No Major League draft prospect is more coveted than the five tool player. While baseball's highest level is littered with success stories, athletic outfielders have been among the largest busts of the first round. Many in baseball claim teams should adopt a safer approach in regards to the draft, taking safer picks from the college ranks.
Rarely do these two paths intersect. And in the rare instances they do, the players are high commodities, with dreams of Barry Bonds dancing in the heads of scouting directors. This past June, Drew Stubbs was drafted in the top ten as the quintessential example of five-tool pipe dream mixed with collegiate intelligence.
The 2005 draft offered three of these players. A half season into their full season debuts, their success comes as a small surprise to many around baseball. Two first round picks and one third rounder, all three players were highly desired for their speed, their defense in center, their ability to bat around the top of the order. While not prodigious in one of the five tools -- power -- all offered some hope of projectablity.
All similar athletes with similar profiles, choosing an order is the perfect example of the difficulties -- and the silly subjectivity -- of ranking prospects. Gardner, Crowe, Ellsbury. Or is it Ellsbury, Gardner, Crowe? Today, we'll attempt to hash out which players belong in which order, and why.
THE EARLY YEARS
Athletic young outfielders are a commodity out of the preps, but to be a draft choice, there needs to be a ridiculous amount of tools or very good refinement. In 2002, Denard Span and Jeremy Hermida were examples of players that fit the bill. Trevor Crowe, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner were not. All three players had strong college commitments, and these commitments were founded upon a lack of high interest from Major League organizations. Crowe and Ellsbury were both second day picks, in that order, while Gardner did not get drafted.
As far as college destinations go, the players picked programs that ranked in order of how they did in the draft. Crowe, the most talented of the group, went to Arizona. After not starting as a regular, Crowe ended his freshman season with 187 at-bats, and a .316 batting average. He didn't walk and showed little but gap power, but Crowe could steal bases and hit for average. He was exactly what the Wildcats bargained for.
Ellsbury became a regular quicker at Oregon State, and produced more. A .330/.427/.510 line his freshman season turned a lot of scouts' heads, and suddenly Ellsbury was on the map for the 2005 draft. A great defender in centerfield, teams were drooling. On the opposite end, Brett Gardner wasn't drawing any notice, struggling in his first season at College of Charleston. His .284 batting average and 28 steals were both good, but Gardner struck out 50 times and had just 11 extra-base hits in 215 at-bats.
As sophomores, Gardner and Crowe both did well in catching up to Ellsbury, and both owed their newfound success to the triple. Both players logged 9 triples on the year, as Crowe's slugging percentage went up to .576, Gardner just two points behind. Crowe also stole 26 bases in 27 chances, and showed an improved batting eye. He flew up follow lists. Gardner did the same, nearly hitting .400 in a fabulous display of future leadoff talents. While Gardner didn't boast the pedigree of Ellsbury and Crowe, all three entered their junior seasons separated by little.
BEFORE AND AFTER
It is not difficult to figure out why Trevor Crowe was the first of the three players drafted, taken 12th overall in 2005 by the Cleveland Indians. As a junior, Crowe exploded, jumping his triples total to 15, giving him 49 XBH in the small college season. His 36 walks showed a huge improvement in two seasons, and his 27 stolen bases with a career single season high. Crowe was for real, and the Indians loved the Oregon native.
In Crowe's home state, Ellsbury was making noise as the Beavers had a Cindarella run to Omaha. Much of the team's press went towards Ellsbury, who seemed to act as the soul behind the team. Ellsbury struck out just 21 times in the leadoff role as a junior, hitting .406 en route to a first round draft choice by the Red Sox.
Brett Gardner had the best numbers of the three players, but was not drafted until the end of the third round, by the Yankees. Playing in a worse conference, Gardner feasted on college pitching as a junior, hitting a ridiculous .447/.506/.571. Gardner also had great speed, stealing 38 bases. A quick look at his college numbers validated that the Yankees received good value on their choice.
After signing quickly, Gardner and Ellsbury would play against each other in the New York-Penn short-season league. Unsurprisingly, Ellsbury was better than his peer, stealing four more bases while boasting a .097 advantage in the OPS column. Crowe was struggling, but the Indians had been aggressive with him, pushing their first round pick to the Sally League. His .326 slugging percentage raised question marks, and many began to wonder if the patient Ellsbury was perhaps the best of the bunch.
The most discouraging aspect of Ellsbury's season has been his abandonment of the base on balls. Consistently one of the group's most patient hitters with aluminum bats, Jacoby's walk totals have gone down as Crowe's have gone up. While no team could scoff at a .384 on-base percentage from the leadoff role, an extended time treading 50-70 points behind his athletic peers will leave him in the dust.
As mentioned, Crowe has turned things up this season. He is walking in nearly 20% of his plate appearances, which is more than a 15% increase since his freshman season at Arizona. In addition to his more patient approach, Crowe is also swiping more bags than ever. While not the fastest among the three players we are discussing, Crowe might be the most cognizant; his success rate is always among the highest.
Brett Gardner is the surprise of the season, vaulting himself from an afterthought in this discussion to a name we must consider. The Yankees have been more aggressive with him than the approach we've seen by the Red Sox or Indians; Gardner has been promoted to Double-A after a good half-season with Tampa. During that time, the College of Charleston outfielder hit .323, swiping 30 bags while walking 43 times. His only problems were the lack of extra-base hits, and a strikeout rate that he hasn't sniffed for years. Still, given his successful time in Tampa, Gardner has a claim to be the Yankees 3rd prospect.
In terms of ceiling, and upon further inspection, there is little question which prospect reigns supreme: Crowe. His substantial power edge, intelligent baserunning and enhanced patience leave an extremely intriguing product. while his contact skills grade out as the group's worst, his combination of line drives and quick feet should give him high enough annual BABIP numbers to offset his swing-and-miss disadvantage.
Conversely, Ellsbury is the contact hitter of the group. His 12.1 K% is fantastic, and down the road, should yield even higher batting averages than Ellsbury is even showing. The power has been the question mark with Ellsbury, no longer going extra bases with a wooden bat. This is a trait that is hard to project being a plus at this point, limiting Ellsbury to a leadoff role down the line. If he fails in leadoff, there is no real backdrop.
However, ranking prospects is about comparing a prospect's upside with the likelihood he reaches it. Where Ellsbury falls short in terms of ceiling, he may be the group's surest thing. One statement that I'm confident in making is that Brett Gardner is the largest question mark. This is no particular damnation of Gardner, he's up against two good bets.
My reasoning for saying this is that in terms of contact rates, Crowe and Gardner are toss-ups for who is worst. Both striking out at 21-22% rates this season, I mentioned Crowe as the worst contact hitter because he showed a higher aptitude for whiffs in most of college. Most, except a freshman season in which Gardner struck out 50 times. Plus, while Crowe leans back on his power as a trade-off, Gardner remains nothing more than a gap-power hitter.
Because of low power totals, it's difficult to project Ellsbury or Gardner hitting anywhere but atop an order. In comparing their skill sets, I have Ellsbury as the player more likely to hit for average (this season's difference be damned), while Gardner should make up for that with higher walk rates. Similar players both on the bases and in the field, it all comes down to a question of power. And for every season except their sophomore year, Ellsbury has showed more power than Gardner. Narrowly, he's the better prospect.
For the last four seasons, three prospects with one profile have been among high profile baseball circles. This season, as they enter prospect rankings, we know pretty much what most draft boards did a year ago (and recruiters years before that): Crowe, Ellsbury, Gardner.