The Top 50 Prospects of 2004 (Part One: 26-50)

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

At some point, for every single major league team, the phrase “wait til next year” is uttered. That saying is the mantra of some franchises, a constant wish for better things ahead that just never seem to actually arrive.

For other teams, it is a phrase that represents the hope of finding that missing piece for next year, that one player who can push a team over the top or give them that little something they lacked the year before.

And for one team each season, “wait til next year” is a warning to the rest of the league, a notification of reinforcements that will soon arrive and make last year’s World Series champions even stronger.

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.

These prospects are the hopes, prayers and dreams of many, and while several of them will succeed, some to extraordinary heights, others will fail miserably and become nothing more than a nightmare, a tease of something that “coulda been.”

For every player who was a “sure thing,” there is another guy who was a “sure thing.” For each guy who “can’t miss,” there is another who did. Heck, just days before I finalized these rankings Greg Miller, a Los Angeles pitching prospect who would have been on the list, was shut down because of shoulder problems and had arthroscopic surgery to try to find the source of the problems. It was like a last-minute reminder from the baseball gods that things are far from guaranteed, even for the best prospects.

Before I get to the prospects, I want to say a few words about my rankings.

To be eligible for this list, a player must meet the rookie-of-the-year qualifications. That means he has to have a total of fewer than 130 at bats or 50 innings pitched in the majors. In other words, no Miguel Cabrera, Jose Reyes or Rich Harden. In addition to that, I don’t rank anyone who is never going to spend a day in the minor leagues, such as Kazuo Matsui.

There is definitely no set formula for how I rank players and it is, at best, an extremely inexact science. That said, there are five key things I tend to look at for each player:

1) 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.

2) Plate discipline/control of the strike zone

Despite what the old cliche might tell you, a walk is usually not as good as a hit. However, for a player in the minor leagues to show some semblance of discipline at the plate is a very important factor in their development, and is thus a very important factor in these rankings. This is certainly not a must for every single prospect, but it is very important.

3) Defense and future position

Accurately judging a player’s defensive abilities at the major league level is a difficult task at best and tedious at worst. Doing the same for minor league players is like trying to come up with the perfect simile, it’s almost impossible.

In the minors, shortstops routinely make 40 errors in a season, many players are learning new positions on the job, and it isn’t as if there’s a place to find defensive Win Shares for center fielders in the Florida State League. That said, defense is a huge part of a player’s value and it is just as big a factor in how good a prospect is.

Another important aspect of defense for prospects is trying to determine which position the player will end up playing in the majors. Many players find themselves shifting down the defensive spectrum as they advance up through the minor leagues and a player’s overall status as a prospect must at least attempt to take into account their eventual position(s). 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 in the majors.

4) Statistical performance and the factors involved

The performance part is pretty self-explanatory: At some point, a “prospect” has to play like a prospect, because being a first round pick or a highly touted foreign signing 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 major leagues, there are many different types of “park factors” throughout minor league baseball. There are parks that favor pitching and parks that favor hitting, and there are entire leagues that do the same.

5) Strikeouts and walks for pitchers

For pitchers, the first thing I look at is the strikeout rate. The more strikeouts the better, it’s as simple as that. Okay, maybe it’s not quite that simple. In general, the higher a pitcher’s strikeout rate is, the better chance for long-term success he has. There are definitely tons 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 and, at the same time, a pitcher can be very successful with an unexceptional strike out rate if he doesn’t walk many batters. 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, 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?

Without further ado, prospects #26-50 for 2004 (and may your team’s “next year” be a good one)…

50) Adam LaRoche

Atlanta Braves | First Base | Bats: Left | DOB: 11/6/1979

YEAR   LVL    AB    AVG    OBP    SLG   HR   D+T   BB   SO   SB
2001     A   471   .251   .305   .361    7    31   30  108   10
2002     A   250   .336   .406   .512    9    17   27   37    0
        AA   173   .289   .363   .410    4     9   19   38    1
2003    AA   219   .283   .381   .511   12    13   34   53    1
       AAA   264   .295   .360   .466    8    21   27   58    1

Adam LaRoche is a first baseman in the Mark Grace/Wally Joyner/Doug Mientkiewicz mold. That means he’s a left-handed hitter with high batting averages, solid doubles power, good plate discipline and great defense, but without prototypical home run power for a first baseman.

At 24 and with his minor league track-record, it’s unlikely LaRoche will become a star. In 179 career games between Double-A and Triple-A, he is a .290 hitter with 24 homers, 42 doubles and 80 walks.

That said, LaRoche looks like he’ll be a consistently solid performer for the Braves, starting this season. He’s the kind of guy who should be able to string together a bunch of .275/.350/.450 years, with a couple .300/.375/.500 seasons thrown in.

