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?
40) Shin-Soo Choo, Seattle Mariners
Position: Outfield | Bats: Left | DOB: 7/13/1982 | Career Stats
YEAR LVL AB AVG OBP SLG HR XBH BB SO 2002 A 420 .302 .417 .440 6 38 70 98 2003 A 412 .286 .365 .459 9 40 44 84 2004 AA 517 .315 .382 .462 15 39 56 97
Shin-Soo Choo is an underrated prospect who does a little bit of everything. He hit .315 at Double-A San Antonio last year after batting .302 and .286 at Single-A the previous two seasons. He added in 56 walks for a .382 on-base percentage and hit a career-high 15 homers and a total of 39 extra-base hits for a .462 slugging percentage. Choo also stole 40 bases at an outstanding 83.3% clip and is considered to be a good defensive rightfielder with a strong arm, although he’d have to move to left field in Seattle as long as Ichiro! is manning right.
I doubt Choo will become a star, but he looks like a good bet to develop into an above-average corner outfielder, offensively and defensively, who would fit nicely into one of the first three spots in a lineup. He strikes out quite a bit for someone who doesn’t hit for a ton of power, so I’d like to see him either cut down on the strikeouts or, preferably, start producing a few more extra-base hits to go along with the whiffs. Depending on what sort of start the Mariners get off to this season, Choo could potentially join fellow prospect Jeremy Reed in Seattle’s outfield by the end of the year.
39) Ian Kinsler, Texas Rangers
Position: Shortstop | Bats: Right | DOB: 6/22/1982 | Career Stats
YEAR LVL AB AVG OBP SLG HR XBH BB SO 2003 A 188 .277 .352 .410 1 17 20 34 2004 A 224 .402 .465 .692 11 42 25 36 AA 277 .300 .400 .480 9 31 32 47
I’m not completely sold on Ian Kinsler, at least not yet, but I found it impossible not to include a shortstop who hit .402 for half a season one year after being drafted on this list. And the .300/.400/.480 Kinsler hit in 71 games after a promotion to Double-A wasn’t too shabby either. Combined for the year he hit .345 with 20 homers, 73 total extra-base hits, 57 walks, 18 hit by pitches, and 23 stolen bases in 130 games. Regardless of whether or not he was considered much of a prospect before last season and regardless of whether or not his 2004 season was a fluke, Kinsler has forced himself into the top prospect discussion.
Although Kinsler played all 130 of his games at shortstop last season, his likely home in the majors is second base. He began working there in the Arizona Fall League and has been playing second base extensively in place of an injured Alfonso Soriano this spring, all while continuing to spray hits all over the field. Taken out of college in the 17th round of the 2003 draft, Kinsler turns 23 in June and could move very quickly. Considering how he has impressed the Rangers’ brass this spring, if Kinsler can come anywhere close to repeating his 2004 performance this season, Texas could soon be in a position to either trade Soriano or move him to the outfield. A Kinsler-Michael Young double-play combination would get the job done on the cheap for the foreseeable future.
38) Omar Quintanilla, Oakland A’s
Position: Shortstop | Bats: Left | DOB: 10/24/1981 | Career Stats
YEAR LVL AB AVG OBP SLG HR XBH BB SO 2003 A 129 .341 .401 .442 0 9 12 20 A 36 .417 .462 .667 2 5 3 6 2004 A 451 .315 .371 .481 11 48 37 54 AA 94 .351 .419 .521 2 12 10 9
Like Kinsler, Omar Quintanilla is a minor-league shortstop who is probably destined for a career as a second baseman, in his case because of the presence of American League Rookie of the Year Bobby Crosby in Oakland. Also like Kinsler, Quintanilla has a chance to be a hell of a player there. After hitting .348/.418/.550 for the University of Texas in 2003, the A’s snatched Quintanilla up with the 33rd overall pick in the draft. A textbook Oakland selection, he signed quickly and played a total of 40 games between two levels of Single-A that year, hitting a combined .358 with 14 extra-base hits in 165 at-bats.
