2006 WTNY 75: 25-11
Today begins the final descent of my 2006 prospect list, as we begin to detail the best 25 prospects in the game. Today I'll go to number 11, and then tomorrow I will look at the WTNY 10. So far, here's a look at the other entries:
Remember, the age and level listed are correct for 2006, and each player's name is linked to his minor league track record. Enjoy the list, and as always, please leave your comments at the end!
25. Andy LaRoche - 3B - Los Angeles Dodgers - 22 (AAA)
Introduction: Before the 2005 season, I picked Andy LaRoche as one of my breakout prospects. In his comment, I mentioned that once his average caught up with his power, he would take off. You see, I had noticed that in 2004, LaRoche was very unlucky, posting a BABIP of .281 in the South Atlantic League and then .247 in the FSL. This, in my opinion, had been far more of a fluke than the other way around. This theory proved true in 2005, as LaRoche's BABIP normalized, and his average went up. In the FSL this past season, LaRoche's BABIP was about .320, followed by about .315 after being promoted. So, if I stick with the theory, LaRoche is better than the player he was in 2004, but not quite the player he was last season. We'll see what 2005 provides.
Skillset/Future: If LaRoche puts all the skills he has shown together at one time, he has superstar potential. His calling card is certainly power, which was certainly enhanced by the FSL's easiest hitter's park: Vero Beach. However, at the Major League level, LaRoche should be hitting 25 homers annually. His contact skills have worsened in each of the past two seasons after a promotion, indicating each time, he's been a bit over his head. However, Andy showed better patience at AA when he struggled, a sign of a very smart hitter. At third, Andy isn't anything great, but his arm is certainly enough for the position, and his range will do. Note: There were few decisions more difficult for me than Barton v. LaRoche.
24. Jarrod Saltalamacchia - C - Atlanta Braves - 21 (AA)
Introduction: An honorable mention last season, I'm still kicking myself for not including him on my breakout list. Like Brandon Wood and Adam Jones did in the Midwest League, I neglected to see potential in an average low-A line from a teenager at a skill position. These are mistakes we shouldn't make. But anyway, it was still difficult to see Salty showing any power at Myrtle Beach, one of the minors' most favorable parks for pitchers. And it certainly wasn't easy for Salty, who had drastic home/away splits, and saw a lot of potential home runs fall in the gap. However, I'm not quite sure when this problem will be rectified, as Atlanta has pitcher's parks from Rome (low-A) to Turner Field.
Skillset/Future: For a catcher, Salty has fantastic power. His .205 Isolated Power in 2005 is just a taste of what he could provide at the Major League level, in which he should be good for nearly 30 home runs per year. However, while his power was better than his numbers suggested, his batting average is worse. There is little chance that Jarrod continues to hit much above .300 without striking out less, as his BABIP was .362 in 2005. Given pretty fantastic patience for someone his age, this won't be too bad of a problem, as he can still hit about .280/.360/.540 in the Majors. Not a great catcher, Jarrod shouldn't have to move from behind the plate, assuming his skills moderately progress in the coming years.
23. Joel Zumaya - SP - Detroit Tigers - 21 (AAA)
Introduction: While at the Futures Game in Detroit this past season, I made a comparison between Zumaya and the 2004 breakout player: Jose Capellan. Jose's big fastball took him from a 3.80 ERA in low-A in 2003 to a four-stop, fantastic trip through the Atlanta system in 2004. He took a poor SAL K/9 and turned it into 156 strikeouts the next season. Zumaya was much the same, rising to AAA last year after having posted a 4.36 FSL ERA in 2004. His K/9 rose by nearly 3.5 from one year to the next. Buzz was throughout the organization about his big fastball. We can only hope this is where Zumaya and Capellan cross paths for good.
Skillset/Future: In the 2004 Futures Game, Jose Capellan made noise with that fantastic fastball, but didn't show more than 2-3 curveballs in his whole inning. He had fallen in love with his heater, and while it was heavy, it was simply not enough. The Brewers, who acquired Capellan over the winter, were forced into converting him into relief. In the '05 All-Star contest, Zumaya consistently hit 99 on the gun, but threw his fastball in 11 of his 12 pitches. His curveball, the twelfth pitch he threw, was quite good, but it appears Joel does not trust that or the change up he rarely throws. To avoid a future in relief, and to maximize his potential, Zumaya must gain confidence in his secondary offerings.
