Wednesday, December 31, 2008

In Retrospect: 2008 Top 10 Hitting Prospects

Below is the Top 10 Hitting Prospects list I wrote up prior to the 2008 season, along with my comments on each hitter at that time. I have also included comments to follow up on where I stand on each hitter now that the season is over.

When I sat down to make this list, I wanted to combine hitter potential with actual current development levels, which means that I had to go against popular beliefs with some of my choices. But if my list looked just like every other list then why bother making one? Anyways, here it is...

1. Evan Longoria

Pre-2008: A lot of lists have either Longoria or Jay Bruce at the top, and I have to go with Longoria here. He’s a more complete hitter right now than Bruce and can handle the hot corner at third. I would take him over Alex Gordon, and I think he compares very well to Mark Teixeira and Frank Thomas, with a slightly higher strikeout rate. I think he could easily top 30 home runs in the next couple of years with the Rays, and he has the power to hit 40 or more once he settles in. Tampa Bay is a low stress environment for a young player just starting out, and with a line-up that already features Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and Carlos Pena I think Longoria will blend right in.

Post 2008: I still believe that Longoria was the best hitter in the group this year (that doesn't include guys like Matt LaPorta and Matt Wieters who had played very little pro ball prior to '08). His performance with the Rays this year showed that he could definitely handle big league pitching, and his defense is fantastic. I worry that injuries could effect his career, but that doesn't change the fact that he'll be a great hitter when healthy.

2. Jay Bruce

Pre-2008: I am hesitant to put Bruce so high on my list simply because his plate discipline isn’t as good as it should be, but he proved that he could be successful at AAA at a very young age, and that has to be taken into account. His work ethic is solid and he’ll be in a Reds line-up that should spare him too much responsibility too soon, so I think he could be a mid-summer call up with solid early production. His power numbers are comparable to Longoria’s, but his strikeout rate is worse than Delmon Young’s and almost as bad as Brandon Wood’s, so expect some growing pains.

Post 2008: Bruce would still get the #2 spot, and I think my concern over his strike out rate proved to be correct. His AAA numbers were very good, but once pitchers figured him out in the majors, his numbers took a dive. Now that the Reds will no longer have Adam Dunn or Ken Griffey Jr., I'm worried that the team and fans will rely too much on Bruce and he won't be able to meet their expectations or maintain his confidence.

3. Daric Barton

Pre-2008: By now I can hear several of you wondering out loud what I’ve been smoking, but stick with me for just a second. Barton is perhaps one of the most advanced hitters to come through the minors in a while, and should easily nail down a starting job with the Athletics this spring. He reminds me of J.D. Drew with a little less power, which might scare some people off, but both Drew and Barton are on-base machines. Barton won’t put up flashy numbers, and it might take him a few years before he breaks 25 homeruns, but he’s an excellent hitter that should have a very good early career. His recent power surge (4 HRs in 82 plate appearances with the Oakland Athletics) might be a sign of things to come. Hitting out of the #2 spot, Barton will see a lot more good pitches that he can pull down the right field line.

Post 2008: I have to say that I was off with this one. Barton is a very advanced hitter, but his numbers from '08 suggest that he'll take some time to adjust and develop a bit more. However, his second half numbers showed some remarkable improvements in his walk and strikeout rates, and I think 2009 will be a much better year for Barton. He probably belongs somewhere around #6 or #7 on this list.

4. Steve Pearce

Pre-2008: Here’s where I’m sure I’m going to lose a few of you. If Pearce played for anyone but the Pirates he would be a lot higher on this year’s various prospect lists, and as it stands it looks like the Pirates don’t even want to play him. He’s better than Hunter Pence and Jason Bay at the plate, and should be a nice summer surprise. He has 30-35 home run potential on the low side and will hit for solid average. I like him a lot and hope he gets a shot at an outfield position sometime soon. If he has a good spring I don’t think the Pirates can afford to hold him back much longer.

Post 2008: Well, the Pirates did exactly what they should not have done. They let Pearce prove himself in Spring Training, and then sent him back down to AAA where he never really reestablished his 2007 numbers. I'm sure the whole experience rattled his confidence, and it proved once again that the Pirates have no idea what to do with talented prospects. I expect a significant rebound in 2009.

5. Colby Rasmus

Pre-2008: Rasmus is young, plays good defense and compares well to Larry Walker. His power isn’t as developed as Jay Bruce’s, but Rasmus will put up some 30+ home run season in St. Louis, while hitting in the .270-.290 range. For his sake I hope Cardinals fans don’t expect too much too soon from him, but he will eventually become a very good all-around player with extra power.

