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Catching up with Baseball America’s 2007 top prospects

February 25, 2012

Though almost impossible to believe, five years have passed since the 2007 baseball season. New champions have come and gone–eight different teams have worn pennant crowns–and nearly 10,000 regular-season games have been played. Five years ago, Joe Borowski was the AL saves leader and Chien-Ming Wang won 19 games. At some point in the season, Julio Franco, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Craig Biggio, and Sandy Alomar, Jr all laced up the cleats.  Since 2007, the Rays have done the unthinkable, a 5’9″ infielder has defied MVP odds, and more of the game’s heroes have fallen from grace.

162 games is a lifetime, and five of those have come and gone since Baseball America published the 2007 edition of its highly-regarded Prospect Handbook. For the uninformed, the guide to the best of the minor leagues consists of overall and team-by-team player rankings, as well as organizational rankings and depth. Editors and writers collaborate to share their individual player predictions, which are, in part, turned into the official Baseball America prospect list.

In celebration of the esteemed publication’s 2012 Handbook release, Southpaw Yakker explores the highs and lows of baseball’s top prospects–five years later.

Though the Baseball America editors caution that prospects lists are as flighty as a Coors Field home run ball, 2007’s were especially solid.  No contributor listed fewer than 43 players who would go on to log significant major league time. Among the notables are back-to-back Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum and MVPs Joey Votto and Ryan Braun. The lists read like a Who’s Who of all stars, with players like Troy Tulowitski, Jacoby Ellsbury, Evan Longoria, Justin Upton, and Clayton Kershaw garnering nods. In the five years since the book’s release, an outstanding number of  listed prospects have shot to stardom–a testament, perhaps, to the post-steroid necessity of baseball to use young, cheap talent to fill needs. Without the guaranteed three-run homer lurking on deck, teams are adapting a philosophy of patience with payout–and being rewarded handsomely.

What is especially impressive about all three contributors’ lists is the absence of talent drop-off as the rankings get deeper.  Appearing on at least one list’s last ten prospects are Ellsbury, Braun, Votto, Kershaw, Cardinals standout Jaime Garcia, John Danks, and slick-fielding shortstop Elvis Andrus. And as a solemn reminder that baseball players aren’t simply video game mashers, late Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart ranks a solid #35 and #36 on each list, recalling once again a bright future cut short.

Of course, just as perfection in baseball is nearly unattainable, no list is free from clunkers. Coming in at a strong #41 on one contributor’s list is Chuck Lofgren. Though once the Indians’ fourth-round draft pick, the lefty pitcher has bounced up and down the minor league system, unable to gain enough of a foothold to even hit major league dirt. Lofgren peaked in 2006, when he went 17-5 with a 2.32 ERA in 131 innings pitched for the high-A Kinston Indians. A rare miss for 2007’s crop of phenoms, Lofgren represents the fallibility of even the most seasoned analyst.

But dark horses and underdogs are safe picks. The low-risk payout of selecting a surprise MVP is a walk in the park compared to narrowing down a top-five selection.  There is where the bread and butter of prospect rankings come into play.  Here are the players Baseball America considered the cream of the crop in 2007:

1) Daisuke Matsuzaka:  “About the worst thing any scout might say about Matsuzaka is that he might be a number two rather than a number one [starter]. There’s disagreement about whether the number of quality pitches he possesses is six or seven. “

As the Red Sox’s record-breaking transaction during the 2006 offseason, for whom they paid over $51 million in negotiating rights to Japan’s Seibu Lions, Matsuzaka boasted several plus-pitches, including a forkball and two-seamer.  He was the unanimous top prospect of 2007, primarily for his astounding repertoire and prior pedigree, but also because of his mental fortitude on the mound. At 26, Matsuzaka had eight major league seasons under his belt when the Sox forked over their unprecedented contract, and had already pitched on a multinational stage in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics.

Matsuzaka–Dice-K, as early Red Sox memorabilia would proclaim–was a sensation before throwing a single MLB pitch.  But on the field, he looked like a typical league-minimum rookie at times–finding consistency difficult. Though he had flashes of brilliance, including a pitching a complete game in May, Matsuzaka was, by and large, mediocre. He finished 2007 with a 4.40 ERA and a 1.324 WHIP, likely bloated by shaky control. Perhaps most troubling were his second-half splits. Following the All-Star break, Matsuzaka’s ERA was a horrendous 5.19, with a 1.447 WHIP and a 1.86 SO/BB, down from 3.24 earlier in the year.  Though he did win a World Series game for the champion Red Sox, Matsuzaka didn’t exactly live up to Baseball America’s (or Boston’s, for that matter) expectations for greatness.

