Top 20 2006 Sophomores
With a graduation to the Major Leagues, prospects escape the realm of subjective opinion rankings. They then enter a world of objectivity, when rankings are based far more on numbers than eyes.
Today, I'd like to take a select few Major Leaguers back to prospect lists. My first article for this site, one year ago, was ranking the top 20 sophomores of 2005. Data from the previous year, and PECOTA projections for the next five made it easier than my January rankings, but still far from perfect. As good as the top choice of David Wright looks good now, but the inclusions of Edwin Jackson, Alexis Rios and Chin-Hui Tsao do not.
Twenty-nine players from my 2005 WTNY Top 100 (including honorable mention) - my real prospect list - were rookies last season. Far more other players, not on the list, were classified as first-year players. The point of today's piece is to gather together all these players and find the best twenty in terms of perceived career value. The list...
1. Felix Hernandez - SP - Seattle Mariners
Everyone familiar with King Felix has a mancrush on him. Everyone. But no one has been as outward with their feelings as Dave Cameron, and deservingly so, as Cameron brought Felix to our attention when he was pitching in the Northwest League. Within a guest column for this site, Cameron glowingly went through Hernandez' arsenal:
Let's start with his four-seam fastball. At 96-98 mph, his velocity alone makes it extaordinarily hard to hit. This isn't a Matt Anderson "Hit Me" fastball. Throwing it with movement, it draws stares more often than not...
If he bores of peppering the zone in the high-90s, he can easily switch to his two-seam fastball, the sinker that caused worms and gophers to leave the grounds of Safeco Field en masse. This pitch is nearly always thrown at the knees and, with late downward movement, it is a groundball machine...
As good as his two high-velocity options can be, neither is his best pitch. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a better pitch in baseball than the Royal Curveball. Thrown as a classic 12-to-6 over-the-top curve and coming in at 82-86 miles per hour, Felix's curve is the kind of breaking ball that makes batters wobble...
And, just for fun, Felix also has a change-up that, on its own merits, is one of the best in the American League. A true straight change, he drops it in at around 84 mph, usually just below the knees of a batter who has already completed his swing by the time the ball actually gets to the plate.
Felix has had success at every stop, including his stint in the Majors last year. Rich points out to me that Felix was sixth in the league last year in K/100P, a fantastic number for a player of his age. Really the only downside Hernandez possesses is a lot of potential for injury, which would certainly validate the Doc Gooden comparisons. More likely than not, he exceeds them, and should go toe-to-toe with Johan Santana for Cy Young contention for the next ten years.
2. Rickie Weeks - 2B - Milwaukee Brewers
The problems are fairly obvious with Weeks. First of all, it's likely that Weeks will never be a good second baseman, perhaps always providing negative value in the field. At the plate, Weeks also has serious contact problems, and PECOTA sees an average that, by 2010, will never top .280. His strikeout numbers should usually be over 100. But PECOTA also sees a 30-40% chance that, in each of the next five years, Weeks is a superstar. Rickie has great power for a player up the middle, and his speed on the basepaths should make fantasy owners consistently happy. When accepting his faults, we should look at Weeks as the NL second base starter in the All-Star Game for years to come.
3. Ryan Howard - 1B - Philadelphia Phillies
PECOTA is a pessimistic forecasting system, which should come as no secret to many of you. What is shocking, on the other hand, is Ryan Howard's ninety-percentile projection: .331/.429/.750 with 61 home runs. Wow. His top ten comparables include accomplished sluggers Mo Vaughn, Cecil Fielder and Willie Stargell, among others. Howard might be the best bet to have success in 2006 at the plate, but he also provides very little value in the field or on the bases, and his ceiling isn't much higher. The Phillies will be glad they traded Jim Thome, but I will say right now that when Howard's arbitration time runs out in Philadelphia, he should not be brought back. Now that is looking into the future, ladies and gents.
