Evaluating Minor League Talent
AGE - IT'S NOT JUST A NUMBER Many factors need to be considered when evaluating a minor league baseball prospect. You certainly can't overlook raw physical tools - ability to hit for average and power, foot speed, defensive range and arm strength are vital cogs for position players, and velocity, command, mechanics, ability to change speeds and mound presence are key considerations for pitchers. Actual game performance is also crucial - sometimes tools don't measure the "little things" that some players continuously accomplish to help their teams win ballgames. There is one more key number that might be just as important as the aforementioned factors, however - a prospect's age in relation to his league peers. I've been evaluating minor league players via traditional scouting and statistical methods for about a decade now. I have always placed a premium on players at or below the optimal age for their minor league level - in my opinion, that's 22 for Triple-A, 21 for Double-A, 20 for High-A and 19 for Low-A. That has placed many players on my personal radar screen before most other so-called "mainstream" talent evaluators. Four names immediately spring to mind - in chronological order, they are Edgar Renteria, Jose Vidro, Nick Johnson and Hank Blalock. None of these guys, believe it or not, were considered top-shelf prospects when they first arrived in full-season leagues. I highlighted each of them and ranked them highly in my annual review of top minor league prospects, "Future Stars". All were at or below their level's optimal ages, had solid if not spectacular tools, and their performances ranged from Renteria's anemic Low-A Midwest League performance at age 17 to Blalock' 32-double, 31-steal display at 19 in the Low-A South Atlantic League. Vidro was not nearly a star performer in Class A ball, while Johnson's Low-A exploits didn't match Blalock's. None of that fazed me - these guys were well younger than their league counterparts, were still growing physically, and were likely on the cusp of significant spikes in development.History tells us that the four aforementioned players have either already made or are about to make major impacts at the game's ultimate level. Who, then, might compose the next wave of players who didn't enter the pro ranks as marquee talents, but might explode onto the major league scene with a vengeance? The first week-and-a-half of 2002 minor league activity has yielded a few names that are not on everyone's lists of organizational top ten prospects, but soon will be. Royals Double-A outfielder Alexis Gomez, 21, already logged a half-season of Double-A time in 2001. The 6'2", 160, lefthanded hitter held his own there, batting .281, and is off to an even better start at that same level, where he remains one of the Texas League's younger starters. Gomez is batting .353 with six stolen bases, and has struck out only four times in his first 34 at-bats. He's still developing physically, and has not yet tapped into a power stroke - only one of Gomez' 12 hits to date is an extra-base shot, and it was a double. Now if Gomez was 23 or 24 years old, he'd likely be accurately classified as a future major league spare part - a singles-hitting extra outfielder, pinch-runner type. At his age, however, plenty of physical development lies ahead. It's a pretty fair bet that Gomez will still evolve into a 30-double, 15-homer, 30-steal type and become an above average major league starting outfielder. One of the biggest early 2002 stories among minor league position player prospects is A's outfielder Matt Allegra, 20, another player listed on nobody's top ten list entering the season. The 6'3", 195, righthanded hitter is tearing the High-A California League limb from limb - he's batting a robust .512 (22 for 43), with an amazing 11 doubles, plus a triple and a homer. His early-season slugging percentage is an off-the-charts .884. He retains flaws - he has a poor 13/1 strikeout/walk ratio - but that only means he's batting an insane .733 when he puts the ball in play. Once Allegra learns to take a pitch, watch out. Plus, he's likely to add more muscle to his frame, which should transform some of these A-ball doubles into upper-minor and major league homers. Relative youth is also a solid means of unearthing hidden gems among pitching prospects. Diamondbacks' righty Oscar Villarreal, 20, is following in the footprints of many current major league stars who stumbled in their first crack at the upper minors while ranking among the youngest players at their level, before excelling the second time around while still relatively young compared to their peers. Villarreal allowed over a hit per inning and posted an unremarkable 4.41 ERA in the hitter-friendly Double-A Texas League last season as a teenager, but has looked like a man among boys in his first two 2002 starts at that level. The 6'1", 190, righthander has a scintillating 18/1 strikeout/walk ratio in his first 14 innings., allowing only nine hits en route to a 2-0, 1.29, record. He has three quality major league pitches - a low-90's fastball plus a slider and changeup, and the lessons learned by playing with "the older kids" last season have apparently been well learned. No one questioned the potential of Angels' righthander Johan Santana, 18, when they signed him out of the Dominican Republic at age 16 in 2000. The woods are full, however, of young kids who can throw the heck out of the ball. To separate one's self from the pack, such hurlers must be given the opportunity to compete against older prospects, and then must prove they belong. Despite Santana's obvious raw tools, therefore, he wasn't ranked that highly among a decidedly limited group of Angel farmhands entering this season. It has taken him all of two starts to emphatically declare that he should be ranked #1 with a bullet. The 6'2", 150, righty has yet to allow his first full-season league run - he has a glossy 16/5 strikeout/walk ratio, and has yielded only four hits in his first 10 2/3 innings. Obviously, Santana still has a lot to learn regarding the nuances of pitching, and he needs to remain healthy�.. but his early domination of much older hitters cannot be ignored, and serves notice that he will soon rank among the game's brightest pitching prospects. Whenever I attend a minor league baseball game, the first numbers I check when I get my mitts on a program or a media guide are not batting averages, won-lost records or ERA's - instead, I check the ages. I isolate the youngest players on the field, and assess not only where they are, but where they are going to be once they catch up physically to their peers. It's a proven way to catch a hidden jewel that the scout sitting next to you might overlook.