2007 WTNY Prospect Mailbag
Baseball prospects are far from sure bets, products of attrition that disappoint far too often. However, that does not stop the collective hope of fan bases, who watch and read about these players and project an organizational up-tick because of them.
In writing my annual prospect list from SI.com, I received nearly one hundred e-mails, evidence of this on a fantastic scale. The information age has brought people closer to prospects than ever, and now, the valuation of top prospects seems to be at an all-time high. Over the course of today (Friday), I will go through questions posed to me in the comments section of Tuesday's post and via e-mail, answering as many as possible. Also, if more questions arise from people, drop them in the comments section here, and we'll get to them as well. Here's a refresher course on each of the series of articles:
If you need catching up, I'm Bryan Smith, co-founder and former writer on this site. I wrote my annual prospect list at SI.com, but gained permission from the site to run the final installment at Baseball Analysts on Tuesday. Rich has been gracious enough to allow to finish today, creating a mailbag that has annually accompanied this feature. Enjoy!
How would you "tier" this list? Where are the drop-offs from "uber-prospect" to "really really good prospect" to "really good prospect"?
If you need reminder of the list, click here, and scroll towards the bottom of that page. To answer this question, I can say that the minor leagues has four uber prospects. The top four players are absolutely fantastic prospects, and my confidence in their future success is very high. Delmon Young was #1 on this list a year ago, but is #2 now, despite being closer to the Major Leagues. Those four represent the utmost tier of the list.
After that, the next tier is probably a big one, something like 5 (Brandon Wood) to 27 (Mike Pelfrey). Ranking of some players within that tier is pretty obvious, but nonetheless, these players project as future All-Stars, but all of whom do worry me in some sense. Whether it is Brandon Wood's strikeouts, Andrew Miller's control or Tim Lincecum's health, something is holding these players back right now. After this, tiering becomes more difficult, but eye-balling it, the last few tiers would go something like 28-45, 46-62, and 63 to eightysomething. Each tier is made up of many like prospects, and each prospect has a pretty glaring weakness.
Would you say this is a strong prospect list compared to '06, '05, '04? It seems there's a lot of talent. I'm only asking because I feel the tops of those years--Felix, the '05 Young, Mauer, and maybe B.J. Upton at one point--were all "better" prospects than Gordon. Am I wrong?
In my honorable mention article at SI.com, I noted that the minor leagues seem to have more talent than ever. I really do attribute this to the gains made in utilizing information, combining statistics and scouting reports to draft most effectively. While dogmatic organizations tend to be at the back of farm system rankings, those who can look at all the information make this the deepest list I have ever written.
I wrote above that there were only four uberprospects, but when can you remember there were four prospects as good as these four at once?
Also, it was very difficult for me to not rank some of those within honorable mention in my top 75. I had comments written out for guys like Jeremy Jeffress and Eric Campbell, but ultimately, depth pushed them out. If I'm bored in the future, I could probably come up with another 50 names that just missed making the honorable mention. There has not been a more fun time to evaluate prospects in the history of baseball, I say.
How good of an indicator do you feel this list is in relation to a team's overall farm system strength? In other words, how worried should an organization be if it has poor or minimal representation on the list?
Not especially worried, I would say. Top-heavy prospects are important for farm system strength, but they are one component - teams need star power prospects, depth in prospects, and must have graduated prospects recently to get high grades from me. By looking at the number of players in my top 100, that only tells you about how many top-heavy players each team has.
Nonetheless, organizations with two players or less in the top 100 do represent some of the worst farm systems in the game: Washington, San Diego, Toronto, etc. These teams have a long ways to go - the Padres and Blue Jays must start being better in the Major League draft. I think Washington isn't far from having a good farm system again, as the 2006 draft has good potential and the organization now teams together Dana Brown with the superbly talented Mike Rizzo.
If you want to get a good idea of farm system strength, try and pool together my top 100 list with some team-by-team top 10 rankings at Baseball America or Baseball Prospectus. If you can get a feel for the depth in each top 10 -- a club like the Cardinals has good depth despite not being top-heavy at all -- then your organization is fine.
Where would the Japanese rookies - Daisuke Matsuzaka, Akinori Iwamura, Kei Igawa - rank on your list?
An inevitable question, as I am usually pretty stubborn by not allowing these guys entrance into my list. It stems from respect for the leagues in Japan, as they do a far better job of preparing these players for the Major Leagues than AAA could.
