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Prospect Pulse: Rankings By Position

By John Manuel
February 15, 2006

Chat Wrap: John Manuel took your questions

One of the best parts of working at Baseball America--besides the free baseball games, of course--is getting the chance to rank stuff.

We rank a lot of stuff. I've ranked everything from major league players and front-office executives and power brokers, to minor league players, summer college leaguers, college players, high school players, junior college players, college ballparks and even (not for publication) sports information directors.

What we've discovered is, fans like it when we rank stuff. I don't know if it's because they like rankings, or if it's because they like the way we rank stuff. I'm inclined to believe it's a little bit of both.

On the former, BA has remained unique, even in the Internet age, when anyone with a blog can claim to be a prospect expert. The way we've remained unique is simple: work. We keep working as hard as we can. In addition to incorporating more statistical analysis into our minor league player rankings, we continue to work the phones as much as we can. We talk to club officials, scouts, coaches and anyone who can help us learn more about the tools and makeup of the players we rank.

While we rank a lot of things, what we're known best for ranking is minor league players. With our Top 10 Prospects completed on the web, and with our Prospect Handbook already out (its earliest release date ever), our Top 100 Prospects rankings can't be far behind. To help sate the need for rankings, here's my take at the top prospects broken down by position, after digesting the work of our staff and correspondents in the Handbook. The deeper the position, the more players I ranked.

I lumped corner outfielders together and ranked players by where they project to play in the major leagues, rather than where they currently play (for example, Dodgers phenom Joel Guzman is listed as a right fielder, rather than shortstop). I also included a personal sleeper at each spot.

And sorry, college SIDs. That ranking will have to wait for another issue.


CATCHER

Player, Org ETA
1. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Braves 2007
2. Russ Martin, Dodgers 2006
3. Jeff Clement, Mariners 2008
4. Neil Walker, Pirates 2007
5. Jeff Mathis, Angels 2006

Others to consider
Chris Iannetta, Rockies; Kelly Shoppach, Indians; Kenji Johjima, Mariners

Sleeper
J.R. Towles, Astros

It's really a two-way race, and Saltalamacchia gets the edge because of his offensive potential advantage over Martin. Saltalamacchia was touted as a high school player, but he was overshadowed in the Braves organization in 2004 by Brian McCann. Nagging injuries limited Saltalamacchia's playing time and doubts about his defensive ability persisted. McCann blossomed in 2005 in the big leagues, while three levels below, Saltalamacchia did the same at high Class A Myrtle Beach. He ranked third in the high Class A Carolina League in batting, a rarity for a catcher, while posting a .519 slugging percentage and improving his strikeout-to-walk rate. It's natural for a switch-hitting catcher to get compared to Jason Varitek, but scouts say Saltalamacchia also earned those comparisons for his Varitek-like professional approach and work ethic.

Martin has offensive potential but lacks Saltalamacchia's raw power, or that of Clement, for that matter. If he makes consistent enough contact, Clement could become the most prolific lefthanded-batting, power-home run-hitting catcher since Yogi Berra. Walker is the player least likely to catch on this list, more because of his high ceiling as a hitter. The Pirates may not have the patience to wait for his catching skills to catch up to his advanced bat. Two years ago, Mathis might have topped this list, but his offensive struggles at higher levels have scouts predicting an average big leaguer, rather than an exceptional one. Towles earns the sleeper tag for his athleticism and offensive potential.


FIRST BASE

Player, Org ETA
1. Prince Fielder, Brewers 2006
2. Conor Jackson, Diamondbacks 2006
3. Daric Barton, Athletics 2007
4. Justin Huber, Royals 2006
5. Wes Bankston, Devil Rays 2007

Others to consider
Kendry Morales, Angels; Ryan Shealy, Rockies; Eric Duncan, Yankees

Sleeper
Brandon Allen, White Sox

Perhaps the most disappointing position in the minor leagues, first base is not loaded with potential future stars, and that's after everyone on the list other than Fielder moved to first within the last two seasons. Fielder was pretty ready last year, and he may be the only sure bet to hit 25-30 home runs annually in this group. Jackson, a college third baseman who was an outfielder in 2004, and Barton, like Huber a former catcher, are notable more for their mature approaches and ability to draw a walk than their ability to mash home runs. Bankston moved to first out of the Devil Rays' crowded outfield picture and should benefit from the latest rebuilding movement in Tampa Bay.

