is a career .228/.319/.479 (104 OPS+) major-league hitter. More importantly, McPherson’s minor-league numbers really aren’t that close to Branyan’s. Branyan struck out 28% more often than McPherson did, whiffing in an astounding 39.7% of his Double-A and Triple-A at-bats. Plus, Branyan had a career batting average of just .250 in the high minors, while McPherson has hit .316 there. Without being able to adjust for environments, McPherson has even shown more power than Branyan, posting a .337 Isolated Power, compared to Branyan’s .297.

While the Branyan comparison doesn’t really work, it is tough to find a better one. Craig Wilson, Dean Palmer, and Preston Wilson each struck out about 30% of the time in the high minors, but none hit for as high a batting average (Palmer was in Branyan territory at .253) or as much power. In fact, the man McPherson is replacing as the Angels’ third baseman, Troy Glaus, is one of only two players on the list who can compare to McPherson in both batting average and power, but he struck out in “only” 23.6% of his at-bats. The other guy is Adam Dunn, who matches McPherson in batting average and power, but not in strikeouts (23.4%).

This is far from a scientific study, but it does make me confident in two things: One is that there is no reason to expect McPherson to be a complete flop based solely on his strikeouts. The other is that McPherson’s ceiling offensively is at least as high as Craig Wilson’s, and Wilson’s career .269/.360/.497 (121 OPS+) hitting line would be excellent for a third baseman. And there is plenty of evidence that McPherson is a good bet to be a better hitter than Wilson, not the least of which is something I haven’t even mentioned with all this strikeout talk: McPherson hit .310 with 43 homers and 94 total extra-base hits in 151 games last season, including .292/.364/.594 away from his hitter-friendly home ballparks. If he can get through his spring back problem, McPherson is a favorite for American League Rookie of the Year.

9) Joel Guzman, Los Angeles Dodgers
Position: Shortstop | Bats: Right | DOB: 11/24/1984 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2002       R     151     .252     .331     .391      3      13     18      54
2003       A     217     .235     .263     .406      8      21      9      62
           A     240     .246     .279     .371      5      19     11      60
2004       A     329     .307     .349     .550     14      44     21      78
          AA     182     .280     .325     .522      9      23     13      44

Joel Guzman is an elite prospect, but I’m not quite as high on him as many people seem to be. His chances of sticking at shortstop are slim because of his size and the likelihood that he’ll get even bigger as he matures, not to mention Cesar Izturis‘ presence in Los Angeles. When evaluating Guzman, I think of him as a third baseman, which drops his value slightly. In addition to that, Guzman’s prospect status is largely based on his physical tools and his 2004 season. He was looking like just another tools machine who couldn’t get his on-base percentage above .300 this time last year, and while his 2004 campaign was enough to convince me that he can put those tools to good use, it is still just one season. Plus, his 122-to-34 strikeout-to-walk ratio suggests that he still has a major flaw in his game.

On the other hand, it’s tough to find a 19-year-old who is a complete player, and Guzman’s combination of youth, size, athleticism, and power is even harder to find. He smacked 23 homers and 67 total extra-base hits with a .540 slugging percentage in 133 games between Single-A and Double-A last season, good for an impressive .243 Isolated Power in environments that aren’t power friendly. As he develops physically, some of those doubles and triples should turn into homers, making him a devastating power threat. My concerns with Guzman are his lack of plate discipline, his inability to control the strike zone, and the fact that he only has one good year on his resume, but none of those things are uncommon for players his age. I’d be surprised if he isn’t starting at third base for the Dodgers as a 21-year-old in 2006.

