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By Jim Callis

January 30, 2002

On one level, the Pirates desperately needed to shore up their defense, especially up the middle, as they try to break in young pitchers as part of yet another rebuilding plan. But did this franchise learn nothing from signing free-agent mediocrities such as Derek Bell, Mike Benjamin and Pat Meares? (Not to mention giving Kevin Young $6 million a year?)

At some point today or tomorrow, Pittsburgh will announce the signing of Pokey Reese to a two-year contract with a third-year option. One report places the value of the two guaranteed years at approximately $5 million, while another says the total worth (presumably including the option) is $10 million.

As good as Reese is defensively, and he's very good, he hurts a team more with his bat than he saves with his glove. He has had one decent season at the plate, and that 1999 performance (.285 batting average, .330 on-base percentage, .415 slugging percentage) is looking more and more like an aberration. If the Pirates were the Yankees, and had unlimited financial resources, this signing might make sense. But for a team on a limited budget, it doesn't.

Good news: Now that the 2002 Prospect Handbook is completed, we'll return to our twice-a-week, Tuesday/Friday Ask BA schedule next week. Keep the questions coming.

    I'm interested in your reaction to J.P. Ricciardi's initial moves as Blue Jays GM. Notwithstanding the fact that we have had major league ball for 25 years, the media in Toronto is not, in my view, very baseball savvy. In particular there has been a lot of noise about salary dumping and the like. From my perspective, I see all of the moves as excellent from both a baseball and a fan's perspective. I liked the fact that he moved out Alex Gonzalez and Brad Fullmer, and I like all of the players that he picked up.

    Hugh O'Reilly

I second Hugh's opinion on this one. While with the Athletics, Ricciardi developed a reputation as one of the game's best judges of talent, a skill that will serve him well as a GM. One of the reasons he got the Toronto job was that he was very impressive during the interview process, demonstrating a deep knowledge of the organization and outlining in detail what needed to be done. He has gotten going on that plan since taking over.

Blue Jays ownership wanted to cut $10 million to $15 million in payroll, and Ricciardi has done that without gutting the team. Billy Koch has been an effective closer, but not a dominant one, and his salary is only going to escalate once he enters arbitration following this season. So he was sent to Oakland for promising corner infielder Eric Hinske and righthander Justin Miller, who also has considerable potential. Kelvim Escobar, who has pitched better as a closer than he has in any other major league role, will replace Koch, who had a 4.80 ERA last year.

Toronto's biggest surplus was in middle infielders. In Alex Gonzalez, Cesar Izturis and Felipe Lopez, they had three shortstops who could start for many teams. Gonzalez had three years and $16 million remaining on his contract, too much to be paying a guy whose production resembles Reese's, especially with the other talent on hand. So he was dispatched to the Cubs for lefty reliever Felix Heredia and minor league infielder Jim Deschaine. Heredia and Deschaine are essentially spare parts, but the trade didn't weaken the major league club at all.

Lopez had been playing out of position at third base for much of 2002, but Hinske's arrival and Gonzalez' departure meant he could return to shortstop. Izturis could have fit at second base, but the Blue Jays also had Orlando Hudson, who emerged as a prospect in the minors and in the Arizona Fall League. So Izturis and pricey reliever Paul Quantrill were traded to the Dodgers to get righthanders Luke Prokopec and Chad Ricketts. Prokopec will step right into the rotation, while Ricketts could surprise in relief.

Ricciardi's latest significant transaction was sending DH Brad Fullmer to the Angels for righthander Brian Cooper, a middling prospect. But Fullmer's production slipped dramatically after he signed a two-year, $6.5 million contract before the 2001 season, and he's not getting much done against lefthanders. Rather than keeping Fullmer on hand and likely wanting to non-tender him rather than offer him arbitration after this season, the Jays now have found a way to get talented Vernon Wells into the lineup on a full-time basis. He'll rotate between the outfield and DH, along with Jose Cruz, Raul Mondesi and Shannon Stewart.

The net sum of all these moves is that Ricciardi has saved a good deal of money while clearly upgrading the left side of his infield and his starting rotation. Don't be surprised if Escobar and Wells perform better than Koch and Fullmer did in 2001. All in all, it's a good start to a promising GM career.

    You know, we Brewers fans have our work cut out for us, with so little talent in the major leagues and the high minors. Our only hope is that Dean Taylor, Greg Riddoch and Jack Zduriencik are building a farm system on top of the previous administration's slag heap, and so we hang on your every word. So how about running my question without a slap at Bud Selig? Just this once? For all those beaten-down Brew Crew fans out there?

    I'm wondering about a couple of very young Brewers hitters who didn't make the Top 10 (or 15) Prospects list, Jason Belcher and Brad Nelson. Belcher looks to be a good pure hitter with the potential to develop some nice power, but it seems like there are serious questions about his defense behind the plate. Nelson was one of the higher-rated high school sluggers in the 2001 draft, but seems to have been moved from third base to first base immediately.

    What is your take on these guys? Do the defensive questions outweigh their potential offensive value? Is their omission from the Top 15 list a sign that they're no good, that they're too far from the majors to consider or that the Brewers finally are developing some minor league depth?

    Michael Loverude
    Long Beach

OK, I won't comment on Selig. I promise.

The Brewers had a good draft in 2001, especially by their standards, but I wouldn't say they've really started to develop minor league depth. The omissions of Belcher and Nelson from the Top 15 reflect that the club wants to see a little bit more out of both players. Belcher has a promising bat, but he broke his hand last year and really has yet to show much above Rookie ball. More pressing are concerns about his defense. He caught 17 games in 2001 and gave up 42 steals in 47 attempts. If he can't stay behind the plate, he obviously becomes a lot less valuable.

Nelson doesn't have bad hands, but he wasn't quick enough for third base and thus moved across the diamond. The Brewers think he can be a Sean Casey with more power, but Nelson also didn't homer in Rookie ball. I suspect that both players will make the Top 15 next year.

