Mauer Rose Above A Talented 2003 MiLB POY Class


Selecting our Minor League Player of the Year is always one of the most difficult and enjoyable tasks on the Baseball America calendar.

Aside from the occasional slam-dunk choices—the Braves’ Andruw Jones in 1995 (or 1996 for that matter), or the Cardinals’ Rick Ankiel in 1999—the race usually comes down to at least a couple of deserving candidates. In 2001, for example, it was a tough call between the Marlins’ Josh Beckett and the Reds’ Adam Dunn, with Beckett getting the nod.

This year, though, we seemed particularly blessed with deserving candidates. There were several excellent choices this year.

And we’re not talking about guys who just put up good numbers. For those of you just joining us, the Minor League Player of the Year is not about the player in the minor leagues who put together the best numbers.

Whether a guy is old for his league, is a veteran who had a great season, or is just a marginal prospect who had the best season of his life, we look beyond performance alone. To win our award you have to have a bit of a pedigree, and that’s not something we apologize for.

If you’d like to peruse the list of previous winners, we’ll just stand on that record. We’re looking for the best prospect who had the best season, and that has usually worked out well.

Early Leaders

This year we had a wealth of great prospect performances. The race started early with Athletics righthander Rich Harden throwing 13 perfect innings in the Texas League and earning a fast promotion to Triple-A, and ultimately to the big leagues at midseason.

A couple of Marlins prospects at Double-A Carolina put up similarly gaudy early numbers. Dontrelle Willis made just six minor league starts before he became a national sensation, so he never really figured into POY consideration.

Miguel Cabrera hit .365-10-59 in 266 at-bats before he called up. Maybe in a year without strong candidates he and Harden would have received more consideration, but ultimately we decided we had enough good players to choose from who spent the entire season in the minors.

The first discussion about who this year’s winner might be actually came in June, when Tigers lefthander Jon Connolly, pitching at low Class A West Michigan, started the season 12-0 with an ERA less than 1.00 almost until July. I argued that no matter what his numbers ended up being, he would never be our Minor League Player of the Year. Others said if he went 20-0 with a 0.95 ERA, we’d have to consider him.

Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. Connolly finished 16-3, 1.41 and is not on our list of finalists. But that should show you again how much prospect status matters. Connolly was not among the 56 Tigers farmhands we listed on their minor league depth chart in the 2003 Prospect Handbook, and he’s a soft-tossing lefty who will have to prove himself every step along the way. He’s a nice story, but he’s not our Minor League Player of the Year.

Splitting Hairs

So now we start getting down to the guys we really talked about. Of the 10 listed here, just the top three were talked about extensively. The other guys all got mentioned but ultimately didn’t measure up to the top three guys.

Jeremy Reed is the most interesting player in the group. He wasn’t well known before the season, but he was a second-round pick in 2002 and the White Sox’ No. 21 prospect coming into the season, not bad for a player who had just made his professional debut. And he hit .409 in a half-season of Double-A ball, for goodness sake.

Zack Greinke is another 2002 draft pick who is moving quickly. He started raising his profile by pitching in Puerto Rico last winter and debuted at the top of the Royals’ prospect list. Then he lit up the high Class A Carolina League, going 11-1, 1.14, before he got moved up to Double-A.

And finally, Joe Mauer, who had the best resume in the group. You can go back and check the Joe Mauer File on Page 12 if you’re foggy on the details. He combined great offense with great defense and like Reed performed just as well, if not better, when he moved up from high Class A to Double-A.

It’s interesting that all three of these players followed that path this season and indicative of how close they were. Greinke was clearly the best pitcher. Mauer’s and Reed’s numbers are comparable—though, granted, Reed’s are better—but Mauer’s defense and better tools earn him the nod.

So it came down to Mauer and Greinke. Mauer performed better in Double-A, and as a position player he’s a safer bet than a pitcher (see Ankiel). So ultimately those are the factors that led us to lean toward Mauer.

But as always, it was a tough decision, and as always, we’re sure it will be hotly debated by our readers. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

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