4. Brian McCann - C - Atlanta Braves
When Johnny Estrada went down with injury last year, the Braves were very bold to bring McCann up to the majors. Brian performed very admirably during that time, handling the pitching staff well and peforming well at the plate. In fact, he may remind some (old) Braves fans of Joe Torre, who at the age of 21, hit a very similar .282/.355/.395. In the next four years, Torre built towards his peak, culminating in an age 25 season with a .943 OPS. McCann has better power than he showed last year, and if your fantasy league hasn't drafted yet, take my advice: make McCann (at the very least) your #2 catcher.
5. Scott Kazmir - SP - Tampa Bay Devil Rays
There are two schools of thought in regard to Kazmir. The first side, the cynical one, thinks that Kazmir is a wild pitcher that will always be just that. His career can be good, but will not progress much further, as 70-80 walks per season prevents great success. Others think that control can be learned, and focus on numbers like Kazmir's 5.28 K/100P. Scott is a hot-and-cold pitcher that is very fun to watch, and his development is one thing that the new Tampa regime is banking on. If all they expect is a #2 starter, than there are far worse bets out there.
6. Zach Duke - SP - Pittsburgh Pirates
Another weird PECOTA player. While the projection system likes the Bucs southpaw more than Kazmir for the next five years, it doesn't see a lot of upside: just a 5% breakout rate is given for the 2006 season. This seems about right, as Duke's solid start simply indicated that of a player with a low ceiling. He is a very smart pitcher who I was really impressed with after he carved through the Cubs, but his strikeout numbers will never be sensational. Look for this to always hold Duke back, who is just the player the Pirates covet for their ideal team. Good things are ahead in Zach's future, even despite an organization that lacks a great reputation.
7. Edwin Encarnacion - 3B - Cincinnati Reds
After using just two third baseman from 1996-2003 (Willie Greene, Aaron Boone), the Reds hoped Brandon Larson might take the job in 2004. When it became apparent that Larson was a bust, Edwin Encarnacion started to be hyped. For years, I thought he was undeserving of so much praise, a future solid player with limited upside. However, in each year, Encarnacion has improved, and he played very well in a Major League stint last season. While Andy Marte still is perceived to have more upside than Edwin, the gap has closed, and Encarnacion is on the cusp of providing the Reds with another long-term solution (and the best one of the group) at the hot corner.
8. Huston Street - RP - Oakland Athletics
We can sit here and penalize Street for being a closer, talking about how relievers simply don't stack up against players at other positions. Or we could sit here and say that, for a closer, Street's stuff doesn't exactly match up. We could say that he is a one-year wonder, a case of the fungibility of the reliever. But that would simply not give Street enough credit. A true competitor, Street has found a way to be successful in the most difficult baseball atmosphere in the world. His stuff is good enough, because his guts are unparalleled. He will go through some tough weeks, without a doubt, but Street is one fantastic player.
9. Jeff Francoeur - OF - Atlanta Braves
No one is more variable on the list than Francoeur. If I went by PECOTA, he wouldn't be this high, as the system doesn't see the Braves outfielder breaking the 4.0 WARP mark in any of the next five years. However, I'm also intrigued by his PECOTA comparables, which have Juan Gonzalez, Cal Ripken (?) and Sammy Sosa in the top five. In fact, there are even more All-Stars making up his top 20. Like Weeks, Francoeur has issues, and my guess is that he will be one of the Majors most hot-and-cold players in baseball for some time. But few people have a feel for the game than this kid, as evidenced by just how quick he became used to Major League pitching. His power still profiles to be prodigious, and when he's done, I think we will all have learned something about how to play right field.