Matsuzaka is the easiest ranking, as his game is so complete. I think his fastball and slider combination will be among the top in the Major Leagues, and he will be all the more devastating by showing another 3-4 pitches to batters to keep them off balance. He has a history of pitching in big games, and his control has improved heavily in the last three seasons. Matsuzaka is ready for the Major Leagues, and the Red Sox landed the right-hander at a good price. With three years of an ERA around 3.50 (or less) coming, Matsuzaka would rank third on this list.
Next, rather unusually, I have Igawa. Most rank Iwamura next, but I really think Igawa can be a good Major League starter as well. Problem with Igawa is that in his scouting profile, I see shades of Barry Zito, shades of Ted Lilly, and shades of Kaz Ishii. But, it's not really useful to claim a player to be between a Cy Young pitcher and a replacement-level one, so I'm guessing he can be Lilly-esque. Igawa combines a low 90s fastball with a slow, deadline overhand curve, and mixes in a usable slider and average change. The key for him, and what proved to be Ishii's downfall, will be maximizing his fastball control in the Major Leagues. If he can set up batters for the curve effectively, Igawa could save the Yanks a lot of money on what Barry Zito would have given them. I will say Igawa would be unofficially 46 on my list, between Jeff Niemann and Chuck Lofgren.
Iwamura, the Devil Rays versatile infielder, is most worrisome to me. He brings over very good power from Japan, and the isolated slugging percentage numbers translated at a place like Baseball Prospectus seem about right to me. However, I can't get over Iwamura's strikeout numbers - no Japan player has traveled across the Pacific with those numbers. It will be extremely hard for Iwamura to hit .280 is he whiffs in 25% of his plate appearances, which I think could happen. And furthermore, since most Japan players walk less in the Major Leagues, I don't think he will walk enough to support his drop in batting average. I am not high on Iwamura at all, who would not surprise me if he turned out to be no better than Pedro Feliz. Iwamura would be in my honorable mention.
How can you rank Homer Bailey ahead of Phillip Hughes. Looking at their statistics side by side, Hughes' numbers are better in every respect. And if you say that it's the stuff that defines the greater prospect, the difference in stuff between Hughes and Bailey is minimal with Bailey having slightly more velocity although Hughes has a heavier ball. Further, if it is stuff that defines the prospect than I'm certain you can find a myriad of prospects who have the same stuff as Bailey and Hughes. The key than must be the marriage between stuff and control that translates into success and therefore the better prospect. Isn't that the embodiment of Phillip Hughes? The remarkable maturity (pitching knowledge), super stuff, and superior control all combine to create one of the best pitching prospects we've ever seen. The part of that equation that Homer Bailey holds is super stuff and improving control. Taking into account the previous argument, you can only conclude that Phillip Hughes is indeed the better pitching prospect.
By a power of about eight million, this type of question (dealing with these two prospects) was the most popular I received, speaking to the fabulous intensity of Yankee fans. Still, its funny, because the difference between the two players is totally negligible. Both prospects are generational, both are top tier, and both project as aces in the Major Leagues (the only two in the minors). So, I don't really think the individual ranking is important, but I will do Bailey the hnor of defending him, since he was ultimately my choice.
As far as "stuff" goes, I disagree with the question, I don't think you can find other stuff like Bailey's or Hughes' in the minor leagues. Someone like Jason Neighborgall might have impressive raw stuff, but it doesn't compare to these two players, as he has no idea where it is going. Say what you will about Homer Bailey's command, but it hardly had an adverse effect on his performance in 2006. In the end, I decided to label the Reds prospect with the minors best stuff, and I again, I disagree with the e-mail about how he labels their fastballs. I would not say that Hughes has more life than Bailey, but instead more sink, as Bailey's exploding four-seamer has plenty of life. I love Hughes' two-seamer, however, so the fastball difference is about as negligible as their overall ranking.
But, again, why Bailey? What overcomes Hughes' edge in command? Two things: breaking ball and health. Now, let me remind, I'm not claiming Hughes is poor in either category at all. His curveball is fantastic, but my reports of Bailey's hook were phenomenal. The pitch might be a 75 on the 20-80 scouting scale soon, and it should generate a lot of swings-and-misses at the Major League level. While Hughes is long removed from past shoulder soreness, he is still more susceptible for future injury than Bailey.
Now listen: I believe Philip Hughes will not only pitch in the Majors in 2007, but I believe he'll start admirably in the playoffs. I believe he will anchor the Yanks' rotation for years to come. And I also believe the same for Homer Bailey's, who has enough star power to reinvigorate the city of Cincinnati.