8) Prince Fielder, Milwaukee Brewers
Position: First Base | Bats: Left | DOB: 5/9/1984 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2002       R     146     .390     .531     .678     10      22     37      27
           A     112     .241     .320     .384      3      10     10      27
2003       A     502     .313     .409     .526     27      51     71      80
2004      AA     497     .272     .366     .473     23      53     65      93

Since it’s far too tempting to compare Prince Fielder to his father Cecil Fielder for me to possibly avoid it, let’s give in to temptation, shall we? First, let’s take a look at how their respective numbers from Single-A compare:

SINGLE-A       AGE        G      AVG      OBP      SLG     IsoD     IsoP     SO/BB
Prince       18/19      169     .300     .394     .500     .094     .200      1.32
Cecil        19/20      201     .303     .380     .512     .077     .209      1.56

I am amazed at just how similar their numbers are. There are obviously some issues with park factors (which in Cecil’s case are unknown) and Prince is a year or so younger than his dad was at the same stage, but .300/.394/.500 is really damn close to .303/.380/.512. Even their Isolated Discipline (.094 and .077) and Isolated Power (.200 and .209) figures are nearly the same.

Now here’s how their Double-A stats stack up:

DOUBLE-A       AGE        G      AVG      OBP      SLG     IsoD     IsoP     SO/BB
Prince          20      136     .272     .366     .473     .094     .201      1.43
Cecil        20/21      160     .278     .355     .491     .077     .213      1.96

Once again, two very similar sets of numbers. Prince is younger and he has shown more plate discipline and strike zone control, while Cecil shows a bit more power. But they each hit in the .270s, each had OBPs in the mid-.300s, and each slugged in the high-.400s.

So what does this all mean? Well, for one thing, Cecil was a damn good hitter (.255/.345/.482 for a 119 OPS+), which bodes well for Prince’s future offensively. But is Prince a better prospect than Cecil was? I think there is reason to believe that he is. For one, Prince has put up those similar numbers while being consistently younger than his dad at every stop along the way, which is significant. In addition to that, Prince has shown better plate discipline and better strike zone control, which are both good indicators for the future. Prince is also a relatively decent athlete who isn’t horrible at first base defensively and somehow managed to steal 11 bases last year, while Cecil … well, Cecil could hit the ball really far.

7) Casey Kotchman, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Position: First Base | Bats: Left | DOB: 2/22/1983 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2002       A     288     .281     .390     .444      5      36     48      37
2003       A     206     .350     .441     .524      8      20     30      16
2004      AA     114     .368     .438     .544      3      14     10       7
         AAA     199     .372     .423     .558      5      27     14      25
          ML     116     .224     .289     .276      0       6      7      11

Casey Kotchman had his healthiest season as a pro last year and still missed about a month of action with wrist and shoulder injuries, which tells you all you need to know about his injury history. As usual, Kotchman was fantastic when he was on the field. He hit a gaudy .371 with a .553 slugging percentage in 77 games between Double-A and Triple-A, but did struggle quite a bit in 38 games with the Angels when he stepped in for an injured Darin Erstad. For his career, Kotchman is a .342 hitter in 233 minor-league games, carrying an outstanding 90-to-109 strikeout-to-walk ratio along with the lofty batting average.

In addition to the health issues, the other big question with Kotchman is whether or not he will develop into a legit power hitter. Kotchman has just 24 home runs in 871 career at-bats in the minors, along with an unspectacular .177 Isolated Power, and went homerless in his 116 at-bats with the Angels. Right now he looks like a first baseman in the Mark Grace/Keith Hernandez/John Olerud-mold — a left-handed hitter capable of big batting averages, good plate discipline, and great defense, but with “doubles power.” Of course, being the next Grace, Hernandez or Olerud isn’t exactly the worst thing to be for a 22-year-old prospect.

