Top 20 Sophomores
The players who succeed at a young age are too often forgotten in prospect evaluation. Once they reach the Majors and become fair game for all analysts, those of us in the prospect world move on. We simply smile and say we got that one right, blessed he wasn't another Ryan Anderson or Wilson Betemit.
While 130 at-bats and fifty innings pitched officially cuts off the "prospect" tag, few players make the Albert Pujols switch from the minors to superstardom. This leaves time for further evaluation on their tools and stats, more speculation on whether that once highly touted ceiling will still be reached. Now that we have all seen the skill sets of these players and realize that their chance of bottoming out now is just becoming another Moonlight Graham, I don’t think they should be deemed "unrankable."
So, given that philosophy, I have ranked the top 20 Major League Sophomores below -- not by how their 2005 season will be, but instead their career. Think of this as a prospect ranking one year removed, now that we all know a little more. I should note that I also excluded anyone who was more than 25 years old this season, so Jason Bay and Kevin Youkilis fans will be left disappointed.
1. David Wright- 3B- New York Mets
Pardon me while I start with a controversial choice -- given the talents of the rest of the top ten -- but I'm going with the total package. His OPS for a 21-year-old third baseman was fourth all-time, behind greats Eddie Mathews and Pujols, along with "what coulda been" Bob Horner. If you believe in David Pinto's Probalistic Model of Range work -- the best on defense out there, in my opinion -- then Wright was positive at the hot corner, saving two runs over the course of 69 games played. Throw in the ability to steal 20 bags a year -- and expect Willie Randolph to try -- and you've got it all.
The major concern with David was his abandonment of the base on balls when he reached the Major League level. To his credit, he did walk 69 times last year (AA and AAA included), and his minor league stats indicate that he should be trotting towards first base more often this year. Given his well-rounded game, I think the best comparison here is Ron Santo, who wasn't walking 80 times a year until he was 24. Santo was very similar at 21, in his second year in the big leagues. No matter who he turns out to be, the Mets will not be worrying about the hot corner for another decade.
2. Joe Mauer- C- Minnesota Twins
My concern of Joe hitting for power is long gone now, though the only other critique he drew a year ago still exists. Only four catchers in the history of baseball with Mauer's height have recorded 100 hits in more than two seasons. Their names don't exactly belong in the who's who list of catchers: Jody Davis, Tom Haller, Johnny Edwards, Sandy Alomar Jr. Last season's injury is hopefully not a sign of things to come, as Alomar shows what can happen when you mix height and knee problems. The Twins won't let that happen. They'll make Mauer change positions (it worked for Joe Torre) if necessary. He should never worry about struggling offensively. Now that his power has arrived, we see why he was chosen first overall.
3. Zack Greinke- SP- Kansas City Royals
Greinke had to deal with about twice the pressure as most 20-year-old rookies, both holding the K.C. rotation on his shoulders and the continuing comparisons to Bret Saberhagen. Given all that, Zack handled himself with the perfect poise that he had been touted to have since being drafted. In his final 112 innings (19 starts worth) he amassed 86 strikeouts, answering critics with a 6.91 K/9 -- far better than Saberhagen at the same age. Furthermore, should he keep his K/BB consistent, he'll have the third best ratio ever...directly ahead of Cy Young. Expect those two names to fall in the same sentence a lot in the next 15 years.
4. Justin Morneau- 1B- Minnesota Twins
Really the only thing holding back Justin Morneau from 40 home runs was at-bats in 2004. His power is that real. Unfortunately, it looks like health might hold back Morneau this year. A slew of illnesses struck Morneau this offseason (chicken pox, appendix removal, lung problem), and his weight loss could result in time off. Remember when Adrian Beltre had his emergency appendectomy a few years ago? If similar, Morneau could struggle this year. As for last year, I'll blame his low average (given his minor league numbers) on a .272 BABIP, when if adjusted to the league average .300, puts his average on the plus side of .290. I still think he's extremely likely to meet his huge potential, though sickness could result in a subpar 2005.
5. B.J. Upton- SS- Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Looking through the numbers, it is safe to say that B.J. Upton had one of the top fifteen offensive rate seasons for a 19-year-old ever. His OPS was the 12th best ever, his RC/G was eleventh. In both cases, he's eerily close to Ken Griffey Jr., which is as high praise as any young hitter can get. Unfortunately I don't think he'll stick with Griffey, his power ceiling is nowhere near that high. My guess is more along the lines of Claudell Washington with better selectivity. B.J. also suffers from his defensive shortcomings, which should probably land him at another position. No matter where Upton ends up playing, I expect him to be part of what's becoming an extremely solid Devil Ray core, one that I pray will be kept together long enough to make some noise.
