Top 50 Prospects of 2005: 21-30

Also In This Series:
- Top 50 Prospects of 2005: 1-10
- Top 50 Prospects of 2005: 11-20
- 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?

30) Chris Burke, Houston Astros
Position: Second Base | Bats: Right | DOB: 3/11/1980 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2002      AA     481     .264     .330     .356      3      30     39      61
2003      AA     549     .301     .379     .388      3      34     57      57
2004     AAA     483     .315     .396     .507     16      55     55      76

Chris Burke is a tough guy to rank. He’s a fine prospect coming off a very good year at Triple-A, but he’s also 25 years old, has yet to play regularly in the majors, and doesn’t project as a guy who is going to get a whole lot better than he already is. But there is something to be said for a prospect who is truly major-league ready and able to start putting up above-average production on offense and defense immediately. Burke is the epitome of that type of prospect, or at least he would be if the Astros stopped messing around with Craig Biggio‘s position.

I do, however, have some doubts about Burke’s power potential. He was an outstanding power hitter at the University of Tennessee, but showed very little pop in 273 games at Double-A Round Rock spread over two seasons, hitting just six homers in 1,030 at-bats with a .090 Isolated Power. He suddenly busted out last season, hitting 16 homers in 483 at-bats at Triple-A New Orleans, batting .315 with a .192 Isolated Power. If the power development is for real, Burke is a potential middle-of-the-order threat; if it’s not, he’s more of a #2/#8-type hitter with some good on-base skills and speed.

29) Lastings Milledge, New York Mets
Position: Outfield | Bats: Right | DOB: 4/5/1985 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2003       R      26     .231     .323     .308      0       2      3       4
2004       A     261     .337     .399     .579     13      36     17      53
           A      81     .235     .319     .432      2      10      9      21

Lastings Milledge was considered one of the top high school talents available in the 2003 draft and the Mets selected him with the 12th overall pick. Milledge was very impressive in his first full season as a pro last year, hitting .337/.399/.579 in 65 games at Single-A Capital City, before struggling after a promotion to Single-A St. Lucie. Combined with his brief, seven-game stint in rookie-ball after signing in 2003, Milledge has now played 94 games in the minors and has a career batting line of .307/.376/.527 with 15 homers, 48 total extra-base hits, and 31 stolen bases. Setting aside his struggles at the end of last season, Milledge looks like a unique all-around talent, who projects as an impact player both at the plate and in center field.

The two things missing from his game at the moment are, as you might guess, plate discipline and strike zone judgment. Milledge drew just 25 non-intentional walks in 87 games last year, which isn’t a horribly low total by itself. When combined with the fact that he struck out 74 times in 342 at-bats (21.6%) though, it isn’t a very good balance. Milledge doesn’t turn 20 years old until April 5, so he has plenty of time to work on making himself a more complete offensive player. As is, he’s got a career batting average of .307, a .220 Isolated Power, and tons of speed. His biggest problem in a couple years might be convincing Carlos Beltran to slide over to a corner spot at Shea Stadium.

28) Ryan Howard, Philadelphia Phillies
Position: First Base | Bats: Left | DOB: 11/19/1979 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2002       A     493     .280     .367     .460     19      45     66     145
2003       A     490     .304     .374     .514     23      56     50     151
2004      AA     374     .297     .386     .647     37      56     46     129
         AAA     111     .270     .362     .604      9      19     14      37
          ML      39     .282     .333     .564      2       7      2      13

Ryan Howard wins 2005′s Blocked Prospect of the Year award. Howard led the minors in home runs last year, he’s 25 years old, and he has proven himself repeatedly in the minors. And yet with Jim Thome entrenched at first base in Philadelphia, Howard has absolutely nowhere to play. He could potentially move to left field, I guess, but that might get ugly and the Phillies already have Pat Burrell there. And he could find himself traded, but that’s likely at least a half-season away. So Howard is headed back to Triple-A, where he slugged .604 last year after slugging .647 at Double-A. Let’s all say it together, in the name of Erubiel Durazo and all the imprisoned sluggers who came before him: FREE RYAN HOWARD!

Okay, now the bad news. Howard is already 25 years old and has 39 at-bats in the big leagues, which doesn’t bode well for his becoming a superstar. He also strikes out a ton — 179 times in 524 at-bats last year to be exact — and doesn’t walk much for someone who puts the fear of Bonds into opposing pitchers. In fact, not counting intentional walks, Howard drew just 55 free passes in 150 games last year. With all that said, there’s no way you can convince me that a guy who hit .290 with a .632 slugging percentage, 48 homers, 81 total extra-base hits, and 136 RBIs between Double-A, Triple-A, and the majors last year couldn’t out-hit at least a third of the everyday first basemen in the majors. Much like Jason Bay last year, Howard is a little too old to be an elite prospect, but he’s just the right age to step into a lineup and starting doing damage.