49) Joel Zumaya

Detroit Tigers | Pitcher | Throws: Right | DOB: 11/9/1984

YEAR   LVL      IP    ERA    SO   BB     H   HR
2002     R    37.1   1.93    46   11    21    2
2003     A    90.1   2.79   126   38    69    3

Detroit‘s 11th round pick in 2002, Joel Zumaya is probably the least-known guy on this list. He’s not the most polished pitcher you’ll see, his secondary pitches are not very good at this point, and he’s had some back problems.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that his fastball is, from all accounts, absolutely electric, reaching 97-98 MPH last year, and his numbers simply jump off the page. In 127 career pro innings, Zumaya has struck out 172 batters (12.2/9 IP) with a strikeout/walk ratio of 3.5/1. For a former 320th pick in the draft who was just 18 years old last year, his performance has been pretty incredible.

Zumaya is a long way from the majors at this point, but he’s got a very high ceiling. He’ll need to stay healthy and, like most young pitchers coming out of high school, work on his off-speed stuff. For a guy who throws pure gas though, even his walk rate (3.2/9 IP) wasn’t all that bad. Keep an eye on this guy.

48) Matt Riley

Baltimore Orioles | Pitcher | Throws: Left | DOB: 8/2/1979

YEAR   LVL      IP    ERA    SO   BB     H   HR
2001        --- INJURED, DID NOT PLAY ---
2002    AA   109.1   6.34   105   48   136   12
2003    AA    72.1   3.11    73   23    56    4
       AAA    70.1   3.58    77   28    70    4
       MLB    10.0   1.80     8    5     7    1

Once upon a time, Matt Riley was a top pitching prospect. The Orioles picked him in the third round all the way back in 1997 and he was ranked as Baltimore’s #1 prospect by Baseball America in both 1999 and 2000. Since then, he’s been great, had injuries, and suffered through bouts of severe ineffectiveness.

Riley dominated at Single-A, cruised through Double-A and debuted in the majors in 1999, after just 42 minor league starts. After a few starts with Baltimore, he went back to Double-A in 2000 and blew out his elbow. He pitched just seven innings in 2000, missed all of 2001, and then struggled mightily in 2002.

After a surprisingly good comeback season in 2003, he’s now back on the prospect radar. And despite all that, he’s still just 24 years old. All the basic disclaimers about pitching prospects and injuries should obviously be multiplied about ten-fold for Matt Riley, but I’m cautiously optimistic.

47) Jason Stokes

Florida Marlins | First Base | Bats: Right | DOB: 1/23/1982

YEAR   LVL    AB    AVG    OBP    SLG   HR   D+T   BB   SO   SB
2001     A   130   .231   .299   .400    6     3   11   48    0
2002     A   349   .341   .421   .645   27    25   47   96    1
2003     A   462   .258   .312   .448   17    34   36  135    6

I was sky high on Jason Stokes this time last year, following his .341/.421/.645 performance at Single-A. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have been.

For one thing, despite his tremendous offensive production, Stokes’ strikeout/walk ratio was poor and was actually worse than it looked thanks to a bunch of intentional walks padding his total. In addition to that, his 2002 season was cut short because of a wrist injury. That is usually something that makes a red-flag pop up in my head, especially in regard to power-hitters, but for some reason it didn’t stop me from ranking Stokes in my top 10.

It’s a year later now and Stokes just barely makes the cut for my top 50. He had a poor season in 2003, hitting just .258/.312/.448 in 121 games. He did show some decent power (17 homers, 51 total extra-base hits), but not nearly as much as he did in 2002. Plus, his strikeout/walk ratio got even worse, dropping all the way to 135/36.

Last year I thought Stokes was on his way to developing into an elite offensive player, but now he looks more like an all-or-nothing slugger with a significant lack of plate discipline. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because of the impact the wrist problem may have had on his season, which is why he didn’t drop completely off this list.

46) Gabe Gross

Toronto Blue Jays | Outfield | Bats: Left | DOB: 10/21/1979

YEAR   LVL    AB    AVG    OBP    SLG   HR   D+T   BB   SO   SB
2001     A   126   .302   .426   .500    4    11   26   29    4
2002    AA   403   .238   .333   .380   10    22   53   71    8
2003    AA   310   .319   .423   .481    7    26   52   53    3
       AAA   182   .264   .380   .456    5    18   31   56    1

The 15th overall pick in the 2001 draft, Gabe Gross tore up Single-A Dunedin to the tune of .302/.426/.500 after signing with Toronto. He got a brief stint at Double-A Tennessee at the end of his first pro season and then started his second year there. He struggled, hitting just .238/.333/.380 in 112 games.

