2006 Minor League Preview: The Graduates
As a hobby, following prospects is a lonely, lonely practice. Each year, dozens of the players that you have evaluated since their prep days become Major Leaguers and enter the world of objectification through statistics. They graduate from the minor league ranks, graduate from 'prospect' labels.
Last year, 29 players that ranked in my 2005 Top 100 made such a graduation, becoming eligible in Rookie of the Year voting. No longer can we sit back and wonder whether Felix Hernandez' delivery will hold up through a full Major League season, or if Ryan Howard's power potential will be realized. These questions are becoming answers in front of our eyes.
In part one of my series to preview the 2006 minor league season, I want to look at the best players that will be making such a jump this year. Thanks to preseason reports, I have faith that 16 members of my top 100 will be on a Major League roster on Opening Day. Some are being thrust into full-time roles, learning on the run, while others are being weaned into Major Leaguers. While still others (found at the bottom of the article) might still be on Opening Day rosters or be called up before June, these 16 are the mortal locks to become this year's set of graduates.
For each of the sixteen players, I have tried to provide you with a multitude of information to discern who might be the best in 2006. First, the players are ranked in the same order (and preceded by the same number) in which I ranked them in my 2006 WTNY prospect list. After the player's name and organization, there are three categories given for each player. One is the role, the information given from the most recent reports I could find about where the player will start the season (fantasy owners can thank me later). Second, the 'projection/comps' category provides the weighted mean and top 3 comparable players that are found in Baseball Prospectus 2006, contrived by their famous projection system: PECOTA. Finally, I quickly conclude with a look at the player's Spring Training, and while it might not have much predictive value, will provide some reasoning for their place on active rosters.
2. Jeremy Hermida: Florida Marlins
Role: Starting Right Fielder, #2 hitter
Projection/Comps: .257/.361/.439, .282 EqA; Jack Cust, Clint Hurdle, Tom Brunansky
Spring Performance: .214/.328/.268 in 56 at-bats. Solid patience and contact problems still a part of his game, power has been lacking.
4. Prince Fielder - 1B - Milwaukee Brewers
Role: Starting First Baseman, Middle of Order
Projection/Comps: .268/.349/.488, .280 EqA; Greg Luzinski, Hee Seop Choi, Dernell Stenson
Spring Performance: .282/.429/.487 in 39 at-bats. Has overcome slow start with a big finish. Key has been only five whiffs, making a Carlos Pena career unlikely.
5. Francisco Liriano - LHP - Minnesota Twins
Role: Back of bullpen, middle/long relief; 6th starter
Projection/Comps: 3.87 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 150 K, 27.1 VORP; Curt Simmons, Bob Moose, Johnny Podres
Spring Performance: 3H/4IP, 2ER, 4K/1BB for Twins; 3H/5.1IP, 1ER, 8K/3BB in WBC. Showed mid-90s fastball and low-90s slider in WBC that left many drooling. Performance convinced Twins to keep him on roster.
8. Matt Cain - RHP - San Francisco Giants
Role: Fourth Starter
Projection/Comps: 4.34 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 137 K, 14.4 VORP; Denny McLain, Gary Nolan, Oliver Perez
Spring Performance: 26H/18.2IP, 16ER, 14K/5BB. Inconsistency has hurt Cain this March, as well as his flyball tendencies, which have yielded three home runs. At times, however, the Giants have seen the phenom whom pitched so well last September.
12. Ryan Zimmerman - 3B - Washington Nationals
Role: Starting Third Baseman, #5 hitter
Projection/Comps: .289/.334/.462, .273 EqA; Albert Pujols, Justin Morneau, Joe Torre
Spring Performance: .318/.375/.621 in 66 at-bats. Has shown fantastic power with 5 home runs, as well as 5 doubles. However, his significant strengths (contact, defense) have been missing: 16 strikeouts, 6 errors.
13. Justin Verlander - RHP - Detroit Tigers
Role: Fifth Starter
Projection/Comps: 4.20 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 112K, 19.4 VORP; Seung Song, Dennis Tankersley, John Maine
Spring Performance: 17H/18.2IP, 7ER, 16K/10BB. A model of control in 2005, Verlander has not shown the same ability this Spring. Nor has he prevented the home run well, allowing three thus far.
16. Conor Jackson - 1B - Arizona Diamondbacks
Role: Starting First Baseman, #5 hitter
Projection/Comps: .269/.359/.439, .268 EqA; Nate Espy, Paul McAnulty, Paul Konerko.
