I've been getting lots of questions about updating our Orioles Top 10 Prospects list, in the wake of the Erik Bedard trade. I'm holding off until the potential Brian Roberts deal gets completed, because the Bedard swap added just one Top 10 talent (Chris Tillman; Adam Jones no longer qualifies as a prospect) and our original Top 10 already reflected the Miguel Tejada trade. If Baltimore moves Roberts, I'll update the list.
Not only is the baseball season right around the corner, but baseball book season is in full swing. I just read an advance copy of "Rob Neyer's Big Book Of Baseball Legends" (Fireside/Simon & Schuster, $16), which features an original premise. Neyer doesn't just relate famous and obscure anecdotes—which would have been interesting if not original—but he also does the research to see how many grains of truth these stories actually contain.
Did Billy Martin outplay Jackie Robinson in each of the four World Series in which they met, as Martin liked to brag? Why, yes he did. Did Bob Feller lose his fastball when he slipped off the mound in the middle of a 1947 start in which he blew away the Philadelphia Athletics? It actually appears that he did. Did a liner off the bat of Negro Leaguer Gene Benson ruin Johnny Berardino's baseball career and send him to "General Hospital"? No, not at all.
The book is fun, both for the stories and for the reality (or lack thereof) behind the stories.
Livan Hernandez joined with the Twins on Tuesday, which gave the Diamondbacks the No. 43 overall pick in the 2008 draft and reduced the number of unsigned compensation free agents to two (Mike Piazza and Shannon Stewart of the Athletics). Here's your latest update of the draft order:
8. White Sox
17. Blue Jays
18. Mets (Tom Glavine, A, to Atl)
27. Twins (Torii Hunter, A, to LAA)
30. Red Sox
Supplemental First-Round Picks
31. Twins (Hunter)
32. Brewers (Franciso Cordero, A, to Cin)
33. Mets (Glavine)
34. Phillies (Aaron Rowand, A to SF)
35. Brewers (Scott Linebrink, A, to CWS)
36. Royals (David Riske, B, to KC)
37. Giants (Pedro Feliz, B, to Phi)
38. Astros (Trever Miller, B, to TB)
xx. Athletics (if Mike Piazza or Shannon Stewart sign elsewhere)
39. Cardinals (Troy Percival, B, to TB)
40. Braves (Ron Mahay, B, to KC)
41. Cubs (Jason Kendall, B, to Mil)
42. Padres (Mike Cameron, B, to Mil)
43. Diamondbacks (Livan Hernandez, B, to Min)
44. Yankees (Luis Vizcaino, B, to Col)
45. Red Sox (Eric Gagne, B, to Mil)
xx. Athletics (if both Piazza and Stewart sign elsewhere)
46. Padres (Doug Brocail, B, to Hou)
51. Phillies (Rowand to SF)
53. Brewers (Cordero to Cin)
54. Brewers (Linebrink to CWS)
69a. Braves (for failure to sign 2007 second-rounder Joshua Fields)
84a. Red Sox (for failure to sign 2007 second-rounder Hunter Morris)
Supplemental Third-Round Picks
109. Phillies (for failure to sign 2007 third-rounder Brandon Workman)
110. Astros (for failure to sign 2007 third-rounder Derek Dietrich)
111. Padres (for failure to sign 2007 third-rounder Tommy Toledo)
112. Angels (for failure to sign 2007 third-rounder Matt Harvey)
Soto and Towles are the top two best backstops in this grouping, and as you'll see when we release our Top 100 Prospects list in the near future, we think they're the third- and fourth-best catching prospects in the game. You can make a case for taking either over the other, and you can also make a case that they both have a lot of questions still to answer.
Soto led the minors in slugging percentage last year with a .652 figure that was 281 points higher than his career mark from his first six seasons. He also hit well in a September callup and in the playoffs for the Cubs, and has the potential to be above average offensively and defensively. But was his improvement the result of losing 30 pounds and improving his bat speed and agility, or was it somewhat of a mirage created by spending a third straight season in Triple-A?
Towles is the closest thing to a five-tool player among catching prospects. He's average or better across the board, even in terms of speed. He has put up more consistent numbers than Soto in the minors, though 2007 was the first time he was able to stay healthy over a full season. For that reason, he's still raw. Is he going to be able to polish all the phases of his game?
