Back to the Future
Forward thinking is the reason I love prospect evaluation so much. But I also believe that sometimes it is the art's largest flaw, since seldom do we go back, and learn from past successes and mistakes.
On Thursday, John Sickels went back to 1997 and looked at his top fifty, giving a sentence on what happened to each player. I found this "Blast from the Past" to be inspriring, and wanted to do something similar. So, I decided to look ten lists back, and go in detail on what I found at the top.
So, using the BA Top 100 lists, I am able to look at Baseball America's rankings from 1996. I've decided to look at the top eighth of the 100 (13 players), and see how each have done. For each player, I've included a paragraph on their credentials when BA graded them in 1996, and what has happened since them.
This will prove that just like in baseball, ya win some and ya lose some.
1. Andruw Jones, of, Braves
Pre-1996: Few players can boast to have the minor league season that Andruw Jones had in 1995. In his full-season debut at the age of eighteen, Jones flashed every skill in the South Atlantic League. Power? 71 extra-base hits. Speed? 56 steals. Patience? 70 walks. Defense? Plus-plus as the scouts say. All of it was there, and you could argue the only flaw was his contact skills. Between a .277 average and 122 strikeouts, Jones clearly had something to work on. I mean, something had to get pointed out. His ranking atop this list can hardly be argued, few five-tool talents like his ever come around.
Post-1996: The problem is, not all five tools developed. Andruw Jones is a fantastic Major League player and again, worthy of a top ranking, but it would be a lie to say he met every expectation he was given. Jones would later become known as lazy and a problem to coach, and some weight gain would make stolen bases a non-factor in his game by 24. Batting average has been a problem too, as only once has Jones topped .280 in the category. But given all that, Jones is one of the best defensive outfielders ever, and has 250 home runs before his twenty-eighth birthday. Only nine players have done that in history, and it would be a shame if all nine don't end up in the Hall of Fame (Juan Gone the only question mark). Andruw is on the bubble right now, and has been one fun player to watch grow up since those three playoff homers in 1996.
2. Paul Wilson, rhp, Mets
Pre-1996: Chosen first in the 1994 draft out of Florida State University, Wilson was a fantastic college pitcher. Before discussing his minor league credentials, I'll defer to FSU's Hall of Fame biographies (he was inducted in 2000):
Paul Wilson was one of the most dominating pitchers in Seminole baseball history. His blazing fastball and command of the game from the mound made him one of college baseball's most intimidating pitchers. Over his three year career he led Florida State to some of its greatest wins and capped his career with his selection as the first pick of the 1994 Major League Baseball Draft.
After just 11 starts following his signing in 1994, Wilson torched through AA and AAA the next season. Pitching in the Eastern League, Wilson had a 2.17 ERA, 6.66 H/9, 9.5 K/9 and 1.8 BB/9 in 16 starts. His numbers were strong in ten AAA starts, with a 2.85 ERA and strong peripherals. With Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen, Wilson made up one of the top trio of organizational starters in recent memory. And Paul was top dog.
Post-1996: Nowadays Izzy can claim to be the best of the group, but it is hardly something to brag about. Pulsipher basically flamed out with injuries, and a move to the bullpen saved Isringhausen's career and widened his checkbook. As for Wilson, he would struggle as a rookie in 1996, his only time pitching as a Met. The near-350 innings that Wilson threw in '95 and '96 caught up with him, and arm injuries derailed his career until a Tampa rebirth in 2000. His ERA has dropped in each of his five full seasons, culminating with a solid 4.36 while pitching atop the Cincinnati rotation last season. But claiming to be the 2004 Reds ace is about as impressive as being the best pitcher of the three great Met pitching prospects. Oh, and will someone tell Rich that not all can't-miss college pitchers are Mark Prior?
3. Ruben Rivera, of, Yankees
Pre-1996: Signed at 16 in 1990, the Yankees were determined to handle Rivera like a baby in the early 90s. He would spend 1991 in the Dominican Summer League, 1992 in the GCL, and '93 in the New York-Penn League. His full season debut came the following season, when Rivera seemed to put things together. His 33 homers and 48 walks catapulted him to second on the 1995 BA list, despite 163 strikeouts. Ruben continued to impress in '95, both hitting 24 homers and stealing 24 bases. Nagging injuries and contact problems were ignored, as Rivera's combination of power, speed and patience pushed away any concerns.
