Ask BA

Don’t forget to watch the real highlight of the All-Star Game festivities: the Futures Game. Starting at 4 p.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2, you’ll be able to see 50 of the game’s best prospects, such as Reds righthander Homer Bailey, Diamondbacks shortstop Stephen Drew, Diamondbacks outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, Royals third baseman Alex Gordon, Yankees righthander Philip Hughes, Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick, Tigers outfielder Cameron Maybin and Yankees outfielder Jose Tabata.

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly players graduate from the Futures Game to the majors. Eighteen players from last year’s contest are currently in the majors, including Twins lefthander Francisco Liriano, Dodgers catcher Russell Martin and Tigers righthanders Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya. Several others have appeared in the majors since then.

    I got into an argument with my buddy the other day over who was the best high school prospect in the draft over the past 20 years. My personal opinion was Josh Hamilton, but he argued for Brien Taylor. So that got me to thinking. How would you rank the top 10 high school prospects over the past 20 years?

    Jeff Grover
    Indian Harbour Beach, Fla.

Great question, and I enjoyed it so much that I couldn’t limit myself to just 10 prospects. I’ll give you 15:

1. Todd Van Poppel, 1990 (No. 14, Athletics).
The biggest can’t-miss prep prospect of the last 20 years did exactly that.
2. Ken Griffey Jr., 1987 (No. 1, Mariners).
Might have put up better career numbers than almost anyone if injuries hadn’t brought him down.
3. Brien Taylor, 1991 (No. 1, Yankees).
Wayne Coffey of the New York Daily News just did a nice story on what might have been.
4. Justin Upton, 2005 (No. 1, Diamondbacks).
Started getting billed as 2005’s top prospect before he was a high school sophomore.
5. Josh Hamilton, 1999 (No. 1, Devil Rays).
More on him in a moment.
6. Josh Beckett, 1999 (No. 2, Marlins).
Tampa Bay was torn between the two Joshes; imagine Beckett and No. 14 below in the same rotation.
7. Matt White, 1996 (No. 7, Giants).
Some scouts called him the best high school pitcher ever, but he never reached the majors.
8. Alex Rodriguez, 1993 (No. 1, Mariners).
If Seattle manager Lou Piniella had his way, his club would have drafted Darren Dreifort.
9. Joe Mauer, 2001 (No. 1, Twins).
No longer looks like a consolation prize for Minnesota, which couldn’t afford Mark Prior.
10. B.J. Upton, 2002 (No. 2, Devil Rays).
Has a superstar bat but needs to move off shortstop’"for his sake and for Tampa Bay’s.
11. Delmon Young, 2003 (No. 1, Devil Rays).
Eventually will be remembered for a lot more than throwing a bat at an umpire.
12. Josh Booty, 1994 (No. 5, Marlins).
The nation’s best prep baseball and best prep football player that year.
13. Rick Ankiel, 1997 (No. 72, Cardinals).
The only second-rounder on this list, he fell that far in baseball’s most signability-wracked draft ever.
14. Scott Kazmir, 2002 (No. 15, Mets).
Too many teams got hung up on his size and his perceived bonus demands, so he lasted 15 picks.
15. Corey Patterson, 1998 (No. 3, Cubs).
Getting back on track after relocating to Baltimore in an offseason trade.

    If Josh Hamilton displays the same skills he did prior to his drug problems, where would he rank on the Top 100 Prospects list?

    Marty Sheehan
    Wilmington, Del.

    With the return of Josh Hamilton, what expectations do you have for him? Do you think he could pick up where he left off and become one of the game's top hitters? Or have the time, injuries and drugs left him a shell of his former self? Also, any update on Rick Ankiel?

    Tim Keene
    Topsham, Maine

If Hamilton regains his previous skills, he’ll zoom right back up toward the top of the Top 100. He ranked No. 1 overall entering the 2001 season, and it was hard not to gush about him in our scouting report. Here’s what correspondent Bill Ballew wrote at the time:

Background: The No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 draft and the recipient of a $3.96 million signing bonus, Hamilton built on a solid debut season with an impressive campaign at Class A Charleston. He had little difficulty adjusting to the South Atlantic League and was the league’™s top prospect by season’™s end. Hamilton shared the league’™s MVP award with Pirates catcher J.R. House and was voted as the best batting prospect, power prospect, outfield arm and most exciting player in a survey of Sally League managers. He was the youngest player in the Futures Game, where he went 3-for-4. The lone negative was a right knee injury he sustained after a misstep in pursuit of a fly ball. Hamilton missed the last month of the minor league season after having arthroscopic surgery to repair torn cartilage. He recovered in time to participate in instructional league.

