WTNYJanuary 03, 2006
Breaking Out 101
By Bryan Smith

Welcome back to class. You surely remember last year, when I took the first test to this class, right? In fact, shortly before the season, I predicted 15 prospects for whom I forecasted big things for in 2005. While prospect rankings are very similar across the Internet, this list is different among everyone from Baseball America, to baseball executives, to me.

Below, I have graded my first test in the course of Introduction to Breakouts. I'm extremely happy with the results, as many of these players will come back next week, as I count down my top 75 prospects. Much of getting the right answer on these players is luck, as I was more confident in some of the players I missed than those I got right. However, I told myself last year that even one or two right answers would make the article worth it.

How'd I do? See for yourself. Below I go over all fifteen players, with a quote from last year's article, their 2005 statistics, thoughts on that performance, and a final grade.

Nick Markakis (BAL)

What I said then: "...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."

A+= .300/.379/.480, 43/65 in 350
AA= .339/.420/.573, 18/30 in 124
AFL .326/.408/.453, 11/8 in 86

What I say now: This is a clear-cut example of the end of a season providing hints as to what will come. Markakis' full-season debut started out slow, but when he got going, he became one of the better hitters in the minor leagues. My guess that this trend would continue into the 2006 season was correct, as Markakis has become one of the uncontested top forty prospects in the game.

As a whole, Markakis hit .310/.390/.504 this year, about 20 points of average below his final 225 at-bats of 2004. After a solid season in the Carolina League, he finished the season on fire in Bowie. Nick is one of the minors more refined players, and should -- as I suggested -- be playing right field in Camden Yards in one season. Like many on this list, he will feature prominently in my top 75 prospects, which will be announced next week.

Grade: B. I wasn't the only one that predicted this, and Markakis still isn't top 25 material, but he certainly improved.

Jon Lester (BOS)

What I said then: "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."

AA= 2.61 114/148.1 163/57 10

What I say now: Of all the players on this list, I was most comfortable last year with my selection of Lester. Like Jeff Francis the year before, I was so comfortable to put him among my top 50 prospects. This was extremely unique in prospect lists, and it paid off as Lester's stock skyrocketed in 2005. His season made him the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year.

Like last year, the Red Sox are seemingly refusing to trade Lester, who has #2 potential in the Major Leagues. Dave Cameron at USS Mariner wrote a good column last week against Lester, but I think Dave is underrating his stuff. Few southpaws offer a two-pitch combination like him, and even fewer are as good in the H/9, K/9 and HR/9 ratios. If Lester can tighten his control, he should be a consensus top five pitching prospect. As it is right now, he seems to be right on that bubble.

Grade: A. My biggest sleeper turned out to be just that. I'll likely be boasting his name for years to come.

Chris Young (AZ)

What I said then: "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."

AA= .277/.377/.545, 70/129, 32/38 in 466
AFL .253/.326/.410, 8/25 , 3/3 in 83

What I say now: Again, I'm tooting my own horn here. Last year, I saw a lot more in Young than I did Ryan Sweeney, and accordingly ranked him higher on my top 75 prospects. This move paid off, as Sweeney's power problems continued in 2005, while Young took off. He continues to be a three-tool player, sorely lacking in the contact and throwing arm categories. However, his faults are aided by fantastic power, blazing speed and superb range.

It's likely that Young's inclusion in the recent Javier Vazquez trade indicates that the White Sox think his stock is too high. While I love Young as a player, I tend to agree. He still can be a better player than Cameron, I think, but his contact abilities should prevent him from ever becoming a superstar. This guy could make a great fifth or sixth hitter on a good team, but expecting a clean-up hitting Gold Glove perennial All-Star is a bit much. And it seems that's about where his stock is at these days.

Grade: A-. His stock soared in 2005, and he should be a top 30 player next week.

Elijah Dukes (TB)

What I said then: "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 [last] offseason."

AA= .287/.355/.478, 45/83, 19/28 in 446

What I say now: Dukes' most significant weakness did not improve in 2005, though the Montgomery Biscuit managed to stay out of trouble with the law. Instead, Dukes kept it to the field, where he was ejected numerous times, and suspended once for his actions. While playing, however, he was about the best Biscuit in Montgomery not named Delmon Young.