Spring Performance: .452/.558/.762 in 42 at-bats. One of Arizona's most impressive players, Jackson has managed to outplay Tony Clark's .999 spring OPS. Conor has struck out just twice thus far, which upon first glance looks like a misprint.
20. Scott Olsen - LHP - Florida Marlins
Role: Fourth/Fifth Starter
Projection/Comps: 4.55 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 118 K, 7.0 VORP; Chuck Stobbs, Ken Holtzman, Pete Falcone.
Spring Performance: 13H/19.2IP, 6ER, 9K/5BB. Peripheral numbers are lacking in a sense, but Olsen has been among Florida's best young guns. Earned rotation spot.
22. Jon Papelbon - RHP - Boston Red Sox
Role: Middle relief, 6th starter and 2nd/3rd closer option
Projection/Comps: 4.91 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 74 K, 8.4 VORP; Art Mahaffey, Kelvim Escobar, Barry Latman.
Spring Performance: 25H/19.1IP, 12ER, 9K/8BB. Given the possibility of taking a rotation spot (and forcing a David Wells trade), Papelbon failed. A good start to the season in the bullpen will go a long way in dictating Jon's future role.
23. Joel Zumaya - RHP - Detroit Tigers
Role: Back of bullpen, middle/long relief; 6th starter
Projection/Comps: 4.58 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 140 K, 12.5 VORP; Dick Drott, Dave Morehead, Dave Boswell
Spring Performance: 8H/12.2IP, 9ER, 10K/5BB. Despite ERA and 4 home runs allowed, Zumaya has earned a lot praise and his rotation spot. His electrifying stuff will be slowly harnessed in bullpen, Jim Leyland wants to work him in the Earl Weaver style.
30. Nick Markakis - OF - Baltimore Orioles
Role: Starting Outfielder (CF?), towards bottom of lineup
Projection/Comps: .263/.326/.403, .254 EqA; Laynce Nix, Richard Brown, Jody Gerut.
Spring Performance: .340/.438/.509 in 53 at-bats. Fantastic. Has shown gap power, good contact abilities and outstanding patience this March. Orioles brass has been impressed enough to allow Markakis to skip to the Majors despite just 124 AB.
33. Brian Anderson - OF - Chicago White Sox
Role: Starting Centerfielder, back of lineup
Projection/Comps: .269/.329/.468, .265 EqA; Ron Swoboda, Roy Sievers, Dwight Evans.
Spring Performance: .316/.375/.526 in 57 at-bats. Impressive performance, but hardly jaw-dropping. Has shown gap power in excess, but doesn't look to be much of a home run hitter. His 1/5 spring on the basepaths should put a frown on any fantasy owner's face.
36. Hanley Ramirez - SS - Florida Marlins
Role: Starting Shortstop, leadoff hitter
Projection/Comps: .258/.313/.367, .241 EqA; Kenny Perez, Felipe Lopez, Jason Bourgeois.
Spring Performance: .339/.361/.644 in 59 at-bats. Finally given a challenge, Ramirez stepped up to the plate with 8 extra-base hits in less than sixty at-bats. His lack of discipline should make Joe Girardi think twice when he puts Ramirez atop his order, however.
59. Jeff Mathis - C - Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Role: Starting Catcher, back of lineup
Projection/Comps: .241/.302/.403, .245 EqA; Guillermo Quiroz, Fernando Tatis, Cole Liniak.
Spring Performance: .321/.441/.607 in 28 at-bats. Despite being hampered by hand injuries, Mathis has been very solid this spring. His contact problems should be a strain over the course of the whole season, but the Angels are hoping Mathis' patience and power outweighs that.
62. Ian Kinsler - 2B - Texas Rangers
Role: Starting Second Baseman, back of lineup
Projection/Comps: .270/.328/.451, .261 EqA; Daniel Garcia, Alfonso Soriano, Rick Schu.
Spring Performance: .238/.347/.548 in 42 at-bats. Ian has played with a sense of fluidity this spring that convinced the Rangers he was their man weeks into Spring Training. Minor baserunning and contact flaws don't detract much from a solid all-around game.
HM. Josh Barfield - 2B - San Diego Padres
Role: Starting Second Baseman, back of lineup
Projection/Comps: .260/.322/.416, .260 EqA; Cass Michaels, Tony Batista, Fernando Tatis.
Spring Performance: .386/.413/.705 in 44 at-bats. Without question, one of the stories of the spring. Barfield proved his 2005 performance was not a PCL-fluke with 11 extra-base hits this spring, mostly doubles. His lack of patience has been a problem, but that's nitpicking on a great month of baseball.
