Top 50 Prospects of 2006: 11-15

Also in this series:
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?

15) Lastings Milledge, New York Mets
Position: Center Field | Bats: Right | DOB: 4/5/1985 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2004       A     261     .337     .399     .579     13      36     17      53
           A      81     .235     .319     .432      2      10      9      21
2005       A     232     .302     .385     .418      4      19     19      41
          AA     193     .337     .392     .487      4      21     14      47

A toolsy high-school outfielder taken by the Mets in the first round of the 2003 draft, Lastings Milledge has been a pleasant surprise in that he’s put up good numbers to go along with his outstanding athleticism. He batted .337/.399/.579 at low Single-A in 2004, hit .302/.385/.418 at high Single-A to begin last season, and then hit .337/.392/.487 in 48 games after a promotion to Double-A. Milledge didn’t show much power in 2005 and needs to draw more walks, but he’s considered a good defensive center fielder, owns a career batting average of .313, and has 60 steals in 204 pro games.

Perhaps most importantly, Milledge doesn’t turn 21 years old until next month, giving him plenty of time to develop more power and work on controlling the strike zone. The one major question I have in regard to Milledge’s development is where he fits into the Mets’ long-term plans. He’s been mentioned in numerous trade scenarios over the last year, but the team has apparently decided he’s a big part of their future. Will that come as a center fielder? Perhaps, but with Carlos Beltran around it seems somewhat unlikely. If Milledge moves to a corner-outfield spot his value drops quite a bit, but he can still be an impact player.

14) Stephen Drew, Arizona Diamondbacks
Position: Shortstop | Bats: Left | DOB: 3/16/1983 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2005       A     149     .389     .486     .738     10      29     26      25
          AA     101     .218     .301     .386      4       9     12      24

After a standout college career at Florida State, Stephen Drew slipped to the Diamondbacks with the 15th overall pick in the 2004 draft because of concerns over his bonus demands. Sure enough he engaged in a lengthy holdout, hitting .427 while playing for an independent league team before eventually signing shortly before the 2005 draft. Drew made his official debut at high Single-A and absolutely destroyed the competition, hitting .389/.487/.738 with 10 homers and 29 total extra-base hits in 38 games before Arizona moved him up to Double-A to finish the season. He struggled there, hitting just .218/.301/.386 in 27 games while striking out 24 times in 101 at-bats.

Despite a poor showing in his first taste of the high minors, Drew is an excellent prospect with a huge upside. He’s a shortstop now and may stay there in the future, but some feel he’ll eventually be best in center field. Whatever the case, he’ll be a potential offensive force as a premium defensive position. The Diamondbacks liked what they saw from Drew during spring training, talking him up as a potential replacement when Craig Counsell was sidelined with a shoulder injury and then trading away Counsell’s primary backup, Alex Cintron. He’ll have to fight off Justin Upton to remain at shortstop long term, but Drew is the logical call-up should anything happen to Counsell in 2006.

13) Chris Young, Arizona Diamondbacks
Position: Center Field | Bats: Right | DOB: 9/5/1983 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2003       R     238     .290     .357     .479      7      28     23      40
2004       A     465     .262     .365     .505     24      60     66     145
2005      AA     466     .277     .377     .545     26      70     70     129

As far as top prospects go, Chris Young tends to get overlooked because his batting average leaves a lot to be desired and he strikes out a lot. He hit just .262 at Single-A in 2004 and batted a modest .277 at Double-A last season, striking out a total of 274 times in 931 at-bats (29 percent) over that span. However, the strikeout totals aren’t especially alarming and if you look beyond batting average you will see a player who does just about everything else extremely well. Young is a well-regarded defensive center fielder, draws tons of walks for someone so young, has outstanding power, and has 63 steals at an 81 percent clip over the past two years.

Acquired from the White Sox for Javier Vazquez this offseason when Chicago questionably chose Brian Anderson over Young as their center fielder of the future, Young joins Arizona’s unmatched collection of young hitters. Along with Young the Diamondbacks have three other position-player prospects on this list (Drew at 14, Carlos Quentin at 18, and Conor Jackson at 25), plus outfielder Carlos Gonzales just missed the cut and perhaps their best prospect, Upton, was simply not eligible this year. Young gets lost in that shuffle, but when it comes to name recognition he might be the most underrated top prospect in baseball.

12) Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals
Position: Third Base | Bats: Left | DOB: 2/10/1984 | Career Stats

A good argument could be made for this ranking be too low, but I hesitate to put any prospect who has yet to play an actual minor-league game in the top 10, even when it’s reigning College Player of the Year and #2 overall pick Alex Gordon. In fact, the only reason Gordon is eligible for this list while someone like #1 overall pick Justin Upton isn’t is that he played in the Arizona Fall League after signing. He hit .260/.403/.460 in 16 games there, but other than that there’s very little to go on when trying to determine how his amazing college performance will translate to the pros. Subjectively, every indication is that he has superstar potential.

Gordon hit .372/.518/.715 with 19 homers, 45 total extra-base hits, and a 38-to-63 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 72 games for the University of Nebraska in 2005. Along with the big-time power and outstanding plate discipline, he is regarded as a quality defender at third base and went 23-for-26 stealing bases in his final college season. He won’t run like that as a pro, but it’s an indication of his athleticism. The Royals were clearly impressed with Gordon this spring and the only thing between him and an everyday job in the majors is Mark Teahen, but Kansas City seems committed to being somewhat cautious with his timetable. Of course, even that means he’ll probably be hitting in the middle of their lineup by August.

11) Daric Barton, Oakland A’s
Position: First Base | Bats: Left | DOB: 8/16/1985 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2003       R     172     .291     .416     .419      4      14     37      48
2004       A     313     .313     .445     .511     13      36     69      44
2005       A     292     .318     .438     .469      8      26     62      49
          AA     212     .316     .410     .491      5      26     35      30

The A’s have already done well with their haul from the Mark Mulder trade thanks to Dan Haren immediately establishing himself as a capable replacement for Mulder in the starting rotation, and if Daric Barton develops as expected it may turn out to be one of the best deals in team history. Acquired from the Cardinals along with Haren and Kiko Calero for Mulder last winter, Barton made the full-time switch from catcher to first base in 2005. He’s reportedly still rough around the edges defensively, but Barton’s outstanding hitting didn’t miss a beat. He hit .318 at Single-A and .316 at Double-A, combining for 13 homers, 52 total extra-base hits, and 97 walks in 135 games.

The most impressive parts of Barton’s game are his ability to post big batting averages (.311 in 279 pro games) and his remarkable plate discipline and strike-zone control (171-to-203 strikeout-to-walk ratio), and the biggest question mark is whether or not his power will develop significantly. Right now Barton looks capable of 15-20 homers per year in the majors, which along with the great on-base skills would make him an excellent player (think Nick Johnson without the injuries). However, the fact that he doesn’t turn 21 years old until August gives some hope that he can eventually generate 30-homer power and become an offensive monster.

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