In the years that have followed, the glimmer of hope for greatness has gotten no brighter, despite a brief flirtation in 2008 when the righty fine-tuned a 2.90 ERA but walked 90, good for an even 5.0 BB/9 rate. Since then, Matsuzaka has been plagued by injuries, the last of which culminated in Tommy John surgery in 2011.

Matsuzaka’s chances for sustained success going forward are still unknown, but in the five years he’s been in major league baseball, he’s hardly been worthy of the $103 million the Red Sox have allotted for him. Though hopes were high in 2007, Matsuzaka’s story is one of caution when approaching players who have achieved great things in other leagues. Sometimes, the talent doesn’t translate.

2) Alex Gordon:  “There’s little that Gordon can’t do offensively. He has a smooth stroke with impressive bat speed, and is able to generate power to all fields.” 

Gordon is essentially the definition of a late bloomer, albeit one who needed to make some adjustments first. In 2007, the Nebraska Cornhusker was a hot-shot infielder who had claimed College Player of the Year and Minor League Player of the Year awards from Baseball America in consecutive seasons–according to the publication, an unprecedented feat.  He was meant to be the next George Brett, and would pull the Royals out of their doldrums and back into the pennant race, faster than you could say “pine tar.”

Except it didn’t quite play out that way. In his first season, Gordon managed only a .725 OPS–good enough for a utility infielder, but not for the former Player of the Year. He hit .247, with only 15 home runs and 60 RBIs, a far cry from his only minor league season, when he drove in 101.

In 2008 came a small uptick in batting average and OPS, but Gordon’s power numbers were still paltry.  Adding insult to injury (literally), Gordon suffered significant setbacks in 2009 and 2010 due to surgery and a broken thumb, respectively. Both seasons saw Gordon bounce back and forth from the Royals to the DL, with pit stops down the farm. It wasn’t until mid-2010, when Gordon was called up to replace David DeJesus in the Royals outfield, that Kansas City saw his true worth.

2011 represented a renaissance for the 27 year-old. With a shift to the outfield came renewed offensive numbers–the likes of which Gordon hadn’t seen since AA Wichita.  With a stat line of .303/.376/.502, and a power surge of 23 homers, 87 RBIs, and 101 runs scored, Gordon garnered a few MVP votes and won his first Gold Glove, reinventing his career in the process.

Big things lie ahead for Gordon. The Royals have a new energy in camp, thanks to some key additions, and manager Ned Yost has expressed a desire to bat his Gold Glover leadoff. Because in addition to his 23 home runs and .376 OBP, Gordon also stole 17 bases.  Though it took four years and nearly cost him the faith of his ballclub, Gordon has finally made it, justifying his number two prospect status and all that came along with that impressive bat speed.

3) Delmon Young:  “…possesses a smooth and consistent righthanded swing that produces line drives and the occasional cannon shot. He has an excellent approach, trying to drive every pitch back up the middle.”

Though attitude problems have plagued Young throughout his career, his performance on the field hasn’t been quite as poor. In fact, Young carries a career .288 batting average, though his slugging and on-base numbers have been mediocre.  There isn’t much to say about Young’s rise or fall since ranking third on the overall prospect rankings, because there hasn’t been any, though some performances have been better than others. Young’s best season so far was with the Twins in 2010, when the 24 year-old hit .298 with an .826 OPS and strong production numbers of 21 home runs and 112 RBIs–numbers he hasn’t matched before or since.

What Young lacks in overwhelming numbers he makes up for in plate presence, as a big man looming over the plate. In Minnesota, he had the fortune of hitting behind Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, both of whom were injured in Young’s disappointing early 2011 with the Twins.  Additionally, the outfielder possesses a cannon for an arm, amassing 54 assists for his career.

Though Young hasn’t exactly lived up to his high prospect ranking, and Baseball Amercia’s projection that he’d “become a star,”  he’s still a solid contributor for a contending team. Now a Tiger, Young will have the benefit of lineup protection, with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder hitting ahead of him. If he can come close to replicating his 2010 numbers, both Young and his new-look Tigers can look forward to an exciting 2012.

4) Philip Hughes:  “Hughes has it all, with the combination of stuff, feel, and command to profile as a number one starter.”

