WTNYSeptember 13, 2004
Los Tres Enemigos
By Bryan Smith

Before beginning this article, I urge you to head over to Hardball Times, which is featuring a special guest columnist. Very special.

For some reason or another, I like to group players together. If two players go through the same levels, at the same ages, with the same position, I track their developments forever. It creates ease when comparing prospects, and makes identifying which is superior simple. In 2002, I had a chance to do that when three teenage outfield prospects had 147, 181 and 216 at-bats across five short-season leagues. All three, while raw, looked like they had immense potential.

But, let me say, two are more similar than the third. Two of them were born within 22 days of each other, in January of 1984. Both played high school baseball in Georgia, at high schools less than one hour from each other. Both were picked in the first round of the 2002 draft, to southern organizations, and signed bonuses within $90K of one another. Interestingly enough, while sporting near identical biographical resumes, the two have seldom played, competing in just a few low-A games.

And then there is the third. Born thirteen months after Jeff Francoeur and Jeremy Hermida, Felix Pie was signed straight out of the Dominican Republic. His story is an odd one, as the Cubs literally ran into his talent. While hosting a tryout near Pies hometown, Cubs scout Jose Serra asked the uninvited Pie to play. One thing led to another, and Pies career began only months before those of Francoeur and Hermida. And from then on, Ive always pieced the three together.

Today, I want to evaluate and compare the progress of these three. Starting with short-season ball, the three have almost always been in equal levels, excusing a three at-bat stint in AAA by Hermida (2003) and a late season promotion to AA for Francoeur this season. And now we look how the Braves, Marlins, and Cubs are building superstars

Step One (2002): Short-Season Baseball

As Ive already said, Felix Pies professional baseball career began first, starring in the Arizona League as a 17-year-old. In 55 games, the outfielder hit .321/.385/.569, with seventeen steals in 25 attempts. Much of his high slugging percentage came from his speed, as he hit thirteen triples and only four home runs. Over the course of 218 at-bats, the left-handed Pie walked 21 times and struck out on 47 occasions. At the end of the season, Chicago promoted Pie to the Northwest League, where Felix went 1/8 in two games.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Hermida had begun his career in the Gulf Coast League. Things did not go well for the 18-year-old, as Hermida hit .224/.316/.321 in 134 at-bats. But, Hermida did show a bit of polish, stealing five bases (0 CS) with a 15/25 BB/K. Florida had enough confidence in their first pick to move him to the New York-Penn League, where Jeremy played in thirteen games. During that time, Hermida hit .319/.407/.404 in 47 at-bats. So overall, the 2002 season saw a line of .249/.340/.343 from that Junes 11th overall choice.

And finally, we have the 23rd overall choice, Mr. Francoeur. After starring for Parkview High School in their 5A state championship, the Braves decided to have their first rounder bypass the Gulf Coast League and move up to the Appalachian League. This proved to be the right decision, as the 18-year-old had a .327/.395/.585 line in 147 at-bats. Jeff also walked 15 times, had 34 strikeouts, and was 8/13 in stolen bases.

So, after 2002, it would have looked like we would rank the three Francoeur, then Pie, and finally Hermida. But before crowning those as the official rankings, I want to look at some park factors. My 2004 Baseball Prospectus doesnt have park factors, but says Francoeurs Danville Braves had a 2002 factor of 961, and Hermidas Jamestown Jammers had a factor of 1048. So, while it appeared Hermida salvaged his 2002 season with some good stats in the NYPL, he did get some help. The order of Francoeur, Pie, Hermida stands.

Step Two (2003): Low-A

Next, the three competitors tried their hands at full-season baseball. Francoeur and Hermida would finally face off in the South Atlantic League, while Pie played in the Midwest League. The latter two played in fairly neutral parks, but Francoeurs park factor was 956, drastically favoring pitchers. So, we should take that with a grain of salt.

