Top 50 prospects for 2007: Ranks 1-10
Feb. 11, 2007
Normally my tedious selection of the Top 50 prospects for Sporting News is a pretty straightforward breakdown of the top 50 rookie (or near rookie) contributors for the upcoming season. However, this year calls for a slightly different approach. There are two players I deliberately left off the list that other prospectors might have included, and I feel the need for explanation.
The first is Delmon Young. Young's bat-throwing incident in Triple-A led to a 50-game suspension and a much later call-up than was originally planned. Thus, he fell short (by a mere three at-bats) of breaking the rookie eligibility plateau. Though he clearly is the top candidate for the Rookie of the Year award this year, does he really belong on this prospect list?
In the strictest sense -- does he qualify as a rookie? -- he should be. Were that the case, even as gifted as Alex Gordon is, Delmon is much further along in his development and would be the sure-fire No. 1 selection. The kid already looks like an elite player. However, senior fantasy editor Brendan Roberts and I discussed Young before producing the list, and we decided that putting him on the list would be a disservice to fantasy owners.
By now, I'm figuring there's not a single fantasy baseball owner on the planet who doesn't know about Delmon Young. By this point, any league that allowed for the stashing away of prospects, which is what the list is designed for, did not have Young available. So what's the point in including him here when he's already treated like a seasoned vet? In the end, we decided having another prospect, essentially our "No. 51," was more important.
And then there's the million-dollar Japanese question. Rather, the $52 million question -- Daisuke Matsuzaka, affectionately known as Dice-K. Dice-K technically qualifies as a rookie, never having pitching in the major leagues. But including him among the top prospects just does not seem right. The debate about whether an established professional from Japan can come over and win the ROY (a la Ichiro Suzuki) is going to be discussed again this year, considering either Dice-K or Young have to be the favorites. Dice-K simply doesn't fit the mold of a rookie -- not many players who get $52 million contracts before they play in a single major league game are. Thus, we have pulled him from the prospect list as well.
With those two important caveats out of the way, let's dive into who actually did make the list. This week, we're going to analyze the top 10. Next week we'll break down ranks 11 through 50.
1. Alex Gordon, 3B, Royals. Everything about Gordon says "potential superstar." In fact, he might remind Royals fans of a former great third baseman, George Brett. Gordon made his professional debut in the 2005 Arizona Fall League, and we could already see the potential for greatness there. Gordon opened the 2006 season in Double-A Wichita, and he did nothing there to temper those expectations, hitting .325 with 29 homers, 101 RBIs, 111 runs and 22 stolen bases in 486 at-bats. While it is still early, Gordon's numbers look reminiscent of David Wright's when he was at a similar level. The one issue for Gordon heading into spring training is the presence of Mark Teahen, who broke out offensively in the second half of 2006 and is the incumbent starter at third. If the Royals are convinced Gordon is ready, the Royals seem willing to shift Teahen to the outfield. However, they might not be willing to do that unless/until they can find a buyer for one of their outfielders. Either way, Gordon has a bright future ahead of him, and we'll see it sooner rather than later.
2. Brandon Wood, SS, Angels. Wood is likely heading back to the minors, probably Triple-A Salt Lake, to open the season. But he should be up soon, as scouts consider him very close to being big-league-ready, if he's not there already. Wood's only flaw, relatively speaking, is his defense. He will not hurt the team, but he is clearly not a prototypical defensive shortstop. Offensively, Wood hit 25 homers, with 83 RBIs, 74 runs and a .276 batting average last year for Double-A Arkansas. He also swiped 19 bags in 22 attempts. The speed likely will decline as he develops and gains more power, but it looks like he'll be one of the better offensive shortstops for the next decade.
3. Philip Hughes, SP, Yankees. The best pitching prospect in the minors, Hughes finished last year with Double-A Trenton, going 10-3 with a 2.25 ERA in 21 starts. Over 116 innings, Hughes struck out 138 batters, with just 32 walks. Also, don't expect to sit in the outfield bleachers and get a souvenir when he's on the mound; Hughes allowed just five homers in Double-A, which would work out to about one every 23.2 innings. The Yankees are going to be cautious with Hughes, as he will be the best prospect the Yankees have developed in-house since Andy Pettitte and the first No. 1 starter they've developed since Ron Guidry. Yeah, it has been a while.
4. Chris B. Young, OF, Diamondbacks. If not for Young being an outfielder and Wood a shortstop, the two might be swapped in the rankings, and some would make a case for that regardless. Young is a plus defensive outfielder who should be a lock offensively for at least a 20-20 season right out of the gate, and 30-30 is certainly a possibility. He will not be a high-average hitter, but he should hang around the .270 mark, and he can draw enough walks to still post a good on-base percentage.
5. Homer Bailey, SP, Reds. The Reds keep saying they do not want to rush Bailey, but they don't really have a choice if their bats somehow get them into contention. And Bailey, a 2004 first-round selection who has blown through the system, might force the Reds to make the call-up even if the team is not in the hunt. Bailey was downright dominant in Double-A last year, finishing 7-1 with a 1.59 ERA and 77 K's in 68 innings. His stuff is just nasty.
6. Ryan Braun, 3B, Brewers. The question is not whether Braun is ready, but whether the Brewers will open the year with him in the bigs or wait a month or two to call him up. Braun showed last year he was ready, hitting .303 with 15 homers in just 231 Double-A at-bats. Sent to the Arizona Fall League, Braun hit six more home runs and drove in 25 runs in just 92 at-bats. Braun also can run - between High-A, Double-A and the AFL, Braun stole 30 bases in 34 attempts - and his 40 doubles between the three stops indicates the power will come as he develops (he's only 23). Braun might be the Brewers' best infield prospect to come along in years -- considering how great their infield prospects have been, that is very high praise.
7. Evan Longoria, 3B, Devil Rays. Longoria started 2006 in college and ended the year in Double-A. This year, he could start in Double-A and end in the majors. Longoria was the best college hitter in last year's draft, having the ability to hit for both power and a solid average. The biggest question right now is not with Longoria's skills but with the logjam in the Tampa infield.
8. Hunter Pence, OF, Astros. Pence has been the top hitting prospect in the Astros' system for the last two years now, and he is in line to get a shot at winning a starting spot in spring training. Pence crushed the ball with Double-A Corpus Christi and was continuing to impress in the AFL before a DUI offense ended his season. The Astros might move slowly with Pence, as they do most rookies, and start him in Triple-A. But he clearly is superior to the options they have in right field right now - either Luke Scott or Jason Lane - that he should make it to the majors soon enough.
9. Mike Pelfrey, SP, Mets. The Mets know that Pelfrey is a potential No. 1 starter, but the worry here is that he is seriously brittle, having regularly lost time in the minors because of injuries. His time in the AFL was also cut short because of injury. He could be a front-of-the-rotation ace, or he could bring back memories of the Paul Wilson-Jason Isringhausen-Bill Pulsifer trifecta that was supposed to dominate before injuries waylaid them.
10. Billy Butler, OF/DH, Royals. The only question with Butler is where to hide his defensive failings. Butler hit .331 last year with Double-A Wichita, with 15 home runs, 96 RBIs and 82 runs in 477 at-bats, and he struck out just 67 times. If Butler did not look so out of place in the field, his major league ETA would be immediate rather than a little ways off. As it is now, the team will have to open up the DH spot for him.
That's all for this week. Next week we'll have ranks 11-50.