Thursday, November 27, 2008

Twins Prospect Book Released

Local Twins blogger Seth Stroh has released a book covering 175 players in the Twins minor league system. Here is a link to his description of the book, including ordering information.
This is really the first time anyone has done this kind of in-depth reporting on the Twins system. Of course most of these guys will never where a major league uniform, but that is half the fun of following the minor leagues. You can pick out favorites and follow their struggles and successes. This kind of book is now available because independent journalists, like Seth, have developed audience on the internet.  

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Immediate Prospects - Next Year's Twins ROY

Looking at the Nick Blackburn controversy raises an interesting question. Who are the top ten prospects to provide the Twins immediate help next year. Blackburn would have been near the top of that list last year, even if he was nowhere near the top prospect in the Twins system. So lets look at next year based on three criteria: How close is a player to being ready to help. What is the player's upside next year. Opportunity will also need to be a factor, but the fact that a player looks blocked wouldn't eliminate them from the list since injuries happen. Not being considered are players like Drew Butera who are only likely to get a September callup.

Here is the list of potential "Nick Blackburns" next year ranked in the order of how likely they are to be the Twins' rookie of the year:
  1. Jose Mijares - Some folks have already handed him a spot in the bullpen. That may be too enthusiastic, but he clearly has a good shot.
  2. Phil Humber - He's out of options. He is almost certain to make the roster and he is probably ready to contribute.
  3. Randy Ruiz - right handed bat off the bench
  4. Jose Morales - If he fully recovers and can catch, he is probably the first choice if one of the catchers go down.
  5. Bobby Korecky - Good shot  at filling out the bullpen at some point if there is an opening
  6. Jason Pridie - Blocked, but ready to contribute if the opportunity presents itself.
  7. Mathew Macri - Backup infielder and right handed bat
  8. Alejandro Machado - His chances depend on his arm. If he fully recovers he has a shot at the shortstop position if the Twins don't fill it.
  9. Trevor Plouffe - Like Machado, his chances depend on who the Twins sign to play shortstop. By mid-season, Plouffe will probably be ready to step up to the major leagues.
  10. Kevin Mulvey - Potential bullpen help or starter
Others who merit consideration;
Brian Duensing - Potential bullpen help or starter
Tim Lahey - Potential bullpen help similar to Korecky, but not on roster
Armando Gabino - Potential bullpen help, on the roster but probably not ready until mid-season
Anthony Swarzak - Potential starter who could be ready by mid-season
Zachary Ward - Potential bullpen help who could be ready by mid-season
Ryan Mullins - lefty out of the bullpen, he will need to break out to be ready by mid-season

There are also a few players in the lower minors who could  break out. Steve Tolleson's performance in the AFL indicated his bat was ready, but his glove still needs work. Likewise Jeff Manship could develop quickly and fill a bullpen or rotation spot if one opens up.  Carlos Gutierrez is the guy who could break through from last year if he stays in the bullpen. But the Twins seemed determined to make him a starter and that will probably take more than a season.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Baseball America's Top Ten

Baseball America is about to release their top ten prospects for this year. Here is last year's list.

1. Nick Blackburn, rhp
2. Joe Benson, of
3. Wilson Ramos, c
4. Tyler Robertson, lhp
5. Anthony Swarzak, rhp
6. Ben Revere, of
7. Jason Pridie, of
8. Brian Duensing, lhp
9. Jeff Manship, rhp
10. Trevor Plouffe, ss

Last year, John Manual put Nick Blackburn at the top of the list and took a lot of flack for it. Despite his apparent belief that he was vindicated by Blackburn's presence in the Twins rotation, the choice of Blackburn may even look worse now than it did then. Unless Baseball America has changed its standards, top tens are a combination of both ceiling and how close players are to being ready. Blackburn was clearly close, the question was his ceiling. And last year didn't answer that question.

Even by the standard is "most likely to be the team's rookie of the year next year", Blackburn wasn't a winner. That award belonged to Denard Span, of whom  Manual had this to say
"first-round picks Denard Span (2002) and Matt Moses (2003) were supposed to be ready for big league jobs by now, yet are far from ready."
So who else should have been ahead of Blackburn? Pretty clearly Ben Revere. His 2008 season showed his draft position was not inappropriate and his 2007 year was not a fluke.

Trevor Plouffe is another guy who belonged ahead of Blackburn. He is at that stage where people are calling him a "slap hitter" because he isn't hitting a lot of home runs at age 22. They did the same thing with Torii Hunter at that same age. In fact, their power numbers in their first year at AA were pretty similar with Plouffe having a slight edge. While Hunter always projected to hit for power despite his numbers,
Plouffe probably doesn't project to have Hunter's power. And, unlike Hunter, he probably isn't a gold glove. But if he can play shortstop, he is going to be well above average offensively.