22. Jon Papelbon - SP/RP - Boston Red Sox - 25 (MLB)
Introduction: In November of 2004, I predicted that Jon Papelbon and Jon Lester would, in one year's time, be "one of the 3 best 1-2 pitching prospect tandems in the minor leagues." I was wrong. They are the best. Detroit, Texas, Florida, Los Angeles and others have good combinations, but none match the prospect status of Papelbon and Lester. Papelbon's big breakout ended in a trip to the Majors, where he went back to his college role, helping out in the Red Sox depleted bullpen. After giving up four earned runs in his first three appearances, Papelbon would settle and get used to the role, allowing just 2 ER in his last 14 innings.
Skillset/Future: The Red Sox are now left with the difficult decision of what to do with Jon Papelbon. It seems as if the team will again start by trying him in the rotation, and if he labors (or the team really needs a reliever) he will move to the bullpen. This is probably the best philosophy, though I don't think that move to the 'pen will have to happen. Papelbon can throw five different pitches, and has found much success (especially against left-handers) with a splitter learned from Curt Schilling. His fastball (92-95 mph) has great control, and Jon also offers a nasty slider. Those three pitches comprise most of what he throws, though he can also offer another breaking pitch and a change up. This guy is nasty, and if his control returns to the levels it was in the minors, don't forget about him in the AL Rookie of the Year race.
21. Joel Guzman - SS/3B - Los Angeles Dodgers - 21 (AAA)
Introduction: Speaking of a player trapped between two roles, we find Joel Guzman as one of the big question marks of one of baseball's best farm systems. I was not impressed with the reluctance of the old Dodger regime to decide on a position for Guzman, first keeping him at short, and then in 2005, bouncing him between the middle of the field and the hot corner. It's agreed among most scouts that Guzman's frame -- over 75 inches tall -- will not allow a long career at shortstop. The Dodgers recent signing of Rafael Furcal indicates that Ned Colletti's staff agrees with this assessment. However, at third base, Guzman is sandwiched between LaRoche and Bill Mueller. What's the best choice? Count me as a voter in the corner outfield category.
Skillset/Future: Guzman is one of the few minor leaguers who could move from the middle infield to a corner outfield spot, and still be above-average offensively. The former big bonus baby has showed massive power in the last two seasons, hitting a combined 116 extra-base hits in just 953 at-bats. This is a fantastic ratio, and as he builds more muscle, Joel should also see more of his long hits clear the fence. Besides maintaining power, Guzman did step back considerably when hitting AA. His contact skills took a giant step back, and a .365 BABIP indicates his future may be living around the .260s in terms of batting average. However, Joel has also begun to walk more, collecting a career-high 42 walks last year. If the DePo-less Dodgers continue to preach this philosophy, Guzman's power and patience should make up for substantial contact problems.
20. Scott Olsen - SP - Florida Marlins - 22 (AAA/MLB)
Introduction: The Marlins have added a lot of minor league prospects this winter as a result of their firesale. However, despite adding three top 40 talents, their top two remains in tact. Second on the Florida prospect list is Scott Olsen, one of the obvious steals of the 2002 draft. For his first three seasons in the Florida organization, Olsen kept his ERA between 2.80 and 3.00. He broke that tradition in 2005 with a 3.92 ERA in AA. While that generally would indicate a regression, Olsen both lowered his walk rate and struck out hitters at a better rate. There are a lot of good southpaws in the Marlin organization, but in five years, we could be saying that Olsen is the best.
Skillset/Future: Looking at Olsen's peripherals in the last four years is very interesting. While both his strikeouts and walks have improved, in each season, Scott's hit and home run rates have increased. How can a prospect's stuff obviously improve, yet he seemingly becomes easier to hit? As a guess, I will infer that Olsen is a master at pitching late in the count, mixing in his Major League caliber slider with a very good change up. However, early in the count, batters have probably found a lot of Olsen's favorite pitch: a mid 90s fastball that few southpaws can match. No matter what the problem has been, I would think it's a correctable one, though the HR/9 issue is a scary one. Florida will throw their next phenom into the fire this season, and his H/9 and HR/9 should go far in telling us what his future might look like. Elbow inflammation ended his season, so as with every pitching prospect, treat his stock carefully.
19. Felix Pie - OF - Chicago Cubs - 21 (AAA)
For years, we had been waiting for Pie to turn the corner and begin to turn his tools into skills. 2005 was the year. Playing in the pitcher-friendly Southern League, Pie started the season fantastically, hitting for power in the first time in his career. While Felix was still not walking often, striking out a lot and not running well on the bases, his key weakness (power) had been righted. By mid-June, the Cubs were looking for a new center fielder, as Corey Patterson's struggles continued. Weeks before the organization planned to call up their phenom, he hurt his ankle, and would not play again all year. Patterson is a good example of a leg injury halting progress, so the Cubs have their fingers crossed that Pie returns with the same power in 2006. And with it, maybe, some further refinement across the board?