Strengths: Hamilton is a rare breed. He’™s one of the few players with five legitimate plus tools that continue to improve every time he takes the field. His power is increasing as his 19-year-old body matures. Anyone who saw his over-the-head catch, a la Willie Mays, in the SAL all-star game knows how much ground he covers in center field. His arm, which produced a mid-90s fastball while in high school, is one of the strongest among minor league outfielders. For all his tools, Hamilton’™s most important trait may be his baseball savvy. His knowledge of how to play the game far exceeds his experience.

Weaknesses: It’™s hard to find any aspect of Hamilton’™s game that could be deemed a weakness. He’™s sometimes too aggressive at the plate, resulting in 72 strikeouts against 26 walks in 2000. With less than two full seasons of professional experience, Hamilton simply needs to remain healthy and get as many at-bats as possible so he can learn to make adjustments against more talented competition.

The Future: Hamilton showed during instructional league that there’™s no reason to expect him to be anything less than 100 percent by spring training. He was headed for a promotion at the time of his injury, and chances are he’™ll bypass high Class A Bakersfield and move to Double-A Orlando to open 2001. A promotion to the big leagues could come as soon as 2002.

Obviously, a lot has gone wrong since then. Back and leg injuries limited Hamilton to 27 games in 2001, and shoulder and elbow woes kept him to 56 games in 2002. Then a series of drug problems led to 3½ years away from the game, including a suspension from Major League Baseball that lasted from February 2004 until July of this year.

Can Hamilton get back to where he once was? It would make for a nice story, but at this point I’ll believe it when I see it. He missed so much time and has so much to overcome, that the odds are just too long. Hamilton, who’s now 25, has gone 1-for-5 with a double and walk in his first two games back at short-season Hudson Valley.

As for Ankiel, who seemed destined to become a star on the mound before suddenly and shockingly losing his control, he tried to come back as an outfielder last year and led Cardinals minor leaguers with 21 homers. Scouts said Ankiel might be able to return to the majors as a platoon outfielder, but he’s dealing with another setback.

Ankiel injured his left knee in an intrasquad game in February, and doctors hoped to avoid surgery. But when his strained patellar tendon didn’t improve, he went under the knife in late May. He hopes to have a shot at playing winter ball, but a more realistic ETA for his return is spring training next year.

    I'm very interested in seeing Josh Fields play in the Futures Game. Could you give us an idea of how he has emerged this year as one of the top third-base prospects in the game? What do you think the Sox will do with him, trade him or move him to left field with Joe Crede on hand? The Twins need a third baseman, so do you think they'd trade Torii Hunter for Fields?

    Bruce Norlander
    Bloomington, Minn.

While third base is a loaded position for prospects, Fields was an easy choice for the Futures Game. He’s hitting .333/.413/.567 with 13 homers, 52 RBIs and 16 steals in 77 games at Triple-A Charlotte. From what both Fields and Charlotte manager Razor Shines say, his improvement has been more mental than physical. Fields has developed a better approach at the plate, and he’s being more patient and more consistent in all phases of his game. He still strikes out too much (89 times in 291 at-bats), so he’s not a completely finished product, but he’s just about ready for the majors.

And therein lies the problem. Crede is having his best major league season at the plate, he’s a better defender than Fields and he’s locked up at least through 2008, with a possible long-term extension in the works. Fields, who played quarterback at Oklahoma State, is athletic enough to move to left field, though Chicago also has plenty of young outfield prospects in the majors and Triple-A in Brian Anderson, Ryan Sweeney and Jerry Owens.

Fields is producing a lot more at the plate than that trio, however. The best guess is that Fields makes the move from third base to left field like Carlos Lee did for the White Sox a few years ago, and gets a chance to give the club an offensive upgrade next year over Scott Podsednik. An all-star and a World Series hero a year ago, Podsednik is well below average offensively for a left fielder and is having a rough year defensively as well.

Fields also could be an attractive piece of trade bait, but the White Sox don’t need a whole lot. Dealing Hunter for Fields might make sense from Minnesota standpoint, but I can’t see Chicago doing that. For all the web gems he provides, Hunter makes a lot of money ($10.75 million this year, plus a $12 million option for 2007 to prevent him from becoming a free agent) for a guy who provides just decent offense for an outfielder.

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