6/7. Khalil Greene- SS- San Diego Padres- 24
6/7. Bobby Crosby- SS- Oakland Athletics- 25
Here's an article idea I never wrote, comparing these two fantastic shortstops. Both had sensational rookie seasons, and have established track records dating back to college. Where Crosby was the 25th overall choice in the 2001 draft, Greene was picked 13th following a sensational .470/.552/.877, Golden Spikes award-winning season. Here's how they matched each other at levels since leaving college:
Level KG AB KG OPS BC AB BC OPS
A+ 183 .893 280 .797
AA 229 .733 228 .778
AAA 319 .788 465 .939
MLB 484 .795 545 .745
Please note that Greene had a better hitting ballpark in the California League and the Majors, but Crosby's stadium was far more hitter-friendly in both AA and the PCL. Normalized these are pretty similar hitters, both with good amounts of discipline. Greene created 5 more runs offensively, but Baseball Musings tells us that Crosby saved fourteen more runs defensively, where both are above average.
Both of these players are fantastic talents, and should develop a nice California rivalry over the next decade. Expect nothing but solid play from these two going forward...forget the sophomore jinx.
8. Grady Sizemore- CF- Cleveland Indians
Care to jump on the Grady Sizemore bandwagon? In his second season, the great Willie Mays played just 34 games, resulting in 127 at-bats. During that season, Mays hit .236/.326/.409...mind you, that's a .173 Isolated Power, and .090 Isolated Discipline. In his rookie season, Sizemore had 138 at-bats, with a .246/.333/.406 line. For the mathematically challenged, that's a .160 ISO and .087 Isolated Discipline. Freaky. As if that wasn't enough, Wily Mo Pena, Johnny Damon and the great Duke Snider are other fitting comparables. He's not a lock though because Willie Crawford's numbers compare better than anyone else. There's a reason PECOTA likes Sizemore so much. Expect the young outfielder to pay dividends for Cleveland very soon.
9. Adam LaRoche- 1B- Atlanta Braves
Coming out of the minors, Adam LaRoche drew the usual good defense and contact praise, with the promise of lack of power. The typical J.T. Snow comparison. But playing first base last year, LaRoche gave hope that he'll be closer to Will Clark than Mark Grace, as he led the Braves with a .576 slugging after the break. A little more plate discipline would be nice, and his defense was good but not great last season. There are things to work on, but getting Gammons' support is definitely a step in the right direction. Would make a good late-round corner infield selection for you fantasy players.
10. Alexis Rios- RF- Toronto Blue Jays
When I started these rankings, I was a bit concerned about the .096 Isolated Power that Rios had in 2004. Alexis was one of forty-nine outfielders to have an ISO under .100 at 23 in the last sixty years, though I'm not sure whether that calmed or ignited my nerves. I was definitely relieved to find a few very good comparisons, though each offers a very different career path. First there is Bobby Bonilla, who actually had a worse age 23 season, but would hit .300/.351/.481 the next season. The no-power comp would be Willie McGee, who was faster than Rios is, but still showed very similar offensive numbers. Finally, the comp Rios wants to avoid is Al Woods, who had just one good Major League season before flaming out. Last year's popular comparison, Dave Winfield, only had a .136 ISO at 23. Once his bat determines which kind of power he'll develop, if any, locking down a comp will become much easier.
11. Edwin Jackson- SP- Los Angeles Dodgers
An odd one in the sense that he's not as good as he was in 2003, and not as bad as he was in 2004. His repertoire is lively, which should yield some return for the Dodgers, if not what was originally hoped. Here's what I wrote on Jackson's arsenal last September:
In the 12-pitch inning, Jackson threw nine fastballs, showing a drastic preference for the pitch. He was between 91-95 mph on what I've described as a 'slow gun', so probably even 93-97. Despite walking one batter, Jackson showed solid control of the pitch, never missing by too much. He also showed a decent curve, with solid downward bite at 82-84 mph. It looks like he has the tendency to leave his pitches up in the zone, which is probably the reason for the three home runs allowed this season.
12. Ryan Madson- RP- Philadelphia Phillies
13. Ryan Wagner- RP- Cincinnati Reds
Could two roads have diverged as far apart as these two and still be on their way to meeting? Ryan Madson was a ninth-round draft pick in 1998, a big 6-6 right-hander from California. It took him six full minor league seasons as a starter to even make the club, and his move to relief last Spring Training saw him flourish. If not for the one start the Phillies decided to give him, his ERA would have been 1.65 last year. All this coming from a guy who was more likely to be traded than becoming a Phillie in 2003.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have Ryan Wagner. Given the job of succeeding Jesse Crain as closer of University of Houston, Wagner set the NCAA K/9 record in 2003 with 16.8 per nine innings. He was drafted fourteenth overall by the Reds that year, and given just nine minor league innings before his September call-up. He was dominant, and big things were expected for 2004. After an 11.25 ERA in April, he was sent down shortly after, and his ERA was just 3.50 for the rest of the season.
Going forward, it is hard to say who will be the better reliever. Madson gets the nod for his great 2004 season, but a coin flip probably has a better chance of determining which career ends better than me.