Morales and Duncan also were reputed to be able to play third base, but neither has shown the defensive chops for the hot corner, and scouts have questions about their bats as well. While Duncan would have been blocked at third in New York by Alex Rodriguez anyway, his fringe-average arm led many to believe he would not be able to stick there even without the presence of A-Rod. Shealy is blocked by Todd Helton in Colorado at first and has added athleticism and the ability to play outfield in the last year. James Loney (Dodgers) and Travis Ishikawa (Giants) have shown flashes and are still young, but because scouts question their bat speed, it's difficult to project either one to be an above-average offensive big leaguer.


SECOND BASE

Player, Org ETA
1. Howie Kendrick, Angels 2007
2. Marcus Sanders, Giants 2008
3. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox 2006
4. Blake Dewitt, Dodgers 2008
5. Ian Kinsler, Rangers 2006
6. Josh Barfield, Padres 2006
7. Kevin Melillo, Athletics 2007
8. Kevin Frandsen, Giants 2006
9. Eric Patterson, Cubs 2007
10. Omar Quintanilla, Rockies 2006

Others to consider
Alberto Callaspo, Angels; Etanislao Abreu, Dodgers

Sleeper
Martin Prado, Braves

In contrast to first base, second base is deep in talented players who should be solid regulars. Kendrick could be much more, considering he's nearly a .360 hitter in the minor leagues. When a player hits .360 with authority--Kendrick is slugging .555 in his career--he doesn't need to draw a lot of walks. Sanders and DeWitt aren't second basemen yet; Sanders will be because he lacks the arm strength (due to injuries) to play short. As a second baseman, he'll be a dynamic leadoff hitter and is the best such prospect in the minors, an 80 runner with above-average instincts and, when healthy, enough power to keep pitchers honest. DeWitt likely will move to second because the Dodgers have other options at third base, and his bat should be a plus at second, rather than perhaps just average at third. Kinsler should get a shot at the everyday job with the Rangers this season, while Barfield appears ready but has more competition.


THIRD BASE

 

Player, Org ETA
1. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals 2006
2. Alex Gordon, Royals 2007
3. Ian Stewart, Rockies 2007
4. Andy Marte, Indians 2006
5. Andy LaRoche, Dodgers 2007

Others to consider
Matt Moses, Twins; Ryan Braun, Brewers

Sleeper
Van Pope, Braves

While this position lacks depth, it has star power in spades, thanks in part to the three third basemen drafted among the first five picks in 2005. While the scouting consensus had Gordon ahead of Zimmerman, I went the other way because of Zimmerman's vastly superior defense and a gut feeling that his offense will be better than average. When both were with Team USA in the summer of 2004, Zimmerman was the better player in all phases, and the educated guess here is his total package will rival (though fall a bit short of) that of his former amateur teammate from Virginia’s Tidewater area, David Wright.

Braun ranks behind Zimmerman and Gordon because of his lesser defensive skills and his less orthodox swing, but his amazing bat speed makes him as dangerous offensively as those ranked ahead of him. Pope has raw tools to rival any of the top five players but needs polish and patience at the plate. If he learns to control the strike zone, his ceiling is very high.


SHORTSTOP

Player, Org ETA
1. Justin Upton, Diamondbacks 2008
2. Brandon Wood, Angels 2007
3. Stephen Drew, Diamondbacks 2006
4. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies 2007
5. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins 2006
6. Erick Aybar, Angels 2007
7. Elvis Andrus, Braves 2008
8. Cliff Pennington, Athletics 2007
9. Chin-Lung Hu, Dodgers 2007
10. Ronny Cedeno, Cubs 2006

Others to consider
Joaquin Arias, Rangers; Asdrubal Cabrera, Mariners; Tony Giarratano, Tigers

Sleeper
Audy Ciriaco, Tigers

No other position has better competition at the top; any of the first four players could be stars. Wood only had the best season of any minor leaguer in the last 50 years with more than 100 extra-base hits in the regular season and 58 homers between the regular season, Arizona Fall League and Team USA's Olympic regional qualifier. But shortstop is about athleticism, and no minor leaguer--not even older brother B.J., who has too many big league at-bats to qualify for the list but would check in at No. 2 if he were eligible--has more athletic ability than Justin Upton. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft didn't get a signing-bonus record of $6.1 million for nothing. Both Uptons are erratic with their throws from shortstop and perhaps that should give Wood the edge. But as good as Wood is offensively, both Uptons can be better.