10. Brandon McCarthy - SP - Chicago White Sox
McCarthy was simply a tale of two seasons. He struggled in his first trip to the Majors, in which I wrote, "Brandon will need to gain confidence in a third pitch, as his fastball doesn't seem to be fast enough, and his curveball has the tendency to hang early in the count." The club then sent him to the International League to work on his change, and when he returned with the pitch improved, the results were fantastic. Just eight earned runs in his final 42.2 innings for a sparkling 1.69 ERA, and oddly enough, a spot in the White Sox bullpen. However, as we talked about recently in our AL Central Preview, there is every expectation that McCarthy will get his starts this season, and by 2007, a full-time slot. Consistency in the change will determine how high his career can go.
11. J.J. Hardy - SS - Milwaukee Brewers
The offensive Daniel Cabrera, few players are gaining more pre-2006 breakout support than J.J. Hardy. One of those boosters is Analysts' own Rich Lederer, who wrote this long-term prognostication on the Brewers middle infielder:
Longer term, Hardy profiles a bit like Chris Speier. He has a similar body type with medium speed, a good knowledge of the strike zone, and above-average power for a SS. Speier had better range than Hardy showed in his rookie year but was eventually hampered by a bad back despite enjoying a 19-year career in the majors. For what it's worth, the former Giant was one of the best players in the league during his second season.
The cynical view of Hardy would be to say he is this year's Adam LaRoche, simply on the list because of a big second half. However, Rich has that angle covered, too:
There are four points of interest [in Hardy's bad first half].
1. Hardy walked more often than he struck out.
2. He was putting the ball in play at a pretty good clip.
3. His Batting Average on Balls In Play was a meager .211 (vs. a MLB norm of about .300). Give him a more normal BABIP and he would have hit .262 before the All-Star game rather than .187.
4. The number of doubles-to-home runs was unusually high.
I was never high on Hardy when ranking him as a prospect, going as far to compare him to Royce Clayton. I will gladly admit to being wrong, as Hardy is a fun player to watch that does everything right. Look for a solid 2006 to be the start of a wonderfully solid Major League career.
12. Curtis Granderson - OF - Detroit Tigers
Do the Tigers really appreciate what they have in Granderson? Are they really considering starting Nook Logan at centerfield this season? In 2004, Granderson broke out at one of the minors easiest stadiums to hit a home run in. His numbers were helped by an August that was disproportionate to the rest of his career. He was an anomaly, but this year, showed that his breakout was for real. Granderson might not be the next great Tiger, or even a consistent All-Star. But for a team like Detroit, that has been "rebuilding" for so long, he's the long-term answer at one position. PECOTA loves him, but I don't see enough power developing for a superstar to shine through.
13. Casey Kotchman - 1B - Los Angeles Angels
Talk about a player PECOTA doesn't like. Thanks to a few years littered with injuries, Major League ineffectiveness, and a lack of opportunity, Kotchman is not a player that is projected well. His top ten comparables are a sorry group, and his high for the next five years -- in terms of WARP -- is 2.6. However, it's a prediction system far from perfect, and in Kotchman's case, numbers don't tell the whole story. For years, Casey has drawn the same comparison: Mark Grace. His fielding has always been lauded, as have his contact skills. Some would say that Kotchman's power would eventually develop, and his offense at first would be way above-average. Others, not so much. At this point, I think Kotchman is -- for his career -- a 15-25 home run player. To be successful, he'll need an average upwards of .300. He can do it.
14. Jeremy Reed - OF - Seattle Mariners
If you think the White Sox defense is good now, try imagining a team with Chris Young in left, Aaron Rowand in center, and Jeremy Reed in right. Instead, Chicago was just too deep up the middle, and all three of these players will be in greener pastures in 2006. Reed will be the one of the group who plays in a drastic pitching park, so his play will be the hardest to judge. The one consensus coming from Seattle is that Reed is a great defender, which given their huge outfield is a big plus. But, he does play next to Ichiro, which must be taken into consideration. Offensively, he's probably got Mark Kotsay potential, which has become a compliment, if not a fantastic one. The star potential isn't there, but he can probably be everything that Granderson can, and like Curtis, is the right cog for the Mariners rebuild.
