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?
50) Jason Kubel, Minnesota Twins
Position: Outfield | Bats: Left | DOB: 5/25/1982 | Career Stats
YEAR LVL AB AVG OBP SLG HR XBH BB SO 2002 A 424 .321 .380 .521 17 47 41 48 2003 A 420 .298 .361 .400 5 29 48 54 2004 AA 138 .377 .453 .667 6 24 19 19 AAA 350 .343 .398 .560 16 44 34 40 ML 60 .300 .358 .433 2 4 6 9
A 12th-round pick in 2000 who showed plenty of promise and put up solid numbers for his first four seasons, Jason Kubel put everything together in 2004 and had a monster year. He started the season at Double-A New Britain and bashed Eastern League pitching around to the tune of .377/.453/.667 before the Twins had seen enough after 37 games. Kubel then moved up to Triple-A Rochester, where he batted .343/.398/.560 in 90 games. To put an exclamation point on his breakout year, Kubel joined the Twins for the stretch run and hit .300/.358/.433 in 23 games, on his way to earning a spot on the playoff roster. Combined between the three levels, Kubel batted .346, collecting 190 hits in 548 at-bats, including 24 homers and 44 doubles.
Unfortunately, everything came crashing down when Kubel severely injured his left knee in an outfield collision while playing in the Arizona Fall League. The damage was extensive, including an ACL tear, and even the most optimistic forecasts for his recovery suggest that he’ll miss nearly all of the 2005 season. Though he’ll essentially have an entire year of development wiped away at the very least, Kubel should have a job waiting for him in 2006 if he can make a strong comeback from the injury. Jacque Jones‘ tenure with the team seems likely to be up after this season, and in fact there was a good chance that Jones would have been let go this offseason if not for Kubel’s injury.
49) Ervin Santana, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Position: Starter | Throws: Right | DOB: 1/10/1983 | Career Stats
YEAR LVL G GS IP ERA H HR SO BB 2002 A 27 27 147.0 4.16 133 10 146 48 2003 A 20 20 124.2 2.53 98 9 130 36 AA 6 6 29.2 3.94 23 4 23 12 2004 AA 8 8 43.2 3.30 41 3 48 18
Ervin Santana‘s 2004 season was ruined by injuries, as a sore shoulder delayed his debut until May and he later went down with an elbow injury that effectively ended his season. Santana also has a history of elbow problems, which makes last year’s injury even more concerning. However, the good news is that in the eight starts he was healthy enough to make, Santana pitched extremely well at Double-A as a 21-year-old, tossing 43.2 innings with a 3.30 ERA and 48-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
There is little to complain about with his on-field performance or numbers, so the only real issue is Santana’s health. He has a 3.41 ERA and 276-to-84 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 271.2 career innings at Single-A, along with a 3.55 ERA and 71-to-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 73.1 total Double-A innings. In other words, if I knew he could stay healthy and avoid a major arm surgery, Santana would be at least a dozen spots higher on this list.
48) Jeff Mathis, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Position: Catcher | Bats: Right | DOB: 3/31/1983 | Career Stats
YEAR LVL AB AVG OBP SLG HR XBH BB SO 2002 A 491 .287 .346 .444 10 54 40 75 2003 A 378 .323 .384 .500 11 42 35 74 AA 95 .284 .364 .463 2 13 12 16 2004 AA 432 .227 .310 .394 14 41 49 102
One of my soft spots when it comes to ranking prospects is young catchers who can hit. Along those lines, Jeff Mathis was a personal favorite of mine this time last year after hitting .315 with 55 extra-base hits in 473 at-bats between Single-A and Double-A, and I ranked him accordingly. He responded by having a tremendously disappointing season, falling into a heavy midseason funk that dragged his batting average at Double-A Arkansas all the way down to .227. There were a few positives (or perhaps more accurately, non-negatives) to be found in his season, namely 14 homers and 41 extra-base hits for a 21-year-old catcher, and that is just enough to avoid completely losing faith in Mathis.