All these teenagers would hit in the .280s in 2002, with Pie at .285, Hermida at .284, and the Atlanta outfielder trailing at .281. All were a threat on the bases, with Jeremy stealing 28/30, Jeff swiping 14/20, and Felix showing raw speed with 19/32. But the separation comes in the extra-base hits department, where Francoeurs 49 trounces the 35 and 34 that Pie and Hermida would put up.

Jeremy showed the most polish, with his defense, speed, and discipline (80BB). Pie was still extremely raw, as seen by both his 59% success rate on the bases and his low .388 slugging. Finally, Francoeur showed the most realization of power, though walked only 30 times in 524 at-bats. At that point, it was really a toss-up whether Hermida (.780 OPS) or Francoeur (.770 OPS) was the better prospect. A good evaluator would probably go with the Brave, since displaying power is more telling than polish. Youth would be last here, as Pie needed to mediocre .734 OPS would be ranked third.

Step Three (2004): High-A

Before this season, all three of these players were lucky enough to be relatively overshadowed by other prospects. Atlanta and Chicago both have extremely deep systems, which allowed Franceour and Pie to fly under the radar. Hermida opened the season as the Marlins best prospects, but only because Miguel Cabrera spent the final two months of 2003 in the Majors. So while lofty expectations often bog down big prospects, this group has avoided the hype that should guide them.

It would now be Pie and Hermidas turn to face off, and they would six times during the year. A strained hamstring forced Hermida to miss many games, and the injury should also be blamed for a decline of playing time in center and stolen bases. He stole only ten, but still showed polish by only being caught three times. Jeremy also showed more power promise than ever, hitting .297/.377/.441 in a slight pitchers park.

Speaking of pitchers park, Jeff Francoeur was forced to spend most of his season in one of the minors worst: Myrtle Beach. But it did little to slow down the 20-year-old, who hit .293/.346/.508 in the Carolina League. Like Hermida, the fellow Georgian spent a considerable portion of the season on the DL. But Jeffs injury was more freakish, as he was hit in the face with a ball while squaring up for a bunt. Shortly after returning, the Braves promoted their prized outfielder to AA. He proved not ready, hitting .197/.197/.342 in 76 at-bats. Thats right, ZERO walks in 76 at-bats.

Finally, we have Pie. Unlike the first two, the stadium Pie played in has been historically ranked as a slight hitters park. Pie played well, starting to turn his raw talent into something. Pies batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging all jumped. He stole 32 bases, but again was caught stealing a lot (18 times). Baseball America ranked him as the Florida State Leagues best defensive outfielder, signaling a possible future move for Corey Patterson. What also went up were Pies strikeouts, as he struck out 18 more times in 74 less at-bats.

How do you rank them now? Well, the three are closer than ever, though it still seems Francoeur is on top. Rather than a Francoeur vs. Hermida argument, this season should feature Hermida vs. Pie arguments. My edge would go to Hermida, who matched Pie in average, slugging, while topping him in on-base percentage. Dave Cameron predicted in a recent interview that Hermida would breakout next season, especially in the power department.

Step Four: Whats Next

For the first time, 2005 will be a time for Jeremy Hermida, Felix Pie and Jeff Francoeur to be in one league together. The Southern League has favored pitching dramatically of late, though the Georgia outfielders will be playing in historically neutral parks. I can almost guarantee that Pie and Francoeur will spend the entire 2005 season in AA, though the Marlins may be the most aggressive.

Juan Pierre and Sammy Sosa will be free agents after 2005, possibly opening spots for Hermida and Pie. I expect Hermida to either follow the David Wright or Jason Kubel timetables, depending on when Florida calls up the then 21-year-old. Pie will likely spend 2006 in AAA, with a possible mid-season promotion a la Alexis Rios. The Braves have an outfield spot waiting for Francoeur, though it wont be the centerfield spot hes always called home.

Barring injury, I dont question that these three players will all be in the National League by 2007. Each should be great, though Hermida needs more power, Pie more polish and Francoeur more discipline. But age tends to help all three of those attributes, so I expect them all to start sliding towards stardom. And who knows, maybe my grouping will be grouped in the 2010 NL All-Star team together?