There were some signs of life even in that dismal performance, as Gross’ strikeout/walk ratio (71/53) remained good and he hit well in the second-half of the year. He repeated the level in 2003 and did extremely well, hitting .319/.423/.481 in 84 games before his promotion to Triple-A. Gross then continued to hit at Triple-A, batting .264/.380/.456 in 53 games.

I don’t think Gross is going to be a star, but he’s very close to being ready for the big leagues and he should be a solid corner outfielder for many years. He reminds me of Brad Wilkerson and Bobby Kielty (when he’s batting left-handed), a couple of low batting average/good plate discipline and power guys.

In fact, Wilkerson’s and Kielty’s minor league numbers are incredibly similar to Gross’:

Double-A          AVG      OBP      SLG
Wilkerson        .270     .396     .438
Kielty           .262     .397     .435
Gross            .272     .373     .427
 
Triple-A          AVG      OBP      SLG
Wilkerson        .261     .407     .474
Kielty           .286     .391     .470
Gross            .264     .379     .456

Pretty close, huh? Wilkerson has gone on to hit .261/.368/.452 (106 OPS+) in three seasons with the Expos, while Kielty has hit .261/.367/.428 (109 OPS+) in three years between Minnesota and Toronto.

45) Jose Lopez

Seattle Mariners | Shortstop | Bats: Right | DOB: 11/24/1983

YEAR   LVL    AB    AVG    OBP    SLG   HR   D+T   BB   SO   SB
2001     A   289   .256   .309   .329    2    15   13   44   13
2002     A   522   .324   .360   .464    8    44   27   45   31
2003    AA   538   .258   .303   .403   13    37   27   56   18

I was very high on Jose Lopez last year and he had a decent but disappointing season in 2003. He batted just .258/.303/.403, but did have 13 homers and 50 total extra-base hits in 538 at bats, while also stealing 18 bases.

Before putting him back on this list for 2004, I thought long and hard about whether or not I was falling into what I like to call the “Luis Rivas trap.” Basically, Rivas was pushed very fast through the minor leagues and was extremely young for each level he played at. He never actually produced offensively, but most people kept giving him free passes because of his youth. Now he’s 24, he still has yet to produce any kind of good offense for a sustained period of time, and many people are still giving him a free pass. As readers of my blog know, I have complained about this many times.

So, does this apply to Jose Lopez? Honestly, no. Like Rivas, Lopez has been extremely young for each level he’s played at. However, unlike Rivas, Lopez actually had a very productive offensive season, hitting .324/.360/.464 at Single-A in 2002. Rivas doesn’t have anything close to that on his resume.

I am very willing to give extremely young players the benefit of the doubt, as long as they show me something to get excited about. Rivas never showed that, but Lopez definitely has. Jose Lopez may never become a great player, but his spot on this list is justified.

44) Justin Huber

New York Mets | Catcher | Bats: Right | DOB: 7/1/1982

YEAR   LVL    AB    AVG    OBP    SLG   HR   D+T   BB   SO   SB
2001     R   159   .314   .415   .528    7    12   17   42    4
2002     A   330   .291   .408   .470   11    24   45   81    1
         A   100   .270   .370   .400    3     3   11   18    0
2003     A   183   .284   .370   .514    9    15   17   30    1
        AA   193   .264   .350   .425    6    13   19   54    0

Mets fans are going to get spoiled. Look at the catchers they’ve had over the years. In the 80s they had Gary Carter. Then they had Todd Hundley (when he was good). And then, of course, they’ve had Mike Piazza for the last six years. Now right around the time Piazza is ready to move out from behind the plate, they’ve got another catching stud coming up in Justin Huber.

Like Piazza and Hundley, Huber is not considered the greatest defensive catcher, but the man can hit. He’s a .282/.382/.464 career hitter in 280 minor leagues games, including .274/.362/.468 between Single-A and Double-A last year. He’s got good plate discipline and solid power, although he strikes out more than you’d like to see.

Huber should be ready for an everyday gig sometime around 2005. If the Mets want to keep the catcher/first base platoon thing going with Piazza for a while longer, Huber could probably do nicely in that role too.

43) Gavin Floyd

Philadelphia Phillies | Pitcher | Throws: Right | DOB: 1/27/1983

YEAR   LVL      IP    ERA    SO   BB     H   HR
2002     A   166.0   2.77   140   64   119   13
2003     A   138.0   3.00   115   45   128    9

Gavin Floyd, Philadelphia‘s first rounder (4th overall) in 2001, started his pro career at low Single-A in 2002 and then moved up a level to high Single-A last season. His numbers in both places were extremely similar:

YEAR      ERA     SO9     BB9      HR9     K/BB
2002     2.77     7.6     3.5     0.70     2.19
2003     3.00     7.5     2.9     0.59     2.55

If you look closely, there was some improvement. Floyd’s strikeout rate stayed exactly the same, which, despite not being a huge number, is actually a pretty good sign for someone facing tougher competition. He cut down on his walks by about 17% and thus his K/BB ratio improved by about 16%. He also cut down his homers allowed by about 15%.