Quintanilla played the majority of last season at Single-A Modesto, hitting .314/.370/.480 in 108 games, with 11 homers and 48 total extra-base hits in 452 at-bats. He moved up to Double-A Midland to finish the season and hit .351/.419/.521 in 23 games. For his two-year, 171-game pro career, Quintanilla currently sports a .329/.387/.488 hitting line with 15 homers and 74 total extra-base hits in 711 at-bats. And while he doesn’t walk much, Quintanilla does a great job controlling the strike zone with a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 89-to-62. There isn’t much to find fault with at this point, and Quintanilla appears to be a year away from being Oakland’s everyday second baseman.
37) Kyle Davies, Atlanta Braves
Position: Starter | Throws: Right | DOB: 9/9/1983 | Career Stats
YEAR LVL G GS IP ERA H HR SO BB 2002 R 14 14 69.1 3.50 73 2 62 23 2003 A 27 27 146.1 2.89 128 9 148 53 2004 A 14 14 75.1 2.63 55 3 95 32 AA 11 10 62.0 2.32 40 9 73 22
In four seasons since being drafted out of high school in the fourth round of the 2001 draft, Kyle Davies has gone 31-17 with a 2.85 ERA and 447-to-146 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 425.2 innings. He was particularly impressive last season, posting a 2.49 ERA in 137.1 innings between Single-A and Double-A, while striking out 168 batters (11.1 per nine innings) and holding opponents to a stingy .201 batting average. The only real negative in Davies’ numbers from last year is that he served up 12 homers, including nine in just 62 innings at Double-A Greenville.
The Braves have certainly seen their fair share of pitchers blossom after leaving Atlanta, but it is at least interesting to note that Davies is the guy John Schuerholz, Leo Mazzone and company chose to hold on to while trading away fellow top pitching prospects Dan Meyer and Jose Capellan this offseason. There was an opening for Davies in Atlanta’s rotation for a brief moment this offseason with Russ Ortiz, Jaret Wright, and Paul Byrd all leaving for free agency, but Horacio Ramirez‘s health, John Smoltz‘s return from the bullpen, and the Tim Hudson trade put an end to that. Instead, Davies will likely head back to the minors and wait his turn.
36) Conor Jackson, Arizona Diamondbacks
Position: Outfield | Bats: Right | DOB: 5/7/1982 | Career Stats
YEAR LVL AB AVG OBP SLG HR XBH BB SO 2003 A 257 .319 .410 .533 6 42 36 41 2004 A 258 .345 .438 .562 11 32 45 36 AA 226 .301 .367 .456 6 21 24 36
A polished college hitter who batted .384 with a .679 slugging percentage in his final two seasons at the University of California, the Diamondbacks grabbed Conor Jackson with the 19th overall pick in the 2003 draft. He signed quickly after being drafted and did what any great college hitter should, dominating the short-season Northwest League. In 68 games there, Jackson hit .319/.410/.533 with six homers and an amazing 35 doubles in just 257 at-bats. Jackson moved up to Single-A Lancaster last season and hit .345/.438/.562 in 64 games, before batting .301/.367/.456 in 60 games after a promotion to Double-A El Paso.
Jackson appears to be almost a lock to become at least an above-average corner outfielder offensively, but I have some doubts about his star potential. For one thing, his power hasn’t been particularly outstanding with just 23 homers in 741 pro at-bats and a .197 Isolated Power. Neither of those numbers are bad, of course, but Jackson also did his hitting in two of the minors’ very best hitter’s ballparks last season. If you compare what Jackson did last season to fellow Arizona outfield prospect Carlos Quentin, you can see why I consider Quentin’s offensive ceiling to be a lot higher.
