The very first column I wrote here at The Hardball Times, way back in March, was the first installment of a multi-part series naming my top 50 prospects. Starting with #50 (Adam LaRoche) and ending with #1 (Joe Mauer), I identified and ranked the 50 prospects I liked best heading into the 2004 season and said a few words about each player. With the 2004 season in the rear-view mirror and my third annual top 50 list in the works, I thought this would be a good opportunity to take a look back at last year’s top prospects to see how they did in 2004.
20) Ervin Santana, Anaheim Angels
What I said then: “I think Ervin Santana is one of the most underrated prospects in baseball. He’s incredibly young (21 in November) and he was absolutely dominant at Single-A last year. Plus, he held his own at Double-A too. … Santana doesn’t get the same amount of attention that some other pitching prospects born in late-1983/early-1984 get, but he probably should.”
What happened since: Santana’s 2004 season was ruined by injuries to his elbow and shoulder. He was healthy long enough to make just eight starts all year, going 2-1 with a 3.30 ERA and 48-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 43 innings at Double-A Arkansas.
19) Jason Bay, Pittsburgh Pirates
What I said then: “He is as ready for an everyday job in the major leagues as anyone on the list. He will be given that opportunity with the Pirates in 2004 and enters the season as one of the top National League Rookie of the Year candidates.”
What happened since: Despite not starting the season until mid-May because of a shoulder injury, Bay put together an outstanding rookie season. He hit .282/.358/.550 with 26 homers, 24 doubles, and 41 walks in 120 games with the Pirates, capturing the National League Rookie of the Year Award over San Diego shortstop Khalil Greene.
18) Dioner Navarro, Los Angeles Dodgers
What I said then: “As the Yankees’ top prospect, Navarro has been mentioned in just about every trade rumor this off-season. With most teams, he’d be looked at as major building block for the future. With the Yankees, he’s probably just a trading chit for the present. I’d say there’s a 20% chance he makes his major league debut before his 21st birthday and a 25% chance he gets traded for Jose Vidro.”
What happened since: Navarro had a disappointing season in 2004, combining to hit just .263/.342/.366 with four homers, 22 doubles, and 47 walks in 110 games between Double-A and Triple-A. And while he didn’t get traded for Vidro like I predicted, he is no longer a Yankee after first being dealt to the Diamondbacks as part of the package for Randy Johnson and then being sent from Arizona to Los Angeles in the deal for Shawn Green.
17) Alexis Rios, Toronto Blue Jays
What I said then: “At 6’6″ and about 200 lbs., Rios has a lot of room to fill out and I expect his power to keep improving. His isolated slugging percentages over the past three years have gone: .091, .103, .169. When he gets it into the .200-range, he’s officially hitting for power.”
What happened since: Despite hitting just .259/.292/.373 with three homers, 10 doubles, and nine walks in 46 games at Triple-A to begin the season, the Blue Jays called Rios up in May and he never looked back. Rios batted .286/.336/.383 with one homer, 24 doubles, and 31 walks in 111 games with Toronto, adding in seven triples and 15 stolen bases to show off his speed. The one thing he didn’t do, however, was hit for power, with just one homer in 426 at-bats.
16) David Wright, New York Mets
What I said then: “I normally don’t get all that excited about third basemen with career batting averages in the low .270s, but David Wright has a variety of skills that go beyond batting average. … I’d like to see him hit .290-.300 above rookie-ball before I’m ready to proclaim him a future star, but Wright is certainly an elite prospect.”
What happened since: Wright finally put up some big batting averages to go with the rest of his impressive numbers in 2004, putting together about as good as a season as you’ll see from a prospect. He started the season by hitting .363 in 60 games at Double-A, moved up to Triple-A where he hit .298 in 31 games, and then finished the year with a .293 batting average with the Mets. Overall, he batted .341/.434/.605 with 18 homers, 35 doubles, and 55 walks in 91 games in the minors and then hit .293/.332/.525 with 14 homers, 17 doubles, and 14 walks in 69 games in the majors.
15) Joe Blanton, Oakland A’s
What I said then: “Oakland just keeps pumping out these great starting pitchers. First Hudson, then Mulder, then Zito. Then last year Rich Harden made his debut. Next in line is Joe Blanton … The A’s haven’t been quite as aggressive promoting Blanton as they were with their other young aces-in-the-making, but with Mark Redman and Harden as their 4th and 5th starters for this year, they can afford to be patient with Blanton.”
What happened since: The A’s were very patient with Blanton in 2004, leaving him in the minors until September. He went 11-8 with a 4.19 ERA and 143-to-34 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 176 innings at Triple-A, before tossing eight innings with a 5.63 ERA in Oakland. With the trades of Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Redman this offseason, the A’s are now counting on Blanton.
14) Casey Kotchman, Anaheim Angels
What I said then: “I think Kotchman is going to be a great player, but at some point he’s going to have to play 100 games in a season. Maybe this is the year.”
What happened since: It was the year. Kotchman stayed relatively healthy in 2004, but did miss about a month with a wrist injury. Still, he totaled a career-high 115 games between Double-A, Triple-A, and the majors, which for Kotchman is like a season out of Cal Ripken Jr.‘s career. Kotchman hit .368/.438/.544 with three homers, 11 doubles, and 10 walks in 28 games at Double-A and then continued his domination by hitting .372/.423/.558 with five homers, 22 doubles, and 14 walks in 49 games at Triple-A. He also got 38 games with the Angels when Darin Erstad got hurt, but hit just .224/.289/.276 with zero homers, six doubles, and seven walks.
13) Zack Greinke, Kansas City Royals
What I said then: “To be a truly premier pitching prospect, I’m talking one of the top 2-3 guys in baseball, I really think you have to rack up some serious strikeout numbers. Greinke has just about everything else going for him, but he didn’t miss enough bats last year to make me put him in the elite class quite yet. Of course, I could be dead wrong. Perhaps Greinke is the next Greg Maddux and his good but not great strikeout numbers aren’t a concern at all. We’ll probably find out in 2004.”
What happened since: Greinke continued to have a ton of success without missing a ton of bats in 2004. He started the season at Triple-A, going 1-1 with a 2.51 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 28 innings, and then made his way to the big leagues. At the age of 20, Greinke more than held his own against major-league hitters, going 8-11 with a 3.97 ERA and 100-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 145 innings with the Royals.
12) Justin Morneau, Minnesota Twins
What I said then: “Someone on the current team (Torii Hunter? Jacque Jones?) might hit 30 homers before Morneau does, but if the Twins want their first real slugger since Harmon Killebrew, it’s going to be Justin Morneau.”
What happened since: Morneau began the season in the minors, but finished the year as the Twins’ starting first baseman and even led to the team trading Doug Mientkiewicz. Morneau hit .306/.377/.615 with 22 homers, 23 doubles, and 32 walks in 72 games at Triple-A and then hit .271/.340/.536 with 19 homers, 17 doubles, and 28 walks in 74 games with Minnesota.
11) Edwin Jackson, Los Angeles Dodgers
What I said then: “Basically, Jackson is a step ahead of Greinke at the same age, and that will likely continue this year, as it appears Jackson will begin the season in LA’s rotation. If he does, he’s one of the top Rookie of the Year candidates.”
What happened since: Turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong about the Greinke/Jackson situation. Not only did Jackson struggle in 2004, Greinke jumped over him on the way to the majors and put together an outstanding rookie season. Meanwhile, Jackson went 6-4 with a 5.86 ERA and 70-to-55 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 90 innings at Triple-A and then posted a 7.29 ERA in 24 innings with the Dodgers.