    I was looking at the Georgia Tech lineup in the College Preview issue and noticed a freshman second baseman named Eric Patterson from Kennesaw, Ga. Then I remembered that Cubs prospect Corey Patterson is from Kennesaw. Is there any relation?

    Kevin Snyder
    Davenport, Iowa

Yes. Eric is Corey's younger brother. Their father Don preceded Eric at Georgia Tech, where he was a football captain before playing in the NFL. A shortstop drafted in the 23rd round by the Rockies last June, Eric will start at second base for the Yellow Jackets as a freshman. Scouts say that his speed and athleticism are similar to Corey's, though Eric isn't nearly as strong. Georgia Tech's season preview is posted on their website, and in it coach Danny Hall breaks down Patterson like this:

"He's a great athlete and is the fastest guy on the team. I think he is going to be a solid hitter, but more importantly he is a very good defensive player. He reminds me a lot of Richard Lewis, a guy who came into Tech without a lot of notoriety. You look at Eric, and his notoriety is that he is Corey Patterson's little brother. But I think in three years he will be known because he's a great player and a great athlete."

    Antonio Perez seems to have fallen off of many prospect lists following his hand injury last season. Is this premature? The trade of Ramon Vazquez to San Diego would seem to open Seattle's shortstop position for him in the near future, but I haven't heard much mention of this. Does Seattle have a different plan in the works?

    Joal Kjarsgaard

It's definitely premature to bounce Perez off of prospect lists. He missed all but five games with wrist problems last year, but he hit .276-16-63 with 28 steals in 98 games in 2000, leading the high Class A California League with a .527 slugging percentage at age 18. That's what we have to judge him on right now, and throw in his defensive skills, and he's pretty spectacular. Right now the only shortstop prospects I rank ahead of him are Kansas City's Angel Berroa, Montreal's Brandon Phillips and Atlanta's Wilson Betemit. If Perez had been healthy last year, he probably would have stayed ahead of all of them.

I don't think Seattle traded Vazquez to San Diego to open up the job for Perez in the near future. Vazquez is a solid player but he doesn't have anywhere near the ceiling of Perez. I believe the Mariners realized that Perez made Vazquez redundant, and they dealt him while his market value was at its peak.

    I love the depth of coverage you are giving to the collegians. However, I must wonder how Billy Paganetti, the top righthanded-hitting high school prospect in the nation from last year and a sure first-round pick had he not been committed to Stanford, failed to get even a mention as an impact "Newcomer" in your College Preview. To put this in perspective, he was ranked ahead of the Mets' David Wright, who's now considered a top prospect within the Mets organization. I know he doesn't have a clear position as of yet due to Stanford's depth, but Paganetti's bat surely will force its way into the lineup. Am I missing something?

    Craig Zetterberg
    Auburn, Calif.

You're overstating Paganetti's draft status a little bit. He projected as a sure first-rounder and the top righty hitter among high schoolers after the 2000 Area Code Games, but he slipped after his senior season in high school. He just didn't hit as well as expected, and a lot of clubs didn't believe he belonged in the first three rounds. By draft time, Wright definitely ranked ahead of him. Paganetti wound up going in the 45th round to the Cardinals, and signability was the main reason.

That said, Paganetti has a lot of talent and very well could emerge as a first-rounder in 2004. We rank him 19th on our list of the nation's top freshman prospects, but as part of the always-deep Pacific-10 Conference, that wasn't enough to get him on our top newcomers list for that league. We only went five deep, and Paganetti right now doesn't have a starting job on the No. 1-ranked Cardinal. Stanford has another of its usually talented recruiting crop, and he's only their third-best freshman behind righthander Marc Jecmen and catcher Donny Lucy.

    The least important player the Indians obtained from the Mets in the Robbie Alomar trade was first baseman Earl Snyder. Nothing about his background says he's prospect. He didn't make BA's Top 30 Prospects list for the Mets in 2001, yet some other people's lists now put him in the Tribe's Top 10. Is Snyder anything more than an organization player acquired to replace Danny Peoples without taking a spot on the 40-man roster?

    Elliot Legow
    Youngstown, Ohio

Snyder has a brighter future than Danny Peoples but isn't a major prospect. He spent most of 2001 in Double-A, hitting .281-20-75 at age 25. He draws a few walks and also has played at third base and on the outfield corners. He could have a future as a useful major league reserve. A 36th-round pick in 1998, Snyder wouldn't be the first University of Hartford first baseman to surpass expectations. A guy named Jeff Bagwell already has done that.

    Can you tell me where Brad Baker is projected to play in 2002 and what the scouting reports are saying about his progress?

    Darrell Poulin
    Greenfield, Mass.

Baker was a huge disappointment in 2001 after entering the season ranked as Boston's top pitching prospect. He went 7-9, 4.73 with a 103-64 strikeout-walk ratio in 120 innings in high Class A at age 20. More disturbing than his performance was what happened to his fastball. Lifting weights during the offseason left him tight and bulky, and his fastball no longer sat in the low 90s or touch 95 mph like it had in 2000. It also came in straighter than ever, and his overall command suffered as well. He needs to return to the Florida State League to regroup. Lefthander Mauricio Lara had the same problem, hurting his back and losing his stuff following a bad weightlifting program.

January 25, 2002

It's a day of celebration at Baseball America (and in the Callis household, I might add) as the 2002 Prospect Handbook was sent to the printer today. I'm not a shill—now I'm sounding like Dennis Franz—but anyone who's reading this page would love this book. We've got unparalleled scouting reports on 900 players, and lots of other highlights, like our rankings of the organization and personal overall Top 50 Prospects lists from four of us editors.

If you buy the book, you won't find Toe Nash. Nash originally ranked 24th on our Tampa Bay list, but now his baseball and legal futures are very much in doubt. I'm not going to presume his guilt, but I'll bet that the Devil Rays will disassociate themselves with Nash at some point in the near future, as soon as it doesn't look like they're just piling on. And I doubt another team will want to touch him.

    I presume you will be receiving a lot of questions about the recent revelation that Juan Cruz is, in fact, older than his listed age of 21. This obviously puts his recent professional performance in a different context. The question is how much of a difference does this make when evaluating him as a prospect? How far can we expect him to fall in your Top 100 list? Thanks.