Drew had an impressive pro debut, and Tulowitzki is a more athletic player who may just fall a tick shy at the plate in comparison. Ramirez has the athleticism to rival the Uptons but lacks their offensive potential, plus makeup or work ethic. Andrus might be the biggest wild card, just 17 and yet to play above the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, but Edgar Renteria should get to know his eventual replacement in Atlanta.


CENTER FIELD

Player, Org ETA
1. Lastings Milledge, Mets 2007
2. Chris Young, Diamondbacks 2007
3. Cameron Maybin, Tigers 2008
4. Felix Pie, Cubs 2007
5. Adam Jones, Mariners 2007

Others to consider
Brian Anderson, White Sox; Javi Herrera, Athletics; Andrew McCutchen, Pirates; Denard Span, Twins

Sleeper
Brett Gardner, Yankees

Here's another position that's top-heavy but not necessarily deep in the minors currently. Maybin's development with the bat--and whether or not he can reach the big leagues as a center fielder--is a crucial question. Early reports have been positive on both fronts for a player whose athleticism rivals that of Justin Upton. Milledge and Young are a tossup at No. 1, and Young has produced more power at higher levels. Milledge still merits an edge, though, as he's two years younger, more athletic and has the bat speed to hit more home runs if his plate discipline improves even modestly.

All three are among the game's elite prospects, and Pie could be as well with more polish to his toolsy, raw game. Jones has similar tools but is still new to center field after a recent move from shortstop. Gardner has the overall package to become a top-flight leadoff man if he proves he can make the transition from metal to wood.


CORNER OUTFIELDERS

Player, Org ETA
1. Delmon Young, Devil Rays 2006
2. Jeremy Hermida, Marlins 2006
3. Billy Butler, Royals 2007
4. Nick Markakis, Orioles 2006
5. Carlos Quentin, Diamondbacks 2006
6. Carlos Gonzalez, Diamondbacks 2008
7. Joel Guzman, Dodgers 2007
8. Brad Snyder, Indians 2007
9. Jason Kubel, Twins 2006
10. Elijah Dukes, Devil Rays 2007

Others to consider
Cory Hart, Brewers; Adam Lind, Blue Jays; Eddy Martinez-Esteve, Giants; Hunter Pence, Astros; Nolan Reimold, Orioles

Sleeper
Jose Tabata, Yankees

The Minor League Player of the Year, Young is big league ready, and it's not unfair to him to throw the Albert-Belle-with-good-makeup comparison at him. He can handle it. Hermida will be an even better hitter when he learns when not to take a walk; maybe he and Young, who could use a bit more patience, should have a talk. Butler may end up at DH, and hits enough to be an asset even if he's a butcher in left. Dukes has the best tools on the list but also has the biggest red flag with his uneven temperament and repeated run-ins with umpires, managers and the law. The Yankees can't contain their excitement about Tabata, but let's wait for him to make it out of Rookie ball, just to make sure he's not Rudy Guillen.


RIGHTHANDED STARTERS

Player, Org ETA
1. Chad Billingsley, Dodgers 2006
2. Justin Verlander, Tigers 2006
3. Matt Cain, Giants 2006
4. Joel Zumaya, Tigers 2006
5. Mike Pelfrey, Mets 2007
6. Dustin McGowan, Blue Jays 2006
7. Anthony Reyes, Cardinals 2006
8. Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox 2006
9. Anibal Sanchez, Marlins 2007
10. Phillip Hughes, Yankees 2007
11. Homer Bailey, Reds 2008
12. Mark Rogers, Brewers 2008
13. Anthony Lerew, Braves 2006
14. Adam Miller, Indians 2007
15. Jeff Niemann, Devil Rays 2006

Others to consider
Collin Balester, Nationals; Clint Everts, Nationals; Jason Hammell, Devil Rays; Yovani Gallardo, Brewers; Jason Hirsh, Astros; Edison Volquez, Rangers; Jered Weaver, Angels

Sleepers
Wade Davis, Devil Rays; Blake Johnson, Dodgers; Justin Orenduff, Dodgers