Hughes’s inaugural 2007 didn’t go quite according to plan. In the middle of a May no-hitter against the Texas Rangers, Hughes injured his hamstring and needed over three months on the DL to recover. After his return, he was unremarkable, finishing 2007 with a 5-3 record and 4.46 ERA. Heading into 2008, the Yankees expected big things from Hughes and their other young pitchers, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy, but injuries once again sidelined the big right-hander, limiting his winless season to only eight games, through which he pitched to a 6.62 ERA.

2009 saw the Yankees acquire two big-name starters, shifting Hughes down to AAA, where he stayed until an injury to Chien-Ming Wang–remember him?–necessitated a call-up. When Wang’s return bumped Hughes to the bullpen, the former starter began to shine. As a setup man, Hughes had an amazing 1.40 ERA and 0.857 WHIP, solidifying the bullpen and leading the Yankees to their 27th championship.

With 2010 came a return to the rotation, where Hughes earned himself an All-Star berth with an eye-opening first half. Unfortunately, Hughes’s second-half numbers weren’t as strong, as he appeared to fade down the stretch, despite finishing with an 18-8 record. But if 2010 ended on a disappointing note, 2011 would make it look like a Cy Young season.

After battling what was eventually called “arm fatigue,” a catch-all term to explain the righty’ sudden dip in velocity out of the gate, Hughes would land on the DL in April 2011.  Shoulder inflammation was later diagnosed, and a rehab program implemented. When Hughes returned in July, his fastball had new life, and he began the steady climb back to respectable numbers. When the curtain fell on the regular season, Hughes had posted a 5.79 ERA, down from 13.94 at the end of April, including a 4.55 second-half ERA that decreased month by month.

As 2012 Spring Training is underway, Hughes finds himself in another competition for a rotation spot. In many ways, this season must be his watershed moment. If Hughes continues to flounder, the Yankees, stocked with pitching at all levels, may lose patience. But if the all star can stay healthy and strong, that combination of “stuff, feel, and command” could all click into place just in time for Hughes to give his career new life.

5)  Homer Bailey: “Bailey’s stuff is as good as anyone’s in the minors. He has an athletic frame and a free and easy motion that makes it look like he’s playing catch even when he’s lighting up the radar gun.”

The former High School Player of the Year garnered rave reviews from Baseball America for his exploding fastball and plus-curveball.  And heading into 2007, Bailey was coming off a fantastic stint with AA Chattanooga, where he put up a 1.59 ERA and struck out 77 in 68 innings. But the major leagues have not been kind to Bailey–at least not in large stretches.

Though Bailey put up his best numbers in 2011, with a 4.43 ERA and a 1.280 WHIP, the improvements were incremental at best. And considering how long it took Bailey to grab a foothold in the Reds’ rotation with respect to his prospect status, the payoff should have been far better.

Bailey spent most of 2007 and 2008 shuffling between the Reds’ farm system and the big club, averaging a 6.72 ERA in Cincinnati. By 2009, despite battling for a rotation spot early in the season, the righty began to make inroads in the second half, finishing the season strong at 4-1 with a 2.08 ERA in September.

2009’s momentum didn’t carry over, however, and Bailey spent much of 2010’s first half on the DL with shoulder inflammation. Ultimately, he did manage just over 100 innings, with a 3.55 second-half ERA, but his overall numbers still disappointed.

In the five years since Bailey was ranked fifth, the Reds have shown tremendous faith in their former prospect, despite the mediocre results. Bailey projects to slot into the Reds’ 2012 rotation, and should be given another opportunity to prove that his minor league numbers weren’t a fluke. And maybe all that devotion hasn’t been in vain; Bailey’s control has increased steadily since joining the rotation, and he averages 7.4 strikeouts a game. If the trend continues, the former standout may be able to recapture his former glory just enough to be an important cog in the Reds rotation–even if he’s no longer compared to the best of the best.

2007’s prospect class is a lesson in patience and fluidity. All the research and statistics in the world can’t guarantee success. What is remarkable about baseball is how quickly the expected can become an illusion. In five years’ time, the game has changed and grown immeasurably, but what remains is its unpredictability. If a ground ball can skid off a gold glove in a heartbeat, a once-promising dream can be crushed in a season. But while heartbreak is inevitable, for every Chuck Lofgren is a Tim Lincecum. And that promise–that glimmer of possibility in every fastball and line drive–is what makes books like Prospect Handbook all the more exciting.

One Comment leave one →
  1. JJ Finn permalink
    February 25, 2012 7:15 pm

    Interesting analysis. It sounds as though the class of ’07 was atypical in its success. The flipside of this analysis is that of a year in which there were a greater number of low rank prospects who succeeded than is the norm.

    Well done…thoroughly researched and documented!

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