    Nicolas Zimmerman

    With the recent revelations that Juan Cruz is actually 23 instead of 21, how does this affect his prospect status? Does it drop some, considerably or none at all? At 23, he's still only the equivalent to someone two years out of college, and to have already made his major league debut at 22 is still fairly impressive. Secondly, is it somewhat of a relief to the Cubs to find out that he's actually 23 now, instead of finding out a few years down the road that he was actually 25 or 26 then?

    Patrick B. Sievert
    Stillwater, Okla.

    Does Juan Cruz's actual age do anything to his status as one of the best young pitchers? To me, all it would seem to do is silence the debate on whether Cruz or Mark Prior should be at the top of the Cubs Top 10. Also, how would you rate Yoon-Min Kweon on the Top 30? He really started off slow in low Class A Lansing, but after he stopped commuting back and forth from Korea, he really settled in nicely in the second half. Would you consider him or Ryan Jorgensen to be the top catching prospect in the system?

    Geoff King
    Northbrook, Ill.

As regular readers of Ask BA know, no one loves Juan Cruz as a prospect more than I do. The revelations that he's two years older than previously believed don't change my opinion much. Had he spent the year tearing up high Class A and then we found out he was 22 at the time, I wouldn't have been as excited. But to pitch well in Double-A and the majors at that age is still a tremendous accomplishment. I won't be surprised if, like most young pitchers, he still gets his comeuppance in the big leagues before figuring everything out. But he's still one of the best mound prospects in the game.

I originally ranked Cruz seventh on my Top 50 Prospects list for the Prospect Handbook. When the news came out, I thought about shifting him down a couple of spots. But No. 8 was Mariners lefthander Ryan Anderson, who missed all of last season, and No. 9 was Rangers slugger Mark Teixeira, who has yet to play pro ball. So I left Cruz where he was. I also looked specifically at the guys I had just behind Cruz on my list of righthanders. San Diego's Dennis Tankersley is the same age and hasn't proven himself past Double-A. Fellow Padres Jacob Peavy is 20 and has mastered Double-A, roughly the same as a 22-year-old faring well in the majors-but his stuff isn't as good as Cruz'. Milwaukee's Nick Neugebauer is 18 months younger than Cruz, has great stuff and has done well in an extended Double-A trial-but he has some injury concerns. And so on. All the guys I'd consider in the same class as Cruz can't surpass the quality of his pitches and the level at which he's succeeded relative to his age.

To answer Patrick's second question, the Cubs have to be glad they found out about this now rather than later. (There's a chance a lot more of these situations will arise now that more verifiable authentication is required for visas.) At some point they're probably going to want to sign him to a long-term contract, and they've got to be happy that they know his true age before that happens.

As for Kweon, he didn't make the Top 30. He's more of a catch-and-throw guy than an all-around catcher, and he's three months older than Jorgensen. Jorgensen still has to prove himself with the bat as well, but he's a better defender and hit well in high Class A in 2001. As of now, Jorgensen projects as Chicago's catcher of the future while Kweon has a chance to be his backup.

    BA's Blue Jays prospects list just came out, so I guess it's time to ask about the selections. Though I'm very pleased to see under-recognized Orlando Hudson listed at No. 5, I'm confused by the absence of a couple of players from the Top 15 list: righthander Scott Cassidy and outfielder Reed Johnson. Cassidy had a very strong season in 2001, going 9-9, 3.16 with 129 strikeouts in 160 innings between Double-A & Triple-A. Like Hudson, he also performed very well for Team USA at the World Cup. Lastly, he's an inspiration after succeeding despite diabetes. Johnson simply tore up Double-A by hitting .314 with good power and great speed.

    Chris Thompson
    Halifax, Nova Scotia

We'll let John Manuel, who handled our Blue Jays prospect coverage, handle this one:

Always good to see Nova Scotia in the house. (It's the New Scotland!) Anyway, Cassidy made the Top 30 for a second straight year in our 2002 Prospect Handbook, while Johnson just missed the cut because of his limited ceiling. He had a nice Double-A season, very nice, but I'd say he has average power and speed, with good baserunning instincts. At 24, he should have done well at that level and he did. The Jays like him but project him, at best, as a fourth outfielder in the big leagues. Cassidy has the same problem. He lacks a plus pitch and gets by (quite well, thank you) with excellent command and a feel for pitching. Problem is, he doesn't figure to be much more than a fourth or fifth starter in the big leagues, and that's in a best-case scenario.

    Since you and others have stated you believe the Athletics got the better of the deal for Carlos Pena, I was wondering if it was intended that way. In other words, Oakland had a claim filed with Major League Baseball over Texas' tampering with Grady Fuson, and reportedly asked for Hank Blalock as compensation. Is it possible that the Pena deal was intentionally lopsided, so Oakland would drop its request for Blalock or at least settle for a much lower-rated prospect?

    Doug Miller
    New Orleans

MLB still has yet to rule on the tampering charge. The A's had granted permission for Fuson, then their scouting director, to interview for the Rangers' general manager position. When Texas hired Fuson as assistant GM, Oakland cried foul and asked for Blalock.

However, at the time the trade was announced, Rangers officials said that the charge played absolutely no role in the transaction. I have to agree. MLB apparently has completed its investigation but inexplicably has yet to hand down a ruling. Whenever it does, I can't imagine they're going to award the best hitting prospect in the game to the A's. My guess is that if there's any punishment, Texas will be fined and/or have to forfeit a draft pick.

    What kind of numbers do you think Mark Teixeira will post this year and at what level ? Double-A is what I hear. I also would like to know when you think he'll reach the majors and at what position? Speculation is that the Rangers traded Carlos Pena to put Teixeira at first base when his time comes. Obviously, they have Blalock at third as well, so which player should start there eventually?

    Richard Johnson
    Roseville, Calif.

