Ask BA

Over at, Rob Neyer has been discussing the merits of
hitting prospects versus pitching prospects. One of his main points is
that in general, hitters are a safer bet to pan out than pitchers. I
agree with him on that. But twice in the last couple of weeks, he has
speculated about how Baseball America rates prospects, specifically
hitters versus pitchers. And his suppositions were wrong in both cases.

In a Feb. 17 column, Rob wrote:

Some years ago, Baseball America’s No. 1 and No. 2 prospects
were Mark Prior and Josh Beckett. Now, I could be wrong about this, but
I doubt if that would happen again today. In this year’s Baseball America Prospect Handbook,
Jim Callis has six hitters ranked ahead of his top-ranked pitcher
(Francisco Liriano), and he’s got only five pitchers listed among the
top 20 prospects.

Then in a Feb. 28 chat, Rob fielded this question:

Todd (Boston): Rob, both Baseball America and Baseball
Prospectus seemed to shy away from ranking pitchers as high this year.
Do you think this is because there are legitimately better hitting
prospects or because they fear another Todd Van Poppel?
Rob Neyer: Pitching prospects aren’t as prospecty as hitting prospects. Simple as that.

While we do acknowledge that hitters are a better percentage
play than pitchers, we evaluate each prospect on their own merits. If
Felix Hernandez didn’t exceed 50 innings in the majors last year, he
would have been No. 1 on our Top 100 Prospects list.
If there were 2002 versions of Beckett and Prior (Beckett actually
ranked ahead of Prior on our Top 100 back then) in the minors right
now, they would have presented a stiff challenge to Delmon Young for
the No. 1 spot and would have ranked in the top three or four spots.

The reason I didn’t rank a lot of pitchers high on my Top 50
list in the Handbook and BA didn’t have a lot of arms at the start of
the Top 100 is that there just aren’t as many attractive pitching
prospects as usual. I think it’s just cyclical, and not an indication
of any pending shortage. But once you get past the obvious big four
(Liriano, Matt Cain, Chad Billingsley and Justin Verlander), there are
very, very few pitchers who have stuff, polish, a track record of
success in the upper minors and a clean medical history. Even Liriano
and Cain had serious arm problems in the minors.

In that Feb. 17 column, Rob also references a Baseball
Prospectus column from 2002 and notes that the writer (Paul Covert)
concluded that a pitcher should never be ranked among the top five
prospects. One thing about that BP column that Rob didn’t mention was
the conclusion:

To return to Jim Callis’s example: if I had Josh Beckett on
my team, and Callis offered me [Hank] Blalock or [Sean] Burroughs or
even Wilson Betemit for him, would I do the deal? In a heartbeat. Among
pitching prospects, there is no such thing as a sure thing.

That’s why it’s silly to make definitive statements about
pitchers being too risky. (I’d also submit that among hitting
prospects, there’s no such thing as a sure thing either.) This
offseason, the Rangers offered Blalock and their best pitching
prospects to the Marlins for Beckett and Mike Lowell’s overpriced
contract–and they were turned down. Burroughs got traded for the
immortal Dewon Brazelton. The Braves didn’t trust Betemit enough to
give him their wide-open shortstop job, preferring instead to deal
blue-chip prospect Andy Marte for creaky Edgar Renteria.

If you’re running a farm system and you load up on hitters
because they’re a surer thing than pitchers, good luck finding quality
arms for your big league club. It’s unfortunate, but to find pitching
you’re probably going to have your heart broken by some failed pitching
prospects. As with most things related to baseball, a balance is
necessary. If I consider a hitting prospect and a pitching prospect to
be roughly equal, I’ll usually side with the hitter. But sandbagging on
the pitchers to try to look better is foolish.

Ask BA will be taking next week off, but will return on March
16. Before I go I’ll answer three questions and give you my pick to win
the World Baseball Classic: Venezuela.

    On the Top 100 Prospects list, Baseball America listed two
    Mariners catchers, Jeff Clement at No. 33 and Kenji Johjima at No. 66.
    Clement was given an ETA of 2007. With Johjima having signed a
    three-year contract, what's the expectation for Clement? Do you suspect
    a platoon situation, or will Clement be traded? I would think that
    Johjima will be the starter for at least the length of his contract,
    assuming he doesn't turn into Kaz Matsui. That would leave Clement in
    the minors until 2009.

    Brendan Ramsden

    Amesbury, Mass.

The Mariners aren’t going to worry about having two quality catchers until Clement is ready for the majors.

Johjima is an established Japanese major leaguer who should be a
solid to good player in the United States. I don’t see him as a
definite all-star, but he should hit .275 with 15 homers and play solid
defense. Clement, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2005 draft, has
tremendous power and showed significant improvement as both a hitter
and a defender as a junior at Southern California. He’ll provide more
offense than Johjima, who will stand out more behind the plate.

