Ryan asked me a while back if I wanted to do my own list of prospects alongside his. Of course I did -- everybody loves making lists, and everybody loves their own opinion -- but I wondered, what could I, an innocent bystander, possibly contribute to the discussion of who our best prospects are? It's a fair question: Do we really need another list of Indians prospects?
And the answer is ... Yes. The average, non-prospect-obsessed Indians fan needs to know, which of these guys do I really need to know about? If I'm not going to read Baseball America every week, who really matters? Who is the cream of the crop? And most of all, who is likely to make an impact on our Cleveland Indians team this season, or at least next season? In a nutshell: What prospects are worth getting excited about?
So I have devised a simple formula which I call the Exciting Prospect Standard, or EPS. This does not yield a list of the Indians "top prospects." It is not a vague stew of upside, performance and risk. The EPS attempts to identify: Which guys are the most likely to contribute to the Indians winning a pennant? Which guys are going to contribute the most, and which guys are going to contribute the soonest? With that in mind, and reminding everyone once again that I know next to nothing about scouting, the EPS highlights players who:
(a) are the closest to the majors
(b) have demonstrated high-quality performance that is also projectable
(c) are young enough to have a high probability of continued improvement
(d) are healthy enough to have a strong chance of taking a real shot
To get a list of players like that, I've made a few other rules about what makes a prospect "worth getting excited about." An exciting prospect is one who probably will contribute to the major-league club even if everything doesn't go perfectly in his development. In other words, even if he doesn't advance one level every year, even if he isn't completely lucky with new and old injuries. Also, a prospect's skills realistically can develop rapidly through age 25, but probably not much after that point. An exciting prospect is one who realistically is on pace to contribute in the majors by age 25.
So aside from health concerns, here's what we're looking for:
- Successful Triple-A players age 25 or younger.
- Successful Double-A players age 23 or younger.
- Successful High-A players age 21 or younger.
- Successful Low-A players age 19 or younger.
- Successful short-season players age 17 or younger.
In general, "successful" means ready to graduate to the next level, or well on his way to that goal. It generally means solidly above-average stats across the board, combined with solid peripherals. Mediocre peripherals might be acceptable if the overall numbers are great, or if a player is particularly young. Mediocre rate stats might be okay if the peripherals are eye-popping. If the Indians say a guy is exciting, the EPS does not take their word for it. If the Indians say a guy is ready to move up a level, however, the EPS does take their word for it. Actions speak louder than words. Yes, I have made a few judgment calls, but for the most part I have let the EPS do the work for me.
As a rule, beyond the basic rate stats, strikeouts are the key indicator for both hitting and pitching prospects. Strikeouts are bad for hitters, because they suggest that their skills will not translate very well at higher levels. A pretty good OPS with high strikeouts is not considered a successful season. Of course we're grading on a curve with respect to rate stats and skill position players, but piles of strikeouts aren't going to get you to the majors regardless of your position. For the opposite reason, with few exceptions, pitchers must have high strikeout rates. In general, relievers are not exciting prospects. Relievers must have obscenely high strikeout rates, especially below Double-A. Rafael Betancourt posted 14.89 K/9 in Akron in 2002, and that's pretty much the benchmark as far as I'm concerned.
The EPS may seem to discriminate heavily against players in the low minors. That's because it does. Players who are far from the majors are inherently less exciting. They may have lots of upside, five tools and a great signing bonus. But if I'm going to get excited about a prospect who's still two or three years away, he's got to be young and kicking some serious ass, and he's got to be a potential star. At the same time, the EPS gives a wide berth to young players who succeed at higher levels, what I call the Peralta Principle. Jhonny Peralta was an above-average player at Double-A at age 20 and graduated to Triple-A. Having already achieved that much at such a young, he could take another four years to graduate to the majors and still be considered a good prospect. Of course, he didn't need anything close to four years -- early-bloomers usually don't.
This way of looking at it excludes quite a few of the "usual suspects" from my list. That's fine with me. These are not our best prospects, by any definition. They're the prospects who are worth getting excited about, right here and right now. I did not make any attempt to prune the list to a specific number, 10 or 12 or 20 or 30. Either a prospect met the criteria above or he didn't, and there were only a few borderline cases. I also didn't spend too much time coming up with the specific ranking. You can generally assume that the ones near the top are slam-dunks, the ones lower down less so. So without further ado ...
Indians Prospects Worth Getting Excited About, March 2006
Listed with position, age as of April 1, and ranking on other Top Prospect lists.
1. ANDY MARTE - 22 - third base. Not even a close call. Marte knocks the EPS right on its ass. Ryan - 1, BA - 1, BP - 1, Sickels - 1.