I also think Teixeira is headed to Double-A, and I'll put his debut numbers at .290-28-92 with 78 walks. (If I'm at all close, someone please remind me in September.) Excluding a possible September callup, which seems like a given because he's already on the 40-man roster, I predict Teixeira will become a big league regular in the second half of 2003.

There are two scenarios as to what position he'll play. The first is that the more athletic Hank Blalock will establish himself at third base and force Teixeira to first base. The second is that Teixeira will show that he can handle the hot corner, Rafael Palmeiro still won't let go of the first-base job and Blalock will head to the outfield. I'm slightly favoring the first scenario at this point. There has been a lot of speculation that Blalock could play second base, but that is coming from fans; the Rangers don't seem inclined to put him there.

If I were running the Rangers, I would have kept Pena. Even if he couldn't make the transition to the outfield, Pena could have played first base, with Teixeira at third and Blalock in the outfield, or with Blalock at third and Teixeira at DH.

    Because Luis Garcia was traded to the Cardinals after their Top 10 Prospects appeared in Baseball America, what would his scouting capsule say? Does he make the top five for St. Louis.

    Mark Olson
    Ames, Iowa

Save the emails, because I'm not going to make a habit of doing this. But here's Garcia's writeup by Will Lingo from the Prospect Handbook:

3. Luis Garcia, 1b
Garcia was the key player for the Cardinals in the trade that sent Dustin Hermanson to the Red Sox in December. In a deal between teams with precious few legitimate prospects, Garcia provided a solid bat to a St. Louis system particularly weak in hitters. He signed with Boston as a pitcher and threw in the low 90s, but an arm injury ended his career on the mound. He emerged as a hitter in the Rookie-level Arizona League in 1999, playing for a co-op team of Mexican League players after the Red Sox loaned him to the Monterrey Sultans. He jumped to Double-A at midseason in 2001 and performed so well that he was named Boston's Double-A player of the year. He has a loose, balanced swing with good leverage and can drive the ball to all fields. He's wiry strong with a body like Richie Sexson's, and he's more athletic than might he expected. He showed good pitch recognition and is a potential No. 5 hitter. Garcia is a good defensive first baseman with smooth actions, though at times he's awkward going to his left. He played 10 games in the outfield last season and could move there if needed. Garcia could win a Triple-A job this spring and has few bats in the system ahead of him.

    You guys do a great job over there at BA, answering all my needs as a baseball fan. But one question I have is about Jason Stanford. He was Cleveland's 2000 minor league pitcher of the year, and then made Team USA and was named to the all-tournament team at the World Cup last fall. He's a nonroster invitee to spring training. Do you think he has a chance to make the team this year?

    Sue Treadway
    Oxford, OH

I don't see Stanford breaking camp with the Indians. They're already going to have at least two lefthanders in their rotation with C.C. Sabathia and Chuck Finley, and they have a host of candidates for the final two spots behind those guys and Bartolo Colon. As for the bullpen, Ricardo Rincon definitely has one lefty role. Scott Radinsky may have the inside track on the second, and phenom Alex Herrera could surprise. Stanford probably will have to prove himself in Triple-A, where he threw a three-hit shutout in his lone start for Buffalo last year.

That said, Stanford has come a long way since signing as a nondrafted free agent. He doesn't have a plus pitch, but he can throw his fastball, breaking ball and changeup for strikes. He also looked good in the Arizona Fall League. I suspect he'll break into Cleveland's middle-relief corps at some point.

January 17, 2002

Wow. I'm sure I wasn't the only one blindsided by the six-player trade between the Athletics and Rangers on Monday. And I'll be surprised if we don't look back at this deal five years from now and see that Oakland came out ahead.

Carlos Pena is one of the top five hitting prospects in the game right now. He hits for average, he hits for power, he draws walks, he's 23. He has great makeup, leaving no doubt in my mind that he'll reach his considerable ceiling. Pena might not be able to match Jason Giambi's collection of clever T-shirts, and he won't equal his production right away, but the A's are better off with Pena than paying Giambi $15 million or more per season, given their limited finances.

To get Pena and useful lefty reliever Mike Venafro, Oakland parted with four of its best prospects: lefthander Mario Ramos, outfielder Ryan Ludwick, first baseman Jason Hart and catcher Gerald Laird. All four have promise, but for Texas to win this trade, one will have to become a star and another will have to become a good everyday player. I'm not so sure that will happen.

The A's loved Ramos, and new Rangers assistant GM Grady Fuson drafted him and the other three players when he was Oakland's scouting director. But Ramos is a finesse lefthander, albeit one with a track record of tremendous success in the minors, and how many finesse lefties are frontline major league starters? Using the term loosely, I can come up with Mark Buehrle, Tom Glavine, Jamie Moyer and maybe Randy Wolf. (With his curveball, I don't consider Barry Zito a finesse guy.) And in any case, all those guys except Moyer throw harder than Ramos. Ludwick has plenty of power potential, but he also hit .213-10-38 in 59 Double-A games away from Midland's Christensen Field last year. Hart's numbers plummeted to .247-19-75 in Triple-A in 2001, while Laird batted .255-5-46 in high Class A.

I've been getting a few questions about why an apparently obvious player was left of off his team's Top 10 Prospects list in our recent issues. In almost every case, it's because he doesn't meet our qualifications as a prospect, which are simple. If a guy hasn't exceeded the rookie limits of 130 at-bats or 50 innings (we don't get into service time), he's a prospect. Orioles outfielder Larry Bigbie had 131 at-bats last year, so he's out. White Sox outfielder Aaron Rowand spent 12 more days in the majors than Bigbie but had just 123 at-bats, so he'll be in our American League Central issue when it comes out in a couple of weeks.

    With Carlos Pena being dealt to the Athletics and most likely having seen his last days in the minors, plus Nick Johnson maybe breaking camp with the Yankees this year, who would you consider as the best first baseman in the minors? Would Hee Seop Choi (if healthy) get that title, or do you have somebody else in mind. Provided Choi stays healthy, do you see him having a big year in Triple-A? If so, will the Cubs get him up to the majors by the Septmeber callups?

    C.J. Keller
    Prattville, Ala.