Not huge strides, obviously, but improvement nonetheless. I’d still like to see Floyd increase his strikeouts at some point, and he’s still young enough to do that. Right now though, he looks to me like a #2/#3 starter.

42) David Bush

Toronto Blue Jays | Pitcher | Throws: Right | DOB: 11/9/1979

YEAR   LVL      IP    ERA    SO   BB     H   HR
2002     A    22.1   2.82    39    7    13    1
         A    13.1   2.03     9    2    10    1
2003     A    77.0   2.81    75    9    64    6
        AA    81.0   2.78    73   19    73    4

David Bush was a dominant closer at Wake Forest, going 8-1 with a 1.65 ERA and 13 saves during his senior year. Toronto took him with the 55th overall pick in the 2002 draft and Bush pitched 35.2 innings with a 2.52 ERA after signing.

The Blue Jays converted him into a starting pitcher last year and the results were tremendous. Bush started 28 games between Single-A and Double-A, pitching a total of 164 innings with 14 wins and a 2.69 ERA. He struck out 148 batters (8.1/9 IP) and had a fantastic strikeout/walk ratio of 148/28 (5.3 K/BB).

With a very good fastball/slider combo and a solid change up, Bush seems to have the repertoire to succeed as a starter in the major leagues. He should get a chance with Toronto before the year is over and will be joining Roy Halladay in the rotation full-time soon after that.

41) Franklin Gutierrez

Los Angeles Dodgers | Outfield | Bats: Right | DOB: 2/21/1983

YEAR   LVL    AB    AVG    OBP    SLG   HR   D+T   BB   SO   SB
2001     R   234   .269   .324   .389    4    16   16   39    9
2002     A   361   .283   .344   .454   12    22   31   88   13
2003     A   426   .282   .345   .513   20    33   39  111   17
        AA    67   .313   .387   .597    4     5    7   20    3

Franklin Gutierrez is an interesting player. He is one of the toolsiest (is that a word?) players around, but he has also produced some actual good results. That’s a rare combination, particularly for someone so young, and that’s what makes Gutierrez such an intriguing prospect.

The one area of his game that is an obvious weakness is plate discipline. Gutierrez struck out 131 times last year and drew just 46 walks. The walk total isn’t horrible, but striking out more than once a game is definitely a concern.

The good news is the power/speed combo. Gutierrez hit 24 homers last year and had an extra-base hit in 12.5% of his at bats. He also stole 20 bases at a 72% clip and played solid defense in center field. He may have to move to an outfield corner as he continues to mature physically and he’s got the arm for right field.

40) Kevin Youkilis

Boston Red Sox | Third Base | Bats: Right | DOB: 3/15/1979

YEAR   LVL    AB    AVG    OBP    SLG   HR   D+T   BB   SO   SB
2001     A   183   .317   .512   .464    3    16   70   28    4
2002     A    53   .283   .433   .377    0     5   13    8    0
         A   268   .295   .422   .388    3    16   49   37    0
        AA   160   .344   .462   .500    5    10   31   18    5
2003    AA   312   .327   .487   .465    6    24   86   40    7
       AAA   109   .165   .295   .248    2     3   18   21    0

Kevin Youkilis started last season at Double-A Portland and posted yet another monstrous on-base percentage. After 94 games there, he was promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket, at which point he had the following OBPs at his five minor league stops:

.512
.433
.422
.462
.487

Then he got to Triple-A and everything fell apart. Youkilis hit just .165 in 32 games there and, although his plate discipline and isolated power were actually still pretty good, a .165 batting average is a .165 batting average no matter what.

Youkilis is a hotly debated prospect in the scout vs. stat-head world and those who were “against” him coming into the season have jumped all over his struggles at Triple-A, using them as evidence of his demise. I’m not so fast to dismiss someone based on 109 bad at bats, especially when he had been so good up until those struggles.

There are a lot of things Kevin Youkilis doesn’t do and anyone looking to build a case against him being a good prospect can certainly point those out. For me, I’ll take a guy with a career OBP of .451 any day of the week, no matter how bad he was in 32 Triple-A games.

2004 is a big year for Youkilis and I’m confident he’ll perform well at Triple-A – not that it’ll silence his doubters any. He looks like a modern-day Eddie Yost to me.