OVERALL ON THE ROAD AVG IsoP AVG IsoP Quentin .332 .217 .312 .220 Jackson .324 .188 .276 .106
Jackson and Quentin are both right-handed corner outfielders who were born in 1982 and taken in the first round of the 2003 draft. Jackson played 67 games at Lancaster and 60 games at El Paso, while Quentin played 65 games at Lancaster and 60 games at El Paso. The similarities end when you see that not only did Quentin post a higher batting average with an Isolated Power that was 15% better, he managed to maintain his performance away from the great hitter’s ballparks. Quentin hit .312 with a .220 Isolated Power on the road, while Jackson hit .276 with a measly .106 Isolated Power. There are plenty of sample-size issues here, which is why I’m not getting too caught up in Jackson’s road power outage, but Quentin is the better prospect.
35) Erick Aybar, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Position: Shortstop | Bats: Switch | DOB: 1/14/1984 | Career Stats
YEAR LVL AB AVG OBP SLG HR XBH BB SO 2002 R 273 .326 .395 .469 4 25 21 43 2003 A 496 .308 .346 .446 6 46 17 54 2004 A 573 .330 .370 .485 14 50 26 66
Erick Aybar is a very intriguing player, but his sizeable flaws include a major lack of plate discipline (25 non-intentional walks in 136 games last season) and some awful stolen base percentages (51-for-87, or 58.6%). However, he has enough positives in his game to outweigh the negatives. For starters, he’s a 21-year-old, switch-hitting shortstop and already has three professional seasons with .300+ batting averages on his resume. Aybar hit .330 at Single-A last season and it had some pop behind it, with 14 homers and a total of 50 extra-base hits in 573 at-bats. And while he doesn’t draw any walks, Aybar at least does a nice job making contact, striking out just 66 times (11.5% of his at-bats) last season and 54 times (10.9%) in 2003.
Aybar will likely begin the 2005 season at Double-A Arkansas and could be major-league ready by 2006. He is considered a very good defensive shortstop and most feel he should be able to stick at the position in the majors, although the Angels just locked up the position for the near future with Orlando Cabrera this offseason. There are plenty of reasons to doubt whether Aybar is for real or not and 2005 will be a big test for him, but it’ll be tough to leave him off this list until he stops hitting .300.
34) Jesse Crain, Minnesota Twins
Position: Reliever | Throws: Right | DOB: 7/5/1981 | Career Stats
YEAR LVL G GS IP ERA H HR SO BB 2002 R 9 0 15.2 0.57 4 0 18 7 A 9 0 12.0 1.50 6 0 11 4 2003 A 10 0 19.0 2.84 10 0 25 5 AA 22 0 39.0 0.69 13 0 56 10 AAA 23 0 26.0 3.12 24 0 33 10 2004 AAA 41 0 50.2 2.49 38 5 64 17 ML 22 0 27.0 2.00 17 2 14 12
I’m not big on giving out high rankings to reliever prospects — particularly after what happened to Ryan Wagner last year — but it’s impossible to ignore Jesse Crain. Crain tossed 84 innings with a 1.84 ERA and 114-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2003, holding opponents to an amazingly low .160 batting average. He then spent the majority of last season at Triple-A Rochester, and though he struggled a little bit early, Crain finished with a 2.49 ERA and 64-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 50.2 innings. He wrapped up the season by going 3-0 with a 2.00 ERA and .179 opponent’s batting average in 27 innings with the Twins, although he struck out only 14 batters.
After posting a 1.94 ERA and 207 strikeouts in 167.1 career minor-league innings, Crain is now major a part of the Twins’ bullpen. He has been considered Minnesota’s “Closer of the Future” since they drafted him in the second round back in 2002, but he’ll have to settle for being one of Joe Nathan‘s setup men for now. Crain wasn’t quite dominant in his first stint in the big leagues, but he was far from overmatched while showing off his mid-90s fastball. I expect him to be one of the better middle relievers in the American League this season and, eventually, one of the league’s top closers.