Choosing between those two is a tossup. I give Soto the edge because he's more of a finished product. Behind them, I'd rank the NL Central catching prospects in this order: Mesoraco, Anderson, Josh Donaldson of the Cubs and Salome.
Mesoraco, the 15th overall pick in the 2007 draft, has the tools to surpass Soto and Towles in the future, but he's still a few years away. Though Anderson played in the Futures Game and hit .298 as a 20-year-old in Double-A, I project him as more of a backup than a starter. I think he'll hit for average, but I have questions about his power, his throwing and his receiving.
Don't forget about Donaldson, a supplemental first-round pick last June who made our Cubs Top 10. He's an offensive-minded catcher with good power and on-base skills, and he has improved defensively since moving behind the plate two years ago. Salome has shown the ability to hit for average with some power, and he may have the strongest arm of the six catchers we're discussing. But he's too sloppy with his defense, and even his throws lack accuracy. He'll also begin 2008 serving the remainder of a suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs.
As for ETAs, Anderson should arrive in St. Louis in 2009 (though Yadier Molina is entrenched as the starter). Donaldson and Salome are on track to reach the big leagues at some point in 2010, while Mesoraco may come up late that year or in 2011.
The Rays are currently our top-rated farm system, and were preceded in the No. 1 spot by the Indians (2003), Brewers (2004), Angels (2005), Diamondbacks (2006) and themselves (2007). Arizona placed six players (Justin Upton, Stephen Drew, Conor Jackson, Carlos Quentin, Chris Young, Carlos Gonzalez) in the first 32 spots on our 2006 Top 100 Prospects list, but Cleveland stands out more for me. Our Indians Top 10 that year included Brandon Phillips, Victor Martinez, Cliff Lee, Jeremy Guthrie, Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore, while Josh Bard, Jhonny Peralta, Ryan Church and Coco Crisp highlighted the 11-30 group in the Handbook.
When our 2008 Handbook went to the print, the Astros came in last in our farm-system rankings. We'll update those for our Minor League Preview issue in March, and the White Sox likely will sink below Houston after trading three of their top six prospects for Nick Swisher. For the purposes of this question, though, we'll go with Chicago.
The previous five No. 30 farm systems were the Orioles (2003), Expos (2004), Cardinals (2005), Reds (2006) and Nationals (2007). Baltimore's list included Eric Bedard (who was sidelined after Tommy John surgery), Daniel Cabrera, Mike Fontenot and John Maine. Montreal has gotten nothing out of its top three prospects at the time (Clint Everts, Mike Hinckley and Josh Karp), but did have Chad Cordero, Shawn Hill, Ryan Church and Jerry Owens. Cincinnati's system in 2006 had no upper-level prospects of merit, but Homer Bailey, Jay Bruce and Joey Votto have blossomed quite nicely.
The White Sox don't have a single representative on our upcoming Top 100 list, and no high-ceiling talent in the upper levels. Their system currently looks worse than any of the other bottom-ranked organizations look in retrospect.
Maybe it was inevitable that the 2003 No. 1 system would outshine its counterparts, and that the current No. 30 would appear more dismal than its most recent peers, because of the advantage of time. The Indians' prospects have had more time to become success stories in the major leagues, while Chicago's farmhands haven't had any chance to further develop. In another year or two, Tampa Bay may have several homegrown all-stars on their hands, and the White Sox' future may appear brighter than it does now.
Teams use several area scouts (usually 12-18 per staff) to file initial reports on players all over the country. The most promising players are then evaluated by crosscheckers, who essentially are more experienced and proven scouts. There are regional crosscheckers (usually 2-3 per club), who split up the top prospects into East, Central and West groups, and national crosscheckers (usually 1-2 per team), who will see all of the best players. Some clubs use both regional and national crosscheckers, while others employ one or the other.
The crosscheckers' recommendations determine which prospects the scouting director will bear down on. Ultimately, it's the scouting director's final call as to whom he'll draft, but he'll try to build a consensus among his area scouts and crosscheckers. General managers are involved in the draft as well, to varying degrees.