The Unsexy Awards
Few awards in minor league baseball are more revered and respected than Baseball America's Player of the Year. Since the award began, such players as Jose Canseco, Frank Thomas, Manny Ramirez, Derek Jeter and Andruw Jones have won before going onto great careers. The magazine attempts to pick a winner based upon 2005 performance multiplied (unmathmatically, of course) with future value.
What plays second fiddle in the MiLB award process is the various awards handed out by each league in the minors. Most of the time leagues hand out both MVP and Pitcher of the Year awards (sometimes Rookie of the Year, or Most Outstanding Prospect as well) to players. These players are often middle-of-the-road prospects that end up lost in rankings, nearly ignored for their great 2005 seasons.
Over the next two days, I want to pay homage to the 23 players that won full season awards in minor league baseball, as well as trying to find their place in the prospect landscape. Today we begin with the 11 players in A-ball that won awards, and tomorrow we will finish with the AA and AAA winners.
South Atlantic League MVP: Matt Miller
In 2004, it was Rockie prospect Ian Stewart that victimized South Atlantic League hitters in Asheville, tearing up the league to the tune of .319/.398/.594. Ultimately the former first rounder lost out in the MVP trophy race, but the Tourists were repaid as Miller avenged Stewart's loss in 2005. A 2004 13th round draft pick, Miller was chosen from tiny Texas State University, following a huge .387/.444/.580 final season. This season Miller continued with gaudy numbers, hitting .331/.375/.575 en route to a late-season promotion to help the Cal League team in the playoffs. Miller's skill set is mostly offensive, where he mixes good contact skills (only 71 K in 508 AB) with substantial power (34 doubles, 30 home runs). Miller, as could be expected from being drafted from such a small school, is a little raw everywhere else, with a well-below average walk rate and not fantastic defense. Basically, he's very similar to Colorado's second-round pick in 2005, Daniel Carte, who was profiled well by John Sickels yesterday. Miller has a long way to go before being a good prospect, but for now, you can bet the Rockies are drooling at the possibilities of bringing that power to the Rockie mountains.
South Atlantic League POY: Ray Liotta
Lost in the shuffle likely because of Gio Gonzalez, Ray Liotta is more than a celebrity namesake. In fact, when it's all said and done, people might ask, "Ray Liotta the actor, or the ballplayer?" A southpaw that left Tulane for the junior college landscape, Liotta is a pitcher of the rare variety: strikeouts and groundballs. While in Kannapolis, Liotta had a K/9 over 8.00, while his GB/FB was very close to 2.00. In fact, in six of his twenty starts in the South Atlantic League, Liotta provoked more than ten groundball outs. His three-pitch arsenal held up when he moved to the Carolina League in late-July, as the southpaw had a 1.45 ERA in eight regular season starts. Liotta's mixture of control (51 BB in 165 IP) and movement (6 HR allowed) make him a can't miss prospect in a solid system...even if he's a far cry from Gio.
South Atlantic League Most Outstanding Prospect: Hunter Pence
Like Liotta, Pence managed to win a Sally League award without staying the entire year, also leaving the league for the Carolina League in late July. Also like Liotta, his success continued as he moved up the ladder, proving to be worthy of his promotion. Pence began the year like few other players, and it was only an injury that slowed down his torrid pace. He ended up hitting 25 homers in just 302 SAL at-bats, while also showing contact and patience skills. His huge frame and ability to play center field make Pence a very good prospect. However, he was old for his league this season, after (like Matt Miller) being drafted from a small Texas college. Expecting similar numbers in the future would be too much of the Astros, but by 2008, they could very well have a big, patient, powerful starting centerfielder on their hands. Even if he's 25.
Midwest League MVP: Carlos Gonzales
Similar to Miguel Montero, Carlos Gonzales was lost amidst a deep Arizona system before the 2005 season. However, his play in the Midwest League has catapulted Gonzales into the Diamondbacks' top ten, and gained respect from various Midwest League insiders and observers. Gonzales teams fantastic defensive value with solid offensive tools across the board. Not fantastic, by any means, but there are no clear weaknesses. Contact? Check, .300+ average and below 100 strikeouts in more than 500 at-bats. Patience? 48 walks in about 550 plate appearances isn't ideal, but for a 19-year-old, it's fantastic. Power? Oh yes, as his 52 extra-base hits attest. Below the top Diamondback prospects lies a great deal of B- to B+ players, such as Gonzales, Montero, Mock, Nippert, Zeringue, Carter, Owings, and others. Not a single player from that group has the upside that Gonzales gave us a taste of this season.
Florida State League MVP: Brent Clevlen
It was a do-or-die year for Brent Clevlen, the former second-round pick of the Detroit Tigers. With a bad year in the FSL, Clevlen would have likely been left off the Detroit 40-man roster, and would have been susceptible to being drafted in the Rule 5 Draft in December. In 2004, Clevlen was lost in the FSL, showing only a semblance of power and patience amidst some of the league's worst contact skills. One would think, "oh what a difference a year makes." However, the same rings true today, as Clevlen only moderately improved his ISO (.046 points) and ISoP (.009 points). His big year was a result of a much-improved batting average that likely can thank a .360 BABIP. Clevlen's contact skills should always prevent him from becoming a good prospect, and the volatility of his BABIP will determine how good each year goes for him. Baby steps were made in the contact department this year, but that's it. For what it's worth, I would have Clevlen third on my ballot, behind Matt Kemp and Adam Lind.