39) Clint Nageotte

Seattle Mariners | Pitcher | Throws: Right | DOB: 10/25/1980

YEAR   LVL      IP    ERA    SO   BB     H   HR
2001     A   152.1   3.13   187   50   141   10
2002     A   164.2   4.54   214   68   153   10
2003    AA   154.0   3.10   157   67   127    6

I’m still a big fan of Clint Nageotte‘s, but I’m not as convinced of his ability to become a dominant starting pitcher as I was this time last year. He had a very good season at Double-A San Antonio in 2003, going 11-7 with a 3.10 ERA in 154 innings. His strikeout numbers, as usual, were very impressive. However, the deterioration of his strikeout/walk ratio is concerning.

          K/BB
2001      3.74
2002      3.15
2003      2.34

Part of that is due to moving up a level each year, but you would also expect a pitcher to refine his control during that span, which Nageotte hasn’t really done.

Almost anyone you talk to will say that Nageotte has perhaps the best slider in all of minor league baseball and his fastball and changeup are considered good pitches too. Still, there has always been talk that he may simply be best suited for the bullpen long-term because of his reliance on the slider. I still think a guy who posts a 3.10 ERA as a 22-year-old at Double-A and strikes out more than a batter an inning there has a future as a starting pitcher, but 2004 will probably tell for sure.

38) David DeJesus

Kansas City Royals | Outfield | Bats: Left | DOB: 12/20/1979

YEAR   LVL    AB    AVG    OBP    SLG   HR   D+T   BB   SO   SB
2001                 --- INJURED, DID NOT PLAY ---
2002     A   334   .296   .400   .434    4    28   48   42   15
        AA    79   .253   .347   .443    2     7    8   10    3
2003    AA    71   .338   .422   .479    2     4    9    8    1
       AAA   215   .298   .412   .470    5    19   34   30    8

Drafted out of Rutgers in the fourth round of the 2000 draft, David DeJesus struggled with injuries and didn’t play his first minor league game until 2002. When he’s been healthy, he has played well and moved quickly through Kansas City‘s system, which has kept him from getting the dreaded “too old for a prospect” label.

In his first pro season, DeJesus played 112 games between Single-A and Double-A and hit .288 with six homers, 28 doubles, six triples, 56 walks and 18 stolen bases. Then last year he split the season between Double-A and Triple-A, hitting .308/.416/.472 in 76 games. He also made a brief appearance with the Royals, collecting two hits in seven at bats.

The Royals are pretty stacked with outfielders for 2004, so DeJesus may begin the year back at Triple-A. Should Carlos Beltran leave after (or during) the season, DeJesus will be his replacement in center field. If the Royals can keep Beltran, DeJesus will flank him, most likely in left field. He’ll be a good one and he’s just about ready.

37) James Loney

Los Angeles Dodgers | First Base | Bats: Left | DOB: 5/7/1984

YEAR   LVL    AB    AVG    OBP    SLG   HR   D+T   BB   SO   SB
2002     A   170   .371   .457   .624    5    25   25   18    5
         A    67   .299   .356   .388    0     6    6   10    0
2003     A   468   .276   .337   .400    7    34   43   80    9

James Loney was Los Angeles’ first round pick (19th overall) in the 2002 draft and he absolutely demolished minor league pitching after signing. He started his pro career in low Single-A and hit a very Ruthian .371/.457/.624 in 47 games. He moved on to high Single-A and finished up the season by batting .299/.356/.388 in 17 games.

The results in his second year weren’t so great. Loney was bothered by a sore wrist for much of the season and that no doubt hurt his numbers. He ended up hitting .276/.337/.400 with seven homers and 41 total extra-base hits in 125 games.

The batting average wasn’t bad and his strikeout/walk ratio of 80/43 is pretty solid. Plus, Loney was just 19 years old. Assuming the wrist is healthy now (and judging from what I saw of him this spring, it is), Loney is a good bet to have a big season in 2004. I’m guessing he’ll move way up this list next year.

36) Travis Blackley

Seattle Mariners | Pitcher | Throws: Left | DOB: 11/4/1982

YEAR   LVL      IP    ERA    SO   BB     H   HR
2001     A    78.2   3.32    90   29    60    7
2002     A   121.1   3.49   152   44   102   11
2003    AA   162.1   2.61   144   62   125   11

Travis Blackley is still a relatively unknown prospect thanks to unspectacular “stuff,” but his actual performance, which I’m happy to take over radar gun readings, has always been extremely impressive. Signed out of Australia in 2000, Blackley has a career record of 28-13 with a 3.06 ERA in three minor league seasons. He had his best year in 2003.