Post-1996: Hindsight is 20-20. Those strikeouts, those never-high-enough batting averages, that make-up concern all should have sent red flags. In 1996, Rivera had a .711 OPS in the International League, his first full season of health. It would also prove to be his last. Traded to the Padres in April of 1997, Ruben battled with injuries all of that season. San Diego kept trying to turn him into a great baseball player, but from 1998-2000, he hit just .203 in 1006 at-bats. Cut from San Diego then, Ruben has been around the Majors a lot since then. Rivera will likely most end up being known for the theft of the 1992 Spring Training, when he stole of out his teammates lockers so he could later profit off the memorabilia.
4. Darin Erstad, of, Angels
Pre-1996: Given the first choice in the 1995 draft, the Anaheim Angels had no choice but to choose the nation's best hitter: Darin Erstad. A good fielding centerfielder with power? From Nebraska's All-American web page:
Darin Erstad enjoyed a stellar 1995 season on his way to consensus first-team All-America honors. He hit .410 with 19 homers and 79 RBI, while setting single-season records in extra-base hits (46) and total bases (194). One of the best hitters in school history, Erstad finished his three-year career as a top-five performer in eight categories and is NU's all-time hits leader with 261. The first overall pick in the 1995 MLB Draft by the Anaheim Angels, Erstad has played in the majors for five seasons and is a two-time AL All-Star.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out a great college hitter in an A-ball hitters' league is going to yield big results. Erstad proved that after signing in 1995, hitting .363/.398/.493 in the California League. That coupled with his college career was proof enough for Baseball America. Can't say I can blame them.
Post-1996: That still rings true. Erstad has taken a lot of hits from the sabermetric crowd, but his first overall selection has been validated. He's entering his tenth season in an Angel uniform, and will surely surpass 1,500 hits before his too-big contract expires. Still, his one-year peak was really high, and in most seasons he has been valuable. His defense and leadership are both highly thought of, and he still makes consistent contact. To be somewhat valuable for years in the future, Darin will need more consistent plate discipline, and that high average. Those two will make him a solid top-of-the-order hitter, but the difference between a .308 and .409 on-base percentage is quite large. Oh, and if his career slide wasn't enough, Alex Gordon is currently sixty hits from taking his NU hits record away.
5. Alan Benes, rhp, Cardinals
Pre-1996: His brother was the first overall choice in the draft once, and with Alan going sixteenth, the bloodlines were thought to be strong. Both out of small Midwest schools had good overhand curveballs and some nice velocity. In 1994, Benes moved through four levels, throwing more than 200 innings that year. His 184 strikeouts to just 52 walks landed him fourteenth on the BA top 100. Pitching only 72 innings in 1995, Benes looked very good in 11 AAA starts, and had some bad luck in a 16 inning debut. Thought to be over the injury that started him on the DL in '95, BA had little concerns about the rightie that had yet to be thoroughly challenged.
Post-1996: Benes would go on to throw more than 350 innings between 1996 and 1997, looking like an ace atop the St. Louis rotation. He had developed some moderate control problems, but other than that, was on the verge of becoming one of the league's premier starters. But all those innings caught up with his right arm, and Benes missed all of 1998 and all but 17 innings of 1999. Since 2000 he has been up and down between AAA, never more than the 46 innings he pitched in the Cardinal bullpen in 2000. His WHIP has never been under 1.50 in AAA, and is a poor starter there, so his career is likely over. File Alan somewhere in the "What Coulda Been" folder, because if the Cardinals hadn't pushed so hard, they might still have him as an ace.
6. Derek Jeter, ss, Yankees
Pre-1996: Magically, by the touch of the baseball gods, Derek Jeter fell to the sixth spot in the 1992 draft. Picked ahead of him: Chad Mottola to the Cincinnati Reds. Jeter looked abysmal in the GCL after signing, showing no particular skill to be proud of. He was solid in his first full season in 1993, hitting .295 but showing no traces of power. He would take off the next season, flying through three levels with a .344 average and 58 walks. Seldom did the shortstop with huge error totals strikeout, but he never really hit extra-base hits either. In 1995 the Yanks decided to have him spend the entire season in Columbus, and it would be there that he would forever lock up the Yankee shortstop position. With a .317 average, 20 steals, more walks than strikeouts and 27 doubles, Jeter made himself a millionaire.