There is no real flaw to Dukes' game, besides his attitude, as he grades average or better in all five tools. However, he is not extraordinary in any either, which will make All-Star seasons few and far between. Tampa has significant depth issues in the outfield, and given Rocco Baldelli's winter extension, you have to figure that Dukes' 2006 season in Durham is simply a showcase to 29 teams.

Grade: B-. I thought he might have Lastings Milledge potential, but in the end, he'll settle at being Milton Bradley, without Bradley's ceiling.

Melky Cabrera (NYY)

What I said then: "Melky Cabrera of the Yankees has drawn comparisons to a poor man's Bernie Williams [from me], 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 soon."

AA= .275/.322/.411, 28/72, 11/13 in 426
AAA .248/.309/.366, 9/15 , 2/2 in 101

What I say now: One thing I have to keep in mind is that doubles don't necessarily clear the wall more often with age. Sometimes, strength is needed -- in addition to gap power -- to start comparing people to Bernie Williams. Cabrera's season in the Eastern League began well, albeit without power, prompting the Yankees to attempt to fill their CF hole with him. This proved a bad idea quickly, and Cabrera was sent down, and never really recovered.

At this point, it's unlikely he will ever be anything more than a bench player. However, he had his fifteen seconds of NYC fame, and sometimes, that helps build a 500 AB trial in cities like Kansas City . Melky needs to start drawing more walks, tighten up his defense, and keep his contact skills up to have a future on a Major League bench. Despite those obstacles, I'd still love him as a throw-in.

Grade: C+. I'm giving myself a little credit since the Yankees trusted Melky at one point, but really, this is not a breakout.

Alex Romero (MIN)

What I said then: "Last year, Alex Romero of the Twins, had a .792 OPS in the same stadium that Kubel had a .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."

AA= .301/.354/.458, 36/69, 12/23 in 509

What I say now: Just like winter power did not hint anything towards Alexis Rios, the same is true with Romero. For that reason, I have promised myself to pay less attention to winter league baseball. Romero's 2005 season looks good overall, with an average over .300, an OPS above .800, and less than 70 strikeouts. Looking at those numbers alone, you'd think this guy could fill a hole in the Twin Cities soon.

Wrong. I like Romero a lot less this winter than I did a year ago. His patience fell apart in the Eastern League, and given the environment in which he played, a .157 ISO isn't particularly impressive. Romero's defense in center was never great, and it doesn't help that he steals bases at something near a .500 clip. His well-rounded skillset should open a career as a fourth outfielder, with a Lew Ford ceiling, but it's probably foolish to be expecting much.

Grade: C. Despite better numbers, Romero really regressed on the whole during the season.

Francisco Liriano (MIN)

What I said then: "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 [last] year, Liriano struck out more than six batters, showing fantastic stuff. 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."

AA= 3.64 70/76.2 92/26 6
AAA 1.78 56/91 112/24 4

What I say now: Wow. I thought Liriano was a good prospect, better than he was given credit for, but could I have seen this? Besides Justin Verlander, there was no pitcher in the minors that could come close to claiming he had a better season. Liriano's ERA in the Eastern League is high because of a bad BABIP (I'll get into that next week), which then over-corrected itself when moving to AAA. However, he showed all season long that Terry Ryan may have acquired an ace.

As I saw at the Futures Game, Liriano throws only hard pitches, as everything comes above 85 mph. The great Major League fastball hitters could make him pay, as they did in September, but it's unlikely that will happen very often. At worst, Liriano could be moved to the bullpen, and turned into a dominant reliever. At best, he sits alongside Johan Santana and forms one of the best 1-2 southpaw combinations in recent memory.

Grade: A. Liriano looks to be the cream of the A.J. Pierzynski crop, which is saying something, given Joe Nathan's career in Minnesota.

Francisco Rosario (TOR)

What I said then: "...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 we can expect it to return soon in full form. Rosario is quite dependent on his control, when his walks get up in numbers, he really struggles...look for the Jays to consider moving his power stuff to the bullpen."

AAA 3.95 111/116.1 80/42 16

What I say now: In a lot of ways, I thought Rosario was a similar player to Liriano. Coming off arm surgery, solid stuff, fallback as a reliever. There was a lot to like there. Unfortunately, I ignored the stuff reports that had been all over the place. While Liriano was back up into the mid-90s in 2004, there was a universal consensus that Rosario's velocity didn't make it all the way back. I assumed it would.