Blackley won the 2003 Texas League Pitcher of the Year by going 17-3 with a 2.61 ERA in 162.1 innings at Double-A San Antonio. He lacks the blazing fastball that many pitchers on this list possess, but despite the lack of velocity, Blackley struck out 8.0 batters per nine innings last year and has 386 strikeouts in 362.1 career innings.

Blackley won’t turn 22 until November and he is just a couple steps from the majors. He’ll likely begin this season at Triple-A and could see time in Seattle by the end of the year. He doesn’t look to me like a future ace, but I think he’ll make a solid #2/#3 starter on a good team. He should be ready to step in as a regular member of the starting rotation just in time to replace another lefty with results that dwarf his stuff, Jamie Moyer.

35) Michael Aubrey

Cleveland Indians | First Base | Bats: Left | DOB: 4/15/1982

YEAR   LVL    AB    AVG    OBP    SLG   HR   D+T   BB   SO   SB
2003     A   138   .348   .409   .551    5    13   14   22    0

After a standout college career at Tulane University, Michael Aubrey was taken by the Indians with the 11th pick in last June’s draft. Fellow THT author Craig Burley recently published a study over at the Batter’s Box that took college performances and adjusted them for ballparks and quality of competition. He found that Aubrey, who hit .420/.505/.733 during his final year at Tulane, was the second-best hitter in all of college baseball last season.

Aubrey started his pro career at Single-A and dominated, hitting .348/.409/.551 with 18 extra-base hits in 38 games. A polished college hitter, he should move quickly through Cleveland’s system and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was their starting first baseman by 2005.

34) Jesse Crain

Minnesota Twins | Pitcher | Throws: Right | DOB: 7/5/1981

YEAR   LVL      IP    ERA    SO   BB     H   HR
2002     R    15.2   0.57    18    7     4    0
         A    12.0   1.50    11    4     6    0
2003     A    19.0   2.84    25    5    10    0
        AA    39.0   0.69    56   10    13    0
       AAA    26.0   3.12    33   10    24    0

Inning for inning, Jesse Crain was as good as just about any pitcher in baseball last year. He pitched at three levels of Minnesota’s minor league system and dominated at each one, throwing a combined 84 innings with a 1.93 ERA.

Crain struck out an amazing 114 batters (12.2/9 IP) and walked just 25 (4.6 K/BB). He held opponents to a .160 batting average, allowing just 47 hits in 294 at bats. Perhaps the most amazing stat is that Crain didn’t allow a single home run last year and also avoided giving up a homer in 2002, giving him 111.2 total pro innings pitched without allowing even one long ball.

Crain’s season doesn’t quite compare to Eric Gagne‘s Cy Young dominance with the Dodgers, but it’s not that far off:

            IP      ERA      SO     BB     HR     OAVG
Gagne     82.1     1.20     137     20      2     .133
Crain     84.0     1.93     114     25      0     .160

He was particularly dominant at Double-A New Britain, throwing 39 innings with a 0.69 ERA. He posted a 56/10 strikeout/walk ratio and held opponents to an almost unbelievable .099 batting average in 131 at bats.

Minnesota’s second round pick in 2002, Crain is the future at closer for the Twins and could take the job as early as this season.

33) Josh Barfield

San Diego Padres | Second Base | Bats: Right | DOB: 12/17/1982

YEAR   LVL    AB    AVG    OBP    SLG   HR   D+T   BB   SO   SB
2001     R   277   .310   .348   .437    4    19   16   54   12
2002     A   536   .306   .340   .403    8    25   26  105   26
2003     A   549   .337   .389   .530   16    52   50  122   16

Josh Barfield is the son of Jesse Barfield, a 12-year veteran outfielder with the Blue Jays and Yankees. Like his dad, Josh is a very good hitter. Unlike his dad, who was a right fielder, Josh plays a premium defensive position…at least for now.

Barfield won the California League (Single-A) MVP last season by hitting .337/.389/.530 with 16 homers and a minor league leading 46 doubles. He also led all of minor league baseball in hits (185), extra-base hits (68) and RBIs (128). That’s some serious offense from a second baseman and Barfield even improved his plate discipline significantly last year.

Of course, the problem is that he may not stay at second base. Reports on his defense as mixed, but the general consensus seems to be that he’ll be average there, at best. He may eventually have to make a move to the outfield, where his bat will certainly allow him to still be a good player. If Barfield does stay at second, he’ll form a very good double-play combo with…

32) Khalil Greene

San Diego Padres | Shortstop | Bats: Right | DOB: 10/21/1979

YEAR   LVL    AB    AVG    OBP    SLG   HR   D+T   BB   SO   SB
2002     A   183   .317   .368   .525    9    10   12   33    0
2003    AA   229   .275   .327   .406    3    19   16   55    2
       AAA   319   .288   .346   .442   10    19   20   52    5
       MLB    65   .215   .271   .400    2     5    4   19    0

Khalil Greene was the College Player of the Year in 2002, after hitting .470/.552/.877 at Clemson. Greene did it all in college. He blasted an incredible 27 homers and 33 doubles in just 71 games, driving in 91 runs. He showed very good plate discipline, posting a 22/46 strikeout/walk ratio, and went 17/18 stealing bases.

