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Top 100 Offers More Evidence In Talent Debate

by Jim Callis
March 3, 2005

CHICAGO--The prevailing wisdom these days is that college players are a better investment than high schoolers.

The number of prepsters taken in the first 10 rounds of the draft is rapidly shrinking, from 46 percent of the picks in 2000 to 39 percent in 2002 to 30 percent (believed to be an all-time low) last year.

At the same time, however, high school players dominate the top of our Top 100 Prospects list (see page 12). They claim 14 of the first 20 spots, compared to three each for college and international signees. A year ago, the prep influence was more pronounced, as the top 20 included 18 high schoolers versus one collegian and one foreigner.

The reaction to this in some quarters will be that Baseball America focuses on tools and this preponderance of high schoolers is somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. But believe me, we do plenty of statistical analysis, and none of our elite prospects has anything to be embarrassed about in the performance department. Look at almost any of the top-prospect lists on the Internet, even from sites that crunch more numbers than NASA, and they have more prep players than collegians.

Another perceived bias might be that college players develop more rapidly. But the minors still consist of predominantly college players, and the best high school prospects--such as Jeremy Bonderman, B.J. Upton and David Wright, to name three--tend to race to the majors as well.

The bottom line is this: There just doesn't appear to be any clear evidence to support the belief that collegians make better big leaguers than high schoolers.

College players cost a little less to sign than their high school counterparts. They're obviously more advanced, though their 3-4 extra years of age and experience don't equate to being 3-4 years ahead of preps when they reach pro ball.

But major league teams win with stars, and it's just as easy to find those stars in the high school ranks. I broke down the first 10 rounds the 1990-97 drafts (BA, May 26-June 8, 2003) and found that prep picks yielded virtually the same number of big league regulars (8.4 vs. 8.8 percent) and more above-average or star regulars (4.3 percent vs. 2.3 percent).

Similar conclusions can be reached without nearly as much effort. Just look at the players selected for the 2004 All-Star Game: 19 were drafted out of high school, and 19 were taken out of four-year colleges. Or examine the players who received at least one vote in MVP, Cy Young or rookie of the year balloting last year: 23 high schoolers, 30 four-year collegians.

Bill James once studied the top 50 picks in the 1965-83 June regular drafts, and found that college players returned nearly twice the value of preps, but the circumstances of the draft have changed dramatically since then. If anyone can show me some evidence that collegians make much better draft picks than high schoolers, I'd love to see it.

I just don't think it exists.

The Kids Are Alright

The Angels and Braves may be favored to win their divisions, but they'd be even stronger if they'd turn their top prospects loose.

Darin Erstad's .746 OPS was the worst among big league first basemen in 2004. Casey Kotchman, who has nothing left to prove in the minors, would be an obvious upgrade. But Anaheim spent $14 million on Steve Finley, precluding Erstad's return to center field. The Angels also shelled out a club-record $3 million bonus for Cuban defector Kendry Morales, another obstacle to shuffling players around to create room for Kotchman.

Unlike Kotchman, Andy Marte could use a bit more minor league seasoning. But Atlanta has signed Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi to man its outfield corners, and if they were fading any faster, they'd be invisible. Rookie Ryan Langerhans is also in the mix.

Handing third base to Marte and moving Chipper Jones back to left field would strengthen the Braves offensively and defensively. He'll probably start the season at Triple-A Richmond, but Marte could make an impact similar to the one Miguel Cabrera made for the World Series champion Marlins in 2003.

Ferreira Deserves Mention

When I detailed the scouts who signed the most players who appeared in the majors last season (BA, Feb. 14-27, 2005), I used a variety of sources. They weren't always diligent in crediting multiple scouts when more than one were involved, and as a result Fred Ferreira unfortunately was left off the list.

Ferreira, now the director of international operations for the Marlins, held a similar position with the Expos and previously ran Latin American scouting for the Reds and Yankees. Nine of his signees were active in 2004, including American League MVP Vladimir Guerrero, postseason hero Orlando Cabrera and current or former all-stars Javier Vazquez, Jose Vidro and Bernie Williams.

Ferreira also helped find Jorge Julio, Jose Macias, Henry Mateo and Wilson Valdez. All told, he claims a total of 40 big leaguers signed during his career.

He also landed one of the more intriguing sleepers in the Marlins system, Dutch righthander Rick Vandenhurk. A converted catcher, he has a low-90s sinker and surprising polish considering his two years of mound experience. With a 6-foot-5, 190-pound build and just 19 years of age, Vandenhurk has plenty of projection remaining. He should reach Double-A Carolina in 2005 after posting a 3.26 ERA in 58 innings at high Class A Jupiter last season.


You can reach Jim Callis by sending e-mail to jimcallis@baseballamerica.com.

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