It didn't. If it does, I still have faith in Rosario, most likely in a middle relief or set-up role. Otherwise, he also could put together a nice little AAA career, and hope to have some Amaury Telemaco-ish resurgence down the road. However, the most likely situation is that Rosario is simply mediocre forever, another victim of a sore arm. Forecasting the success of pitchers returning from injury is one dangerous game. In this case, it's a game I lost.

Grade: D. Did not breakout at all, and likely sealed his fate as a starter.

Ambiorix Burgos (KC)

What I said then: "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 (see: Colt Griffin), but they should make a point of it, because Burgos is one special talent."

MLB 3.98 60/63.1 65/31 6

What I say now: My assumption in putting Burgos on this list was that he would eventually become a reliever, and that is where his success would lie. If you would have made me guess, I would likely have predicted Burgos' rookie year to fall in 2008. However, in the midst of a few months, the Royals converted Burgos' great stuff to relief, and then with little warning, brought him up to the Majors. From a developmental standpoint, the Royals did a horrible job.

But in some cases, the player is too good for an organization to screw up. Because try as the Royals might, Burgos really succeeded in 2005. In fact, with Andy Sisco, the Royals have built quite the future bullpen. Burgos obviously has serious control problems, but he also has a dangerous splitter that allows quite a few strikeouts, and very few home runs. A smart Kansas City manager would platoon close with Sisco and Burgos, as the two are solid foundations for a good future 'pen.

Grade: B+. No one saw this coming, even me. I'm just proud, and shocked, to have spoken his name prior to 2005.

Carlos Marmol (CHC)

What I said then: "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."

A+= 2.99 60/72.1 71/37 7
AA= 3.65 70/81.1 70/40 10

What I say now: More often than not, Carlos Marmol is referred to as a work in progress. This is what happens when the conversion between hitting and pitching (or vice versa) is made. For likely the next 15 years of his career, Marmol will be referred to as raw. However, I took the universal "raw" description as also meaning he had better stuff than he does. Don't get me wrong, the former catcher has a solid arsenal, but hardly enough to have a future ML career as a starter.

If Marmol is to succeed, it's likely on the Ken Phelps All-Star Team, or in middle relief. I would like to see what would happen if the Cubs tried moving him to the bullpen next year, to see if he could add a few more miles per hour, and a little more bite. If so, he would be a very good relief prospect. Otherwise, as I said, the most likely career is one spent predominantly in the minors.

Grade: C. Hardly on a lot of radars, but Marmol is a C+ prospect that had a very nice 2005 season.

Sean Marshall (CHC)

What I said then: "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+= 2.74 63/69 61/26 7
AA= 2.52 16/25 24/5 1

What I say now: Bryan, Bryan, Bryan. Did I really believe that Marshall's stuff would improve over the course of a winter? So much so that he might start to get mentioned in top 100 debates? I sure hope not. Marshall is good at what he's good at, which is to say a poor, poor man's Jeremy Sowers. He is a soft-throwing southpaw with pretty good breaking stuff, and enough pitchability to succeed. This is what happened at AA towards the end of the season, when Marshall had his best run of the year.

I'm told the Cubs are quite high on Marshall, who I do believe could turn out to be a better starter than Rich Hill. Hill has a big safety net in the bullpen that Marshall does not have, however, as Sean doesn't have very great, dominating stuff. So, the Cubs will send him back to West Tenn in 2006, with the hope that he forces their hand into a promotion to Iowa. Who knows, but maybe in 2008, we could be talking about Marshall starting a few games on the north side. And if not there, probably for a different organization.

Grade: C+. I think I might have been a year early on Marshall, but I do get some credit since his season ERA was under 3.00.

Thomas Pauly (CIN)

What I said then: "A former reliever at Princeton, Thomas Pauly was great last year in the Carolina League with a strikeout-to-walk ratio over 5:1. Combine that with a H/9 around seven, and finding problems becomes difficult. 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."


What I say now: Reds pitching prospects get hurt. A lot. At some point, we probably have to understand that this is not just some coincidental happening, but more of a trend. Despite quite a few good doctors associated with the team, good prospects go down every year in this organization. Pauly was just the next one, so here's to hoping Homer Bailey doesn't follow him. 2006 will be a good barometer to see how much of Pauly is left, but at this point, the prospects of a career in the Majors seem slim. If his stuff and great control returns, we'll talk.