27) Jeff Francoeur, Atlanta Braves
Position: Outfield | Bats: Right | DOB: 1/8/1984 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2002       R     147     .327     .395     .585      8      21     15      34
2003       A     524     .281     .325     .445     14      49     30      68
2004       A     334     .293     .346     .506     15      41     22      70
          AA      76     .197     .197     .342      3       5      0      14

In addition to having a last name that is damn near impossible to type correctly without looking at it, Jeff Francoeur (I had to look) is the sort of prospect the scouting community absolutely loves. He has every imaginable tool, he’s a tremendous athlete who plays a premium defensive position, and he was drafted out of high school. Francoeur is fairly unique in that he has shown the ability to actually put those tools to good use over the past few years, hitting .281/.325/.445 at Single-A Rome in 2003 and then .293/.346/.506 at Single-A Myrtle Beach last season.

So what’s not to like? Well, like a lot of toolsy high school outfielders, Francoeur doesn’t have any plate discipline. He missed over a month of action after being hit in the face with a pitch last year and headed to Double-A Greenville when he returned. He hit just .197 in 76 at-bats there and failed to draw a single walk in 18 games, after drawing just 19 non-intentional walks in 88 games at Myrtle Beach. A select number of great players in baseball history gave gotten by with walking 30 times a year, but Francoeur doesn’t have the elite power or huge batting averages to be one of them. The irony is that if he wants to become a truly special player, Francoeur, who has such great athleticism and such an abundance of tools, will have to learn how to take more pitches.

26) Hanley Ramirez, Boston Red Sox
Position: Shortstop | Bats: Right | DOB: 12/23/1983 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2002       R     164     .341     .402     .555      6      20     16      15
           A      97     .371     .400     .536      1      12      4      14
2003       A     422     .275     .327     .403      8      35     32      73
2004       A     239     .310     .364     .389      1      13     17      39
          AA     129     .310     .360     .512      5      14     10      26

I’m not quite sure what to make of the opinion Boston has of their top prospect, Hanley Ramirez. On one hand, they signed Edgar Renteria to a big four-year contract this offseason, seemingly blocking Ramirez from his natural position until the 2009 season. On the other hand, everyone from Terry Francona and the players to Theo Epstein and the front office has had nothing but extraordinarily complimentary things to say about Ramirez this spring. I suppose they could be planning to slide Ramirez to second base when he’s ready, but that seems like a misuse of his defensive talents.

But okay, let’s talk about what Ramirez has done, rather than what his team might do with him. After hitting .352 in 67 games in the low minors during his debut season, Ramirez had a disappointing first full year in 2003, batting just .275/.327/.403 in 111 games at Single-A Augusta. He rebounded in a big way last year, hitting a relatively empty .310 at Single-A Sarasota after struggling through a wrist injury and then turning on the power after a promotion to Double-A Portland, where he batted .310/.360/.512 in 32 games. Ramirez doesn’t have much plate discipline and he has been wildly inconsistent, but he is also just 21 years old and has shown some amazing flashes of brilliance.

25) Curtis Granderson, Detroit Tigers
Position: Outfield | Bats: Left | DOB: 3/16/1981 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2002       A     212     .344     .417     .495      3      22     20      35
2003       A     476     .286     .365     .458     11      50     49      91
2004      AA     462     .301     .405     .513     21      48     80      95
          ML      25     .240     .321     .360      0       2      3       8

After a solid-but-unspectacular season at Single-A in 2003, Curtis Granderson upped his plate discipline and power at Double-A Erie last year and put together an outstanding season. Granderson hit .301/.405/.513 in 123 games, increasing his home runs from 11 to 21 and going from 49 walks to a very impressive 80, all while maintaining the same strikeout rate. Take a look at how his secondary skills have improved since the Tigers drafted him in the third round back in 2002:

YEAR     IsoD     IsoP
2002     .073     .151
2003     .079     .172
2004     .104     .212

Granderson is considered a good defensive outfielder, although he may end up being a bit of tweener — just passable in center field but very good in either corner. He should get a chance to give center field a go now that the Tigers have ended the forgettable Alex Sanchez Era, which leaves Craig Monroe and Nook Logan as the only things standing between Granderson and an everyday job in the majors. In other words, he should be patrolling the middle of the Comerica Park outfield by the end of the year.