6) Scott Kazmir, Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Position: Starter | Throws: Left | DOB: 1/24/1984 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      G     GS        IP      ERA       H     HR      SO     BB
2002       A      5      5      18.0     0.50       5      0      34      7
2003       A     18     18      76.1     2.36      50      6     105     28
           A      7      7      33.0     3.27      29      0      40     16
2004       A     11     11      50.0     3.42      49      3      51     22
          AA      8      8      51.0     1.58      30      0      53     20
          ML      8      7      33.1     5.67      33      4      41     21

In what has a chance to be one of the worst trades in a long time, the Mets sent southpaw pitching prospect and former first-round pick Scott Kazmir to the Devil Rays for Victor Zambrano in the middle of last season. Part of the “reasoning” from New York’s point of view was that they needed help in the starting rotation immediately and didn’t think Kazmir, at 20 years old and with just a handful of starts above Single-A, would be ready for a while. Well, Kazmir ended up throwing more than twice as many innings as Zambrano did in the second half of last season and he enters 2005 in Tampa Bay’s starting rotation. Amazingly, a deal that looked horrible in July looks even worse in March.

With that said, the Devil Rays rushed Kazmir to the show and his 5.67 ERA was pretty ugly. However, after striking out 283 batters in 228.1 career minor-league innings (11.2/9), Kazmir racked up 41 strikeouts in 33.1 innings with Tampa Bay, showing the potential for dominance that had everyone wondering what the Mets were thinking. Kazmir has electric stuff and struck out 53 batters with a 1.58 ERA while holding opponents to a .185 batting average in 51 innings at Double-A, but he needs to improve his control significantly. Because of that, he may struggle as a starter initially, but I expect him to have a fantastic career.

5) Ian Stewart, Colorado Rockies
Position: Third Base | Bats: Left | DOB: 4/5/1985 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2003       R     224     .317     .401     .558     10      29     29      54
2004       A     505     .319     .398     .594     30      70     66     112

When run-of-the-mill hitters like Vinny Castilla, Dante Bichette, and Preston Wilson can put up monster numbers thanks to playing their home games in Colorado, you’ve got to wonder what sort of absurd damage Ian Stewart will be able to do on Planet Coors. We’ve seen what a legitimately great hitter like Todd Helton can do with the Rockies (.339/.432/.616) and Stewart’s minor-league resume is shaping up to be even more impressive than Helton’s. The 10th overall pick in the 2003 draft, Stewart hit .319/.398/.594 as a 19-year-old at Single-A Asheville last year, while Helton hit just .254/.339/.333 as a 21-year-old at Asheville in 1995.

Of course, Helton went on to hit .332/.425/.486 in a half-season at Double-A as a 22-year-old and .352/.435/.557 at Triple-A during his age-22 and age-23 seasons, which will be a very tough act to follow. On the other hand, Stewart will likely be entrenched as the Rockies’ starting third baseman by the time he’s 22. Stewart has hit .318/.399/.583 in two pro seasons, showing very impressive power (.265 Isolated Power), good plate discipline (95 walks in 188 games), and surprising speed (23 steals at a 70% clip). His defense should be good enough for him to remain at the hot corner, which makes his potential value that much higher. Much to his future teammate Jeff Francis‘ dismay, Stewart has the good fortune of being in just about the best possible situation to succeed.

4) Andy Marte, Atlanta Braves
Position: Third Base | Bats: Right | DOB: 10/21/1983 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2002       A     488     .281     .339     .492     21      57     41     114
2003       A     463     .285     .372     .469     16      52     67     109
2004      AA     387     .269     .364     .525     23      52     58     105

While ranking last year’s top 50 prospects, I wrote the following about a prospect whose name I will leave out for the purposes of this little exercise:

I normally don’t get all that excited about third basemen with career batting averages in the low .270s, but [he] has a variety of skills that go beyond batting average. … For one thing, he’s extremely young … but he already has three pro seasons under his belt. … I’d like to see him hit .290-.300 above rookie-ball before I’m ready to proclaim him a future star, but [he] is certainly an elite prospect.