If Franklin Morales can improve his control w/o altering his delivery, or, at least, with minimal impact to his delivery, do you think he could be considered in the top 25-30 range? His "stuff" is pretty filthy when he's on target.
This will be the key for Morales. I place this question deliberately after the Bailey/Hughes one for a reason, in the previous ranking, I allude to a ideological belief I have in prospects that Morales reinforces: command can be taught, raw stuff cannot. Pitching coaches are very important aspects to baseball, and their effect on teaching young players command has been seen again and again. Very often, I have players with great stuff and iffy command ranked pretty high, because I do believe in the power of a pitching coach. Morales is a player whose raw stuff is among the ten best pitching prospects in the game, but he is going to have to make the most out of Spring Training, the AA pitching coach and the Rockies' roving pitching instructor. Still, Morales can probably be successful even with only minor improvements in control, as I documented in his player comment at SI.com that he will improve in 2007 merely be leaving the California League's hot sun.
To what extent do you take defense (both a player's individual ability based on scouting or available metrics, and the position they play on the defensive spectrum) into consideration when ranking position players?
As heavily as possible. After all, evaluating minor leaguers is all about tools, and defense encapsulates two of the six (five plus patience) tools that I use. So, reports about a player's range and his arm are of superb important to me. Also, as this question alludes, the defensive spectrum has a large impact on rankings, as you can see in some of the spots on my list.
One e-mail asked me about why I chose Tulowitzki as a better prospect than Longoria. After all, the latter probably has better power skills, and overall, is probably the better future hitter. But the difference between these two players on the list represents how much I weigh defense into rankings. Tulo had a head start because he plays shortstop, and he also plays it well. Longoria is a solid-average fielder, but Tulo has good range and a great arm. Up the middle.
I think the hardest position to consider defense effectively is the catching position. Offensive catchers are the dream of every Major League General Manager, but there are rarely very many in the game at once. They are extremely rare. The reason for this is because many offensive minor league catchers (I'm looking at you, Josh Phelps) don't make it in the Major Leagues because of defense. While Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Neil Walker both were helped by their position, and its relative ranking on the defensive spectrum, it is still very hard to know if they will play good enough defense to enter the Offensive Catcher fraternity.
Hopefully this answered the question.
How much do off-field and or personal issues(i.e. Elijah Dukes' recent/consistent transgressions) weigh in the rankings? Is there a red flag, so to speak, when it only is considered if applicable?
I don't think that I weigh make-up as high as other evaluators, or those within the game. Certainly it is an important part of becoming a star, but I think it is so hard to quantify, it is almost not worth doing. Delmon Young did not drop in my rankings because of the bat-throwing incident, or concerns about his anger. Instead, he dropped because he hasn't shown consistent patience in the minor leagues.
Elijah Dukes did drop because of his make-up, and because his anger continually effects his on-field play. But Dukes fantastic ability keeps him in the top 40. Ultimately, I could not drop him any more, because we simply do not know the effect a promotion to the Majors will have on him. Just as easily as his anger could destroy him (which sounds like a line from Star Wars ... Elijah Dukes as Anakin Skywalker?), he could also get a chip on his shoulder and become a superstar. Since we have no way of knowing this, guessing and ending up wrong seems foolish.
In the end, I won't remember 2006 as the season in which the Devil Rays cut Dukes season short because of his antics, I'll remember him taking Chuck James' fastball 500 feet out of the Durham ballpark, over the blue monster in left field. Talent speaks to me more than anger.
Mad lib: I agonized the most over the ranking of: the three 18-year-old star prospects. Fernando Martinez, Jose Tabata and Elvis Andrus are all extremely unique prospects, like Felix Hernandez was at one time. All of them have the talent to rise to the top of my list one day, but each is so likely to bust out at some point. These players, high on star power and attrition, are always the hardest to rank. With these three, I was changing their rankings constantly, trying to find something that worked for me. Ultimately, F-Mart's good showing in the AFL proved to me his power was real, and his good showing in that left him atop the group of three. Still, I really like Tabata, so I knew he couldn't be far behind. If he rises to my top 10 next season, don't consider me surprised. The hardest to rank of this group was Elvis Andrus, who struggled a bit offensively, as he isn't nearly as strong at these other two players. Still, Andrus could be a very good defensive shortstop and still learn to be an offensive force, a combination which should leave Braves fans drooling. These three players leave me very excited for 2007, when the projection will slowly be turning into realization for each prospect.