24) Chad Billingsley, Los Angeles Dodgers
Position: Starter | Throws: Right | DOB: 7/29/1984 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      G     GS        IP      ERA       H     HR      SO     BB
2003       A     11     11      54.0     2.83      49      0      62     15
2004       A     18     18      92.0     2.35      68      6     111     49
          AA      8      8      42.1     2.98      32      1      47     22

In a Los Angeles system bursting with intriguing young pitching prospects, Chad Billingsley separated himself from the rest of the pack with a dominant season split between Single-A and Double-A. The 24th overall pick in 2003, Billingsley had 62 strikeouts and a 2.83 ERA in 54 innings in rookie-ball after being drafted and then began last season at Single-A Vero Beach. He made 18 starts there, posting a 2.35 ERA and 111-to-49 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 92 innings, while holding opponents to a .202 batting average. Billingsley’s performance dropped off slightly after a promotion to Double-A, but he still managed 47 strikeouts and a 2.98 ERA in 42 innings, with a .213 batting average against. Oh, and he doesn’t turn 21 until the end of July.

23) Michael Aubrey, Cleveland Indians
Position: First Base | Bats: Left | DOB: 4/15/1982 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2003       A     138     .348     .409     .551      5      18     14      22
2004       A     218     .339     .438     .550     10      25     27      26
          AA     134     .261     .340     .425      5      12     15      18

After a great college career at Tulane University and a ton of success in his first season and a half of pro ball, Michael Aubrey experienced his first taste of adversity after a midseason promotion to Double-A last season. Aubrey hit .368 in three seasons at Tulane, .348 at Single-A Lake County in 2003, and .339 at Single-A Kinston in the first half of last season, but he batted just .261/.340/.425 at Double-A Akron. In his defense, it was just 38 games and a .765 OPS and good strikeout-to-walk ratio for a 22-year-old in his first taste of the high minors isn’t exactly the end of the world.

Aubrey will likely head back to Double-A to start the 2005 season and try to conquer the one level that has given him problems thus far. He doesn’t have huge power for a first baseman, but he has hit for very good batting averages with plenty of plate discipline and excellent strike zone control (career 66-to-56 strikeout-to-walk ratio), and looks like a good bet to be a consistent .300-average/20-homer/40-double guy in the middle of Cleveland’s lineup. I’m not sure what the Indians are going to do with Travis Hafner, Ben Broussard, and Aubrey, but it’s certainly a nice problem to have.

22) Eric Duncan, New York Yankees
Position: Third Base | Bats: Left | DOB: 12/7/1984 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2003       R     180     .278     .348     .400      2      16     18      33
           A      59     .373     .413     .695      2      11      2      11
2004       A     288     .260     .351     .479     12      37     38      84
           A     173     .254     .366     .462      4      26     31      47

Eric Duncan‘s raw numbers from last season are impressive enough on their own: 16 homers, 63 total extra-base hits, 69 walks, and a .215 Isolated Power in 129 games from a 19-year-old third baseman in his first full pro season. Add in the fact that Duncan did that damage in two of the worst leagues for offense in the minors, while playing in two home ballparks that are pitcher-friendly even relative to those leagues, and he comes out looking like a stud. Though he split the season between the two leagues, Duncan would have ranked among the league leaders in several very important stats had he been at either place long enough.

His Isolated Discipline (.112) and Isolated Power (.208) would have ranked third and fourth in the Florida State League, respectively. His combined IsoD and IsoP of .320 would have ranked second in the league behind only Brandon Sing, a 23-year-old Cubs prospect in his sixth minor-league season. Similarly, Duncan’s .310 combined IsoD and IsoP in the Midwest League would have ranked fourth. Perhaps most impressively, Duncan’s extra-base hit percentages (59.0% in the FSL, 49.3% in the MWL) would have ranked first and second, respectively. In plain English, Duncan was excellent compared to his peers last season and could put up some scary raw numbers if given a chance to shine in a better offensive environment. If Duncan can up the batting average, he could be in for a big year at Double-A Trenton.

21) Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants
Position: Starter | Throws: Right | DOB: 10/1/1984 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      G     GS        IP      ERA       H     HR      SO     BB
2002       R      8      7      19.1     3.72      13      1      20     11
2003       A     14     14      74.0     2.55      57      5      90     24
2004       A     13     13      72.2     1.86      58      5      89     17
          AA     15     15      86.0     3.35      73      7      72     40

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. Matt Cain struggled with his control after a promotion to Double-A last year, walking 40 batters in 86 innings, but he also had a 3.35 ERA and 72 strikeouts there and held opponents to a .227 batting average. And perhaps the most significant fact of all is that he did all of that before his 20th birthday (Cain is a full two months younger than Billingsley).

The 25th overall pick in the 2002 draft, Cain missed the bulk of his first full season with an elbow injury, but managed a 2.55 ERA and 90-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the 14 starts he was healthy enough to make. He came back strong from the injury and had a healthy season in 2004, completely blowing away California (Single-A) League batters before the move up to Double-A at midseason. For his career he now has a 17-10 record with a 2.71 ERA and 271-to-92 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 252 innings. The typical caveats with young pitchers and injuries are especially relevant to Cain, but he has an incredibly high ceiling if he can avoid more arm trouble.

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