That was written about David Wright, who went on to do exactly what I said I’d “like to see him” do, hitting .363/.467/.619 at Double-A, .298/.388/.579 at Triple-A, and then .293/.332/.525 in 69 extremely impressive games with the Mets. Needless to say I am now more than “ready to proclaim him a future star.” Interestingly, what I wrote about Wright last year could be taken almost verbatim and applied this year to another third base prospect, Andy Marte. Just like Wright heading into last season, Marte’s career batting average sits in the .270s (.274 to be exact) and he is very young for someone with so much minor-league experience (403 games).

I believed in Wright despite his mediocre batting average because he had other important skills (power, plate discipline, defense) that were impressive for someone his age, especially given the context of where he played and who he played against. The exact same thing is true of Marte, who at 20 years old last season hit .269/.364/.525 with 23 homers, 52 total extra-base hits, and 58 walks while playing in a tough park for offense in the pitcher-friendly Southern (Double-A) League. The year before, in an even tougher park for offense (Myrtle Beach) and an even more pitcher-friendly league (Single-A Carolina), Marte hit .285/.372/.469 with 52 extra-base hits and 67 walks. Like Wright last year, I think Marte could be in for a big season in 2005.

3) Delmon Young, Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Position: Outfield | Bats: Right | DOB: 9/14/1985 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2004       A     513     .322     .388     .538     25      56     53     120

The brother of Dmitri Young and the #1 overall pick in the 2003 draft, Delmon Young lived up to the considerable hype in his first pro season, hitting .322/.388/.538 with 25 homers, 56 total extra-base hits, 53 walks, and 21 stolen bases in 131 games. Young ranked among the top five in the South Atlantic (Single-A) League in batting average, homers, total bases, slugging percentage, and runs, while leading the league in hits and RBIs. He has also hit .338/.390/.469 in 38 games in the Arizona Fall League spread over two years. I’m not usually a big fan of looking at AFL numbers, but for a 19-year-old hitter with so few pro at-bats, every piece is information is worth examining.

If Tampa Bay ever decides to stop screwing around with guys who would rather retire than play for them and goes with a full on youth movement, the Devil Rays have some pretty amazing young players to build around. They could eventually end up with a Rocco Baldelli-Carl Crawford-Young outfield, (last year’s #2 prospect) B.J. Upton at shortstop, and Kazmir at the front of the rotation. Toss in a “veteran” like Aubrey Huff and that’s a pretty nice core to build around in staking a claim to third place in the AL East. Young will begin this season at Double-A and could very well be in the majors before his 20th birthday.

2) Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
Position: Starter | Throws: Right | DOB: 4/8/1986 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      G     GS        IP      ERA       H     HR      SO     BB
2003       A     11      7      55.0     2.29      43      2      73     24
           A      2      2      14.0     1.93       9      1      18      3
2004       A     16     15      92.0     2.74      85      5     114     26
          AA     10     10      57.1     3.30      47      3      58     21

In my comment about Matt Cain, the #21 prospect this year, I said, “Show me a 19-year-old pitcher who can dominate at Double-A and I’ll show you a 19-year-old pitcher with a chance to be an absolute stud.” What then should we make of Felix Hernandez, who dominated at Double-A last season at the tender age of 18? Eighteen. Hernandez, who has been impressive enough this spring to make the Mariners think seriously about taking him north with the team, doesn’t turn 19 years old for another couple weeks. With his combination of filthy stuff, incredible youth, and obscenely good performance, Hernandez is quite simply as good as a pitching prospect gets.

Signed out of Venezuela in 2002, Hernandez began his pro career as a 17-year-old in 2003, going 7-2 with a 2.21 ERA and 91-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 69 innings between two levels of Single-A. He moved up to the hitter-friendly California (high Single-A) League to start last year and went 9-3 with a 2.74 ERA and 114-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 92 innings. Hernandez finished his age-18 season by going 5-1 with a 3.30 ERA and 58-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 57.1 innings at Double-A San Antonio, giving “King Felix” the following career numbers: 2.72 ERA, 218.1 innings, 263 strikeouts, 74 walks, 184 hits allowed.