I think Swarzak, Robertson and Ramos should have been ahead of Blackburn, although you can make the argument Blackburn, with some major league success, has now surpassed the two pitchers. Based on his brief stint this fall Jose Mijares was probably a step up on Blackburn as a prospect as well. But you can argue a relief pitchers, even a hard throwing left hander, is not as valuable as a starter. Chris Parmelee also belonged on the list, despite his struggles.

All of those players are more valuable than a back of the rotation starter. Manual had the idea Blackburn was more than that. And nothing he has done so far shows it.

Finally there was this little tidbit:

Minnesota has had more success of late drafting and developing pitchers than hitters."

Last year's Twins included Cuddyer, Mauer, Morneau, Kubel and Span. The rotation had Baker, Slowey, Perkins and  Blackburn. And the bullpen had Crain. Which group of players would you take? What's more, every one of the pitchers was a college kid, while the everyday players were drafted out of high school.  And that is the actual distinction. The Twins have had quicker success of late from players drafted out of college. Not exactly worth remarking on.

There was a time when Baseball America's ranking pretty accurately reflected the views of professional baseball evaluators. That time, as Manual made clear, is past. They recently seem to have shifted their target audience to pseudo-sophisticated fans - sharing the same shallow, impatient  analysis as most of the other baseball media. Entertaining as Baseball America's top tens are, they don't really give us a very good idea of the real state of the Twins system. When a writer says things like "I rank this guy higher than the organization does",  you wonder what he is thinking or if he isn't and its just ego talking.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Twins Top 10 - 1999 Retrospective

I did a retrospective last year of the Twins Top 10 for 1998. I want to do the same thing for 1999. Again I am going to look beyond prospect lists at the time to the players who played in the Twins minor leagues in 1998 and later contributed at the major league level. Here is that list:

GCL (Rookie)
Tommy Watkins IF (18)
Luis Rodriguez IF (18)

E-Twins (Rookie)

Michael Restovich OF (19)
Grant Balfour P (20)
Kevin Frederick P (21)
Saul Rivera P (20)

Fort Wayne (Low-A)

Michael Cuddyer IF (19)
Matt LeCroy C (22)
Michael Ryan IF (20)
Juan Rincon (19)
Brad Thomas (20)

Fort Myers (High-A)

Luis Rivas IF (18)
Cleatus Davidson IF (21)
Matt LeCroy C (22)
Matt Kinney P (21)

New Britain (AA)

Cristian Guzman IF (20)
Jacque Jones OF (23)
Chad Allen OF (23)
Doug Mientkiewicz 1B (24)
Torii Hunter OF (22)
Chad Moeller C (23)
John Barnes OF (22)
Mike Lincoln P (23)
JC Romero P (22)
Joe Mays P (22)

Salt Lake City (AAA)
Corey Koskie IF (25)
Brian Buchanan OF (24)
AJ Pierzinsky C (21)
Benj Sampson P (23)
Mark Redman P (24)
Todd RItchie P (26)
Travis Miller P (25)

Based on their actual performances in the major leagues, here is a list of the Twins top ten future major league players after the 2008 season:

Torii Hunter
AJ Pierzynski
Jacque Jones
Cristian Guzman
Michael Cuddyer
Corey Koskie
Juan Rincon
Doug Mientkiewicz
Mark Redman
Luis Rivas

The other candidates to be on that list would be Joe Mays, Todd Ritchie, JC Romero and Matt LeCroy. Compared to the 1997 list, only David Ortiz had graduated to the majors. Guzman came over in the Knoblauch trade and replaced him on the list. It says something about the 1998 draft that not one player made the list. Saul Rivera is really the only player the Twins took in that draft that has had more than a brief stint in the major leagues.

So how does the actual outcome compare to the evaluations at the time?

Baseball America's Top Ten for 1998-99
  1. Michael Cuddyer, 3b
  2. Mike Restovich, of
  3. Cristian Guzman, ss
  4. Luis Rivas, ss
  5. Matt LeCroy, c
  6. Ryan Mills, lhp
  7. Jacque Jones, of
  8. Doug Mientkiewicz, 1b
  9. Corey Koskie, 3b
  10. Mike Lincoln, rhp
Missing: Hunter, Pierzinsky, Rincon, Redman
Misses: Restovich, LeCroy, Mills, Lincoln

Monday, November 03, 2008

Twins Top Ten (11) Prospects

Here are eleven Twins prospects to watch out for. They are in no particular order, but simply the players I think are likely to contribute the most at the major league level at some point in the next 8 years. Why eleven? I started out to create a top ten but found no compelling reason to leave anyone off this list. I look out 8 years, because most players have reached their peak by the time they are 27. While talented young players sometimes get to the major leagues quickly, it also sometimes takes several more years before they show their full talent.