The Astros have a catcher that is getting high marks in their minor league system named JR Towles. He always has a high average and plays almost daily in the 3 years in the minor leagues. What have you heard about this young man? The Astros need a catcher after Ausmus leaves...could he possibly be the next in line?
I am familiar with Towles, he had a good season in Lexington, where I was able to see him play during the summer. In person, Towles has one glaring need: time in the weight room. Very skinny, Towles power and health would be much improved with some added strength. He showed some good, yet crude, defense behind the plate: memorably, he threw one ball to the right field wall after attempting to throw behind a baserunner at first base. It was a good, aggressive move that displayed plus arm strength, but it also reinforced complaints about his raw ability. Towles largest positive is good plate coverage, he's a natural hitter with a propensity for contact. This bodes well for his future, as his weaknesses are more easily rectified than problems with his bat. Towles didn't get much consideration for this list, but the Astros are high on him, despite drafting Max Sapp in the first round. As far as replacing Ausmus goes, he very well could, but I don't see Towles becoming Major League ready until at least 2009.
Adam Jones was 19 on your mid-season list...the drop from 19 to 25 isn't all that significant I realize, but did he do anything to drop his stock in the last months of the season? He appeared to take a big jump forward from June-on in Triple-A, but struggled in the majors. If he continues what he did from June-on in the minor leagues, do you see him as a potential top-10 guy next year (assuming no callup)?
Jones drop is not significant at all. He was passed by the best 2006 draftees, as well as the year's best breakout players. I still think very highly of Jones, and my position on his future is unchanged since midseason. However, his Major League trial should create a little cause for concern about his ability to hit a breaking ball. With a decent amount of ML at-bats, the next time Jones reaches the Majors, every team will have a scouting report on him. The Mariners, an organization that shows little patience with prospects, will need to make sure that Jones has mastered the pitching he sees in the PCL before promoting him again. Also, while I remain high on Jones' defense, I was a bit disheartened to read Dave Cameron's lackluster reviews of it at USS Mariner. In compiling the Best Tools of AAA for Baseball America, managers raved to me about Jones defense, so I do think he will be above-average in the Major Leagues. Jones could probably get to 10-15 before his call-up next year, but that's probably where his "rank ceiling" is.
Probably too far in the future, but how about Angel Villalona?
Certainly what I have read about Villalona thus far is intriguing, and it sounds like he should finally give the Giants a star position player prospect. It has been a long time. The reason I didn't rank him yet is two reasons: he has not played in a game yet, and I just don't know enough about him. Baseball America does such a wonderful job bringing these players to the public, but ranking Villalona solely on what I read in BA would be dishonest. For now, I'm willing to wait to see his power in a minor league, and then try and talk to someone who say him before I give him a good ranking. Still, he's probably somewhere 101-125, which for a 16-year-old is pretty remarkable. Kudos to BA for reporting this information so well, and look out for some teenage power in the Arizona Summer League (presumably) next summer.
Last year you had Jon Lester ranked #14. He will probably start the year in the minors for the Red Sox while he rebuilds his strength after recuperating from kicking cancer's butt. If he still qualified for your list, what would he rank this year?
Impossible to say. I am so excited Lester is going to be on the mound in 2007 -- he's a hero -- it speaks to his character as a prospect. We have no idea how much weight or strength loss Lester sustained during cancer, but he's a workhorse, and I don't doubt it will all come back. This is such an uplifting story that it trumps prospect rankings. Lester is a player that everyone, including Yankees fans, should be rooting for. A goal of mine for 2007 is to see him pitch somewhere, and I know that I will wear a Lester jersey into Fenway Park before his career is done.
You have T.Snider ranked 1 spot ahead of A.Lind. What pushed Snider ahead in your eyes?
They are neck and neck. Lind is a favorite prospect of mine, a breakout player I targeted last year whose pure bat proved to have some big power in it. I also am a big Snider fan, the make-up you have heard about in the past came across so well through an interview. These guys are both really good prospects, but I do think Snider could just be more of an offensive force in the Major Leagues. I likened Lind's offensive profile to Carlos Lee, but I think Snider can be above that, even if his size does worry me a bit. Another factor, which we shouldn't overlook, is that Snider will probably reach the Major Leagues at the age of 21 or 22, long before the age Lind will be during his 2007 rookie season.
Keep your minor league questions coming in the comments section of this post, and I will try to answer as many as I can in the next few days. Thanks!