As luck would have it, I've been busy sorting prospects by position while working on my personal overall Top 50 Prospects list for the 2002 Prospect Handbook. I also expect Pena and Johnson to make Opening Day rosters, so my top five first-base prospects who should begin the year in the minors would be:

1. Hee Seop Choi, Cubs
2. Casey Kotchman, Angels
3. Justin Morneau, Twins
4. Adrian Gonzalez, Marlins
5. Xavier Nady, Padres

If Choi is completely recovered from the hand injury that wrecked his 2001 season, I think he could have a huge year. It's difficult to generate power with a bad hand, yet he still hit 13 homers in 266 Triple-A at-bats at age 22. The Cubs have signed Fred McGriff for this season, so they could leave Choi in Iowa for most of the summer. Once McGriff's contract expires, Choi should take over in 2003.

    I have a question about a Brewer who didn't make Milwaukee's Top 10 list. Brian Mallette seems to have had a meteoric rise the past two years in the organization, including an assignment to the Arizona Fall League after the 2001 season. He has the numbers to be a closer, and the Brewers really have no other options. How hard does he throw? What are his second and third pitches? How old is he? Am I once again getting excited about a Brewers prospect with no future?

    Curt Salm
    Appleton, Wis.

I think you're getting overly excited, though if I was a Brewers fan I'd be looking for a cause for optimism. Hey, maybe if you're lucky, Bud Selig will resign as commissioner and sell the team. But I digress. A 27th-round pick out of Columbus State (Ga.) in 1997, Mallette didn't reach Double-A until 2001, when he was 26, and he's more of a middle reliever than a future closer. While Mallette had a 1.75 ERA, 19 saves and 94 strikeouts in 72 innings last year, minor league relievers often put up glittery statistics and then fade away. Mallette's fastball improved to the low 90s and he started challenging hitters, so he has a chance. But I doubt you'll see him finish games for Milwaukee.

    Three new Japanese players have signed or will sign major league contracts: righthander Satoru Komiyama with the Mets, outfielder So Taguchi with the Cardinals and lefthander Kazuhisa Ishii with Dodgers. None of those three teams is loaded with talent, so in my opinion at least Ishii should make his club's Top 10 list, perhaps even in the upper half. What are your thoughts on them? Where will they rank in their systems?

    Julia Messina

All three players signed (or in Ishii's case, the Dodgers won his negotiating rights) after we completed the Top 10s for their new organizations. And Julia is correct in her assessment that those three clubs don't have much minor league talent, so major league-ready players will make their Top 10s. Both Komiyama and Taguchi will rank sixth on their teams' Top 30 lists in the Prospect Handbook. Komiyama has been hyped as the Japanese Greg Maddux, which is a bit much, but his mix of five pitches could make him a useful middle reliever immediately. Likewise, Toguchi doesn't have a huge ceiling but will be in the mix for St. Louis' left-field job. He's better defensively than offensively.

Ishii hasn't agreed to terms with Los Angeles, so he might not make the Prospect Handbook, which is nearly completed. If he does sign in time, we'll have to figure out where to put him. Ishii's fastball and slider are plus pitches, and he was very successful in Japan, so I suspect he'd rank no lower than third behind righthander Ricardo Rodriguez and outfielder Chin-Feng Chen.

    I've seen So Taguchi's batting average and home run numbers in several different stories. I was wondering, though, if anyone at BA knows what his walk rate and on-base percentage are. Neither of the Japanese hitters in the majors so far (Ichiro Suzuki and Tsuyoshi Shinjo) have had very good walk rates, so I'm guessing Taguchi's isn't anything special either.

    Justin Riddick
    Jackson, Tenn.

I couldn't find career stats for Taguchi in Japan, but I did find his numbers from the last two years. In 2000, he walked 55 times in 129 games and had a .353 on-base percentage. Last year, he drew 43 walks in 134 games and got on base at a .343 clip. Those walk rates are similar to those of Ichiro, who like Taguchi played for Orix. Of course, Taguchi is not in the same neighborhood as Ichiro offensively.

    Being a huge Red Sox fan, I was very excited to see your Top 10 Prospects list, but there were two players who weren't on there who surprised me. Greg Montalbano had a real good year at high Class A Sarasota and held his own in Double-A Trenton, to the point where the Boston baseball writers named him the organization's minor league player of the year. Justin Sherrod hit 18 homers and 32 doubles between low Class A Augusta and Sarasota, and neither team plays in a hitter's league. He also stole 21 bases and hit .295. I was simply wondering why these two players didn't make the list, and what their futures look like.

    Eric Strauss
    Winter Park, Fla.

Montalbano and Sherrod both signed with the Red Sox in 2000, Montalbano as a fifth-year senior out of Northeastern who had been a fifth-round pick in 1999, and Sherrod out of Rollins (Fla.) as a 19th-rounder. Boston doesn't have much depth in its system, but Montalbano and Sherrod didn't make it into our American League East issue because they're older players (both are 24) with limited ceilings. A lefthander, Montalbano will make the Top 30 in the Prospect Handbook, somewhere in the 21-25 range, but his fastball is average at best and his curveball is inconsistent. Sherrod did have a nice year with the bat, but he was too old for Class A. He hit .225 at short-season Lowell in 2000, and his conversion from the outfield to third base hasn't gone well. He won't be listed on the Top 30 until he proves himself at a higher level.

Not to tweak the Boston baseball writers, but I wonder if Montalbano won the award because he's a local product and an inspirational story, having overcome testicular cancer. Korean righthander Seung Song had a much better year than Montalbano did in 2001, and first baseman Luis Garcia (since traded to St. Louis) and shortstop Freddy Sanchez also should have been obvious possibilities.

    How do you see the Western Athletic Conference season playing out? Any idea on who the top prospects should be?

