Top 50 Prospects of 2006: 1-5

Also in this series:
Top 50 Prospects of 2006: 6-10
Top 50 Prospects of 2006: 11-15
Top 50 Prospects of 2006: 16-20
Top 50 Prospects of 2006: 21-25
Top 50 Prospects of 2006: 26-30
Top 50 Prospects of 2006: 31-35
Top 50 Prospects of 2006: 36-40
Top 50 Prospects of 2006: 41-45
Top 50 Prospects of 2006: 46-50

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

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 fewer than 130 at-bats or 50 innings in the majors. In other words, no Felix Hernandez or B.J. Upton. In addition to that, I don’t rank anyone who has yet to spend a day in the minors (or Arizona Fall League) or never will, such as Justin Upton or Kenji Johjima. There is no set formula for how I rank prospects, but here are the three biggest things I look at:

Age and level of competition: In many cases, a 20-year-old simply holding his own at Double-A is more impressive than a 25-year-old tearing up the same league. That’s not to say every young player is a good prospect or every older player is a non-prospect, but it’s a significant consideration for all players. For example, a lack of plate discipline can sometimes be forgiven in a prospect who is very young for the league he’s in, while a dominating strikeout-to-walk ratio for a journeyman pitcher beating up on 21-year-olds can usually be discounted.

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’s not 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. In other words, a great-hitting shortstop prospect is a wonderful thing, but less so if that player is unlikely to stick at shortstop.

Statistical performance and the factors involved: At some point, a prospect has to actually 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 majors. In addition to that, there are many aspects of a player’s performance that go 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 different types of playing environments throughout the minors. There are parks that favor pitching and parks that favor hitting, and there are entire leagues that do the same

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 month and there are players who won’t sniff the big leagues for several years. I look at each 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?

5) Jeremy Hermida, Florida Marlins
Position: Right Field | 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
2005      AA     386     .293     .457     .518     18      49    111      89
         MLB      41     .293     .383     .634      4       6      6      12

In ranking Jeremy Hermida the 32nd-best prospect in baseball last year, I wrote that “he’ll need to continue to add more power in order to become an impact corner outfielder in the majors.” Hermida did just that in 2005, slugging .518 with 18 homers and 49 total extra-base hits in 118 games at Double-A and then slugging .634 with another four homers in 41 at-bats with the Marlins (including a grand slam in his first big-league at-bat). To show how his power has developed over the years, take a look at Hermida’s yearly Isolated Power totals since Florida took him in the first round of the 2002 draft: .094, .109, .144, .236.

In four years he’s gone from a potential leadoff man to a likely middle-of-the-order threat, and in doing so put the finishing touches on a resume that makes him perhaps the most well-rounded prospect in baseball. The kicker is that Hermida’s still just 22 years old, which makes the 111 walks he drew and .457 on-base percentage he posted at Double-A all the more impressive. It’s not often that a young player has such amazing plate discipline, and it’s even more rare for that player to hit for big batting averages, play good defense, and run well (23-for-25 stealing bases at Double-A). He figures to be one of the lone bright spots for the Marlins in 2006 and is a frontrunner for NL Rookie of the Year.

4) 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
2003       A     502     .313     .409     .526     27      51     71      80
2004      AA     497     .272     .366     .473     23      53     65      93
2005     AAA     378     .291     .388     .569     28      49     54      93
         MLB      59     .288     .306     .458      2       6      2      17

Prince Fielder is one of just a handful of prospects to rank among my top 50 in each of the four years I’ve compiled this list, ranking 46th in 2003, 10th in 2004, 8th in 2005, and now 4th in 2006. As I’ve done each year, let’s look at how his age-21 season compared to his father, Cecil Fielder, at the same age:

          YEAR      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
Prince    2005     378     .291     .388     .569     28      49     54      93
Cecil     1985     361     .294     .376     .526     18      46     45      83

While not identical—for one thing, Prince was at Triple-A while Cecil was at Double-A—it’s interesting how similar their performances are. In addition to the look-alike age-21 numbers in the minors, Prince made his big-league debut and hit .288/.306/.458 in 59 at-bats, while Cecil made his big-league debut and hit .311/.358/.527 in 74 at-bats. Pretty close, huh? The comparison probably ends there, because Cecil spent most of his age-22 season at Triple-A, struggled to find at-bats with Toronto for the next two years, and then found himself playing in Japan. Meanwhile, Prince is now Milwaukee’s starting first baseman, giving him a head start on topping his father’s 319 career homers.

