40 Years Of Minor League Best Tools: Looking Back At Prescient Picks From The First Installment


Image credit: Roger Clemens (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Hall of Fame pitchers Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina and John Smoltz were once deemed Best Pitching Prospects in minor league Best Tools voting.

Hall of Fame position players Jeff Bagwell, Ken Griffey Jr. and Derek Jeter were once voted Best Batting Prospects. So too were future Hall of Famers Albert Pujols, Adrian Beltre, Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera.

In other words, Baseball America has been distributing Best Tools ballots to managers and tabulating the results for a long time.

For 40 years, to be precise.

When Allan Simpson founded Baseball America in 1981, his focal points were college baseball, the draft and player development. Before he published the first issue in February of that year, he had already built an extensive network of correspondents in each minor league.  

This enabled Simpson to hit the ground running with rankings of the top prospects in every minor league in fall 1981. He unveiled Best Tools for all minor leagues in 1983. An MLB counterpart would follow in 1988.

In honor of 40 years of minor league Best Tools, here are the top 10 most prescient category winners in the first installment in 1983.

1. Roger Clemens, RHP, High-A Winter Haven (Red Sox)
Best Control in Florida State League

Clemens made a big impression on FSL managers in a short period of time. 

Drafted 19th overall out of Texas in 1983, Clemens made just four starts for Winter Haven in his first pro assignment. He didn’t walk a batter in 29 innings while striking out 36. Vero Beach manager Stan Wasiak described Clemens at the time as “one of the best pitching prospects I’ve seen this year . . . one of the best I’ve ever seen.”

Clemens moved quickly to Double-A—where he ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the Eastern League—and then Triple-A. He was in the majors for good in 1984.

Obviously, if scouts had any notion that Clemens would one day win seven Cy Young Awards, pitch for 24 seasons and strike out more batters than anybody but Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson, then he would have been drafted a lot higher than 19th overall.

2. Dwight Gooden, RHP, High-A Lynchburg (Mets)
Best Pitching Prospect and Best Fastball in Carolina League

This is Gooden’s famous 300-strikeout season as an 18-year-old, one year after being drafted second overall. Carolina League managers took note of his 19-4 record, 2.50 ERA, strikeout rate of 14.1 per nine innings and “90-95 mph” velocity, which would register a few ticks higher on today’s radar guns. 

What’s most surprising is that Gooden did not win Best Curveball honors for a pitch that became known as “Lord Charles” in MLB. That honor went to Winston-Salem’s Mike Rochford.

Gooden had a distinguished MLB career—194 wins, 1984 NL Rookie of the Year, 1985 NL Cy Young Award—but one that was diminished by drug addiction. 

3. Tony Fernandez, SS, Triple-A Syracuse (Blue Jays)
Best Defensive SS in International League

Fernandez was a key member of the Blue Jays’ international scouting efforts that helped establish the Dominican Republic as the No. 1 supplier of foreign talent to MLB. He also was an outstanding defensive shortstop who won four Gold Gloves, made five all-star teams and played for 17 MLB seasons with a roughly league-average bat. 

4. Devon White, OF, Low-A Peoria (Angels)
Best Defensive OF in Midwest League

White carved out a 17-year MLB career largely on the strength of his transcendent glove in center field. He won seven Gold Gloves and was a key component to three World Series champions: the 1992-93 Blue Jays and 1997 Marlins.

White was a throwback leadoff man in the sense that he finished his career with a below-average .319 OBP but had good power (more than 200 homers) and outstanding speed (nearly 350 steals). 

5. Kirby Puckett, OF, High-A Visalia (Twins)
Best OF Arm in California League

As a player, Puckett is best remembered as a career .318 hitter who led the AL in hits four times and willed the underdog Twins to World Series glory in 1987 and 1991. He never won an MVP award but finished top 10 in voting a total of seven times, including a trio of top-three finishes.

But despite a short, stocky body type, Puckett was also an outstanding defensive center fielder who won six Gold Gloves and recorded a top 20 career total for outfield assists during the Expansion Era.

6. Lenny Dykstra, OF, High-A Lynchburg (Mets)
Best Batting Prospect, Best Baserunner and Best Defensive OF in Carolina League

As his Lynchburg teammate Dwight Gooden did on the mound, Dykstra captivated Carolina League managers with his play in the batter’s box, on the bases and in center field. He hit .358 with 105 stolen bases in 136 games to go with 107 walks and 132 runs. 

Dykstra was a dynamic MLB player most famous as the leadoff batter for the NL pennant-winning 1993 Phillies. He led the NL in hits, walks and runs that season.