2. FERNANDO CABRERA - 24 - reliever. There's only one bad thing you can say about Cabrera: He's only a reliever. There is every reason to think he can be an elite reliever in the major leagues. He utterly dominated Triple-A pitchers last season at age 23, and major league hitters fared little better in 31 innings last season. No other Indians prospect is so thoroughly done with Triple-A competition. He is already a quality major-leaguer, with the upside of an All-Star closer. Ryan - 4, BA - 9, BP - 3, Sickels - 3
3. JEREMY SOWERS - 22 - starter. Sowers was just a bit old for his league as he breezed through Kinston around his 22nd birthday. A couple weeks later, he moved up to Double-A and pitched even better -- increasing his strikeouts, cutting back the walks and giving up a mere 19 earned runs in 82 innings. The bad news is, he may never be better than a number-three starter in the majors. The good news is, he may ALREADY be that good right now. He'll likely get a full run in Triple-A as a final tuneup. That's ideal, even though it may not be necessary. Ryan - 2, BA - 3, BP - 2, Sickels - 2
4. RYAN GARKO - 25 - 1B/C. Garko's rise to the brink of the majors has been brief and unrelenting. If he can find a position, he seems quite likely to be a very good hitter for the better part of a decade. Ryan - 5, BA - 6, Sickels - 6
5. FAUSTO CARMONA - 22 - starter. Carmona followed a breakout season in 2003 at Lake County with less flashy numbers in Akron in 2004 and 2005. Nonetheless, he reached Buffalo at age 21, mid-2005, and pitched very well there. He's an unusual prospect in that he has succeeded persistently without great strikeout numbers. That is reason enough to doubt his potential, but Triple-A success at age 21 speaks for itself. Moreover, his velocity has started to hit the mid-90s and may yet continue to improve as he continues to mature physically. He lacks Sowers' pure savvy and ability to fool hitters, but like Sowers he may already be ready to pitch in the majors -- and he's eight months younger. Ryan - 6, BA - 5, Sickels - 17
6. ADAM MILLER - 21 - starter. Forget the hype. Miller's position on this list is based on the plain facts. He's 21 and ready for Double-A hitters. A year from now he could well be 22 and ready for Triple-A hitters. That's two years more advanced than he needs to be to make this list. He's got a huge work ethic and can throw 100 mph. On the other hand, he's already had injury problems and is two years away from escaping "the nexus." Otherwise, he'd be at the top of this list. Ryan - 3, BA - 2, Sickels - 9
7. BRAD SNYDER - 23 - outfielder. In some respects, Snyder barely clears the EPS, as the best we can say for him is that he hit well at age 23 in Double-A. He hasn't graduated Double-A just yet, and you could argue he strikes out way too much to be projectable. Snyder made steady strides in 2005, however, and his raw talent is hard to ignore. In the field, he has the range to play center and enough arm to play right. At the plate, he can flat crush the ball -- and while this may make him sound like Gutierrez or Escobar, he makes better contact and uses the whole field better. He could be poised for a breakout in 2006, and he could well be the Indians' starting right fielder in 2007. Ryan - 8, BA - 4, Sickels - 5
8. CHUCK LOFGREN - 20 - starter. Lofgren had a sensational full-season debut at Lake County, striking out nearly 9 per 9 with a 2.81 ERA. Lofgren is the only player on this list who will start the season below Double-A. Also, just for kicks, apparently a real potential two-way threat, except that the Indians told him he couldn't DH anymore after he got into a collision at the plate. Ryan - 12, BA - nada!, Sickels - 11
9. ED MUJICA - 21 - reliever. Struck out nearly 10 per 9, reaching Double-A in June just after his 21st birthday. "Only a reliever," but dominant stats all-around at a young age, you have to wonder if he isn't almost ready to be in the majors. Part of the new breed of elite relief prospects. Ryan - nada!, BA - nada!, Sickels - 13
10. ANDREW BROWN - 25 - reliever. Brown spent the whole season in Triple-A at age 24, and he struck out almost as many hitters as Cabrera. His ERA was solid but not flashy -- the strikeouts, walks and WHIP all looked great. No doubt the Indians would be quite comfortable with him in Cleveland, but they will make use of his remaining option year for extra depth and flexibility this season. Half a bonus point for being a local; Brown is from Chardon. Ryan - 19, BA - nada!, Sickels - 10
11. FRANKLIN GUTIERREZ - 23 - outfielder. Was not on this list in September, but I was won over by his triumphant winter. Gutierrez expected to be promoted to Triple-A to start 2005, but the Indians sent him back to Double-A with instructions to dramatically alter his approach. He worked hard by all accounts, but the statistical results were not impressive. His work finally started to bear fruit in winter ball, and he was the MVP of the Carribean Series. Gutierrez will be 23 in Triple-A, and his speed and prodigious defense give him a lot of ways potentially to contribute. If he can really get a handle on his contact hitting, he's a threat to hit 40 home runs. Ryan - 7, BA - 7, Sickels - nada!
12. KELLY SHOPPACH - 25 - catcher. Marginally makes this list based on his age, but he arguably was ready to be a major league catcher a year ago. Shoppach seems unlikely to set the world on fire, but he seems quite likely to be a solid major leaguer, right now. Ryan - 9, BA - 8, Sickels - 15.
The Big Snubs: I join Ryan in snubbing Trevor Crowe, who made the Top Ten for both Sickels and BA. Stephen Head was ranked #11 by both Ryan and BA, and Sickels put him at #4. Michael Aubrey was ranked between #10 and #16 on those lists. According to the EPS, none of these prospects are worth getting excited about. Neither Head nor Crowe has accomplished anything in a full-season league, and both are 22 years old, so they're way off the radar as far as the EPS is concerned. I can't find anyone to say that Aubrey is better than a 50-50 bet to ever stay healthy enough to have 500 AB in a season. Even if he's healthy, he'll be turning 24 in April with a lot still to prove in Double-A. Not very exciting.
The "Interesting" List: Here are 12 more players who can make next year's "Exciting" list given a strong season at their next stop: Tony Sipp, Ryan Mulhern, Aaron Laffey, Nick Pesco, Ben Francisco, Michael Aubrey, Ivan Ochoa, J.D. Martin, Dan Denham, Jake Dittler, Rafael Perez, Bear Bay.
Interesting Non-Prospects: Jason Davis, Kaz Tadano and Brandon Phillips ... all still just 25 years old as of Opening Day.