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Intimate details make minor league top 20s fun

by Will Lingo
October 4, 2005

This issue of Baseball America is annually one of the most labor-intensive of the year. Aside from the usual organization reports, columns and other features you expect to see in every issue, we also kick off baseball's second season.

The postseason? Wabbit season? Duck season? No, my boy, it's prospect season, a favorite of every Baseball American.

In the pages that follow you'll get breakdowns of the Top 10 Prospects in each of the 16 domestic, affiliated minor leagues this season. That's 160 players. With the advent of BaseballAmerica.com a few years ago, we started compiling 20 prospects for each league, however, so in reality we're breaking down 320 players. (Yes, some players get broken down more than once if they appear on multiple lists, but you get the idea.)

Because we wanted more control over how the rankings were put together--and because we've been fortunate enough to build a staff of people with the talent to do them--we started compiling more of the lists in house in recent years, and for the last couple of years every league has been written up by a full-time BA staffer.

Conservatively estimating that we write about 150 words about each player, that means about 48,000 words are researched, written, edited, laid out and proofread in the assembling of this issue (and accompanying Web component). No wonder Jim Callis, who is in charge of working every top 20 list into shape, except for the two he writes, said after the issue that he was "in a coma."

We'll hope he snaps out of it quickly because approaching fast on the horizon are our organizational prospect lists, where we break down 30 prospects for our Prospect Handbook in even greater detail.

Why do we do it? It hasn't hurt that you've shown a willingness to pay for it in the last 24 years, but we also have a confession to make: We enjoy it.

We Hear It First

At first, the mere thrill of being able to rank prospects is exciting as a writer and reporter. And there's the excitement of feeling like you were the first person to really introduce people to an obscure minor leaguer.

I'll never forget sitting on folding chairs and talking to Andruw Jones on the field in Macon, Ga., working on the story when he was our 1995 Minor League Player of the Year. Most BA types already knew who he was by the end of that year, but I'd whisper his name to people I knew who were casual fans every chance I got, certain he would make it big.

He did, of course, breaking onto the national stage in the 1996 World Series and gradually improving until he put together an MVP-caliber season this year.

Experience teaches you, however, that even the best prospect can miss (Josh Hamilton, Ryan Anderson, and on and on), so the heady feeling of finding an interesting guy is always tempered by ways he could go wrong now.

No, the real buzz now comes from finding a great source who is enthusiastic about young baseball players and willing to share his opinions. We talk to a lot of people in compiling our prospect rankings--scouts and managers in particular for these league lists--and a lot of it is a fairly routine exchange of information.

It's what makes our lists the best. Plain and simple. But it is work.

And then you find the guy who either tells you something you didn't know about a player, or goes completely against the conventional wisdom.

Last year, when I did the Southern League list, it was a longtime National League scout who shall remain nameless. Just as an example, some people were down on Rickie Weeks because he had a pedestrian year in 2004, batting .259-8-42 at Double-A Huntsville. This scout debunked all those ideas and said he was as high on Weeks as ever.

In the course of discussing Weeks and playing defense at second base, Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg's name came up. In a quote I'll never forget, the scout said, "Sandberg is a (bleeping) milquetoast player for me."

Of course I couldn't wait to run out of my office and tell everyone about what the scout said about a variety of players. And this year, that honor fell to Double-A Arkansas manager Tom Gamboa, who handled the most talented team in the Texas League.

Usually when we talk to a minor league manager, we ask him to run through guys on his own team first and then hit on who he thought were the best prospects on other teams. Never has a manager been more insightful about his players and willing to talk about their strengths and weaknesses than Gamboa was this year.

With players like Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar and Kendry Morales, just to name a few, there was plenty to talk about on the Travelers roster. But it's unusual to get ready to move on to the other teams in the league, glance at your phone and notice you've been talking for nearly an hour.

Saunders, Specifically

Most telling, I learned a lot about players I thought I had a read on. Sure, Joe Saunders was a big lefthander with good stuff who made his big league debut this year, and we talked about his pitches. But Gamboa also talked about playing golf with Saunders, and how he and pitching coach Keith Comstock often talked with him about maintaining his concentration on the mound.

"We told him he was the best lefthanded pitching prospect in the league, but his numbers didn't show it," Gamboa said.

It was Saunders' focus, not anything physical, that was holding him back, and Gamboa talked about the difficulty of getting players to grasp those subtle ingredients of success. He described an early-season start when Saunders dominated for five innings and took a 6-1 lead into the sixth against Wichita, but lost his concentration against the bottom of the order and fell into a five-run inning. Saunders attributed the inning to one bad pitch to Justin Huber that resulted in a three-run homer, when the problem came with letting the runners getting on ahead of him.

Eventually, the light came on for Saunders, and he put together three strong starts in July, highlighted by a 10-strikeout, seven-inning effort against San Antonio with Angels officials in the stands. He was off to Triple-A after that and made his big league debut in August.

So many of these stories we never get to tell, for reasons of time, space, and occasionally, decorum. But we hope the wealth of information shows itself in what we are able to write every year. Lord knows we love putting it together.

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