I always planned to write this during the All-Star break. What I couldn't have predicted is how much more interesting our prospects would be than our big-leaguers by this point.
Back in February, I introduced a new and mostly objective method of rating prospects, which I called the Exciting Prospect Standard. You can read the original article for the full story, but the main objective of the system is to make a list of prospects worth getting excited about, from the point of view of your average diehard fan who generally follows only the major league team. To make the list, a prospect has to have succeeded at Triple-A at age 25 or younger, at Double-A at age 23 or younger, at High-A at age 21 or younger, at Low-A at age 19 or younger, or in a Rookie league at age 17.
Listed with position, age as of July 1, and most recent EPS rank.
1. JEREMY SOWERS - 23 - starter - #3. He's 23 years old, right now, and already a major league starter, right now, and maybe even a good one ... pretty soon. 'Nuff said.
2. ANDY MARTE - 22 - third base - #1. The EPS is so high on Marte that it might take two bad years, not months, to knock him out of the top three. Marte put up a Pronkesque 1042 OPS for the month of June, despite hitting into a little bad luck (.265 BABIP) and playing in a pitcher's league. Even beyond service time considerations, one could argue that the Indians should let him continue to bludgeon Triple-A pitchers clear through August, just to erase any doubt in his own mind that he's simply above those players. It sure worked for Hafner.
3. FRANKLIN GUTIERREZ - 23 - outfielder - #11. Gutierrez has reached the majors at age 23, and other than that I can just repeat my previous report: "... his speed and prodigious defense give him a lot of ways potentially to contribute. If he can really get a handle on his contact hitting, he's a threat to hit 40 home runs." He may spend a little more time in Triple-A this season, but he should be a permanent major leaguer starting next Spring.
4. ASDRUBAL CABRERA - 20 - shortstop - NR. After strong showings at various levels of A-ball in 2005, Cabrera should have spent this entire season in Double-A, and even that would amounted to a fairly brisk pace of development. Instead, the Mariners almost sadistically sent him to Triple-A, where he's struggled but not been entirely overmatched. It seems reasonable to assume that Cabrera could have put up a solid 800 OPS in Double-A and probably would have matched Trevor Crowe at Kinston. At age 20, that means EPS loves this guy. Throw in more than a few bonus points for being an elite defender at a key position.
5. ED MUJICA - 22 - reliever - #9. The EPS is proud to have hyped this prospect way more than anyone else did -- 46 scoreless innings, are you effin' kidding me? Our front office may have cracked the code on developing relievers -- and it's a good thing, because our veterans have been just God-awful.
6. ADAM MILLER - 21 - starter - #6. Still just 21, still in Double-A, and showing some signs of returning to his dominant form from 2004. In his last seven starts, he's flashed a 2.51 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 44:14 K:BB over 43 innings. He likely will spend all of next season in Triple-A, at 22. Expect the Indians to continue tight control of his workload at least through 2007.
7. CHUCK LOFGREN - 20 - starter - #7. EPS claims bragging rights again, as Lofgren continues his success at High-A, highlighted by a 10-3 record, a 2.09 ERA and just one home run allowed in 82 innings. He could stand to walk guys a little less, and his K rate is "only" 8.45, but remember, he's only 20! It will be interesting to see if the Indians give him a shot at Double-A this season.
8. RAFAEL PEREZ - 24 - reliever - NR. Perez likely is not a finished product but nonetheless is hanging out in our lefty-starved major league bullpen out of organizational necessity. Perez would not make this list purely based on his achievements in Double-A at age 24, where he was a starter. That said, his ability to contribute at the big-league or Triple-A level is rather beyond dispute at this point.
9. JOHN DRENNEN - 19 - outfielder - NR. Drennen is going to have to cut down on his strikeouts at some point, but his numbers otherwise are excellent all-around, including a terrific .125 walk rate, which combines with his .316 average to produce a .412 OBP. While his 20 extra base hits are not particularly inspiring, .478 slugging is more than adequate for a teenage prospect whose raw strength is still developing -- and remember, one of those extra base hits was a home run off Roger Clemens.
10. TOM MASTNY - 25 - reliever - NR. Mastny will be 26 by April and so is making his one and only appearance on this list. It is nonetheless well earned, as Mastny has piled up 68 K's in only 57 innings in Double-A and Triple-A without allowing a single home run. Keith Law writes: "The 6-5 Mastny has a fringe-average fastball but outstanding control, and with a good season so far between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Buffalo, he seems likely to become the first big leaguer born in Indonesia, which would become the 52nd country to produce a major-league player."
