Next Year is Here
Every year, prospect evaluators are forced to open their eyes to someone they never saw coming. Suddenly, this once marginal player is the flavor of the week, flying up prospect rankings.
Maybe it was due to added strength or perhaps a full season of health. Maybe a new pitch was implemented, or velocity was added, or that change refined. No matter how, success is happening at paces no one thought possible.
Call me naive, but I also think that statistics can bring us hints as to who might break out next. Jeff Francis, for example, closed out his 2003 season going 10-1 with a 1.06 ERA. Or Jason Kubel, who had a modest .761 OPS in 2003 while playing in a pitcher's park in a pitcher's league. A year later, both were player of the year candidates.
Today, I will look at 15 players that I am predicting big things for in 2005. For some it will be great things - becoming one of the game's top prospects - for others, simple name recognition. I've found that these fifteen players usually fit into one of two groups: they are either solid but hardly stars (Francis pre-2004), or full of tools, but no polish (Alexis Rios pre-2003).
Three of these players landed in my top 75 this year as a result of my confidence, two of which were in the top 50. Others wouldn't be in some top 200 lists, but trust me, people will know them soon.
The most well-known player on my list is Nick Markakis, who many would argue does not belong on such a list. Already recognized as the top Oriole prospect by many sources, I have not seen a list that has Markakis higher (32) than I. Still learning the nuances of hitting, the former Junior College Player of the year has less offensive experience than a lot of hitting prospects. His season began poorly, leading some to question Doc Rodgers decision to take him off the mound.
Except, as I wrote in his entry in my prospect list, things clicked in Markakis' last 225 at-bats. He hit .333/.400/.538, while striking out only 37 times. This is the kind of performance I hope to see from Nick in 2005, playing in the hitter-friendly Carolina League. There is no reason to believe, even with the acquisition of Sammy Sosa, that Markakis won't be the Baltimore right fielder in 2007. I also believe he'll be a top twenty prospect in just one year.
My other well-known favorite is Jon Lester, who some might call the reach of my top 75. At forty-eight, I believe this will be the season that Lester puts it all together. Endurance has always been a problem with Jon, sustaining his good numbers from start to finish. His stuff at its best is fantastic, his fastball was up to the mid-90s in Sarasota last year. He was the player Arizona specified for in any Randy Johnson package, and if he isn't damaged goods, the D-Backs won't be the only club asking for him soon enough.
Chris Young of the Chicago White Sox is the last of the players that are found both on my prospect and breakout lists. Compared by Phil Rogers of Baseball America to Mike Cameron, Young is the definition of a Three True Outcomes player. Strikeouts, walks, home runs. All are very prevalent in Young's game, and when you mix that with great defense, I believe you get a future Major Leaguer. He was a little old last year for the South Atlantic League, and this must be the season Young breaks out of his shell.
Another five players that I think will break out next year were in my honorable mention. A player similar to Chris Young in terms of being a raw outfielder, is Elijah Dukes. One of many Devil Ray outfield prospects, Dukes is truly second to only Delmon Young in the organization tools-wise. He walks a little, has some pop, makes enough contact, and has tons of speed. The problem? Make-up issues, ending in an arrest this offseason. Once Dukes matches his head with his talent, he'll be joining Delmon in more than Montgomery.
Two more outfielders are on my list, both of the 'solid if nothing else' variety. Melky Cabrera of the Yankees has drawn comparisons to a poor man's Bernie Williams on this site, with pretty solid skills across the board. He hit 38 doubles between the Midwest and Florida State Leagues, both in stadiums that don't exactly favor the hitter. As he moves to the Eastern league, look for some of those doubles to start clearing the fence in due time.
Another of the same variety is Alex Romero of the Twins, who had a .792 OPS in the same stadium that Kubel had that .761 in. Romero doesn't have much in terms of power yet, but both his contact and plate discipline skills are top notch. Alex was also a star in the Venezuelan Winter League, and then later the Caribbean World Series. While projecting a Kubel-esque breakout is probably unfair, any development of power will make Romero a fairly complete prospect.