15. Ervin Santana - SP - Los Angeles Angels
I'm not sure we really appreciate what Santana has done here. Sure, Bartolo Colon, Jarrod Washburn and John Lackey all had good 2005 seasons, and were more responsible for the Angels performance than Santana's. However, does anyone really believe that without Ervin, the Angels would have made the playoffs? For an October run, every team needs a player that steps up at the right time and replaces someone injured. That is what Santana did, and in effect, made Washburn's high price tag expendable this winter. Santana was on and off with his game last year, but had flashes of the lightning stuff that gained him notoriety in the minors. He's got a lot more bust potential than the names on this list, but he also could be really successful atop the Angel rotation.
16. Robinson Cano - 2B - New York Yankees
Both at Baseball Prospectus and BTF, Cano was given about a 10% chance to turn into Hall of Fame baseball player. This is because what he did last year was remarkable, stepping into baseball's largest stage and taking the spotlight off a position that has caused the Yanks so much grief. Cano is another player that I obviously underrated too much as a prospect, not taking his 100 RBI+ season into enough consideration. But, really, is Cano's ceiling much above his performance in 2005? Do we really see a player that even has the possibility to be better than Weeks? Not for me, at least, as I believe Cano will teeter-totter among being an average second baseman for as long as the Yanks let him.
17. Joe Blanton - SP - Oakland Athletics
I can say that, with certainty, Joe Blanton will be pitching in the Majors for a long time. He's just that type of player, a solid starter with good durability and good enough stuff to have lasting value to Major League organizations. However, he isn't the type of player that will cause other starters to skip outings to get to. Blanton has succeeded in going after hitters, taking an approach similar to that of Street's, above. He had nice results in 2005, and should continue to do so this year without really being a factor in fantasy baseball. He is a good player with a lot of WARP in his future, but when it's all said and done, it could be remarkable how anti-climatic his career was.
18. Matt Murton - LF - Chicago Cubs
As a Cub fan, this was a difficult ranking. I, in a way, wanted to give Murton something back after he had such a good 2005. This was a player that forced his way into Dusty Baker's offense, a trait we should all respect in a player. He came out strong and kept going, having a remarkable season in left field. However, he didn't show any power. Barely any trace of it. In fact, besides home run contests, Murton's career is full of seasons without power. This just isn't acceptable for a Major League corner outfielder. While Murton could survive on becoming a 40-50 doubles guy, even that would be a step up. It will be his power that determines whether this ranking was too low, or drastically too high.
19. Nick Swisher and Dan Johnson - OF/1B - Oakland Athletics
On a list that features Ryan Howard in the third spot, it's difficult to drop a few players' rankings thanks to lack of athleticism. In that regard, Howard takes the cake. However, Howard's power is enough to overcome that fault, which is something that neither of these A's can say. In fact, Swisher and Johnson don't have any traits that are fantastic, but enough tools needed for success. This is very similar to my comment on Blanton, and in fact, could be considered a bit on Oakland A's players in general. This team is filled with solid players, top to bottom, that will make them a competitive team on an annual basis. But a World Series team? I don't see it, as there aren't very many players that could have fantastic career years. This holds true for Swisher and Johnson, neither of whom will be taking a large step in 2006.
20. Andy Sisco and Ambiorix Burgos - RP - Kansas City Royals
These two names should not be surprising choices for long-time readers. As I have pointed out a few times, I predicted Burgos to breakout before the season. And that he did, going from the Midwest League to the Majors in admirable fashion, with a fantastic 6.05 K/100P peripheral. And as I have also pointed out, I did not think the Cubs decision to expose Sisco to the Rule 5 draft was a good decision. It wasn't, as Sisco started out strong on Opening Day and never looked back. PECOTA is not confident at all with its predictions of these two, as neither garners a similarity score over 15. However, I see the future of the Kansas City bullpen, which at this point, could be their one strength in the next few seasons.