33) Nick Swisher, Oakland A’s
Position: Outfield | Bats: Switch | DOB: 1/25/1980 | Career Stats
YEAR LVL AB AVG OBP SLG HR XBH BB SO 2002 A 44 .250 .433 .455 2 5 13 11 A 183 .240 .340 .399 4 19 26 48 2003 A 189 .296 .418 .550 10 26 41 49 AA 287 .230 .324 .380 5 31 37 76 2004 AAA 443 .269 .406 .537 29 59 103 109 ML 60 .250 .352 .417 2 6 8 11
The first player from Oakland’s famed “Moneyball” draft to reach the majors, Nick Swisher is expected to take over for Jermaine Dye as the A’s everyday rightfielder in 2005. A switch-hitter, Swisher has plenty of power and a ton of plate discipline. He had 29 homers and 59 total extra-base hits in 443 Triple-A at-bats for an impressive .268 Isolated Power, and also walked 103 times to lead all of minor-league baseball. While his abundance of secondary skills will make him a quality hitter in the big leagues, I have some concerns about Swisher’s ability to hit for a good batting average.
He batted .269 at Triple-A Sacramento last year after hitting just .230 at Double-A and .267 at three levels of Single-A. Swisher played through a torn tendon in his thumb all season long, which certainly may have been behind the sub par batting average, but the fact is that he has hit just .258 in his 314-game minor-league career. A .290 hitter with Swisher’s power and plate discipline can be a star, but it’s tough to be a great player when you’re batting .240, regardless of what other skills you bring to the table. Swisher is one of the top Rookie of the Year candidates in the AL.
32) Jeremy Hermida, Florida Marlins
Position: Outfield | Bats: Left | DOB: 1/30/1984 | Career Stats
YEAR LVL AB AVG OBP SLG HR XBH BB SO 2003 A 468 .284 .387 .393 6 34 80 100 2004 A 340 .297 .377 .441 10 28 42 73
The 11th overall pick in the 2002 draft, Jeremy Hermida‘s power has yet to match his 6’4″, 200-pound frame. However, he did show some significant development in that area last season:
YEAR AB/HR AB/XBH XBH% IsoP 2003 78.0 13.8 25.6 .109 2004 34.0 12.1 27.7 .144
Hermida then followed that up by smacking seven homers and 11 doubles in 132 Arizona Fall League at-bats, for a .258 Isolated Power. He’ll need to continue to add more power (or maintain his AFL performance) in order to become an impact corner outfielder in the majors, but Hermida already has the other skills needed. He hit .284 in 2003 and .297 last season, posted solid Isolated Discipline totals of .103 and .080, and stole a total of 38 bases at an outstanding 88.4% clip. Just 21 years old, Hermida could move into the Marlins’ outfield at some point in 2006.
31) Joe Blanton, Oakland A’s
Position: Starter | Throws: Right | DOB: 12/11/1980 | Career Stats
YEAR LVL G GS IP ERA H HR SO BB 2002 A 4 2 14.1 3.14 11 0 15 2 2003 A 21 21 133.0 2.57 110 6 144 16 AA 7 5 35.2 1.26 21 1 30 7 2004 AAA 28 26 176.1 4.19 199 13 143 34 ML 3 0 8.0 5.62 6 1 6 2
The second “Moneyball” draftee to reach the majors, Joe Blanton had a disappointing season in 2004. He threw a total of 168.2 innings with a 2.29 ERA and ridiculous 174-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio between Single-A and Double-A in 2003, but moved up to Triple-A Sacramento last season and had some problems. Blanton maintained an outstanding strikeout-to-walk ratio of 143-to-34, but his ERA ballooned to 4.19, his strikeout rate dropped 21%, and he gave up 199 hits and an ugly .285 batting average against. The Pacific Coast League is tough on pitchers and Blanton went 7-4 with a 3.05 ERA and 72-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio on the road, although that doesn’t mean much considering Sacramento isn’t especially hitter-friendly relative to the league.
Blanton looks a lot more like a middle-of-the-rotation guy than a front-line starter at this point, but he’s essentially major-league ready. He should begin the year in the revamped Oakland rotation, effectively trying to fill Tim Hudson’s shoes. That’s certainly too much to ask of any rookie, but Blanton should settle into a career as a quality innings-eater, at worst. I like his chances of being a darkhorse Rookie of the Year candidate.