14. David DeJesus- OF- Kansas City Royals
Given the hard task of succeeding Carlos Beltran, David DeJesus shown he might be the next solid Royal outfielder. He's no Johnny Damon, but he's the sort of steady player that sabermatricians will plead be kept at the top of the lineup while his .380 OBP is wasting away in the seven hole somewhere. His power is pretty non-existent with no signs of it coming soon, but given his OBP, that will be fine. Like Jeremy Reed, center might be a push for him defensively, but he'll be there in Kauffman until a better option is found. And for the record, Terrence Long is not it.
15. Yadier Molina- C- St. Louis Cardinals
Pardon me for violating the sabermetric code, but I agree with mainstream beliefs that St. Louis made a massive mistake allowing Mike Matheny to walk. His hitting wasn't great, but his steady defense and overall presence will be missed. Ken Rosenthal noted in a column recently that it's dangerous for a World Series-contending team to run a 22-year-old catcher out there. The last team to do so and win was the 1981 Dodgers, with Mike Scioscia behind the plate. What's funny, is just how similar the two profiled at 21 (rate stats are vs. league, by ratio):
Name AVG OBP SLG AB
Molina 99 96 81 135
Scioscia 95 95 85 134
That's extraordinarily close, especially when you factor in similar body types and low strikeout rates (in the minors for Molina). The only difference is the side of the plate they bat on, but I think the Cardinals will be pleased with the right-handed Mike Scoscia. And who knows, maybe get a successor for Tony La Russa in the process.
16. Erik Bedard- SP- Baltimore Orioles
Chalk up another victory for medical science, as after surgery, Bedard has regained most of his good stuff. The Orioles have actually found a pitcher they can't ruin, congratulations to them. Bedard still must develop further control if he is going to be an effective pitcher, and there were obvious signs of endurance problems in 2004. Strength and control could make Bedard a top notch player, but I'm also a little leary of the yellow light that Will Carroll issued. He's not a sure bet by any means, but if treated correctly, Bedard could be special.
17. Yhency Brazoban- RP- Los Angeles Dodgers
18. Chin-Hui Tsao- RP- Colorado Rockies
Another two relievers paired together, and again, they come with different stories. Tsao has been followed since the day he signed with the Rockies - a hero in his native Taiwan - Chin-Hui looked like he'd be a great starter until injuries set their course on his arm. It looks as if Tsao will replace Shawn Chacon in the closer role, and likely will be fantastic there. Another good fantasy idea.
As for Brazoban, he was an under-the-radar type that went in the Jeff Weaver deal from the Yankees. He'll set-up Eric Gagne well this year, though probably not doing quite the job that Guillermo Mota did. This is more due to control problems than anything else, although those issues did not plague him at Chavez Ravine last season. I'm not sure pitching in winter ball was the best idea for him, or he could fall to the same fate that Tsao has.
For the record, Brazoban gets the call over Chin-Hui pretty much only because of the stadiums they pitch in. Talk about extremes.
19. Noah Lowry- SP- San Francisco Giants
I admittedly didn't know a lot about Lowry before this season, and still don't. His numbers look good, and he's a southpaw in a pitcher's park, both of which bode quite well for his future. But my lack of experience with his stuff went me asking around. First, to Grant at McCovey Chronicles:
...my favorite thing to see from a young pitcher is the ability to make a hitter look like an idiot...Lowry's changeup, at its best, is a pitch that will do that. From what the folks at Baseball America have written, it is a pitch that made incredible strides just last year. It is deceptive coming out of the hand, and just dies at the perfect time.
It appears as though Lowry has a limited ceiling, one that he will be tapping into the next few years. He'll be a solid rotation candidate for the Giants, who have had more failures developing pitchers than success stories.
20. David Bush- SP- Toronto Blue Jays
Like Lowry, Bush is another player that actually played better in the Major Leagues than he had in AAA. It's hard to make a decision on these players, the ones that you know do not have the stuff to be a frontline starter. Bush is almost guaranteed a career in starting following a very solid season, but he'll never be more than a third starter. His assortment of pitchers are all solid, but he needs to start pitching better to left-handed batters. If corrected, the Jays found a steady innings-eater to slot somewhere behind Roy Halladay.
Note: For reasons of not developing carpal tunnel on a single article, this list had to be cut off at twenty. There were five more players that just missed, all garnering consideration. Alphabetically: Frank Francisco, Gabe Gross, Scott Hairston, Matt Holliday, Matt Riley.
While I'm sure the next season will make as much a difference on ranking these players as this season did, I believe it's important to continually evaluate the prospects we cover. John Sickels is running "Young Pitchers Week" at his site, and it comes as no surprise that he is showing belief in the same philosophy.
Finally, can I get a final round of applause for my partner's compilation of the first series here at Baseball Analysts? Job well done, Rich.