So far, Greene has not shown anything close to that in the minors. He’s still a good player, of course, but he just hasn’t been the dominant hitter his college numbers suggested he might be.

Greene hit .283/.342/.427 with 13 homers and 36 doubles between Single-A and Double-A last year. If you didn’t know about his college career and you just looked at him as a 23-year-old shortstop, those would be very good numbers.

It looks like Greene will get a chance to be San Diego‘s starting shortstop this year and he should have a solid rookie season. In a 20-game stint with the Padres last year, he hit .215/.271/.400 with two homers and four doubles in 65 at bats. I wouldn’t expect any huge numbers in 2004, but he should be able to hit .260/.320/.410 or so and improve on that in future years.

31) Adam Wainwright

St. Louis Cardinals | Pitcher | Throws: Right | DOB: 8/30/1981

YEAR   LVL      IP    ERA    SO   BB     H   HR
2001     A   164.2   3.77   184   48   144    9
2002     A   163.1   3.31   167   66   149    7
2003    AA   149.2   3.37   128   37   133    9

Adam Wainwright is one of those guys who just gets the job done, despite not having flashy numbers. He’s been one of the most consistent pitchers in the minor leagues over the last three years, with ERAs of 3.77, 3.31, 3.37.

Despite the consistently good ERAs, Wainwright’s strikeout rate has dropped significantly:

         K/9
2001    10.2
2002     9.2
2003     7.7

Definitely not a good pattern. However, his strikeout/walk ratio last year was almost as good as it was in 2001 and significantly better than it was in 2002, which shows how fantastic Wainwright’s control was.

Wainwright was traded from Atlanta to St. Louis in the off-season deal that sent J.D. Drew to the Braves. He’ll likely start 2004 at Triple-A, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him with the Cardinals by mid-season. He’s a future rotation anchor.

30) Delmon Young

Tampa Bay Devil Rays | Outfield | Bats: Right | DOB: 9/14/1985

YEAR   LVL    AB    AVG    OBP    SLG   HR   D+T   BB   SO   SB
                  ---  NO PRO EXPERIENCE  ---

It is my general policy to not include players without at least some minor league experience on this list. Delmon Young, the #1 overall pick in last June’s draft, would fall under this category, having never played a minor league game in his life. Last year, this same rule kept B.J. Upton from appearing on the list.

Because of that, and because Delmon Young absolutely dominated the Arizona Fall League after being drafted, I am making an exception to my rule.

From everything I’ve heard and read about Delmon Young, everyone agrees that he has the potential to a monster offensively. I’ve heard a lot of people compare him to Albert Belle. Strictly as a hitter, of course (as opposed to as a trick-or-treater chaser).

Belle saw his career end prematurely because of a hip injury/condition, but he still managed 381 home runs, 389 doubles and 1,239 RBIs. He finished his career with a batting line of .295/.369/.564, which was good for a 143 OPS+. That ranks 56th all-time and compares favorably to Hall of Famers like Harmon Killebrew, Eddie Mathews and Reggie Jackson, as well as to current sluggers like Carlos Delgado and Chipper Jones. In other words, if Dmitri Young‘s little brother ends up like Albert Belle, he’ll have been one hell of a hitter.

The only statistics to look at from Delmon Young are what he did in high school and what he did in the Arizona Fall League. Like most great high school hitters, Young’s prep numbers are absurd. He hit .544 with a .982 slugging percentage during his senior year. His numbers in the AFL are just slightly less absurd. In 15 games in Arizona, Young batted .417/.451/.625 with seven extra-base hits in just 48 at bats.

In the grand scheme of things, what someone does in the Arizona Fall League is just about as important as what they do in high school, which is to say neither matters a whole lot. Still, when you’ve only got limited data to go on, you look at these types of things, and they certainly don’t do anything to stop all the talk about Young’s incredible bat.

Check back next year, because there’s a good chance he’ll be one of the top prospects in baseball.