The top three arms, for me, have separated themselves from the group. Billingsley's durable body, improved command, makeup and athleticism earn the nod here. It's crucial for righthanders to have a quality breaking ball; unless they have 80 fastball command and an amazing changeup in the Pedro Martinez or Greg Maddux blueprint, they must be able to throw a swing-and-miss breaking ball. Billingsley has two, throws both with authority and maintains his stuff deep into games. Verlander has the edge in raw stuff, and the Tigers deserve kudos for unlocking his potential so quickly. The doubts scouts had about his makeup as an amateur--not that he wouldn't make it, but that he lacked the intangibles to be a No. 1 starter despite his amazing fastball and curveball--still resonate. Cain's command is a step behind Billingsley's, and his stuff is a shade behind Verlander's. The Giants will still take him.

Niemann could move to the top of the list if he can stay healthy, and Rogers' raw stuff rivals that of Verlander. He's immensely athletic, but with all his gifts, he had little success in low Class A ball in 2005. Hughes is the anti-Rogers, though his stuff is far from pedestrian. A healthy season also could catapult him up the list and perhaps to an early arrival in New York. Pelfrey would rank even higher if his breaking ball were better than a third pitch, but if he proves he can pitch off his fastball like he did in college, he won't be in the minors long.


LEFTHANDED STARTERS

Player, Org ETA
1. Francisco Liriano, Twins 2006
2. Jon Lester, Red Sox 2007
3. Scott Olsen, Marlins 2006
4. Adam Loewen, Orioles 2007
5. Jeremy Sowers, Indians 2006
6. Scott Elbert, Dodgers 2008
7. Cole Hamels, Phillies 2006
8. Troy Patton, Astros 2008
9. Gio Gonzalez, Phillies 2007
10. Glenn Perkins, Twins 2006

Others to consider
John Danks, Rangers; Dana Eveland, Brewers; Tom Gorzelanny, Pirates; Chuck James, Braves; Ricky Romero, Blue Jays; Chuck Tiffany, Devil Rays

Sleepers
Matt Harrison, Braves; Jonathan Sanchez, Giants

Again, the pecking order is fairly clear at the top with Liriano and Lester, who both have plus stuff, outstanding performances at upper levels of the minors and youth on their side. Also, neither has had a major injury, though Liriano did have shoulder issues two years ago. Lester's stuff took a full-grade jump in 2005, and Boston's big league pitching depth should allow him a year to consolidate his gains. Hamels might have ranked atop this list two years ago but has had well-documented injury problems, some of them of his own making.

Loewen and Sowers are a wonderful study in contrasts, a power pitcher will all the stuff who's still learning how to pitch versus a craftsman with the savvy of a big league veteran. The Braves' Harrison could be another Sowers with slightly less command but better stuff. Perkins and Eveland don't have prototypical bodies, yet both throw three-to-four pitches for strikes with some power and precision.


RELIEVERS

Player, Org ETA
1. Bobby Jenks, White Sox 2006
2. Jonathan Broxton, Dodgers 2006
3. Craig Hansen, Red Sox 2006
4. Joey Devine, Braves 2006
5. Chris Ray, Orioles 2006

Others to consider
Fernando Cabrera, Indians; Santiago Casilla, Athletics; Hong Chih Kuo, Dodgers; Chad Orvella, Devil Rays; Rafael Perez, Indians

Sleepers
Tony Sipp, Indians

Putting ETA 2006 for five players who pitched in the majors in 2005 seems, well, weird, though none of these players has fully established himself as a big leaguer. Jenks clearly arrived in the postseason, though makeup questions will follow him until he stays out of trouble for an extended period of time. Broxton has similar stuff and a similar background as a starter, but while his stuff is a full grade (or even two) below Jenks', makeup is not a question. Hansen's raw stuff might be a shade better than Broxton’s but he's a long way from St. John's. Devine will have to show he can recover from the devastating home run he gave up to Chris Burke in the playoffs, and the Braves may give him plenty of opportunities to do that in 2006 in Atlanta.


Photo Credits:
Young: Dan Arnold
Upton: Diamond Images
Kendrick: Larry Goren
Zimmerman: Bill Mitchell
Milledge: Kevin Pataky
Saltalammachia: Tom Priddy
Liriano: Sports on Film
Jenks: Ron Vesely
Fielder: Andrew Woolley

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