Florida State League POY: Jordan Tata
Undoubtedly the more deserving of the two Lakeland players, Tata had a fantastic season in the FSL. In fact -- and I bet you'll hear me say this again -- Tata had the year Garrett Mock tried to have in California. Both players mix OK strikeout numbers (134 K in 155 IP) with good groundball rates, and both are workhorses with solid control. Tata was a bit old for the FSL at 23 this season, and will face a real test when moving to Erie next season. You can bet that HR/9 rate will jump a little bit, and considering it wasn't great last year, it could even become a problem next season. Tata mixes good size with solid stuff and good pitchability, making him a good third pitching prospect behind Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya. However, he still has much to prove, and a trip to one of the minors' toughest parks next yearshould prove where Tata belongs on the prospect totem pole.
Carolina League MVP: Leo Daigle
It's not a sexy choice, that's for sure, but it's the right one. Despite leaving the league after just 108 games, Daigle was a presence to win the Carolina League triple crown. In his time in Winston-Salem, Daigle dominated, hitting .341/.414/.637 with 50 walks in 411 at-bats. Sure, us prospect hounds would have liked to see Kory Casto or Jarrod Saltalamacchia win the trophy, but Daigle was the deserving choice. A move to the International League proved to be WAY too much for the 25-year-old, whose OPS dropped below .600 in AAA. He's simply a worse prospect than Casey Rogowski in his own system, and will likely follow the career path of players like Joe Dillon, receiving cups of coffee only when his numbers are really gaudy.
Carolina League POY: James Johnson
Another player on the bubble, Johnson was a bad year away from one of two fates: the bullpen or the Rule 5 draft. He avoided both with a fantastic year in the Carolina League, one in which he had career highs in most categories. Still his ERA was worse than it was in 2004, despite improvements in nearly every peripheral. His one regression was in the walks department, in which his BB/9 went from 2.53 to 3.61. If this came at the cost of improved stuff, you can bet the Orioles are willing to let Johnson's newfound control issues develop at their own pace. I was unimpressed with Johnson's arsenal at the Futures Game, where he struggled with both his breaking stuff and velocity.
California League ROY: Billy Butler
Oh, what a debut! Seriously, do first years get any better than this? When the Royals selected Butler, it was viewed in Kansas City as Daniel Glass taking another shortcut with a draft day bargain. They had been down that road before. However, Butler proved that school of thought wrong this year, showing hitting skills far more advanced than your average teenager. Butler has already been moved from third base to left field, and it wouldn't surprise me if after that, he makes the move to first base. I've made the comparison before, but Butler is simply Jim Thome waiting to happen. Ignore the problems with athleticism and realize that Butler's bat will dominate the middle of the Royals lineup for as long as he's under contract. Sure, High Desert was a good place to begin his career, but this kid could hit in any field in America...just give him a bat.
California League POY: Jared Wells
Yuck, really? How does Wells win this award despite horrible peripherals, when Garrett Mock led the league in innings, strikeouts, and stayed in the top ten in ERA. Instead, voters went with Wells, the league leader in ERA. Earlier this season, I made the comparison between Wells and Ryan Franklin, both defense dependant pitchers that like Brent Clevlen offensively, will go up and down based on their BABIP. I guessed Wells ERA would go over 3.50 again before the end of the season, which the Padres organization prevented by promoting Wells to the Southern League. There, Wells struggled, allowing 51 hits in 43 innings while striking out just 22 en route to a 4.40 ERA in seven AA starts. Wells could build a back-of-the-rotation career much like Franklin has, but that's simply if the ball bounces his way.
California League MVP: Brandon Wood
Last but certainly not least, I wanted to close today with Brandon Wood. As I said earlier, the Baseball America Player of the Year award attempts to combine 2005 performance with perceived future value. Because of this, Delmon Young was able to steal the 2005 award away from Brandon Wood. In actuality, it was Wood's 100+ extra-base hit season that was worthy of award, not Young, whose chances were hurt by a midseason promotion.
In 2003, I feverishly disagreed with Baseball America when they gave Joe Mauer the Player of the Year award. Jeremy Reed had flirted with .400 for much of the season, and Reed had clearly been the minors' best player that year. To me, he was worthy of the award in 2003. Last year, both my system and BA's system agreed upon Jeff Francis. This season we will again end in disagreement, as I believe Brandon Wood was the minor league baseball player of the year.
Wood's future is a little murkier than Delmon's, to be sure, but his 2005 season was damn near flawless. Sure, you can attack his environment and non-perfect patience numbers, but Wood more than made up for that. Add his premium position into the mix, and out comes one of the top ten prospects in baseball. Wood has created a SS debate -- Joel Guzman, Stephen Drew, Wood -- that should go on all offseason. Finally, he has likely created debate within his own organization, where the Angels have to put up with Omar Cabrera for three more seasons.
Few players in minor league baseball history had a season like Brandon Wood in 2005. We can't provide perspective to his numbers by using historical context, but simply put, Wood was the minors most lethal hitter in 15 years. That, my friends, is a lot more deserving than just a Cal League MVP trophy.