29) J.J. Hardy

Milwaukee Brewers | Shortstop | Bats: Right | DOB: 8/19/1982

YEAR   LVL    AB    AVG    OBP    SLG   HR   D+T   BB   SO   SB
2001     R   125   .248   .326   .336    2     5   15   12    1
2002     A   335   .293   .327   .409    6    20   19   38    9
        AA   146   .228   .269   .297    1     7    9   19    1
2003    AA   416   .279   .368   .428   12    26   58   54    6

There is nothing spectacular about J.J. Hardy‘s numbers, but the context they were put up in is where the potential lies.

Hardy played all of last season at Double-A and he was just 20 years old. Huntsville is a tough place to hit, but Hardy still managed a .279 batting average, 38 extra-base hits in 416 at bats, and a phenomenal 54/58 strikeout/walk ratio. And he did all that while playing shortstop and playing it well.

Any 20-year-old shortstop who can post a .368 OBP in a full season at Double-A with more walks than strikeouts and decent power is okay with me. Hardy doesn’t look like a future superstar to me, but he should be a very solid all-around player.

The Hardy/Weeks double-play combo is gonna be fun to watch.

28) Scott Hairston

Arizona Diamondbacks | Second Base | Bats: Right | DOB: 5/25/1980

YEAR   LVL    AB    AVG    OBP    SLG   HR   D+T   BB   SO   SB
2001     R   291   .347   .432   .588   14    22   38   50    2
2002     A   394   .332   .426   .563   16    39   58   74    9
         A    79   .405   .442   .797    6    12    6   16    1
2003    AA   337   .276   .345   .469   10    28   30   80    6

Scott Hairston entered last season as a career .346/.430/.697 hitter in 201 minor leagues games. He made the jump to Double-A last year, struggled with injuries, and saw his offense drop significantly. Of course, he still managed to hit .276/.345/.469, which looks very nice from a second baseman.

That said, while there are very few doubters of Hairston’s hitting ability, there are many who question whether or not he’ll be able to stay at second base in the majors. His bat is good enough that he’ll have value anywhere, but whether or not he can stick in the middle infield will probably determine if he becomes a great player or just a very good one.

An interesting note: Scott is the son of former 16-year major leaguer Jerry Hairston Sr. and the younger brother of Jerry Hairston Jr., currently a second baseman with the Orioles. Jerry Jr. was actually a pretty good minor league hitter himself, batting .302 with a .442 slugging percentage in 373 minor league games. It hasn’t translated into much offense at the major league level however, as he is just a career .254/.325/.366 hitter with Baltimore.

27) Guillermo Quiroz

Toronto Blue Jays | Catcher | Bats: Right | DOB: 11/29/1981

YEAR   LVL    AB    AVG    OBP    SLG   HR   D+T   BB   SO   SB
2001     A   261   .199   .294   .326    7    12   29   67    5
2002     A   411   .260   .330   .421   12    29   35   91    1
2003    AA   369   .282   .372   .518   20    27   45   83    0

Guillermo Quiroz is obviously the “catcher of the future” for the Blue Jays. The interesting thing is that they sort of already have a catcher of the future in Kevin Cash, who will likely get quite a bit of time behind the plate in Toronto this year. I probably like Cash a lot more than most people (he was on this list last year), but if Quiroz keeps playing like he did last season, Cash has no chance of holding him off.

Quiroz played the majority of 2002 at Single-A Dunedin and then had a brief stint at Triple-A Syracuse at the end of the year. He had a solid but unspectacular season, hitting .257/.326/.417 with 13 homers and 32 doubles in 456 at bats. Quiroz moved up to Double-A New Haven last season and exploded, batting .282/.372/.518 with 20 homers and 47 total extra-base hits in just 369 at bats.

He improved his plate discipline quite a bit last year and his defense is good, so Quiroz looks like the total package. Plus, he doesn’t turn 23 until November.

26) Dustin McGowan

Toronto Blue Jays | Pitcher | Throws: Right | DOB: 3/24/1982

YEAR   LVL      IP    ERA    SO   BB     H   HR
2001     A    67.0   3.76    80   49    57    1
2002     A   148.1   4.19   163   59   143   10
2003     A    75.2   2.85    66   25    62    1
        AA    76.2   3.17    72   19    78    1

Toronto has developed some very interesting pitching prospects over the past few years and Dustin McGowan is the best of the bunch.

Drafted 33rd overall in 2000, McGowan started his career with good strikeout rates and inconsistent results, thanks to control issues. He seemed to put everything together for the first time last year and it resulted in him going 12-7 with a 3.02 ERA between Single-A and Double-A.

McGowan cut his walk rate by nearly 30% last year and kept his strikeout rate high – 8.1 per nine innings. He served up just two homers in nearly 150 innings, which is amazing for a starting pitcher. For his career, he has allowed just 15 homers in 392.2 innings pitched, or 0.34 per nine innings. There is some serious pitching on the way to Toronto.

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