11. SEAN SMITH - 22 - starter - NR. Smith is one of the fringier players on this list, but he's spent most of the season in Double-A so far, and his numbers are solid if not dominant. He's got the ERA (2.36) but not the peripherals (5.8 K/9) -- but at age 22 in Double-A, he's still ahead of the curve.
12. RYAN GARKO - 25 - 1B/C - #5. Garko is still exciting, just not quite as exciting as he used to be. If the Indians don't get him some real playing time in Cleveland this season, you have to start to wonder what they know about him that we don't.
13. ANDREW BROWN - 25 - reliever - #10. Like Garko, it would be fair to say his stock has fallen somewhat -- 25 is not a good age to start regressing. One does have to remember, however, how far Brown has come, the injuries he's overcome, and how unhittable he can be. He's struggled a bit, but he's still exciting. Brown is in his last option year and should be expected to get some major league work before the end of the season.
EXPELLED: BRAD SNYDER - 24 - outfielder - #7. One of the main goals of the EPS is not to waste a casual fan's time by telling him about a prospect that won't ever actually help the big league club. Because the EPS worships youth and advancement above all else, the EPS has very few false positives. A prospect who makes it onto the list can have a bad few months or even a bad entire season, and he still has a year or two to recover while remaining on the list. In fact, he's likely to have such a recovery, because of his youth and prior achievements.
Snyder was a borderline case. He'd done well but not exceptionally well in a half-season at Double-A, and he would start the season in Double-A again, now 24. I waved him in based on the optimism of other experts and his exceptional all-around tools. Frankly, he looked better than Gutierrez in some respects, but it was a mistake. Snyder has regressed, putting up bad rate stats and equally bad peripherals. Snyder is off the list, and he never should have been on it. In the future, I will adhere more closely to the rules: To be considered "thriving" at any level, the EPS requires either clear-cut statistical success, or solid numbers a year younger than the EPS requires, or promotion to a higher level.
GRADUATED: Prospects graduate from the EPS either by (a) turning 26 or (b) staying in the majors long enough to no longer be considered prospects. FAUSTO CARMONA - 22 - starter - #5. FERNANDO CABRERA - 24 - reliever - #2. KELLY SHOPPACH - 26 - catcher - #12. Garko, Mastny and Brown -- and probably Sowers and Gutierrez -- will graduate from the list by next Spring.
The Big Snubs: The EPS has a consistent response to 22-year-olds putting up eye-popping numbers at Kinston: "Get back to me once you're beating up players your own age in Akron." Trevor Crowe, Scott Lewis and Joe Ness have generated a lot of buzz, but they won't be legitimately exciting prospects until they've done it above A-ball. That goes double for Wyatt Toregas, who's a year older.
We possibly could create a loophole for Kevin Kouzmanoff, whose numbers are so ridiculous that it seems obvious that he'd be succeeding at Triple-A, were he not blocked by Marte. But if we're going to get creative about the rules, we probably shouldn't start with a prospect who has a persistent injury history. Tony Sipp is another close call; his season has been equal parts great pitching and rehabbing.
"The Big O-fer" continues for "The Big Four," all of whom are older than Sowers, Carmona, Mujica, Miller, Lofgren, Smith and Sipp. We shouldn't be excited about a relief prospect unless he has a shocking K rate and a miniscule ERA; Travis Foley has neither. As a 23-year-old starter in Triple-A, Jake Dittler would seem to qualify. However, he's never put up an impressive ERA or K rate anywhere in the high minors, and his assignment to Buffalo seems to have more to do with his ticking option clock than his actual achievement.
The "Interesting" List: These players are on the cusp of making the Exciting Prospects list next Spring, if they thrive at their next stop (or finally conquer their current stop) in the second half: Crowe, Ness, Scott Lewis, Toregas, Kouzmanoff, Sipp, Foley, Dittler, Ben Francisco, Dan Denham, Bear Bay, Aaron Laffey, J.D. Martin and Nick Pesco. It's worth noting that most of the prospects on this list have arrived at Double-A but have yet to conquer that level. They're all good prospects, but they just haven't crossed that line yet.