    Richard Lair

On most college baseball questions, I just get out of the way and turn them over to John Manuel. Here's John:

The WAC looks pretty loaded and is one of the nation's more underrated conferences. It's hard to believe this league had 10 teams for a few years and only got Rice into the regionals. Now as a seven-team league, it has five programs that are strong or getting stronger. Rice, ranked No. 12 in our preseason Top 25, is the favorite because of its offensive strength, led by infielders Eric Arnold, Hunter Brown and Jose Enrique Cruz plus outfielders Austin Davis and A.J. Porfirio. Fresno State, led by catcher/righthander Ben Fritz, and Nevada will battle for second. The Wolf Pack could surprise because it may have the WAC's two best pitchers in righthanders Darrell Rasner and Mateo Miramontes. San Jose State and Hawaii (especially with new coach Mike Trapasso) are solid programs and regional challengers.

The top five prospects in the league are:
1. Hunter Brown, 2b/3b, Rice. Coming off a nice summer in the Cape Cod League.
2. Ben Fritz, c/rhp, Fresno State. No. 2 prospect in the Alaska League last summer.
3. Mike Hernandez, lhp, Fresno State. Injured in 2001.
4. Jose Enrique Cruz, ss, Rice. Draft-eligible sophomore, missed second half last year with broken wrist.
5. Darrell Rasner, rhp, Nevada. Throws three average pitches for strikes.

January 9, 2002

I believe federal law mandates that all baseball columnists have to reveal who would have received their Hall of Fame vote (regardless of whether they actually get a ballot). I'll rubber-stamp the election of Ozzie Smith as an obvious choice, though I'll also submit that he was both great and at least a little bit overrated.

Though he was the best defensive shortstop ever, there's no easy way of proving how many runs he saved his teams in a given year, and people overestimate how much his glove was worth. At the same time, for all the talk you here about he improved offensively over the course of his career, and became a good on-base guy and a basestealing threat, he slugged .328 during his career. In just six of his 17 seasons as a regular did he get reach base at a .350 clip and only once did he score 100 runs. I'm not trying to run Smith down, so the good people of St. Louis don't need to bombard me with email. But I'd rather have Barry Larkin.

As for the rest of my ballot, it would break down like this:

Definite Hall of Famers—Gary Carter, Rich Gossage, Bert Blyleven.

Borderline but in—Jim Rice, Bruce Sutter, Luis Tiant, Jack Morris, Alan Trammell.

Borderline but out—Dale Murphy, Andre Dawson, Tommy John, Jim Kaat.

    After reading the reports on Jerome Williams, ranked first among Giants prospects, and Boof Bonser, ranked second, I drew the following conclusions. Both players are the same age. Bonser is considerably larger than Williams, though only one inch taller. Bonser's fastball averaged about 3 mph more speed than Williams' during the 2001 season. Bonser had a much higher K/IP ratio, a much better record, ERA and H/IP ratio than Williams.

    Williams, on the other hand, pitched at a higher level and had a very impressive BB/IP ratio. How close was the call for first place vs. second place in the listing? Did John Manuel go on gut instincts or did he base his decision on Giants' recommendations in naming Williams a better prospect (however slight the difference) than Bonser?

    Mike Marinaro

    Jerome Williams has been ranked the Giants' top prospect in each of the last two years. I know he was the youngest pitcher in Texas League last year and really turned it around in the second half. One of the things considered when evaluating pitching prospects is K/IP ratio. Good prospects usually average at least a strikeout per inning. Last year, Williams' ratio was a mediocre 84/130. Even in his stellar second half, he only had 42 strikeouts in his last 65 innings. Does this cause any concern? Does he project to be a strikeout pitcher in the future?

    Paul LaRocca
    St. Petersburg

I'll let John Manuel, who did our Giants list, explain his rationale for picking Williams over Bonser:

It was a close call, especially considering the factors Mike mentioned. Bonser has two pitches he throws for strikes, while Williams has shown the ability to throw four pitches for strikes. I'm not sure one of Williams' pitches is better than either of Bonser's two plus pitches, but we're not talking about a huge gap there. Also, Williams has done it at Double-A and has a better body. Bonser is bigger and maybe a little stronger, but Williams is lithe, athletic and still drawing comparisons to Dwight Gooden athletically.

Now I'm back again. Getting to Paul's related question, I concur that K/IP ratio is a very useful tool to evaluate prospects. I'd submit that very few pitchers become major league stars without making a lot of guys swing and miss in the minors. At this point, I'm still giving Williams the benefit of the doubt. In 2000, he pitched in the high Class A California league at age 18, and last year he missed most of spring training while dealing with his mother's death. He's a prime candidate for a breakout season in 2002, possibly even to the extent where he could be Minor League Player of the Year.

That said, I put Bonser slightly ahead of Williams when I did my overall Top 50 list for the upcoming 2002 Prospect Handbook.

    I'm glad that choosing the Cubs Top 10 Prospects has become such a difficult undertaking because they have so many solid prospects it's tough to include them all. Six to eight years ago, it was tough just to find 10 Cubs who were considered legitimate prospects. I have two questions.

    I was curious as to where Jose Cueto ranked. He has a mid-90s fastball, good slider and an improving changeup. His K/IP looked strong, he threw two one-hitters and he was in the Top 20 Prospects for Midwest League. How did No. 15 Felix Sanchez (who I simply don't know much about) rank ahead of him?

    How did Steve Smyth get left off the Southern League Top 20? I agree with him making the Cubs Top 15, but I thought there was something to his omission from the SL list after he went 9-3, 2.54.

    Matt MacArthur
    Frisco, Texas

The Cubs really see Sanchez as a sleeper ready to explode, and considering they told me the same thing about Juan Cruz two years ago, I went with him over Cueto. Sanchez already throws 95-96 mph and projects to get quicker. Cueto just missed the cut, as he'll be listed at No. 16 in the Prospect Handbook. Your scouting report on him is very accurate, though he tops out at 94-95 mph and usually throws in the low 90s.

As for Smyth, minor league managers often lean more toward performance than tools when assessing prospects, but that should have worked in Smyth's favor after he topped the Southern League in ERA. He doesn't have overwhelming stuff, though it's solid, and he did go down with a shoulder injury. Maybe that hurt his chances. The Southern League was the deepest league last summer in terms of prospects, which probably was the biggest reason he didn't make it.