To get an idea of just how rare it is for a pitcher as young as Hernandez to be dominating at such a high level, I did some digging and couldn’t find a single elite and established active starting pitcher who pitched above Single-A as an 18-year-old. Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Kevin Brown, Mike Mussina, John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, David Wells, Bartolo Colon, Roy Oswalt, Josh Beckett, Mark Prior, and Mark Mulder all had yet to throw a single professional pitch at 18. Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Kerry Wood, Johan Santana, Freddy Garcia, Roy Halladay, C.C. Sabathia, Jake Peavy, and Jason Schmidt were all in the pros, but in rookie-ball or Single-A, and most with very few innings on their resume.

And if Hernandez throws a significant number of innings for the Mariners as a 19-year-old this season, he’ll join some very select company. In fact, the only 19-year-old pitcher to throw 100 or more innings in the majors in the past 30 years is Dwight Gooden, who went 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA as a 19-year-old for the 1984 Mets. Gooden, incidentally, is another guy who was just in Single-A as an 18-year-old, although he did go 19-4 with a 2.50 ERA and absolutely insane 300-to-112 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 191 innings there. I’d really love to see how great Hernandez can become, so let’s all put in a good word or two to the baseball gods (especially since I just compared him to Doc Gooden) and let them know that it would be nice if there was such thing as a pitching prospect this time.

1) Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins
Position: Catcher | Bats: Left | DOB: 4/19/1983 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2002       A     411     .302     .393     .392      4      28     61      42
2003       A     233     .335     .395     .412      1      15     24      24
          AA     276     .341     .400     .453      4      22     25      25
2004      ML     107     .308     .369     .570      6      15     11      14

The big question about Joe Mauer this time last season was whether or not his power would develop. He was a .330 minor-league hitter and considered an excellent defensive catcher, but Mauer had just nine career home runs in 1,030 at-bats when the Twins named him their starter behind the plate. Well, Mauer provided a fairly strong answer to the power question in his first big-league season, slugging .570 with a homer every 18 at-bats. But rather than the power display turning Mauer into a flawless, question-free prospect, there is now an even bigger issue on the table. After going 2-for-3 with two walks in his debut, Mauer suffered a major knee injury while chasing down a fly ball in his second game.

It was a freak incident involving his catching gear getting caught in the Metrodome turf, and then Mauer didn’t help matters any when he stayed in the game, got on base, and made a hard cut while putting on the brakes rounding third base. Mauer headed to the disabled list and stayed there for two months after having a “moderate to large portion of his meniscus” removed in surgery. He came back in early June, continued to hit the snot out of the ball, and then went down again when the same knee acted up. The second time didn’t require surgery, but it did knock him out for the remainder of the season, including the playoffs.

The expectations for Mauer were incredibly high last year, yet he somehow managed to be even better than expected. He hit .308/.369/.570, showed surprising power, did a magnificent job controlling the strike zone, and shut down the running game defensively. He looked as good as a 21-year-old rookie catcher could conceivably look, but instead of talking about how great Mauer was, Twins fans spent the whole offseason worrying about (and getting constant updates on) that damn knee. The latest news is good, because although he had some swelling and discomfort with the knee early this spring, Mauer is back behind the plate and feeling good. Oh, and he’s also hitting .400.

If he does have to move out from behind the plate, Mauer still has a great career ahead of him. There is reason to think he could be successful at third base, and if all else fails he would make one hell of a designated hitter. But the thought of a .300-hitting catcher with plate discipline, power, and a rocket for an arm is what Twins fans have been dreaming about since Minnesota passed on Prior to take Mauer in 2001. Anything less would be a massive disappointment, and not just for Twins fans. If healthy, Mauer has a chance to be a once-in-a-lifetime type of player, a catcher with a package so diverse and complete that there is really no directly comparable player in the history of the sport. And if you think that’s just hyperbole, you obviously haven’t seen Mauer play much. Hopefully you’ll get plenty of chances to do so this year.

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