Ben Revere (OF)
The question with Revere is whether he will develop the power the Twins saw when they drafted him or have to rely on his running game. Either way, he will contribute at the major league level.

Angel Morales (OF)
When drafted, Morales was identified as a slap-hitter in some quarters. He clearly isn't.With his outstanding speed and power, this is a guy who could be as a superstar or a super bust. The question is whether he will make enough contact at higher levels to make use of either one.

Deolis Guerra (P)
Guerra was a touted part of the Santana deal but the Twins turned him into a project, working to improve his delivery. Given their track record of success with pitchers in the minor leagues, you have to expect they know what they are doing.

Wilson Ramos (C)
A power hitting catcher with a plus arm and defensive skills. You can't get much better than that.

Rene Tosoni (OF)
Tosoni was injured this year. But this is a guy who hits for both average and with enough power to take a corner outfield spot.

Tyler Robertson (P)
Robertson remains one of the Twins top young prospects. He may be a few years away but he has the potential to be a top of the rotation starter.

Anthony Swarzak (P)
Swarzak struggled some at AA but did better once promoted. He is probably still at least one full year away from the major leagues. Like Robertson, he has the stuff to take a spot toward the top of the rotation. He also has a curve ball that would work well out of the bullpen.

Trevor Plouffe (SS)
Plouffe is probably still a year away from taking over as the Twins shortstop. He does not look to have star potential, but he will be an above average hitter and more than adequate fielder.

Jose Mijares (P)
Mijares almost had a wasted season last year that he turned to his advantage. He recovered from an auto accident and then showed enough to get a late season callup. Better yet, he showed that he is probably ready to be a key part of a major league bullpen.

Phillip Humber (P)
Humber started out struggling at AAA. But he came back the last half of the season. He is out of options, so he is very likely going to on a major league roster next year. He has potential as a starter, but is blocked on the Twins. It may take him another year, but if he doesn't win a place in the rotation, he will likely end up an 8th inning guy.

Kevin Mulvey
(P) Mulvey is younger than Humber and will likely get another year at AAA. He is probably a notch below Robertson and Swarzak in terms of his potential at the major league level. But he has all the tools to be a solid major league starter.

The Twins top three draft choices, Hicks, Gutierrez and Hunt have a shot at making this list next year but a half season after the draft doesn't really tell us anything. The Twins also have plenty of other talented players in their system who are not on this list. But most of those players have flaws that will need to be corrected as opposed to talent that they need to develop.

A good example is Allen de San Miguel. He is probably the best defensive catcher in the Twins system. But he has never been able to hit and he doesn't really project to ever being able to hit in the future. He still might figure it out, but its not just a matter of  giving him time to develop the talent he appears to have.

The players on the list above should contribute at the major league level. If they don't, it will be a result of not reaching their potential.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

What's a Top Ten Prospect

Originally published February 2008

This is the time of year when all the prospect guru's start publishing their top ten prospects.

Baseball America (BBA) is probably the most well-respected of these lists. Its one of the few publications that really goes out and gets new, independent information about every team's players. Their writers talk to scouts and baseball developement staff to identify the best prospects. That said, the lists also reflect the judgments of the particular BBA staff.

John Sickels is another source of indpendent judgments. He does a lot of research to publish his book of prospects every year. Unlike BBA writers, who are constantly on deadline to produce articles for the magazine, Sickels actually has time to do "scouting trips" to watch prospects and make his own judgements. Of course, as a one guy show, he has doesn't have the resources to see everyone. And he is not a professional scout. So he may give too much weight to his own opinions and players he has seen personally and less weight to the opinions of those who get paid to identify the best players before its obvious to everyone.

Beyond those two, most of the other lists are rehashes of one another with a particular writer's biases about what is valuable. The SABR guys will add a stats overlay, people who are convinced pitching is important will emphasize pitching, people who think hitting is most important will grab people identified as the best hitters, etc. But most of these lists are based on reading BBA, Sickels and the blogsphere. They may or may not reflect the opinion of most scouts. In fact, in an effort to be interesting, they often have a bias toward having a semi-contrarian opinion.