I think Mathis has a good chance of rebounding in 2005 and, if he can put together a campaign along the lines of what he did in past years, he can still be in a position to take over as the Angels’ everyday catcher at some point in 2006. If he can’t rebound, he’ll join the excruciatingly long list of catchers who looked like potential offensive forces until hitting a snag in the high minors. If nothing else, Mathis’ spot at the bottom of this list and the absence of Dioner Navarro and Guillermo Quiroz (ranked 18th and 27th last year, respectively) are nice reminders not to get overly excited about young catchers who flash some skills at the plate.
47) Edwin Jackson, Los Angeles Dodgers
Position: Starter | Throws: Right | DOB: 9/9/1983 | Career Stats
YEAR LVL G GS IP ERA H HR SO BB 2002 A 19 19 104.2 1.98 79 2 85 33 2003 AA 27 27 148.1 3.70 121 9 157 53 ML 4 3 22.0 2.45 17 2 19 11 2004 AAA 19 19 90.2 5.86 90 4 70 55 ML 8 5 24.2 7.30 31 7 16 11
Much like Mathis, Edwin Jackson was one of my top 15 prospects last year and ended up having one of the most disappointing seasons of any prospect in 2004. He started out with a legitimate chance to make the Dodgers’ starting rotation out of spring training and ending up with an ugly 5.86 ERA at Triple-A. In between, Jackson missed significant time with a forearm injury, saw his strikeout rate drop by nearly 30%, and got lit up in 24.2 innings with Los Angeles. The good news — and it is admittedly pretty tough to find — is that Jackson is still just 21 years old and Triple-A Las Vegas is generally a pretty tough place for pitchers. The bad news is … well, everything else.
Though he threw a total of 115.1 innings last year and his injury wasn’t particularly serious, 2004 was basically a lost season for Jackson. In other words, he finds himself in essentially the same place he found himself in this time last year — competing for a spot on the Dodgers’ staff with a ticket to Las Vegas waiting for him if he doesn’t win a job. The clock may be ticking on his chance to become a starting pitcher in the majors, but Jackson has the stuff to be an excellent reliever as a fallback option.
46) Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies
Position: Starter | Throws: Left | DOB: 2/27/1983 | Career Stats
YEAR LVL G GS IP ERA H HR SO BB 2003 A 13 13 74.2 0.84 32 0 115 25 A 5 5 26.1 2.73 29 0 32 14 2004 A 4 4 16.1 1.12 10 0 24 4
Despite his best efforts, Cole Hamels remains a top 50 prospect. Hamels threw just 16.1 innings because of biceps tendonitis last season and then added to his snake bitten season by ignoring one of Crash Davis‘ rules and breaking his pitching hand in a bar fight this offseason. In the four games he was healthy enough to pitch, Hamels showed the sort of dominance that makes him impossible to ignore. He tossed 16 innings and gave up just two runs, while striking out 24 batters and walking four. Opponents hit .192 against him, going 10-for-52, and he extended his streak of not allowing a single homer to 117 professional innings. In other words, just like he was as a 19-year-old in 2003, Hamels was a stud when he was on the mound.
Clearly Hamels needs to put together a healthy, incident-free 2005 season, but he’s still just 21 years old and carries a 171-to-43 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 1.31 ERA as a pro, so the deck isn’t totally stacked against him. Last year I compared Hamels to Scott Kazmir and had trouble deciding which hard-throwing southpaw was the better prospect. There is no such dilemma this year, but Hamels still has plenty of time to catch up. He could be completely off the prospect radar by this time next season or he could be wowing everyone during a September callup with the Phillies, and neither seems much more likely than the other.