7. Jose Rijo, RHP, High-A Fort Lauderdale (Yankees)
Best Pitching Prospect and Best Fastball in Florida State League

Rijo electrified FSL observers in 1983 by going 15-5, 1.68 with 152 strikeouts in 160 innings. He finished the season in Double-A as an 18-year-old and reached the Bronx the following season. 

Rijo made only one all-star team and never came particularly close to winning a Cy Young Award, though he was named World Series MVP in 1990 when the Reds improbably swept the Athletics. 

Advanced metrics look more favorably at Rijo’s career. His 1993 season was worth 9.2 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference, which is the sixth-highest total on a 1990s list dominated by Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux.

8. Sid Fernandez, LHP, Double-A San Antonio (Dodgers)
Best Pitching Prospect and Best Breaking Pitch in Texas League

The portly lefthander from Hawaii was one of the preeminent strikeout pitchers of the 1980s and ’90s. He ranks seventh in total strikeouts between 1985 and 1994. 

Fernandez found most of his MLB success with the Mets, owing his dominance more to deception, movement and a short arm action than pure velocity. He was a starter for the 108-win 1986 Mets and then served as a key swingman for the World Series champions in October. 

9. Mark Gubicza, RHP, Double-A Jacksonville (Royals)
Best Pitching Prospect in Southern League

Perhaps best known today as the Angels’ television color commentator, Gubicza was a durable starter who spent 13 of his 14 big league seasons with the Royals. He ranks third in franchise history with 132 wins and 38 WAR and second in strikeouts and innings. Gubicza made two all-star teams and pitched for the World Series-champion 1985 Royals.  

10. Vince Coleman, OF, Low-A Macon (Cardinals)
Best Baserunner and Fastest Baserunner in South Atlantic League

While Coleman was a flawed big leaguer who feuded with reporters and fans, he more than lived up to his Best Tools billing. Coleman was an undisciplined hitter and indifferent left fielder who had almost zero power, but he was a prolific—and historic—basestealer. 

Coleman set the minor league record with 145 steals in 1983—a record that would stand until Billy Hamilton broke in in 2012—and then paced the NL in steals during the first six seasons of his MLB career. He stole at least 100 bases in 1985, ’86 and ’87 and is the only player in history to top 100 in his first three seasons. His 752 steals ranks him sixth all time.

Elsewhere . . .

Danny Jackson, LHP, Triple-A Omaha (Royals)
Best Pitching Prospect in American Association

A 15-year MLB vet who made a couple all-star teams and picked up World Series rings with the 1985 Royals and 1990 Reds and helped the 1993 Phillies win the NL pennant.

Harold Reynolds, 2B, Triple-A Salt Lake City (Mariners)
Best Defensive 2B in Pacific Coast League

The charismatic MLB Network analyst won three Gold Gloves in a 12-year career and led the AL with 60 stolen bases in 1987.

Stan Javier, OF, Low-A Greensboro (Yankees)
Best Defensive OF in South Atlantic League

Javier’s defensive versatility, switch-hitting ability and on-base skills made him a 17-year MLB veteran, mostly as a fourth outfielder who played regularly. 

Ron Karkovice, C, Low-A Appleton (White Sox)
Best Defensive C in Midwest League

Karkovice hung around for 12 seasons in MLB on the strength of his elite glove. He never won a Gold Glove but was chosen as Best Defensive Catcher in the AL four times in Best Tools voting. 

Charlie O’Brien, C, Double-A Albany (Athletics)
Best Defensive C in Eastern League

O’Brien forged a 15-year career, primarily as a backup, on the strength of his outstanding glove behind the plate.

Otis Nixon, OF, Triple-A Columbus (Yankees)
Best Baserunner and Fastest Baserunner in International League

Nixon slashed, slapped, bunted and walked his way to a career .343 OBP and once aboard stole 620 bases, the 16th-most all time.

Shawon Dunston, SS, Low-A Quad Cities (Cubs)
Best Batting Prospect, Fastest Baserunner and Best Infield Arm in Midwest League

Drafted first overall by the Cubs in 1982, Dunston never quite lived up to offensive expectations but had one of the strongest arms of the late 1980s and early ’90s. He won Best Infield Arm in NL Best Tools voting five times.

Juan Samuel, 2B, Triple-A Portland (Phillies)
Best Batting Prospect and Best Baserunner in Pacific Coast League

Samuel headed into 1984 ranked as the Phillies’ top prospect and a potential five-tool superstar. But a poor plate approach and poor defensive play made him an annual disappointment. A 28-homer, 100-RBI season in the aberrational 1987 campaign provided false hope, and Samuel was never a regular after age 30.

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