    The Indians recently signed righthander Matthew Haynes, the first amateur they've ever gotten out of Australia. What are your thoughts on him?

    Nicholas Lucca
    Ambler, Pa.

    What can you tell me about this Australian pitcher Cleveland just signed?

    Troy Kidwell
    Mansfield, Ohio

I sent this question to Jim Ingraham, who covers the Indians for our magazine and the Prospect Handbook. After talking to Cleveland officials, he decided Haynes wouldn't make their Top 30 yet. Here's what Jim had to say:

They say the kid has a good frame and decent delivery. They like the way the ball comes out of his hand and he has the makings of good secondary stuff. The like his pitching, they like him as a person and they like the whole package. I was told he's a solid guy with some upside. I think it's more of a foot-in-the-door signing to get them in Australia, rather than a big-time signing.

    Is the Orioles farm system really in such poor shape that the:

    No. 1 prospect (Richard Stahl) already has an injury history at the age of 20?

    No. 3 prospect (Keith Reed) was exposed to the major league Rule 5 draft—and went unselected?

    No. 4 prospect (Matt Riley) is coming off Tommy John surgery and makes John Rocker look gentlemanly?

    No. 5 prospect (Ed Rogers) is the designated Baseball America whipping boy?

    What does this say about the Orioles prospects not listed in their top five? Are their many franchises in worse shape? And don't they have bigger problems than chasing Juan Gonzalez?

    Tom Dolan,
    Stamford, Conn.

Tom, you hit this one right out of the park. You didn't even mention that No. 2 prospect Erik Bedard also had a sore arm last summer. Baltimore does have some prospects with upside, but almost all of them have an obvious negative. The Orioles farm system is the worst in the game, and when you factor in the dismal major league team, there isn't a franchise in worse shape. They need their 2001 draft to be as promising as it looks, because I don't think they're going to get much out of their 1999 crop of seven first-round picks, and they need to follow up with more drafts like last year. Gonzalez wasn't going to solve their problems.

Whenever I write something like this, I get a slew of emails from Baltimore fans ripping me for my personal bias against the organization. I have nothing against the Orioles. I just don't think there's much talent in the organization. So please hold those emails.

I'd also like to address the subject of Ed Rogers, hopefully for the last time. I don't have anything against him. I do believe that when the Orioles likened him to Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter after the 2000 season, they couldn't have made a more absurd comparison. It has fueled the overhyping of Ed Rogers, who hasn't begun to approach Garciaparra's or Jeter's status with the bat. Not even close. Every scout I've asked about Rogers likes his glove but questions his bat. And when I pointed this out, I unleashed a flood of emails and chat questions, many laced with obscenities. At this point, I think it's just best to leave Rogers alone and we can watch how he develops. He's not our whipping boy, and he's not Garciaparra or Jeter either. He'll be a good major leaguer if he can develop some plate discipline and hit.

    Peter Gammons reported that Levy Ochoa left the Red Sox to join Scott Boras' company. I know BA has been very critical of Boston's drafts the last several years, but could you assess the impact of losing their Latin American scouting director? I was under the impression that he was highly respected in baseball circles. Also, what do you think about the trend of longtime scouts jumping to agents?

    Mike Koblish
    Exton, Pa.

Losing Ochoa could hurt Boston quite a bit. Four of the Red Sox' Top 10 Prospects were signed by Ochoa, who has had more success in the Dominican Republic than the organization has had elsewhere around the globe despite spending considerable resources. Most agents aren't stupid, and hiring professional talent evaluators to identify worthwhile potential clients is an intelligent move. Competition for players has extended beyond the United States, and you have to give Boras credit for an astute hire.

I also assume that Ochoa is going to make more money working for an agent than he did as a scout, and it's impossible to blame him for improving his situation. As much as I love working for Baseball America, if an agent wanted to hire me for significantly more money, I'd have to consider it from a family standpoint. Or I guess I could ask Carl Pohlad for a $3 million loan. Of course, Bud Selig did nothing wrong despite clearly violating a baseball rule. That's so obvious, I'm sure his 8-year-old granddaughter could explain that away to all of us.

January 4, 2002

Which unsigned free agent is going to make a bigger impact on the 2002 major league season: Juan Gonzalez or Japanese lefthander Kazuhisa Ishii? Despite all the posturing, it seems like Gonzalez and the Mets both want to see him in Shea Stadium next year.

The Mets also are believed to be one of the frontrunners for Ishii, as are the Angels, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Indians, Mariners, Rangers and Yankees. Teams have until Monday to makes bids for the negotiation rights to Ishii. If the Yakult Swallows, his Japanese club, decide to accept the highest bid, the winning team will get 30 days to try to strike a deal. With the demand for pitching in the major leagues, picking up a quality southpaw like Ishii—his fastball and slider are both plus pitches, and he throws strikes—would be a huge boost to a team's postseason hopes.

    In the last few drafts, the Giants concentrated their high draft picks on pitchers. They have come up with several great righthanded prospects in the likes of Kurt Ainsworth, Jerome Williams, Boof Bonser and Jesse Foppert. But I rarely hear anything about any of the lefthanders they drafted in the first couple of rounds, such as Jeff Urban, Chris Jones, John Thomas and Jack Taschner. Are any of these guys still considered prospects? What is the highest ceiling for any of them?

    Dan Thomas
    Fullerton, Calif.

Let's go straight to John Manuel, who handled the Giants for our National League West Top 10 Propects issue as well as the 2002 Prospect Handbook. (There, we've gotten the obligatory plug out of the way quickly.) Here's John:

The best prospect out of those lefthanders is Thomas, a 1999 second-rounder who has a low-90s fastball and a plus changeup. He's a Tommy John surgery survivor and has the Giants pretty excited about his improved command. Though he didn't pitch after June as a precaution with a tender arm, he had a strong instructional league. Urban, a 1998 supplemental first-rounder, is a solid guy who had a major setback in 2000 with a shoulder injury suffered while playing basketball. His ceiling is probably that of a No. 4 or 5 starter right now. Big lefthanders always get a lot of chances and Urban pitched OK in Double-A last year, though a .288 average tells you his stuff is a little short (even if he's 6-foot-8).