18. Ian Stewart - 3B - Colorado Rockies - 21 (AA)
Ian Stewart's drop in the rankings from last year do not reflect a regression in my mind as much as they do that he was passed by others. He didn't really regress, in my thinking. Sure, his first month was bad, but it was coming off some bad hamstring problems. On June 1, Stewart was hitting .212/.292/.339, having struck out 14 more times than he had collected a hit. However, Stewart would finish the season with the numbers we expected: .297/.378/.555. His contact rate was a more reasonable 23.3%, and Ian crept back into my top 20. A healthy Stewart is a very dangerous hitter, one with immense (and consistent) power and good patience (nearly in 12% of his PA). His defense is fine at the hot corner, and as long as his contact rate remains average, he should be one of the best hitters Coors has seen. But before he returns to being a five-star, elite prospect, he needs to show us that I'm right: his regression in numbers was simply injury-related.
17. Lastings Milledge - OF - New York Mets - 21 (AA)
Introduction: In retrospect, 2004 should be referred to as the year of the Sally League. Delmon Young and Ian Stewart would dominate the league, fighting all year long for rights to the MVP trophy. This allowed Lastings Milledge to draw less publicity than someone with his skillset usually might, as he hit .337/.399/.579. This season, Lastings saw a decrease in power, but was far more consistent across the board, and received rave reviews. There is no better five-tool talent in the game.
Skillset/Future: For this, I'm simply going to quote myself in an interview with Ricardo Gonzalez at Metsgeek:
If maturity or injury issues don't hold him back, Lastings has future All-Star written all over him. People need to stop worrying about his power, his baserunning, or the Mets aggressive promoting. Instead, we need to look no further than Felix Pie, and realize that eventually, doubles turn into homers, teenage speedsters become good baserunners, and the great talents can handle even the highest levels.
16. Conor Jackson - 1B - Arizona Diamondbacks - 24 (MLB)
Introduction: If I've already accepted that Howie Kendrick has the minors' best contact skills, than Conor Jackson is undoubtedly in second place. A former first-round pick from California, Jackson now has just 156 career strikeouts in 1159 total at-bats. Mind you that 85 of those at-bats came at the Major League level this year, in which Jackson got his first cup of coffee. However, the July experiment to implement him in the lineup proved to be a failure, as Jackson mixed bad BABIP luck (.205) with a lack of power. Considering how good Tony Clark was playing, the team sent Jackson back down to the minors, promising to give him another shot in 2006.
Skillset/Future: Jackson's contact skills make him the player he is, and as a result, will rely heavily on a good BABIP. However, when the batting average isn't treating him well, look for Conor to start drawing walks to keep his OBP high. Few minor leaguers have a better batting eye. But the real worry with Jackson is not his OBP, but his slugging, especially since moving to the first base position. Jackson has just 33 home runs since becoming a pro player, spanning about two Major League seasons. At that rate, he'll have to hit a lot of doubles and draw a ton of walks. That's a lot of pressure. However, I eventually expect him to succeed if not in 2006, as Clark will suck out more than a few at-bats.
15. Alex Gordon - 3B - Kansas City Royals - 22 (AA)
Introduction: Darin Erstad was made the first choice out of Nebraska after rewriting the University of Nebraska record books. About ten years later, the Cornhuskers again offered a top-five talent to the draft, and one who had topped Erstad's marks. Alex Gordon, the 2005 Golden Spikes Winner, was drafted second overall by the Royals, signing just in time to make the Arizona Fall League. Scouts were blown away by Gordon's bat in the short time that he was in the league, despite a good number of struggles. The organization has decided to keep him at third for now, but a later positional switch to the outfield or first base is not out of the question.
Skillset/Future: On draft day, my partner Rich Lederer compared Gordon's bat to Hank Blalock. In fact, it's likely that Lederer is even selling Gordon short with the comparison, as he profiles to have even better power. Alex's patience should be impressive, as well, as he walked 12 times in about 65 AFL plate appearances. The only two worries surrounding Gordon are contact and defense. The latter should take care of itself, but the real question is whether Gordon can be a .300 hitter in the Majors. Given his power and patience, there could be far worse things to have question marks about.
