Has it really been 20 years since the last "Bill James Baseball Abstract"? It has, and many of us mourn its passing. But we also know it's not coming back, so we enjoy a dose of Bill James anywhere we can get it.
You can get plenty in the just-released "The Bill James Gold Mine 2008" (ACTA Sports, $21.95). Much of the book is brief statistical analysis accompanied by a James comment, explaining why it's futile to employ a defensive shift against David Ortiz or that Conor Jackson has never hit a home run to center or right field in 985 career at-bats.
The best part of the book are the 17 extended essays that James uses as a preview for his new Bill James Online website. James tackles such subjects as finding the best clutch hitter of 2007 (Brad Hawpe, by a wide margin), determining the best in-season comebacks (last year's Phillies come in third) and wondering if a tired Mariano Rivera means a less effective Mariano Rivera and a more vulnerable Yankees club (it does, though Rivera's control actually improves).
It's not the "Abstract," but the "Gold Mine" is full of plenty of rich nuggets.
We presented our initial farm-system rankings in the 2008 Prospect Handbook, and though we'll revise them for our upcoming Minor League Preview to reflect trades that have occurred since then, the top five likely will remain the same: Rays, Red Sox, Reds, Rangers, Yankees.
Looking solely at pitchers, the rankings would be much different. Here are my top five organizations in terms of mound prospects, with their overall ranking in the Handbook in parentheses:
1. Rays (1). Tampa Bay has the best overall farm system because it has a strong balance between hitters and pitchers, and as a group, the arms are more impressive. David Price, Wade Davis and Jake McGee all ranked in the top 17 on our overall Top 100 Prospects list, and Jeff Niemann snuck on at the end. Besides frontline pitchers, the Rays also have plenty of depth with Jeremy Hellickson, Chris Mason, Glenn Gibson, Juan Salas, Alex Cobb, Eduardo Morlan and Josh Butler. The rich may get richer, too, as Tampa Bay has the No. 1 overall pick in the June draft and could target Missouri righthander Aaron Crow or San Diego lefthander Brian Matusz.
2. Yankees (5). The obvious guys are Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy, who were spectacular in brief big league stints last year and are counted on heavily for 2008. Alan Horne, Jeff Marquez and Ross Ohlendorf all could contribute in New York this year as well, while Andrew Brackman, Mark Melancon and Humberto Sanchez and Dellin Betances all combine upside with medical question marks.
3. Orioles (16, will move up a couple of spots after the Erik Bedard trade, though Adam Jones doesn't count as a prospect). Chris Tillman, part of the Bedard deal, is a Top 100 prospect, as are Radhames Liz and Troy Patton, part of the Miguel Tejada trade. A year from now, Jake Arrieta and Chorye Spoone could be Top 100 guys, and Pedro Beato and Brandon Erbe have power arms. Garrett Olson is a lefty who knows how to pitch, though he nibbled too much in his big league debut.
4. Rangers (4). Eric Hurley will pitch in the majors this year, and Matt Harrison may join him, but the strength of the Texas system is very young arms. Neftali Feliz, Michael Main, Blake Beavan, Neil Ramirez, Fabio Castillo, Tommy Hunter and Wilmer Font have yet to reach full-season ball, while Kasey Kiker has advanced to low Class A and Omar Poveda has made five starts in high Class A.
5. Athletics (27, will move up to around 10 after trading Dan Haren and Nick Swisher for a slew of prospects). The best arms in Oakland's system are recent trade acquisitions Gio Gonzalez, Brett Anderson and Fautino de los Santos. Adding them to the previous inventory that included Trevor Cahill, James Simmons, Henry Rodriguez and Andrew Bailey put the A's past the Twins, Rockies, Indians and Dodgers for the last spot on this top five.
Michael is oversimplifying what we wrote about the White Sox. While Williams' deals have removed talent from the system, the club also hasn't drafted well or been effective in Latin America. All of those factors have resulted in a woeful system that probably will come in 30th when we revise our rankings for the Minor League Preview.
It's also not accurate to say that Young is the only big leaguer Williams has surrendered. He's the best, no doubt, but Williams also has traded relievers Franklin Francisco, Gary Majewski, Jon Rauch and Royce Ring˜and Chicago's bullpen was a disaster last year. He also has dealt Brandon McCarthy, who could emerge as a decent big league starter, and Aaron Miles, Miguel Olivo and Jeremy Reed, who became regulars elsewhere (though they didn't distinguish themselves).
Excluding the players who since have graduated to the big leaguers, there are seven significant current prospects whom Williams traded:
1. Gio Gonzalez, lhp, Athletics
Dealt to the Phillies for Jim Thome, reacquired and then traded for Nick Swisher.
2. Daniel Cortes, rhp, Royals
Unknown when dealt for Mike MacDougal, now looks like a potential No. 2 starter.
3. Fautino de los Santos, rhp, Athletics
Came out of nowhere last year, then got packaged for Swisher.
4. Aaron Cunningham, of, Athletics
Solid hitter brought Danny Richar from the Diamondbacks.
5. Chris Carter, 1b, Athletics
Getting Carlos Quentin from Arizona for Carter was a terrific move.
6. Ryan Sweeney, of, Athletics
Stalled after the Sox rushed him, must regroup after leaving in the Swisher deal.
7. Tyler Lumsden, lhp, Royals
Valued more highly than Cortes in the MacDougal trade, but he can't harness his stuff.
Gonzalez and de los Santos ranked as the White Sox' two best prospects in the Handbook, which came out before the Swisher trade, and Cortes would have squeezed in between them had he still been around. Cunningham, Carter and Sweeney all would rank as Chicago's top position prospect if they were still around. With all those guys on hand, their system would rank somewhere in the 10-15 range.
Chicago wouldn't have won the 2005 World Series without all of Williams' wheeling and dealing, because most of the key players on that club were acquired through trades. He deserves a ton of credit for that.
But this franchise is headed nowhere fast. Many of the Sox' best players are older and thus declining rather than improving, and their farm system is in no position to help. While I like Nick Swisher, giving up Gonzalez, de los Santos and Sweeney was unwise for a team that needs to start rebuilding for the future than futilely playing for the present. Of the deals involving the seven players above, the only one that still looks good was acquiring Quentin for Carter. I'd much rather have Cortes and Lumsden than MacDougal, and I'd much rather have Cunningham than Richar.
Young has shown that he can play second base on a short-term basis, not surprising considering that was his position for his first four years in pro ball. But his range and agility are lacking for the position, and if Jeff Kent were out for an extended period of time, the Dodgers would turn to Tony Abreu rather than Young.
I do believe in Young's bat. He's a career .303/.362/.512 hitter in the minors, and if Los Angeles gave him the playing time, he could be just as productive as Andre Ethier. That probably won't happen, however, and the Dodgers might consider him no better than their fifth outfielder. If I were another team in trade talks with Los Angeles, I'd try to get Young thrown into a deal.
Hypothetically, if Young were an adequate defender at second base, he'd be one of the minors' best prospects at that position. I'd put him fourth, behind Matt Antonelli (Padres), Adrian Cardenas (Phillies) and Nick Noonan (Giants).