3) Francisco Liriano, Minnesota Twins
Position: Starter | Throws: Left | DOB: 10/26/1983 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      G     GS        IP      ERA       H     HR      SO     BB
2004       A     21     21     117.0     4.00     118      6     125     43
          AA      7      7      39.2     3.18      45      4      49     17
2005      AA     13     13      76.2     3.64      70      6      92     26
         AAA     14     14      91.0     1.78      56      4     112     24
         MLB      6      4      23.2     5.70      19      4      33      7

In November of 2003, the Twins decided that Joe Mauer was ready for the big leagues and shipped All-Star catcher A.J. Pierzynski to the Giants. In return the Twins received three players, with Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser getting the most attention, and a relatively unknown and oft-injured 19-year-old lefty named Francisco Liriano rounding out the haul. Nathan has since become one of the elite closers in baseball, but Liriano is the guy who has a chance to make the deal one of the most lopsided in baseball history. Now 22 and coming off a spectacular season between Double-A and Triple-A, Liriano is the best pitching prospect in the game.

Liriano started at Double-A, posting a 3.64 ERA and 92-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 76.2 innings—good numbers that pale in comparison to the run he had at Triple-A. In 14 starts, Liriano had a 1.78 ERA and 112-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 91 innings, holding opponents to a .177 batting average. For the year he had a 2.63 ERA and 204 strikeouts in 166.2 minor-league innings, and then struck out 33 batters in 23.2 innings with the Twins. Armed with an overpowering fastball and hard-breaking slider, Liriano has 517 strikeouts compared to just 386 hits allowed in 446 pro innings. He’ll begin the season in the bullpen, but Twins fans are dreaming about Liriano teaming with Johan Santana at the top of the rotation.

2) Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals
Position: Third Base | Bats: Right | DOB: 9/28/1984 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2005      AA     233     .326     .371     .528      9      29     15      34
         MLB      58     .397     .419     .569      0      10      3      12

After hitting .393/.469/.581 during his final season at the University of Virginia, the Nationals selected Ryan Zimmerman with the third overall pick in the 2005 draft. He hit .336/.377/.564 in 67 minor-league games and then made his big-league debut less than three months after being drafted, hitting .397 in 20 games with Washington. His biggest strength is likely defense, which seems odd to say for someone who has hit .347 as a pro. Zimmerman has drawn frequent comparisons to Scott Rolen and is considered an elite defender at third base, even playing some shortstop in both the minors and majors.

The great defense along with lofty batting averages is what makes Zimmerman such a special prospect, and while he has yet to show much power there’s potential for that down the road. He went homerless in 58 at-bats with the Nationals last year, but hit 11 long balls in 250 minor-league at-bats and batted .358 with seven homers in 25 games this spring. He’ll never be a huge power threat and playing half his games at pitcher-friendly RFK Stadium will further deflate his homer totals, but if Zimmerman can manage even 15-20 homers a season—along with Gold Glove-caliber defense at a key position and .300 batting averages—he has a chance to be a perrenial MVP candidate.

1) Delmon Young, Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Position: Right Field | 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
2005      AA     330     .336     .386     .582     20      37     25      66
         AAA     228     .285     .303     .447      6      22      4      33

As a 17-year-old high school senior, Delmon Young batted .544, was the first overall pick in the 2003 draft, and hit .417 in the Arizona Fall League. As an 18-year-old making his pro debut, Young batted .322/.388/.538 with 25 homers and 56 total extra-base hits in 131 games at Single-A, ranking among the league’s top five in batting average, homers, RBIs, and runs. As a 19-year-old getting his first taste of the high minors, Young batted .315/.354/.527 with 26 homers and 59 total extra-base hits in 136 games, winning the Southern (Double-A) League MVP despite being promoted to Triple-A after just 84 games. We don’t know yet how the rest of the story will go, but when a career begins like that it usually ends in greatness.

A prototypical slugging right fielder, Young combines huge power and the ability to post big batting averages with a strong arm and surprising speed. Along with a .317 batting average, 51 homers, and 115 total extra-base hits in 267 pro games, Young has stolen 53 bases at a 75-percent clip. He needs to make significant strides in regard to plate discipline, but Young struck out in fewer than 18 percent of his at-bats last season and it’s awfully tough to fault a 19-year-old for not being more patient against Triple-A pitchers. After a few months to get comfortable at Triple-A, expect Young to spend the second half alongside Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli in what has a chance to be an amazing outfield.

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