Despite Minnesota already having an extremely deep system, Romero and Francisco Liriano both should help add more prospects next year. Liriano, a power southpaw that came over in the A.J. Pierzynski trade, progressed well after just pitching nine innings with arm problems in 2003. In thirteen of his starts this year, Liriano struck out seven batters, showing fantastic power skills. Both his H/9 and ERA were too high considering the rest of his stats, and for Liriano to be taken for real, both need to come down in 2005.
Another Francisco with a similar profile is Francisco Rosario of the Toronto Blue Jays, a power right-hander who spent 2004 returning from arm injuries. His power stuff was almost back last year, and should be back in full this year. Rosario is quite dependent on his control, when his walks get up in numbers, he really struggles. Rosario will be 25 next year, making him quite old for a prospect. If he doesn't take off in AA next year, look for the Jays to consider moving his power stuff to the bullpen.
Speaking of control problems, few in the minors need control to succeed like Ambiorix Burgos of the Royals. Last year in the Midwest League, Burgos struck out 172 batters in just 134 innings, while allowing just 109 hits. His problem? 75 walks. Burgos struck out more than ten batters four times, but also walked at least five on seven different occasions. Kansas City isn't the best organization to teach control (Colt Griffin), but they should make a point of it, because Burgos is one special talent.
The final pitcher in this mold is Carlos Marmol, southpaw in the Cubs organization. A former catcher, Marmol slugged just .353 in 502 at-bats between 2000 and 2002. Moved to the mound in 2003, Marmol had a great season in low-A last year, striking out 154 with a 3.20 ERA. He needs to cut down on the walks and be more consistent with the stuff, but the right seeds have already been planted.
Moving to the more polished pitchers, I have two: Sean Marshall and Thomas Pauly. Marshall was fantastic in the Midwest League, with a 12.75 K/BB in 51 innings. He was hurried to AA, but suffered a hand injury before getting acclimated there. The team brought him back into the limelight in the AFL, where he labored a bit, but still struck out 16 and walked just two. He'll need a little more stuff to be a top prospect, so here's hoping that's what the winter provided.
A former reliever at Princeton, Thomas Pauly was great last year in the Carolina League with a strikeout-to-walk ratio over 5:1. Given that with a H/9 around seven, and finding problems gets difficult. I guess I could pick on him for that HR rate, but viewed in more context, it isn't even that bad. Don't be surprised to see Pauly give the Reds a pitching prospect they can actually brag about in just one year's time.
We'll close today with three hitters, each far different than the other. Andy LaRoche, Dodger prospect and brother of the Atlanta first baseman, was a 39th round draft pick when teams expected him to attend Rice after junior college. Following a summer when he was named the Cape Cod League's best position prospect, the Dodgers gave him top-round money. Good decision. Once the average catches up with the rest of his skills, most notably his .197 ISO in a pitcher's Vero Beach stadium, LaRoche should be one of the game's top third base prospects.
Finally, we have two short-season players: Asdrubal Cabrera of the Mariners and Francisco Hernandez of the White Sox. Dave Cameron wrote in his most recent Future Forty, "Once Felix leaves the Future Forty, he's the guy we'll get excited about." Cabrera is a middle infielder with big league defense, to go along with speed, selectivity, and a bit of pop (.155 ISO). His bat will never be fantastic, but with that defense, it won't have to be. Let's just hope that Matt Tuiasasopo, who is terrible up the middle, doesn't push Asdrubal to second.
As for Hernandez, he's a switch-hitting catcher reminiscent of Victor Martinez. His offense and defense both were great in short-season ball, and the true test will be this year, when his body has to take 100+ games behind the plate. That's really the only thing negative I can come up with his game right now. I mean, can you find anything wrong: .326/.372/.492, 13 walks (OK, maybe a little low), 32 strikeouts in 181 at-bats?
In conclusion, here is the list of the 15 breakout players I talked about today: Nick Markakis, Jon Lester, Chris Young, Elijah Dukes, Melky Cabrera, Alex Romero, Francisco Liriano, Francisco Rosario, Ambiorix Burgos, Carlos Marmol, Sean Marshall, Thomas Pauly, Andy LaRoche, Asdrubal Cabrera, Francisco Hernandez.