45) Josh Barfield, San Diego Padres
Position: Second Base | Bats: Right | DOB: 12/17/1982 | Career Stats
YEAR LVL AB AVG OBP SLG HR XBH BB SO 2002 A 536 .306 .340 .403 8 33 26 105 2003 A 549 .337 .389 .530 16 68 50 122 2004 AA 521 .248 .313 .417 18 49 48 119
After hitting .337/.389/.530 and leading all of the minors in hits, RBIs, and extra-base hits at Single-A Lake Elsinore in 2003, Josh Barfield moved up to Double-A Mobile last season and saw his batting average drop nearly 100 points. As usual, there are some potential excuses for Barfield’s poor season. For one, he suffered through leg problems all year, which led to him stealing just four bases after swiping a total of 42 between 2002 and 2003. For another, the Southern League is tough on hitters and Mobile is not a great park for offense. However, while Barfield did hit .260 on the road compared to just .234 at home, his slugging percentage was nearly identical away from Mobile (which means he actually showed less power, considering the higher batting average).
The interesting thing about Barfield’s 2004 season is that while his offense fell of a cliff, the reviews of his defense at second base continued to get better and better. His increased chance of sticking at second base is good news, because the sort of hitting Barfield displayed last season is certainly not going to be enough to carry him in an outfield corner. Looking back on it with 20/20 hindsight, Barfield’s 2003 season was based an awful lot on his huge batting average, which covered up for his sub par 122-to-50 strikeout-to-walk ratio and unspectacular .193 Isolated Power. Of course, regardless of any of that he’s still a 22-year-old middle infielder who has smacked 117 extra-base hits over the past two years, which is why he remains on this list.
44) Jose Capellan, Milwaukee Brewers
Position: Starter | Throws: Right | DOB: 1/13/1981 | Career Stats
YEAR LVL G GS IP ERA H HR SO BB 2003 R 5 5 17.0 2.65 18 0 17 8 A 14 12 47.1 3.80 43 2 32 19 2004 A 8 8 46.1 1.94 27 0 62 11 AA 9 8 50.1 2.50 53 1 53 19 AAA 7 7 43.0 2.51 33 0 37 15 ML 3 2 8.0 11.25 14 2 4 5
It took a while, but Jose Capellan is the first guy on this list who had a great, injury free 2004 season. A relative unknown heading into the season, Capellan dominated at Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, combining to go 14-4 with a 2.32 ERA and 152-to-45 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 139.2 innings. He struck out 9.8 batters per nine innings, held opponents to a .227 batting average, and served up a grand total of just one home run in 497 at-bats. Capellan’s season ended poorly, as he gave up 10 runs on 14 hits (including two homers) and five walks in eight innings with the Braves. During the offseason, the Braves traded Capellan to the Brewers as part of the package for Danny Kolb.
Capellan has a better chance to establish himself in Milwaukee’s starting rotation than he did in Atlanta, but not being able to work under the tutelage of Leo Mazzone is a tough break. I suspect part of the reason the Braves were willing to part with Capellan is that they have the same questions as I do about whether or not his raw talent will translate into becoming a successful starting pitcher in the majors. Capellan has a major-league fastball, but there have been a lot of concerns about his secondary pitches. He got knocked around with the Braves at the end of last season and has been similarly beaten up with the Brewers this spring.
Milwaukee catcher Chad Moeller described the potential problem after catching Capellan in a March 16 spring game: “He just needs a second pitch that he can throw consistently for a strike. He was pretty much a one-pitch pitcher today. It doesn’t matter how hard you throw your fastball against these guys. If they know it’s coming, they’re going to hit it.” While Capellan has very little experience above Single-A, he isn’t especially young, turning 24 years old in January. In other words, despite his success as a starter in the minors, he might be destined for a big-league bullpen.
