Top 50 Prospects: Year in Review (1-10)

Other Installments of This Series:
Top 50 Prospects: Year in Review (11-20)
Top 50 Prospects: Year in Review (21-30)
Top 50 Prospects: Year in Review (31-40)
Top 50 Prospects: Year in Review (41-50)

The very first column I wrote here at The Hardball Times, way back in March, was the first installment of a multi-part series naming my top 50 prospects. Starting with #50 (Adam LaRoche) and ending with #1 (Joe Mauer), I identified and ranked the 50 prospects I liked best heading into the 2004 season and said a few words about each player. With the 2004 season in the rear-view mirror and my third annual top 50 list in the works, I thought this would be a good opportunity to take a look back at last year’s top prospects to see how they did in 2004.

10) Prince Fielder, Milwaukee Brewers

What I said then: “Prince Fielder gets knocked a lot for his weight, but the guy can flat-out hit. His father, Cecil Fielder, was a massive guy too, and he seemed to do just fine. … Prince Fielder looks like he has a chance to be even better. … For purely offense, there isn’t a better prospect in baseball.”

What happened since: Fielder had a slightly disappointing season in 2004, but that had more to do with really high expectations than a lack of performance. Fielder hit .272/.366/.473 with 23 homers, 29 doubles, and 65 walks in 136 games at Double-A Huntsville, and somehow managed to steal 11 bases in 18 attempts.

9) Jeff Mathis, Anaheim Angels

What I said then: “Thanks to Joe Mauer, Jeff Mathis often gets overlooked when it comes to catching prospects, but Mathis is a damn good player and an excellent prospect. … I think he’s going to be a star.”

What happened since: I was higher on Mathis than just about anyone, so it pained me to see him struggle so much last season. He started out well enough, putting up his typically good numbers, but then completely fell apart down the stretch. Mathis ended up hitting .227/.310/.394 with 14 homers, 24 doubles, and 49 walks in 117 games at Double-A Arkansas.

8) Scott Kazmir, Tampa Bay Devil Rays
7) Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies

What I said then: “I thought about how I wanted to handle ranking Cole Hamels and Scott Kazmir. My first thought was to rank them 7-A and 7-B or something like that. But that’s silly. This list is about ranking guys, making choices, differentiating between players using even the most minor of differences. … I’ve ranked them back-to-back and I am doing a joint-comment on them, which is something I’ve never done before. … The order in which I’ve decided to rank them here (Hamels, Kazmir) is by the thinnest of margins and could literally change overnight. In other words, if you wiped my brain clean and asked me which of the two I liked better, it might come out Kazmir, Hamels.”

What happened since: For how close they were in my mind entering last season, Kazmir and Hamels took completely different paths in 2004. Hamels pitched just 16 innings at Single-A because of a muscle injury in his left arm, and then broke his hand this offseason when he got into a fight. Meanwhile, Kazmir pitched well in the minors, was traded from the Mets to the Devil Rays in one of the worst trades in a long time, and then threw 33.1 innings with a 5.67 ERA with Tampa Bay. A year after ranking them neck and neck, Kazmir will likely have a full-time spot in a big-league rotation, while Hamels will be trying to get healthy enough to pitch at Double-A.

6) Bobby Crosby, Oakland A’s

What I said then: “With Miguel Tejada gone to free agency, Crosby will be asked to step in as Oakland’s new starting shortstop in 2004. I expect him to do very well. In fact, he’ll probably be my pick for American League Rookie of the Year.”

What happened since: Crosby did indeed step in for Tejada last season and won the American League Rookie of the Year by getting 27 of the 28 first-place votes. He batted .239/.319/.426 with 22 homers, 34 doubles, and 58 walks in 151 games with Oakland.

5) Andy Marte, Atlanta Braves

What I said then: “Andy Marte is the next stud on the horizon. Marte won’t turn 21 until October, but he’s already got two outstanding years of full-season play under his belt. … I wouldn’t be surprised to see him starting in the majors as a 21-year-old.”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

What happened since: Marte put together yet another impressive season in 2004, hitting .269/.364/.525 with 23 homers, 28 doubles, and 58 walks in 107 games at Double-A Greenville. He’ll likely begin 2005 at Triple-A, but he’ll almost certainly make his big-league debut before he turns 22.

4) Jeremy Reed, Seattle Mariners

What I said then: “Obviously a center fielder who hits like Reed is incredibly valuable, but he’d be pretty great in a corner spot too. If the power develops, he becomes the complete offensive package. If it doesn’t, he’ll just have to settle for trying to be Tony Gwynn.”

What happened since: After hitting .333 at Single-A and .409 at Double-A in 2003, Reed’s offense dropped off quite a bit in 2004. He hit a little more like Chris Gwynn than Tony, batting .289/.363/.436 with 13 homers, 24 doubles, and 59 walks in 134 games at Triple-A. Reed was traded from the White Sox to the Mariners at midseason, as part of the package Chicago gave up for Freddy Garcia.

3) Rickie Weeks, Milwaukee Brewers

What I said then: “Very few people question his bat, which looks like it’ll make him one of the elite offensive second basemen in baseball. His glove gets mixed reviews, but he’s certainly at least passable at second.”

What happened since: Weeks had perhaps the most disappointing season of any prospect in baseball last year, hitting just .259/.366/.407 with eight homers, 35 doubles, and 55 walks in 133 games at Double-A Huntsville. I expected him to take over as Milwaukee’s second baseman at some point last year, but he never got to the majors and will likely begin this season at Triple-A.

2) B.J. Upton, Tampa Bay Devil Rays

What I said then: “I think the best comp for what Upton did last season is what Derek Jeter did as a 19-year-old. Like Upton, Jeter hit for a high batting average, posted a very good OBP and showed small amounts of power. Of course, he did it at Single-A, while Upton played nearly one-fourth of his season at Double-A. … Ah, but what about defensively? … One of the only blemishes on Upton’s record from last year is his high error total.”

What happened since: Upton spent the first half of the season between Double-A and Triple-A, putting up fantastic numbers. In 98 combined games in the minors, he batted .315/.409/.505 with 14 homers, 24 doubles, and 56 walks (along with 20 stolen bases). Then the Devil Rays called Upton up in August and he held his own as a 19-year-old, hitting .258/.324/.409 with four homers, eight doubles, and 15 walks in 45 games. The only concerning thing is that Tampa Bay had Upton split time between shortstop, third base, and designated hitter, and even stuck him in left field for a game. If he doesn’t stay at shortstop, he loses some of his potential value.

1) Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins

What I said then: “This is what a great prospect looks like. … If the power never comes, he’s a left-handed hitting Jason Kendall. If the power does come, he’s…well, I can’t really think of a Gold Glove-caliber catcher who hits for huge batting averages with tons of power and great discipline. If the power comes, I guess he’ll be Joe Mauer.”

What happened since: There was a lot of good news for Mauer in 2004. The Twins traded A.J. Pierzynski to give him the starting catcher job and he was extraordinarily impressive. Mauer went 2-for-3 with two walks in his debut and hit .308/.369/.570 overall, showing off his ability to post big batting averages with solid plate discipline, while flashing significant power for the first time in his career. He also played outstanding defense behind the plate, throwing out 39% of the runners who tried to steal on him.

Now for the bad news. Mauer injured his knee in the second game of the season and missed two months of action, before returning in June. He then played in 33 more games, before having to shut things down for the rest of the season (and postseason). When he was on the field, Mauer was about as impressive a 21-year-old rookie catcher could possibly be, but he is now a 21-year-old catcher with a knee problem, a surgical history, and significant questions about his long-term prospects at catcher.

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