Post 2008: Putting Rasmus at #5 seems to be an appropriate ranking, and my previous projections are unchanged.

6. Chris Marrero

Pre-2008: Travis Snider gets all the love, but Marrero is already a better hitter at a younger age. He has 40+ home run power right now that could develop even further as he grows, and he has a very good approach at the plate. Pencil in plenty of opportunity to play early and often for the Nationals and you’ve got a recipe for a very good hitter.

Post 2008: I think I gave Marrero too much credit too soon. I still believe he has 40+ home run power, but he should probably have fallen in at #8-10 on this list behind Chris Davis and Fernando Martinez. We have to remember that Marrero broke his leg in June, so it's hard to say how his season might have ended, but I'm going to wait to see how his first 200-300 plate appearances go in 2009 before revisiting his potential major league success.

7. Chris Davis

Pre-2008: Davis is another very much over-looked hitter simply because he plays for the Rangers, and not some popular east coast team. A lot of prospect lists have shied away from him, claiming that he’s a one-tool player, but when that one tool is 50+ home run power, I don’t think you can justify overlooking Davis. His recent success at AA has convinced a lot of people –especially the Rangers—that Davis is for real and destined for great things. He compares very well to David Ortiz and Chris Young, and I think he’ll be just as good at the plate as Rasmus, if not better. He’ll post an early OPS of .825-.850, and reach the 40 home run mark within 1,500 plate appearances. Playing in Texas and in the American League should help his power numbers, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him jack 50+ home runs in his late 20’s. Davis' teammate Taylor Teagarden is also a very good hitter worth keeping an eye on.

Post 2008: Looking back, I should have had the confidence to put Davis in the top 5, but I was too afraid to go out on a limb and embarrass myself. When I originally wrote this post, Davis had yet to make a top 50 appearance on any major prospect list, and there might have been a handful of people who agreed with my assessment of him. But 2008 proved to be a spectacular year for Davis, and convinced me to not worry about what everyone else thinks and go with my gut when arranging these lists. For anyone interested, Bill James is projecting 40 HR, 118 RBIs, and a .302 average for Davis in 2009. I personally think that's a bit generous considering the guy has less than 400 major league plate appearances, but I also wouldn't be surprised if Davis actually matches those numbers.

8. Fernando Martinez

Pre-2008: Though Martinez gets credit for having a lot of projectable skills like power and speed, I think he’ll make a solid major league player even if those skills never fully develop. As it stands, I think he’ll hit 20+ home runs early in his career and top 30 home runs in his mid-20’s, and he has a nice plate approach for such a young age. Any power he adds beyond that is icing on the cake, and I think he could become as good of a hitter as B.J. Upton or Carlos Lee in the future. The Mets are sold on him and as their only current noteworthy prospect Martinez should have an outfield spot reserved for him in the coming years. He won't live up to the New York hype machine, but he'll still be a very good player. I would like to see him exhibit more speed in the future, but like I said before, it's not an absolute must.

Post 2008: Martinez maintained his numbers through '08 and seems on track to meet most reasonably expectations in a few years.

9. Hank Conger

Pre-2008: If you think switch hitting catchers are hard to come by, try finding a switch hitting catcher that has .300/30 home run potential. They don’t come often, so I think Hank Conger deserves to be on this list. With a season in the California league up next, I think Conger will fully establish himself as one of the best prospects out there.

Post 2008: When I heard last spring that Conger has suffered a shoulder injury, I was concerned that his career might take a drastic turn for the worse. However, Conger ended the year with his best numbers yet, and looks solid for the 2009 season.

10. Carlos Gonzalez

Pre-2008: Coming up with the #10 player is hard to do because I’m not sure who to leave off the list. There are a lot of good, young hitters out there, but I think Gonzalez has earned the #10 spot. He has 30+ home run potential and should see plenty of playing time in Oakland. He has much more plate discipline than Cameron Maybin, and compares very well to guys like Carlos Beltran and Alfonso Soriano.

Post 2008: I still like Gonzalez, but he has bounced around a lot lately due to various trades, and I'm not sure what to expect from him in '09.

Well, that's it for now. Overall, I'd give myself a B- for 2008. I got most of the rankings for the big names right, but didn't go with my gut a few times and paid for it. Hopefully I'll do better in next season. Let me know if you have any thoughts about the above list, or what you think the 2009 Top 10 hitters list should look like.
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