43) Gavin Floyd, Philadelphia Phillies
Position: Starter | Throws: Right | DOB: 1/27/1983 | Career Stats
YEAR LVL G GS IP ERA H HR SO BB 2002 A 27 27 166.0 2.77 119 13 140 64 2003 A 24 20 138.0 3.00 128 9 115 45 2004 AA 20 20 119.0 2.57 93 5 94 46 AAA 5 5 30.2 4.99 39 4 18 9 ML 6 4 28.1 3.49 25 1 24 16
From a pitcher with a ton of strikeouts and not enough polish to a pitcher with plenty of polish and not enough strikeouts. Gavin Floyd has been a favorite of the scouting community since the Phillies took him with the fourth pick in the 2001 draft, but his numbers have never really done it for me. Floyd doesn’t have great control, walking 3.3 batters per nine innings in three minor-league seasons, and his strikeout rate has been consistently mediocre. He whiffed 7.6/9 at Single-A in 2002, 7.5/9 at Single-A in 2003, and 6.7/9 between Double-A and Triple-A last season.
Add it up and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is barely better than 2-to-1 (albeit with a 2.94 ERA), which makes me think he is a middle-of-the-rotation guy, not an ace. All of which isn’t to say Floyd is a bad prospect. He made his big-league debut at 21 and more than held his own in 28.1 innings with Philadelphia, and he should join the Phillies’ rotation on a full-time basis during his age-22 season. That in itself is pretty impressive, as is the fact that he is a pitcher who was drafted out of high school and has made it this far without a major arm injury.
42) J.J. Hardy, Milwaukee Brewers
Position: Shortstop | Bats: Right | DOB: 8/19/1982 | Career Stats
YEAR LVL AB AVG OBP SLG HR XBH BB SO 2002 A 335 .293 .327 .409 6 26 19 38 AA 146 .228 .269 .297 1 8 9 19 2003 AA 416 .279 .368 .428 12 38 58 54 2004 AAA 101 .277 .330 .495 4 14 9 8
J.J. Hardy got off to an excellent start at Triple-A Indianapolis last year, hitting .277/.330/.495 with 14 extra-base hits in 101 at-bats before a torn labrum and the subsequent surgery on his non-throwing shoulder ended his season after 26 games. Despite the major setback, he has made a strong comeback and Milwaukee manager Ned Yost said last week that Hardy “has been nothing short of spectacular defensively all spring.”
While Hardy’s spring training offense has been nothing special, he has a real chance to be the Brewers’ Opening Day shortstop at just 22 years old. Hardy doesn’t look like a future star, but he should be a solid everyday shortstop for quite a while. He plays good defense, hits for decent batting averages with a little bit of power, and does an excellent job controlling the strike zone.
41) Brian McCann, Atlanta Braves
Position: Catcher | Bats: Left | DOB: 2/20/1984 | Career Stats
YEAR LVL AB AVG OBP SLG HR XBH BB SO 2002 R 100 .220 .295 .330 2 7 10 22 2003 A 424 .290 .329 .462 12 46 24 73 2004 A 382 .277 .337 .487 15 50 31 54
Remember what I said earlier about not getting overly worked up over young catchers who hit in the low minors? Well, believe it or not ranking Brian McCann 41st is my attempt at following that advice. With the large caveat that he was 20 years old and in Single-A last season, McCann’s power potential looks incredible. He smacked 50 extra-base hits in just 382 at-bats at Single-A Myrtle Beach, a very tough park for hitting in the pitcher-friendly Carolina League. In fact, just two of McCann’s 15 home runs came at home and he slugged .546 with 32 extra-base hits in 218 road at-bats.
While McCann drew a measly 27 non-intentional walks in 111 games, he also struck out just 54 times (14.1% of his at-bats), which is a low number for someone with so much power. He is considered a solid defensive catcher by most accounts and threw out 30% of attempted basestealers, meaning unlike some other offensively talented catching prospects he should be able to stay behind the plate in the majors. Like with Mathis last season, 2005 will be a big year for McCann. If he can continue his strong showing at Double-A, he’ll be one of the top prospects in baseball this time next year.