Jones, another 1998 supplemental first-rounder, was hurt by the Giants' lack of a low Class A club and got pummeled in the Cal League for two years before being made a middle reliever at Hagerstown this year. He still has to regain confidence and mechanics to show the kind of stuff he had in high school, when he had a plus curveball and a high-80s fastball. Taschner, a 1999 second-round pick, probably would be the next pitcher on this list but has had arm problems each of the last two seasons. He pitched just 92 innings the last two years combined, and his stuff has suffered from the injuries. Taschner, who never lost in college at Division III Wisconsin-Oshkosh, had a plus curve and touched 92 mph with his fastball prior to getting hurt.

Two other lefties whom the Giants took with early draft picks but Dan didn't mention are better prospects than the four he did, according to John's Top 30 list (which will be in the Handbook). Ryan Hannaman, a 2000 fourth-rounder, is inconsistent but shows a high-90s fastball and a tight slider at times. If he can refine his mechanics, watch out. Noah Lowry, a first-rounder last June, is more polished. He throws an 87-91 mph fastball, an overhand curveball and a plus changeup. He keeps improving every year and could move quickly.

    In the last Ask BA, several up-and-coming shortstops were discussed: Angel Berroa, Wilson Betemit, Miguel Cabrera and Brandon Phillips. Where does Kelly Johnson of the Braves rank among those and all other upcoming shortstops? Among other things, I like his on-base percentage.

    Daniel Valois

Johnson just may have the biggest offensive upside out of that entire group. His plate discipline is easily the best of those shortstops, and he hit .289-23-66 at low Class A Macon at age 19. The biggest question about Johnson is his defense, which may not be enough to keep him at shortstop. Those other four guys all are better defenders, though Cabrera eventually might outgrow shortstop. Because I have my doubts that Johnson will stick at short, I'd rank him behind that group.

    I was surprised that Garrett Gentry didn't make the Rockies Top 10 Prospects list. Before traded by the Astros, he showed good plate discipline and power at low Class A Michigan. He was among the Midwest League leaders in home runs with 24. Interestingly, Wily Mo Pena played in the same league, hit 26 homers but had 33 walks compared to 177 strikeouts, and yet he's the No. 3 Reds prospect. Pena is a year younger, but Gentry plays a more valued position as a catcher. What gives? What is Gentry missing?

    Patrick J. Tierney

When a player switches organizations, like Gentry did when he was the player to be named in the Pedro Astacio trade, his new team often is cautious in its assessment of him. Furthermore, he had a torn labrum that required surgery and prevented him from participating in instructional league. It's quite likely that most of the Rockies brass hasn't seen Gentry in person, which also works against him.

A 13th-round pick in 1999, Gentry is primarily an offensive player who drives balls from gap to gap. He averaged more than an RBI per game last year before he couldn't play through his shoulder injury any longer. But it's also not certain that he's going to be able to stay at catcher. MWL managers were split on his chances. His mobility and release were in question, and now he has to rebuild his arm strength. If he has to move, he's far less valuable.

    What did Alex Cintron do to go from being the No. 1 prospect of the Diamondbacks last year to fall out of their Top 15 this year? I know he can't draw a walk, but you listed him as the shortstop in their 2005 lineup. Is there something makeup-wise, a great infusion of talent for Arizona or was he overhyped last year?

    Mike Baker
    Smithville, Ohio

One thing to keep in mind is that not all No. 1 prospects are created equal. We ranked the Diamondbacks farm system 29th among the 30 teams a year ago, so being their top prospect wasn't as difficult as earning that distinction with, say, the White Sox or Cubs. Cintron ranked 62nd on our Top 100 Prospects, which in retrospect was too high. Two guys just ahead of him, Astros lefthander Wilfredo Rodriguez (57) and Padres lefty Mike Bynum (58), also tumbled down their team's Top 15 list this offseason. There's nothing wrong with Cintron's makeup and Arizona hasn't totally turned its system around, so it's fair to say Cintron was overhyped.

Here's what Josh Boyd, who evaluated the Diamondbacks for us this year, has to say:

They clearly think his tools are best fit for a utility role. One of the things that continues to change is he's getting bigger and stronger and outgrowing shortstop. He never had natural actions at the position, doesn't hit enough for third base and isn't quick enough to play second base either. He has arm strength going for him. At the plate, he's a contact hitter but his average is soft. He has an idea at the plate but little patience. He doesn't run, and he's only going to get slower as his lower body thickens because he doesn't have quick feet. As for Cintron being the 2005 shortstop, the other options are Tony Womack, who's not very good now and will be 35, and Jerry Gil, who's coming off a horrendous year in the Midwest League.

    In your recently released Padres Top 10 list, Ramon Vasquez was the ninth-best prospect in their system, one of the strongest in baseball. Approximately where would Vasquez have ranked in the Mariners system? Would Antonio Perez have been rated ahead of him?

    Adam Krell
    Olympia, Wash.

I covered the Padres for us and am in the midst of rating the Mariners, so I'm the right person to ask on this one. Antonio Perez definitely would have rated ahead of Vazquez, even after missing almost all of the 2001 season. Perez has a significantly higher ceiling, while Vazquez is more of a steady performer who's ready to play every day in the major leagues right now. I see him as a guy who's going to hit .275 with about 10 homers and a solid number of walks. Defensively, he'll make most of the plays but he's not going to blow anyone away with his range and his arm. By contrast, Perez has the potential to be a 20-20 player and is more electric in the field. He's also five years younger than Vazquez, and even after his lost season he's still ahead of where Vazquez was at the same age.

I would have put Vazquez at No. 11 on the Mariners list, right behind outfielder Jamal Strong and lefthander Matt Thornton, and right ahead of outfielder Kenny Kelly and righthander Rett Johnson. I don't want to give away the whole list right now, but suffice it to say that Seattle, like San Diego, is loaded with talent.

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