Grade: F. This is the risk you run gambling on pitching prospects.

Andy LaRoche (LAD)

What I said then: "Following a summer when LaRoche 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 the Florida State League, LaRoche should be one of the game's top third base prospects."

A+= .333/.380/.651, 19/38 in 249
AA= .273/.367/.445, 32/54 in 227
AFL .352/.394/.451, 6/17 in 91

What I say now: Logan White still hasn't had a lot of his guys succeed in the Majors. But, Logan White also continues to look like the game's best scouting director. This is what it took to turn LaRoche from a late-round draft pick to one of the game's top third base prospects. For much of the season's first half, LaRoche kept pace with Brandon Wood in the minor league home run lead, and was on top for a long time. However, a move from Vero Beach to Jacksonville all but ended his bid.

While most see some colossal regression from high-A to AA, I think LaRoche showed a lot of poise upon promotion. Suddenly he became a disciplined hitter, a skill that would go a long way into covering any contact problems that he might have. What won't leave any time soon, I would think, is his fantastic power. Dodgers Stadium is a pitcher's park, but LaRoche really profiles to hit more than 25 home runs wherever he plays. With a little discipline, annual lines of .275/.360/.480 is a conservative guess.

Grade: A. This guy could have been elected the governor of Florida at one point. Top 30 prospect.

Asdrubal Cabrera (SEA)

What I said then: "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."

A-= .318/.407/.474, 30/32 in 192
A+= .284/.325/.418, 15/47 in 225

What I say now: Spectacular season for a guy whose bat scared me. He started the year in low-A, juggling positions, and still managed to put up a fantastic line. He showed great patience, better contact skills, and again, a little bit of pop. Once Adam Jones was ready for AA, the Mariners confidently moved Cabrera into his spot. At worst, if he couldn't give them Jones' bat, he would play defense as good as anyone in the Cal League.

And that's what he did. Upon moving to high-A, there was serious regression in Cabrera's numbers, despite playing in a good hitting environment. What most discourages me is the lack of walks, as a smart hitter will walk more (rather than much less) when he is struggling. I also believe we saw his true colors in regards to power, as expecting a .150 ISO would be pretty silly at this point. His contact skills are great, he has versatility, and is a highlight-reel defensive player. There is a Major League future for Asdrubal Cabrera, mark my words.

Grade: B+. Definitely made himself noticed, rising to AAA at season's end. I acknowledged his potential was limited (it still is), so the grade is a bit higher.

Francisco Hernandez (CHW)

What I said then: "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."

A-= .222/.292/.314, 13/29 in 153
SS= .349/.405/.524, 19/25 in 212

What I say now: Another note to Bryan Smith: stop with lofty, lofty comparisons. Melky Cabrera could be Bernie Williams? Francisco Hernandez could be Victor Martinez? Yikes! That is simply setting the bar too high.

Basically, Hernandez excited me last year after becoming the talk of short-season ball. A teenage, mature, switch-hitting catcher? It's hard to not get pumped about a player like that. However, Hernandez showed that catchers are a tough bunch to predict. In his first exposure to full-season ball, Hernandez failed miserably. His walks and strikeouts were fine, not a problem, but his batting average and isolated power were disastrous. As quickly as they could, the White Sox demoted him back to short-season ball, where he dominated once again.

2006 should be the year in which we find out whether there is power in Hernandez' bat or not. If there is, watch out. If not, then another one will most definitely bite the dust.

Grade: D+. Another great performance in short-season ball indicates I could have been one year off. Still disappointing.

* * * * *

I tried to be a tough grader, and as a result, gave myself a B- average (2.64 GPA) with these fifteen players. However, if you ask me, classes like predicting breakout classes should really be graded on a curve. At least I came away from the class having learned something, as Cabrera and Romero teach me that it's always good to stay away from those moderately athletic, moderately talented players. And after Marmol and Marshall, I've learned loyalty doesn't have to extend to these articles.

But really, I'm most proud of the 3 A's, as it feels good to have attempted to bring Lester, Liriano and LaRoche (should I just always go after the L's?) to your attention before 2005. However, I was probably more lucky than good, as for every Lester, there are quite a few Thomas Paulys and Francisco Rosarios. Another thing to keep in mind that these are long-term predictions, and in the end, it's possible that Francisco Hernandez makes me look better than Andy LaRoche.