Occasionally, they go beyond condensing others information and stray into outright plagiarism. One prominent Twin's blogger's list a few years ago was clearly just a rewrite of BBA's. He changed the order some and then rewrote the descriptions like a kid rewriting an encyclopedia entry for his school report.

There are also some local bloggers who take the time to talk to their local team's scouts and player development personell. They develop their own top ten lists for their favorite team. Those lists reflect a lot of input. While their judgments of prominent prospects may not be as well-informed as the national list makers, they often do a better job on players who are less prominent. If you are looking for hidden gems, these lists will often have them first.

Unfortunately, there are also lists that are based on little more than looking at the local leader boards for the minor leagues. Usually these stat-based lists are obvious, including players who are over-age for their league or harshly judging highly touted young prospects who have been less than successful while playing at a high level at an early age. These are the folks that projected Torii Hunter as a "slap hitter" while he was in the minor leagues because his power had yet to show itself.

The larger issue for every prospect list is that what makes a player a "top prospect" is often a moving target. Baseball America says its lists are based on a balance between a prospect's ceiling and how likely they are to reach it. So what you have is a subjective balance between two subjective evaluations. In short, these top ten lists are almost all art and no science. The result is that, while top ten lists are fun, they need to be taken with a very large grain of salt.

Last week I looked back on Baseball America's top ten from ten years ago. The conclusion was that the order of the top ten was not very informative. Having followed BBA's lists for the last 20 years, that was not a surprise to me. While identifying that a player has major league potential is fairly easy, distinguishing how much of that potential each prospect will achieve isn't.

That doesn't mean there aren't players who stand out. There are. And most of those players go on to have great careers. But beyond a handful of truly special players with polished skills, the difference between number one and number 10 on most prospect lists is not very meaningful in the long run. It is likely that even a team's "top prospect" will not end up its best player.

The other thing to remember is that none of these list builders get paid to be right. If they are paid at all, its to be entertaining. And when they miss, they can quickly excuse their failure by pointing to the reality I just described that everyone misses. But major league scouts do get paid to be right. They don't have a job when they consistently under perform their peers. So when John Manuel at Baseball America makes Nick Blackburn the Twins number one prospect, and then admits he has him rated higher than the Twins, you have to wonder what he is thinking. If the team that has developed a player for five years isn't convinced, why should anyone else be?

That is one of the traps BBA falls into a lot. Over the years their lists are peppered with players who had one good season. When a player leaps from career minor leaguer to top ten prospect in one season, take it with a grain of salt. Player's tools don't usually develop that way. While they do have breakouts, it is not usually totally un-foreseen. They are players who have always had the potential and finally realize it.

An example from the BBA list ten years ago would be Chad Allen who is listed as the Twins 4th best prospect. Allen had a major league career, so you wouldn't call him a complete bust. But he was never in the same class as Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, Corey Koskie or even Matt LeCroy, no matter where he appeared on the BBA top ten prospect list. My guess is Nick Blackburn ends up a similar case of overreaching.

On the other end of the spectrum is last year's draft choices. It is a rare player who changes his potential in the course of the summer after he has been drafted. With good reason, BBA usually lists the top draft choice from the previous draft in its top ten. It doesn't mean much about the player, but it tells you something about the strength of the rest of the list. If a player taken number 20 in the draft is immediately the team's best prospect, you know their farm system is not very strong. If the top ten includes a bunch of supplemental first round draft choices from the most recent draft, that is a clue that there wasn't a lot of competition for the list. Of course, it may be a player is better than his draft position. But that isn't usually something you find out over the course of their first summer.

So the basics of looking at prospect lists.

1) There really isn't much difference between number one and number ten on a list
2) Watch out for breakouts, don't pay much attention to recent drafts
3) Be very careful of being fooled by derivative lists and stat-based lists that appear on the internet. If a list doesn't reflect conversations with baseball development staff, it probably doesn't have much meaning.

Finally there is the recent trend of top 30 lists. To be blunt, these are little more than a laundry list of all a team's prospects. The rankings are pretty much meaningless and the difference between the bottom ten and the next 20 prospects won't mean much a year from now.

So as you hear about how the Twins didn't get the Mets "top prospect" for Santana, the appropriate response is really "so what". They got four of the Mets top ten and all four of them could turn out to be better than the guy at the top of the list.

John Sickels 2008-2009
Seth Speaks 2008-2009
Twinkie Town 2008-2009

Baseball America's Twins Top Ten 2007-2008
Josh's Top 50 Twins 2007-2008

Baseball America 2006-2007

Baseball America 2005-2006

MLB Twins Updates