Seattle has made significant investments in both players.
Johjima’s deal is worth $16.5 million, while Clement got a $3.4 million
bonus, a club record for a draft pick. Clement probably won’t be ready
before mid-2007, so the Mariners will have at least a year and a half
before they have to figure out how to get both players into the lineup.

Assuming that Johjima performs as expected, his salary would be
reasonable enough to make him attractive on the trade market. If the
Mariners hold onto both for the length of Johjima’s contract, Clement
could get more of his at-bats at first base or DH while backing up
Johjima at catcher. Clement has more than enough bat to move to another
position where more offense will be demanded.

These situations often have a way of working themselves out.
Just a year ago, the Red Sox seemed to have more shortstops than they
knew what to do with. Since then, Boston has traded Edgar Renteria and
Hanley Ramirez and moved Dustin Pedroia to second base and Luis Soto to
right field. Now the Red Sox have no obvious long-term shortstop.

    Where would Albert Callaspo rank on the Diamondbacks Top 10 list?

    Simon Boisvert


    It seems to me that the Angels should have got more for Alberto
    Callaspo then Jason Bulger. Why did they not go after Matt Chico, Tony
    Pena or Micah Owings? I think Callaspo is flying under the radar
    because he was overshadowed by Howie Kendrick in the Angels system. Why
    did he go so cheap?

    James P. Tate

    Guthrie, Okla.

The Diamondbacks system has gone through a lot of change since we
finalized their Top 10 for the Prospect Handbook. Arizona has traded
for outfielder Chris Young and Callaspo and signed shortstop Justin
Upton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft.

I’d line up their revised Top 10 in this order: Upton,
shortstop Stephen Drew, first baseman Conor Jackson, outfielder Carlos
Quentin, Young, outfielder Carlos Gonzales, righthander Dustin Nippert,
catcher Miguel Montero, righthander Garrett Mock and Callaspo. Ranking
10th on that list is no slap in the face, because when we update our
farm-system rankings for our upcoming Minor League Preview issue,
Arizona will be No. 1.

The Angels were in a tough position with Callaspo. Adam Kennedy
is going to get their big league at-bats at second base, and Howie
Kendrick is going to get their Triple-A at-bats. They really didn’t
have a place to play Callaspo, and while he’s a good prospect, Kendrick
is a great prospect.

Callaspo is a career .315 hitter in the minors and he’s an
exceptional contact hitter. He has led the minors in most plate
appearances per strikeout in each of the last two years, including a
rate of 20.4 in 2005. But he doesn’t stand out in any other area
offensively. He doesn’t have much more than doubles power and his
career slugging percentage is just .424. He has walked just 166 times
in 544 pro games, so he has to hit for a high average to have a
respectable on-base percentage. He has some speed but is just
73-for-123 (59 percent) as a pro basestealer.

A slick-fielding second baseman who also can handle shortstop,
Callaspo figures to make Arizona’s big legue club as a reserve middle
infielder. I could see him becoming a decent regular but I don’t see a
lot of star potential. The Angels needed to move him, and I’d take
Bulger over Chico and Pena because he’s major league-ready. The
Diamondbacks couldn’t trade Owings until the one-year anniversary of
his signing last summer, and I doubt they would have made him available
in this deal.

    How is Bryan Morris doing at Motlow State (Tenn.) CC? I
    know he didn't sign with the Devil Rays after they took him in the
    third round last June. Do you see him improving his draft position by
    going to school?

    Drew Henson

    Tullahoma, Tenn.

Morris wanted to sign with the Devil Rays last summer. The two sides
agreed on a $1.3 million bonus, which was more in line with Morris’
status as a borderline first-round talent. But Tampa Bay’s upper
management kept dragging its heels on signing off on the
deal–reportedly, incoming managing partner Stuart Sternberg was in
favor of it while outgoing managing partner Vince Naimoli was against
it–so Morris decided to attend Motlow State, where his father Ricky is
an assistant coach.

Tampa Bay still controls Morris’ rights and can sign him
between the time Motlow State’s season ends and a week before the 2006
draft. Now that Naimoli has left and Sternberg is running the Rays,
there’s a good chance the two sides could get that $1.3 million deal
completed in May.

Morris isn’t doing anything to hurt his standing at Motlow.
He’s still showing a plus fastball and a power curveball, as well as an
intriguing slider and a developing changeup. He has made three starts,
going 2-1, 0.53 with 26 strikeouts and just eight hits allowed in 17
innings. He also has played some center field and DHed for the Bucks,
hitting .258 with six RBIs in 10 games.

If Morris doesn’t sign with Tampa Bay, and he keeps displaying
the same stuff and achieving the same results, he could go in the first
round in June. He might have last summer if he wasn’t considered
somewhat of a tough sign after his dad told scouts he wanted Bryan to
pitch for him for at least one season.

February 2006 Archive