A true review of Breakout Prospects 101 would be incomplete without a review of the names I missed. Including any of these players on the list would have me on top of the world. Here's a look, with their 2004 numbers (to see what I was working with), in absolutely no specific order:

  • Joel Zumaya - Blazing fastball should help him build a good career as a starter or reliever.

    2004 A+ = 4.36 90/115.2 108/58 10
    2004 AA = 6.30 19/20 29 /10 6

  • Jarrod Saltalamacchia - Catapulted into #1 catching spot, as well as Braves future arguments.

    2004 A- = .272/.348/.437, 34/83 in 323

  • Anibal Sanchez - A good year for the Red Sox, who harbored Sanchez' breakout, and then sold a high stock this winter.

    2004 SS = 1.77 43/76.1 101/29 3

  • Brandon Wood - Any perfect breakout list contains the 2005 Player of the Year on it, without a doubt.

    2004 A- = .251/.322/.404, 46/117 in 478

  • Howie Kendrick - We really just had to believe that this little engine really could.

    2004 A- = .367/.398/.578, 12/41, 15/21 in 313

  • Adam Jones - Many thought Jones would be changing after 2005. But after his breakout, it's to CF, not the mound.

    2004 A- = .267/.314/.404, 33/124 in 510

  • Carlos Gonzalez - Scouts had liked him, but his numbers never told a good story.

    2004 SS = .273/.327/.427, 22/70 in 300

  • Jason Hirsh - Most teams wish his breakout had been in 2006, not 2005, as he then would have been Rule 5 eligible.

    2004 A+ = 4.01 128/130.1 96/57 8

    Who should I have seen coming from this group. Definitely Sanchez and Kendrick, who teach us at the very least, to respect fantastic numbers at the lower levels. Salty, Wood and Jones indicate that a teenager keeping his head above water in low-A is a noble task, especially those that were highly regarded coming out of high school. Joel Zumaya, I kick myself for not seeing, with his fantastic H/9 ratio, as well as a great K/9 when moving to AA. And finally, I'm not sure it was possible to see the last two players coming. Sometimes, Gonzalez and Hirsh teach us, breaking out is simply spontaneoous.

    In conclusion, there are a whole lot of ways to predict a breakout prospect. Sometimes theories work, sometimes they blow up in your face. But, you certainly can't hit the ball if you don't swing the bat. I'll be back in the batter's box soon.

  • Comments

    Bryan, I think you're being a bit harsh on Alex Romero. The EL was hellish for hitters in '05 and Romero's home ballpark grades out as a pitchers park within the context of that league with component factors of .95, .94, 1.11, 1.11, .90, and .89 for runs, hits, doubles, homers, walks, and strikeouts respectively.


    Thanks for this follow-up. After reading your work for the past two seasons, I think this is my favorite. Calling the longshots has to be the fun part of prospect analysis, and the hardest.

    Having said that, I decided to play along with you by using this list as my baseball card shopping list right after you published it. For some reason, about every 10 years I get the bug again and collect for a couple years. This decade it was 2004-05.

    What I found was that for the most part, the market already agreed with you. The top players (Markakis, Young, Liriano, LaRoche) were all pretty expensive from the beginning, although I have to say that the LaRoche cards weren't issued until mid-year after his performance was clear. The exception is Lester, but there are two caveats:

    1) His only official rookie card so far is the Upper Deck Prospect Premiere XRC, which is not a highly-desired product line

    2) I latched on to Lester when Peter Gammons praised him and Papelbon sometime in 2004, so there's a data point.

    On the downside, it proved easy from the start to get deals on Pauly, Romero, Rosario, and Marshall. Unfortunately for me, I played a lot of longshots this time.

    Not blaming you, not your fault. Just thought I'd add this to the mix. It is also not only possible but likely that early season performance accentuated these trends.


    I know your breakout picks tend to be younger prospects, but I was wondering what you think about Shin-Soo Choo's chance to break out based on his resurgence late last season.

    Choo's #s after July 31:
    .339/.413/.551, 4 HR, 16 BB, 18Ks in 127 ABs.

    The sample size is small, but I know you're both a believer in late-season stats predicting future success, and a fan of Choo's, so I was wondering how much, if anything, you'd read into Choo's end-of-season run.