Top 50 Prospects of 2006: 6-10

Also in this series:
Top 50 Prospects of 2006: 11-15
Top 50 Prospects of 2006: 16-20
Top 50 Prospects of 2006: 21-25
Top 50 Prospects of 2006: 26-30
Top 50 Prospects of 2006: 31-35
Top 50 Prospects of 2006: 36-40
Top 50 Prospects of 2006: 41-45
Top 50 Prospects of 2006: 46-50


Prospect (pra spekt) – noun
Something expected; a possibility.

Before I get to the prospects, a few words about my rankings. To be eligible for this list, a player must meet the playing-time qualifications for the Rookie of the Year award, but not the service-time qualifications. That means a prospect has to have fewer than 130 at-bats or 50 innings in the majors. In other words, no Felix Hernandez or B.J. Upton. In addition to that, I don’t rank anyone who has yet to spend a day in the minors (or Arizona Fall League) or never will, such as Justin Upton or Kenji Johjima. There is no set formula for how I rank prospects, but here are the three biggest things I look at:

Age and level of competition: In many cases, a 20-year-old simply holding his own at Double-A is more impressive than a 25-year-old tearing up the same league. That’s not to say every young player is a good prospect or every older player is a non-prospect, but it’s a significant consideration for all players. For example, a lack of plate discipline can sometimes be forgiven in a prospect who is very young for the league he’s in, while a dominating strikeout-to-walk ratio for a journeyman pitcher beating up on 21-year-olds can usually be discounted.

Defense and future position: Judging defense in the majors is difficult enough; doing the same for minor leaguers is almost impossible. In the minors, shortstops routinely make 40 errors in a season, players are learning new positions on the job, and it’s not as if there’s a place to find defensive Win Shares for second basemen in the Carolina League. Many prospects also find themselves shifting down the defensive spectrum as they advance through the minors and a player’s overall status as a prospect must at least attempt to take into account their eventual position. In other words, a great-hitting shortstop prospect is a wonderful thing, but less so if that player is unlikely to stick at shortstop.

Statistical performance and the factors involved: At some point, a prospect has to actually perform like a prospect, because being a first-round pick or looking good in a uniform isn’t going to help him hit or pitch in the majors. In addition to that, there are many aspects of a player’s performance that go beyond the obvious, which is to say that not all .300 batting averages and 3.00 ERAs are equal. Just like in the majors, there are different types of playing environments throughout the minors. There are parks that favor pitching and parks that favor hitting, and there are entire leagues that do the same

Finally, these rankings are by no means authoritative, and I am no more an expert on prospects than anyone else who follows the minor leagues closely. My rankings reflect my feeling about a player’s long-term chances for success in the major leagues and the degree of that success. There are players on this list who will play in the majors next month and there are players who won’t sniff the big leagues for several years. I look at each player and ask the same question: How good do I think this guy has a chance to be and how likely do I feel he is to reach that level?

10) Brandon Wood, Los Angeles Angels
Position: Shortstop | Bats: Right | DOB: 3/2/1985 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2003       R      78     .308     .349     .462      0      10      4      15
           R     162     .278     .348     .475      5      20     16      48
2004       A     478     .251     .322     .404     11      46     46     117
2005       A     536     .321     .383     .672     43      98     48     128

Based solely on 2005, Brandon Wood might be the best prospect in baseball. He put together one of the most impressive offensive seasons ever from a minor leaguer, batting .321/.383/.672 with 43 homers and 98 total extra-base hits in 130 games at high Single-A, and then tacking on another 14 homers and 21 total extra-base hits between a brief Triple-A stint and the Arizona Fall League. A 20-year-old shortstop smacking 57 homers and 119 total extra-base hits over a 163-game stretch isn’t something you see very often, but he may not stick at shortstop long term and I’m skeptical that the breakout year represents Wood’s true potential.

Wood has struck out in nearly 25 percent of his Single-A at-bats while walking about twice a week, and his previous track record simply isn’t all that impresive. While Wood is a former first-round pick who did well in rookie-ball back in 2003, he hit just .251/.322/.404 with 11 homers and 46 total extra-base hits in 125 games at low Single-A in 2004. It’s possible that something simply clicked inside Wood last year, allowing him to reach his inner-slugger, but I think it’s more likely that his true value is somewhere between the mediocre 2004 campaign and the ridiculously good year in 2005. That’s still damn good, of course.

9) Ian Stewart, Colorado Rockies
Position: Third Base | Bats: Left | DOB: 4/5/1985 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2003       R     224     .317     .401     .558     10      29     29      54
2004       A     505     .319     .398     .594     30      70     66     112
2005       A     435     .274     .353     .497     17      56     52     113

A hamstring injury caused Ian Stewart to miss the first month of the 2005 season and he was later sidelined with a wrist problem. Because of that he got off to a very slow start, but hit well enough down the stretch to bring his season totals up to a solid .274/.353/.497 with 17 homers and 56 total extra-base hits in 112 games. This spring he won the Rockies’ team MVP (for whatever that’s worth), hitting .396 with five homers in 22 exhibition games. Todd Helton was one of many Rockies who came away from camp impressed by Stewart, saying:

He’s got power. You could tell the first day he had a lot of power, but he’s very impressively driving the ball to center field and left-center field with power. He’s the real deal. He’s only going to get better. There are a lot of strong guys but they don’t get it out of their swing. He gets every bit of strength into his bat speed and his power. That’s good. He really stays through the ball and the bat stays in the zone a long time with power.