Post-1996: Four years into the Majors, he had 63 home runs. Known across the world as the heart and soul of the Yankees, there isn't a lot to say that hasn't already been said about Derek Jeter. Through 30 years of age, the Yankee captain has 1,734 hits, thirty-eighth all-time at that point, and 10 more than Pete Rose had at 30. Jeter has started to walk a lot less the last two seasons, making him a good-but-not great leadoff hitter. Unfortunately, no one told Joe Torre that he could have been amazing in that spot for so many years. There was no way to put Jeter any higher than this when BA did so in 1996, but Jeter is a sure-fire, first ballot Hall of Famer. Let's just hope they don't talk about his great defense on his plaque.
7. Karim Garcia, of, Dodgers
Pre-1996: Unlike Riben Rivera, Karim Garcia's treatment was quite agressive after signing just after being able to drive. Signed out of Mexico, Garcia made his debut in 1993 as a 17-year-old in the California League. Obviously there were struggles, but a .247 ISO at 17 is really good. In 1994, Garcia was sent to the pitcher's park at Vero Beach, but was unfazed. He hit .265/.326/.511, smacking 59 extra-base hits but walking just 37 times. Moved to the PCL the next year, Garcia had a .915 OPS in 1995. He always walked around 37-38 times and struck out in the 100-110 area, but his batting average went up in 1995. With big power, a big arm and now an average, it looked like a career was next.
Post-1996: Didn't happen. For Karim, a career has still not happened. Los Angeles kept him in AAA the next two years, despite dominating numbers in Albuquerque. Arizona acquired him in 1998, and in my first Internet fantasy league experience, I drafted him. His numbers? .222/.260/.381. His career numbers have improved a bit since then, but his OPS of .703 is aided by 197 good at-bats in Cleveland in 2002. Those fifty games probably extended his career another 3-5 years, but it shouldn't take much longer for teams to realize he just isn't the option. Karim will always have a little big of power and a good outfield arm, but the Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Tigers, Orioles, Yankees, Indians and Mets will all probably tell you that's not enough.
8. Livan Hernandez, rhp, Marlins
Pre-1996: Not only armed with a pitcher's body and some good velocity, Livan Hernandez had a story. He arrived in America on a small boat with a few other Cubans, and his Caribbean legacy was enough to secure this ranking. Like most players out of Cuba, there were scouts promising he would be the best, with people pointing to how he had beaten the U.S. team once.
Post-1996: But unlike most Cubans, Livan has turned out well. Both he and El Duque have been questioned numerous times about their listed ages, and neither are saying whether it is the truth or not. No matter what his age is, I think it's safe to say that Hernandez has become the best MLB Cuban pitcher ever, with over 1,700 career innings of 4.13 ERA ball. His arm is as durable as they come, and with Montreal/Washington has become resurrected. He has been one of the more valuable pitchers in baseball each of the last two years, and fans in Washington should love him. His career will be best known for his pitching in the 1997 playoffs at 22, but that shouldn't hide the fact that in the last 30 year only 18 pitchers have had more innings through 29.
9. Vladimir Guerrero, of, Expos
Pre-1996: A lot had been said about Guerrero before 1995, when he was in short-season ball, but it was that season in which people started to know he was for real. In the Sally League that season, Guerrero hit .333 despite striking out just 45 times in 421 at-bats. He didn't walk much either, but hit 47 extra-base hits and showed that trademark huge arm. A real five tool player, Guerrero's skill set was complete then.
Post-1996: Vlad would debut the next season and become a regular in 1997, hitting the Majors in stride. He has yet to let up, hitting 273 homers and smacking 1,421 hits in nine years. Through the age of 28, those rank tenth and thirty-seventh, respectively. Basically, if you were starting a Major League team and didn't pick Vlad in one of the top three spots, you'd be an idiot. His arm and bat are fantastic, and the comparisons to Roberto Clemente are fair. In fact, Vlad might be better.