Without question, the sixteen players listed should be considered the favorites to compete for the Rookie of the Year trophies in 2006. They have the combination of what should be a full season's worth of playing time, in addition to a well-established prospect pedigree. Outside of this sixteen, there are two categories: the rookie fringe prospects, and the prospects yet to be rookies.
For example, one player that did not rank among my top 100 prospects, though Baseball Prospectus gives a good chance to win the Rookie of the Year is Florida Marlins first baseman Mike Jacobs. The former catcher enters the year with a guaranteed job and a PECOTA weighted mean prediction of .265/.324/.491. With Carlos Delgado listed as his second-highest comparable, Jacobs could be the type of late bloomer that foils any prospect list.
The ultimate example of a player in this category -- though one who has a 0% chance of winning the Rookie of the Year -- is the White Sox new southpaw reliever Boone Logan. Officially being named a member of the Opening Day roster provides icing on the cake of a Spring in which Logan yielded just one run in 10.1 innings. I should mention, since I didn't in my Arizona trip review, that I did catch one of his 7 appearances, and his ability to provoke ground balls should actually help a bullpen that is currently near shambles. With respect to Josh Barfield, Logan is the story of the spring: a simple arm angle change takes a former Rookie League bum to the World Champions' Opening Day roster. There have been worse movies in Hollywood.
There are dozens of players in this category, some of whom just missed my top 100 (Joey Devine, Josh Willingham), others of whom garnered no consideration (Dan Uggla). However, with somewhat lacking histories in the minor leagues, these players have an onus to prove they belong that most of the top prospects listed above don't. Many players fold under this pressure, succomb and prove they don't belong, while others blossom into everyday Major Leaguers. That's why we watch.
Our final category was the one responsible for the NL Rookie of the Year race last year. Ryan Howard and Jeff Francoeur spent last September battling for the award, though each started the year in the minor leagues. The names etched upon the Rookie of the Year trophy is flush with players in this category, those that waited to make their debuts but caused little time in making their presences felt. If 29 players from my 2005 prospect list were considered rookies last year, and 16 definite graduates are listed above, I'll close today's piece with a look at the 13 prospects most likely to start the year in the minors, but to have their names highlighted in boxscores by June.
Stephen Drew - SS - Diamondbacks: Will be called up immediately should Craig Counsell's injury prove more hindering than expected.
Andy Marte - 3B - Indians: Cleveland's weakness entering the season is the corner positions, and could be solved by calling up Marte.
Yusmeiro Petit - SP - Marlins: Florida should have rotation problems the whole year, meaning any hot streak should give Petit a spot in the mix.
Joel Guzman - LF - Dodgers: If Jose Cruz Jr. starts off slow, and the position change is a continuing success, Guzman has a good chance to be the '06 Francoeur.
Chris Young - CF - Diamondbacks: Might be Opening Day starter if not for hand injury; DaVanon and Byrnes won't look intimidating for long.
Anthony Reyes - SP - Cardinals: It shouldn't take long for St. Louis to realize their mistake and replace Sidney Ponson with Reyes.
Russ Martin - C - Dodgers: Dioner Navarro's injury could give Martin the opening day job; Navarro health would mean we have to wait for 2 months.
Dustin Pedroia - SS - Red Sox: Because Alex Gonzalez can't keep a fan base happy for too long.
Kendry Morales - DH - Angels: Mashed this Spring, earning a trip to AAA to start the year. Success could end Tim Salmon's career as an Angels.
Jonathan Broxton - RP - Dodgers: I like the idea to give Kuo a spot, but Broxton will come beating down the door before too long.
Chuck James - LHP - Braves: In the mix for a bullpen role, but best off as the 7th starter, Richmond ace, and eventual call-up.
Fernando Nieve - SP - Astros: A favorite of mine for years, I think the Astros would be crazy to pick Tyler Buchholz over him for the rotation.
Cesar Carillo - SP - Padres: If the Pads are better than we think, Carillo could be this year's version of Brandon McCarthy.
For what it's worth, I believe the NL Rookie of the Year race -- so hyped with Hermida, Fielder, Cain and Zimmerman all in the Majors -- will be a runaway for Prince. As Ryan Howard proved last year, chicks still dig the longball. The American League is a harder race to handicap, far more prone for a late call-up making the big difference. Still, I can't bring myself to predict anyone but Francisco Liriano, who will tantalize voters in the second half with some of the game's most electric stuff.
These are the players the minor leagues will be without in 2006, the players so influential just a year ago. In the next parts of this series, we'll look at those about to jump on board, and those ready to tantalize prospect evaluators this year.