Stewart’s minor-league numbers certain back that up, with 57 homers and 155 total extra-base hits in 300 games despite not turning 21 years old until later this week. Opinions of Stewart’s defense at third base differ quite a bit, but he’s generally considered an average defender there. There has been some talk about an eventual shift to the outfield, which would hurt his value some, but in the end it’ll be Stewart’s bat that determines how good he can become. With Coors Field around to inflate his raw numbers, he has a chance to do some scary things offensively.

8) Howie Kendrick, Los Angeles Angels
Position: Second Base | Bats: Right | DOB: 7/12/1983 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2003       R     234     .368     .434     .517      3      26     24      28
2004       A     313     .367     .398     .578     10      40     12      41
2005       A     279     .384     .421     .638     12      41     14      42
          AA     190     .342     .382     .579      7      29      6      20

It seems odd to consider Wood as anything other than the Angels’ best middle-infield prospect, but in my mind at least Howie Kendrick is deserving of a slightly higher ranking. While Wood remains a relative one-year wonder at this point and has yet to dominate above Single-A, Kendrick has put up huge numbers in each of his three pro seasons and hit .342 in 46 games at Double-A last year. There is also little concern about Kendrick having to move away from the middle of the diamond defensively and his batting averages are just as awe-inspiring as Wood’s power numbers.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

In 292 minor-league games, Kendrick has an incredible .359 batting average, including .367 at low Single-A, .384 at high Single-A, and .342 at Double-A (and .380 in the Arizona Fall League). And he’s far from a slap-hitter, with 19 homers and 70 total extra-base hits in 109 games between Single-A and Double-a last season. Kendrick is considered a solid defender at second base and stole 25 bases in 2005, and while he rarely walks his ability to consistently make contact in nearly 90 percent of his at-bats is a good sign. Plus, if you were a .359 career hitter would you be trying to draw a walk?

7) Andy Marte, Cleveland Indians
Position: Third Base | Bats: Right | DOB: 10/21/1983 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2003       A     463     .285     .372     .469     16      52     67     109
2004      AA     387     .269     .364     .525     23      52     58     105
2005     AAA     389     .275     .372     .506     20      48     64      83
         MLB      57     .140     .227     .211      0       3      7      13

It’s rare to see a top prospect traded twice, let alone twice in the same offseason, but that’s exactly what happened to Andy Marte this winter. He went from the Braves to the Red Sox in the deal that sent Edgar Renteria to Atlanta, and then went from the Red Sox to the Indians in the deal that sent Coco Crisp to Boston. While Renteria and Crisp are certainly quality players, both trades were surprising in that Marte has the potential be a perenial All-Star and is basically major league-ready after hitting .275/.372/.506 with 20 homers and 48 total extra-base hits in 109 games at Triple-A (although he hit just .140 in 57 at-bats with the Braves).

Marte will begin this season back at Triple-A, but with only Aaron Boone standing between him and an everyday job, don’t expect his time in the minors to last long. While Marte doesn’t project as a huge power threat, he has consistently put up very good all-around numbers in the minors despite being young for every level. He looks capable of hitting around .275 with 25-30 homers, 60-70 walks, and solid defense at third base, and at just 22 years old there is plenty of time for further development. Cleveland’s young offensive core of Marte, Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, Travis Hafner, and top-50 prospect Ryan Garko is second-to-none.

6) Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
Position: Starter | Throws: Right | DOB: 2/20/1983 | Career Stats

YEAR     LVL      G     GS        IP      ERA       H     HR      SO     BB
2005       A     13     13      86.0     1.67      70      3     104     19
          AA      7      7      32.2     0.28      11      1      32      7
         MLB      2      2      11.1     7.15      15      1       7      5

The second overall pick in the 2004 draft out of Old Dominion University, Justin Verlander’s 2005 season was one of the best pro debuts in recent memory. He began the year at Single-A, going 9-2 with a 1.67 ERA in 13 starts before quickly being promoted to Double-A. Once there he was nearly unhittable, giving up a single run in 32.2 innings for a near-perfect 0.28 ERA, and holding opponents to a .103 batting average. In 20 minor-league starts, Verlander went 11-2 with a 1.29 ERA, posting a 136-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 118.2 innings while holding opponents to a .197 batting average and .521 OPS.

He struggled in two midseason starts with the Tigers, but that was certainly to be expected from a 22-year-old who was just a year out of college. This spring Verlander competed for and won a spot in Detroit’s rotation, and he’ll begin the year as the team’s fifth starter. He may not dominate immediately, but Verlander projects as a prototypical right-handed ace—he’s 6-foot-5, throws in mid-90s, and features a big-breaking curveball—who could team with fellow 23-year-old righty Jeremy Bonderman and fellow top-50 prospect Joel Zumaya to form one of the most dominant front-three combinations in baseball.

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