14. Jon Lester - SP - Boston Red Sox - 22 (AAA)
Introduction: My favorite prospect in the minors, Lester more than validated the confidence I had in him in 2005. Once coveted for Randy Johnson, the Red Sox refused to trade him, and for good reason. Lester would be the Eastern League's best pitcher in 2005, as the Red Sox were conservative with him, placing him on a pitch count and refusing to move him up a level. With no pressing needs at the Major League level, Lester was best in further honing his skills in the minors. Having turned 22 on Saturday, Jon will not be kept from the Majors much longer. Look for the team to bring him up sometime early in the midseason, when their schedule is soft and he can be broken in easily.
Skillset/Future: Lester profiles to be a #2 pitcher at the pro level. Like Papelbon, the Red Sox had him working on a new pitch in 2005, with Lester trying to develop a cutter. The results were successful, as Jon continued to improve against right-handed batters. In addition to the cutter, Lester throws a fastball with great movement up into the mid 90s, and a good change up and curveball. This season, he started to draw comparisons to Andy Pettite, which certainly isn't the worst thing in the world. His control is inconsistent, but if offered, could be a weapon. Lester is so close to being Major League quality, the Red Sox could trade both David Wells and Matt Clement, and their rotation could improve.
13. Justin Verlander - SP - Detroit Tigers - 23 (AAA)
Introduction: The best pick of the 2004 draft in hindsight, though I'm not sure many would have guessed it on draft day. Verlander had a fantastic 2005 season, pitching at three different levels, including the Majors. Justin was also given the honor of starting the hometown Futures Game, in which he flashed a 95-98 mph fastball and spike high 70s curve. After nearly not signing with the organization, Verlander is the Tigers best prospect, and if his injuries have subsided, should join the Major League rotation full-time very soon.
Skillset/Future: On the mound, Verlander offers it all. His 6-5 frame is a fantastic pitcher's body, and provides the tilt that his great fastball provides. His power curve is also quite possibly the minors best, and was the driving force behind his dominance in the Florida State League. Justin also offers a show-me change up, but given his two-pitch arsenal, he barely needs it. Verlander's arm tired at the end of the longest season of his life, causing the Tigers to have to put him on the DL. The organization must approach Justin with caution, but once the reins come off, look for the Old Dominion record holder to do some great things.
12. Ryan Zimmerman - 3B - Washington Nationals - 21 (MLB)
Bar none, the most impressive debut of any 2005 draftee. The Nats top five hometown selection began his pro career in low-A, but quickly made it known he was best suited for AA. After a slow start in Harrisburg, Zimmerman got it going quickly (while re-learning the shortstop position) and was summoned to the Major Leagues. Zimmerman impressed in 20 games about as much as a prospect could, hitting .397 and showing Gold Glove defense at third, and above-average defense at shortstop. He showed gap power and makings of fantastic contact skills. My concerns regarding Zimmerman is not necessarily that he won't hit for power, or that his 2005 was a fluke, but that he doesn't walk. He is really in danger of becoming a Gold Glove third baseman with an empty batting average.
11. Chad Billingsley - SP - Los Angeles Dodgers - 21 (AAA)
Introduction: Sometimes, there are some statistics I don't know what to make of. Oftentimes, I've talked about how misleading pitching statistics are, and have thrown out bad starts to make a case for a pitcher. Chad Billingsley is the type of pitcher that applies for, as he had three starts between May 3 and June 19 that tarnished his season statistics. What really trips me out, however: each start was against the same team, Delmon Young's Montgomery Biscuits. Anyway, during those three starts, Billingsley allowed 23 hits, 5 home runs and 19 earned runs in 10.2 innings. In his other 25 appearances, Billingsley had a 2.53 ERA and a staggering 6.18 H/9. Suddenly, his stats look a bit more impressive, no?
Skillset/Future: For the first time in two years, I'm going to back off my comparisons between Billingsley and Kerry Wood. We always accepted that Billingsley didn't quite have Wood's stuff, but he had a far cleaner delivery, and as a result, was far less of an injury risk. This season, he also proved that his mechanics will yield for more control, as Billingsley's non-Montgomery BB/9 was 2.93. Impressed? You should be. And mind you, when I say that he doesn't have Wood's stuff, this is not an insult. Billingsley can bring his fastball up to 97 mph, and he has one of the minors best sliders. Add in an above-average curveball and change up, and you have one of the five best pitching prospects in the minors.
Over next weekend I'm hoping to do a mailbag article, so if you guys have any questions, please drop them in the comments below. Those that I don't answer right away should get responded to in a separate article on Saturday.