Thirteen MLB Stars We Never Saw Coming
Baseball America has ranked the top 10 prospects in every minor league from the very beginning. Each fall from 1981 to 2019, BA readers perused to the most talented prospects in each minor league—a total of 626 individual leagues over 39 seasons.
We think we’re good at identifying and ranking future talent. We trust our sources, in this case managers, coaches and scouts. We trust our instincts. We trust our process. But we’re not clairvoyant—as the following examples indicate.
One can build a formidable major league all-star team of players who never appeared in a Minor League Top 10 Prospects ranking.
Jorge Posada, C, Yankees
Posada is one of the hardest-hitting catchers since integration—his 121 OPS+ ranks seventh at the position—even though he entered pro ball as a shortstop. He tended to be overlooked as a prospect because of his rough edges behind the plate and subtle offensive contributions. Posada hit just .258 in the minors but with plus power and patience for a catcher.
Best Top 10 Case: Prospect fatigue set in for Posada, who spent three full seasons at Triple-A from 1994 to 1996, while the Yankees entrusted big league catching duties to veterans Mike Stanley, Joe Girardi and Jim Leyritz. In retrospect, Posada’s 1996 season at Triple-A Columbus is remarkable. He hit .271/.405/.460 with 11 home runs and 79 walks in 106 games. He turned 26 late that season and beginning in 1997 would never return to the minors.
Matt Olson, 1B, Athletics
Oakland’s power-hitting, Gold Glove-winning first baseman appeared on four league top 20s but never ranked among the top 10 prospects in his league—not even in 2014 when he led the California League with 37 homers as a 20-year-old. A high strikeout rate (24%) and low batting average (.249 career) obscured Olson’s carrying tools of power, patience and defense.
Best Top 10 Case: Olson annually finished among his league’s leaders in home runs, and he was athletic enough to play right field as a prospect, but he tended to be underestimated. As mentioned, his standout season was 2014 when he slammed 37 homers, drove in 97 runs and drew 117 walks for high Class A Stockton. He ranked 13th on the Cal League list that year.
Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees
Cano’s father Jose, a righthander, ranked as the No. 3 prospect in the 1987 Florida State League—and pitched for the Astros in 1989—but Robinson never quite cracked a minor league top 10. The junior Cano’s shift from shortstop to second base as he turned 20 combined with good but not great offensive production kept him out of the top 10.
Best Top 10 Case: Cano broke through as a 21-year-old at Double-A Trenton in 2004, hitting .301/.356/.497 in 74 games. He would struggle in the second half of that season at Triple-A, but beginning in 2005 he began to annually hit and hit for power. The rest is history. Cano’s 126 OPS+ trails only Joe Morgan among second basemen since integration.
Wade Boggs, 3B, Red Sox
Boggs collected 3,010 career hits, won five batting titles and is one of just 24 integration era batters to compile a career on-base percentage of .400 or better. Despite this, Boggs was never viewed as a big prospect because he was a corner player who didn’t hit for power. He hit just nine home runs in six minor league seasons.
Best Top 10 Case: BA had one chance to rank Boggs—the 1981 International League—and didn’t. That season in a repeat year at Triple-A Pawtucket, a 23-year-old Boggs hit .335 to win the IL batting title to go with 41 doubles, more than twice as many walks (89) as strikeouts (41) and a career-high five home runs.
Jhonny Peralta, SS, Indians
Shortstops receive the benefit of the doubt from BA. Just two of the top 25 shortstops since 1981, according to Baseball-Reference wins above replacement, failed to rank as a top 10 prospect in a minor league. Those two are Peralta and Mike Bordick, who rank 20th and 25th by WAR. In Peralta’s case, the fact he didn’t look like a shortstop because of his thick build might have contributed to his chronic omission.
Best Top 10 Case: Peralta had a nice season as a 20-year-old shortstop for Double-A Akron in 2002, hitting .281/.343/.457 with 15 home runs and 28 doubles. That was an exceptional prospect year for the Eastern League in which every member of the top 10 except one recorded at least 15 career WAR. That list also included Peralta’s Akron teammates Victor Martinez and Cliff Lee, so perhaps he was a bit overshadowed.
Jim Edmonds, OF, Angels
As a seventh-round pick out of high school, Edmonds was not initially a high priority prospect for the Angels. He ranked as one of Anaheim’s top 10 prospects one time, placing ninth in 1994. Edmonds didn’t help his cause by missing time with injuries early in his career and earning a reputation as lackadaisical. He began to show power in 1992 and by 1995 was entrenched as the Angels’ center fielder. His 132 OPS+ ranks eighth at his position since integration.
Best Top 10 Case: Edmonds turned in back-to-back injury-shortened seasons in the California League in 1990 and 1991 but would have been a deserving top 10 prospect in 1992 in either the Double-A Texas or Triple-A Pacific Coast league. The 22-year-old hit a combined .307/.384/.489 with 14 homers and 30 doubles that season.
Torii Hunter, OF, Twins
Hunter spent the better part of three seasons in Double-A, but things didn’t click into place for him until the last of those three seasons in 1998. He spent all of 1999 in Minnesota but required a two-month Triple-A tuneup in 2000 before emerging as a power-hitting, Gold Glove-winning, all-star center fielder. Hunter hit just .255 and slugged .384 in three Double-A performances, failing to stand out offensively until he reached the altitude of Salt Lake City.