10. Ben Davis, c, Padres
Pre-1996: At least Darin Erstad had a track record. If Baseball America draws any consistent criticism, it is that they overrate people who have been drafted the June prior to ranking. Davis was chosen second after Erstad in 1995, and the Padres were happy to have him. He managed just under 200 at-bats in the Pioneer League after signing, hitting a modest .279/.341/.426 and drawing positive reports for his defense.
Post-1996: Looking back, judging by the other players from that top ten (Wood, Helton), it looks like a reach. His minor league career was solid, and the Padres hoped he'd take the job in 1999 or 2000. He didn't, so in 2001 they decided to hand it to him. A year's worth of .694 OPS was enough for Kevin Towers, who then shipped the catcher to Seattle. Working as a back-up to Dan Wilson there for three years, Davis was shipped to Chicago last year. He'll be a back-up again this year, but with his topping the .700 OPS mark just once, you have to wonder why he's constantly secured a job.
11. Jason Schmidt, rhp Braves
Pre-1996: Drafted in 1991, Schmidt always had an intriguing but frustrating arm. His BB/9 was in the mid-3.00s from 1993-1995, and after 1995 his K/9 had gone down for three straight years. But his ERA and H/9 were the best of his career in 1995 at AAA, which earned a short stint in Atlanta. The Braves did a very good job of not overusing Schmidt, who threw 120+ innings just once in the minor leagues.
Post-1996: Big fastballs are good for scouts to see, but Leo Mazzone demands control. Schmidt walked 50 batters in 83.2 innings in Atlanta in 1995-1996, and as a result, was traded to Pittsburgh that year. He improved his control at the cost of some stuff in Pittsburgh, and was a mediocre starter from 1997-1999. Some injuries hit in 2000, and halfway through 2001, Schmidt was traded midseason to San Francisco. His ERA is just 3.02 since coming to San Fran that season, and given his success, I would be shocked to see him go. Schmidt has become the best pitcher in the National League, great control or not.
12. Matt Drews, rhp, Yankees
Pre-1996: Chosen thirteenth overall in the 1993 draft, Drews was more than appealing as a 6-8 Floridian flame-thrower. But it was control and not power that was most impressive when the Yanks sent Drew to the NYPL in 1994. A WHIP of just 1.06 was helped by his 1.9 BB/9, though his 6.9 K/9 left room to be desired. The K/9 stayed there the next season, the walks went up and the hits down. He was still a pitcher with good control and a huge frame, and with 15 wins in the FSL, was a great player. Those strikeouts, or lack there of, didn't get a whole lot of notice.
Post-1996: Yikes. In 1996, the hinges came off. Drews pitched in three levels of the New York organization that year, and walked 72 in 84 innings. To make matters worse, he struck out just 56. The Yanks included him with Ruben Sierra for Cecil Fielder at the trade deadline, leaving him to Detroit to figure out. In 1997 and 1998 his H/9 was over 10.00, his K/9 in the fives, and his control was not particularly good. Out of baseball after the 1998 season.
13. Derrick Gibson, of, Rockies
Pre-1996: Before 1995, Gibson was considered an athlete full of tools that had yet to put them all together. In the Northwest League in 1994, he struck out 102 times in 284 at-bats. But when reaching Asheville in 1995, Gibson showed some polish. The outfielder his .292 with 32 homers and 31 walks. He left a lot to be desired in the strikeout and walk departments, but again, this was a power-speed guy. Everything gets ignored then.
Post-1996: Promoted to the Eastern League in 1996, Gibson managed just a .730 OPS. Everything was down across the board, and when that happens, 125 strikeouts and just 30 walks gets noticed a lot easier. After seemingly putting it together, Gibson was never really given a shot, and then gone from baseball after 1999. He played well for Long Island of the Independent League in 2003, and a decent minor league outfielder for the Angels last year. Sadly, that's all the upside his career has at this point.
Included in this list are four of the better players in the Majors, three very solid players, one overdeserving catcher, and five "busts." I think we've learned of the BB/K importance in hitters, and Matt Drews has surely taught that strikeouts are essential for pitchers.
I like to think that had I been doing this list, Jones, Guerrero and Jeter all would have made the top five. I'm sure that's wrong, but it sure is fun to speculate.