Best Top 10 Case: In his third try at the Double-A Eastern League in 1998, a 23-year-old Hunter hit .282/.329/.438 with six homers and 11 steals in 82 games and continued to hit after a promotion to Triple-A Salt Lake.
Matt Holliday, OF, Rockies
Holliday was a two-sport star in high school with Division I quarterback aspirations. The Rockies believed in his potential on the diamond, signing him for $840,000 as a seventh-rounder in 1998 and waiting until Holliday’s seventh pro season for his power to blossom. He made seven all-star teams, slugged 316 home runs and finished runner-up in 2007 National League MVP balloting.
Best Top 10 Case: Holliday never had a terrible minor league season but also never really had a truly standout one. His best might have been 2001, when as a 21-year-old he repeated the high Class A Carolina League and hit .275/.358/.475 with 11 homers in 72 games. He made the switch from third base to left field that year but lost half the season to Tommy John surgery.
MLB Preview: The Mets Are Better After A Busy Offseason. But Is It Enough?
We asked baseball executives and scouts if 2021 projections for the Mets pass the eye test.
Curt Schilling, RHP, Orioles
Schilling pitched effectively and proved durable as a minor leaguer but never gained attention in prospect rankings. He was traded three times between July 1988 and April 1992, indicating that other teams wanted to acquire him, but also that he was deemed expendable. Schilling shuttled between Triple-A and the majors in 1989, 1990 and 1991, working almost exclusively as a reliever in the big leagues. He would go on to win 216 games in the big leagues and anchor rotations for four World Series teams.
Best Top 10 Case: In 1989 the Orioles gave a 22-year-old Schilling 27 starts at Triple-A Rochester. He won 13 games with a 3.21 ERA over 185 innings. His 109 strikeouts ranked fifth in the International League.
David Cone, RHP, Royals
At the end of spring training in 1987, the Royals made one of the most lopsided trades of the decade by sending Cone to the Mets for young catcher Ed Hearn and two prospects who never panned out. Kansas City had shifted Cone to the bullpen at Triple-A Omaha in 1986 after his ERA started with a “5” the preceding two seasons. He would go on to win 194 games in the big leagues and win five World Series rings with the Blue Jays and Yankees.
Best Top 10 Case: The Royals drafted local product Cone in the third round in 1981, even though Rockhurst High didn’t field a baseball team. He missed the entire 1983 season with a knee injury but turned in his best minor league season the year before. As a 19-year-old in 1982, Cone went 16-3 with a 2.08 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 177 innings split between the South Atlantic and Florida State leagues.
Andy Pettitte, LHP, Yankees
Pettitte won 256 big league games and figured prominently in 14 postseason rotations in 18 big league seasons. But that outcome wasn’t foreshadowed by his standing in minor league prospect rankings. Pettitte pitched effectively and remained healthy at every stop, yet seemed to sneak up on people when he placed third in American League Rookie of the Year balloting in 1995. He might have been underestimated because he was a 22nd-round draft-and-follow who didn't miss a ton of bats in the high minors.
Best Top 10 Case: Pettitte moved to the precipice of the big leagues in 1994. As a 22-year-old he pitched for Double-A Albany and Triple-A Columbus, going 14-4 with a 2.86 ERA and 111 strikeouts in 170 innings. He could have justifiably ranked top 10 in either the Eastern or International leagues.
Chuck Finley, LHP, Angels
Finley never had a signature big league season, but he sure had a lot of very good ones. He won 200 games for the Angels, Indians and Cardinals, making five all-star teams and proving his durability with nine 200-inning seasons. He fell one out shy of recording a 10th.
Best Top 10 Case: This doesn’t really apply for Finley given his rapid ascent. Drafted in the January secondary phase in 1985 out of Louisiana-Monroe, he didn’t spend enough time in the minor leagues to get noticed. Finley debuted in the short-season Northwest League in his draft year but made all 18 appearances out of the bullpen. He continued to show swing-and-miss capability over 10 relief outings for low Class A Quad Cities in 1986, whereupon the Angels promoted him from the Midwest League all the way to the big leagues. Finley continued work as a reliever during his age 23 and 24 seasons in Anaheim before shifting to the rotation in 1988 and thriving.
Jacob deGrom, RHP, Mets
National League Rookie of the Year. Ace for the 2015 NL pennant winners. Back-to-back NL Cy Young Award winner in 2018 and 2019. For a pitcher who was mostly a shortstop in college—and who didn’t debut in the majors until he was 25—deGrom’s greatness caught everybody off guard. He lost a season to Tommy John surgery early in his pro career and ran up a 4.51 ERA in 2013, his final full season in the minors. But deGrom’s arm strength was evident, even if he didn’t begin posting high strikeout rates until he reached the majors in 2014.
Best Top 10 Case: After missing the 2011 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, deGrom showed impressive arm strength and athleticism with low Class A Savannah in 2012. He recorded a 2.51 ERA with 78 strikeouts in 90 innings that season, but as a 24-year-old college product in the South Atlantic League—one who had been a shortstop just three years earlier—he wasn't taken seriously as a top prospect.