In BA's Atlanta chat, Bill Ballew made what I felt was a bit of an outlandish claim, that this year's undisputed top position player prospect, Jason Heyward, was "the best all-around player" he had seen in more than 25 years of covering the minors. I had a clear idea of who I thought the two best prospects in history were, and decided to go into the archive to round out the field and compare.
Note: This is based on prospect rankings at a particular point in time. this means a couple of things: first, a player can be ranked more than once if his performance in more than one season in the minors justifies a historically high ranking. Second, this will include players who didn't necessarily go onto have hall of fame careers. This is based on what we knew about these players at the time they were ranked, and looking at busts as well as successes gives an interesting perspective and shows that even historically great prospects aren't necessarily sure things.
So, here are my top-10 hitting prospects since BA began publishing its top-100 lists online in 1990. Feel free to chime in with your own.
10. John Olerud, 1990
With no minor league track record to go on, BA played it safe and ranked Olerud #3 in 1990. On talent alone, he was the clear #1. Olerud was drafted in the 3rd round by the Blue Jays and signed for $575,000, nearly twice what the #1 overall pick signed for. No player in the modern era has come out of college as polished as John Olerud: he was a brilliant defensive first baseman with one of the prettiest swings scouts had ever seen, and rather than mess around with the minor leagues, the Blue Jays plugged him right into the lineup the next year, where he put up a 117OPS+ without ever experiencing a single minor league plate appearance.
9. Cliff Floyd, 1994
His career was de-railed by injuries, but Floyd was a mega-prospect. Floyd was always a great athlete, but for some reason, he started his minor league career at 1B. Moved to the OF in 1994, Floyd's bat took off. He hit .329/.412/.600, smacking 26 home runs and stealing 31 bases as a 20-year-old in Double-A. Other batters like Alex Gordon and Jay Bruce have had similarly impressive seasons at comparable levels, but Floyd's season stands out for its combination of monster stats, young age, and no real flaws. He ran well, he played good outfield defense, he drew a lot of walks, and didn't strike out. It took Floyd a few years to figure things out, and injuries robbed him of the kind of career his 1993 minor league season suggested he was capable of, but Floyd had a fantastic (if injury-shortened) peak from 1999-2003 where he hit .300/.383/.540, good for a 139OPS+ during that time.
8. Joe Mauer, 2005
Mauer was an enigma to me at the time. BA had never ranked a guy #1 who had displayed as little power as Mauer had shown in his minor league career. Apparently scouts know what they're talking about sometimes. 2005 was the second straight year Mauer ranked #1 on the BA list, and he would have been disqualified from consideration if not for an injury that kept him on the major league sidelines all of 2005. Mauer was a pure tools guy from a prospect standpoint, but I'm choosing his 2005 ranking, because it came on the heels of Mauer finally showing the power scouts unanimously promised was coming. In his injury-shortened MLB debut, Mauer hit .308 with a .162 ISO, with 15 of his 33 hits going for extra bases.
7. Ben Grieve, 1998
Our first bust on the list. Ben Grieve serves as a reminder of why we should always take the stats of guys with old player skills with a massive lump of salt. We can say we've evolved, but let's be honest: if someone equalled the numbers Grieve put up in his 1997 season today, the prospecting community would be drooling all over him. This was as close to a perfect minor league season as it gets. In his year-21 season, Grieve hit .350/.461/.640 with 31 home runs, playing the majority of the season in the pitcher-friendly Southern League. He had a few ok seasons, but the lesson from Grieve's 1997 is clear: when people preach caution on guys like Lars Anderson and Eric Hosmer, pay attention.
6. J.D. Drew, 1999
Drew and agent Scott Boras cultivated an air of mystery around the player who waited 2 years after his first first-round selection to play a single game in the minors. Drew, as most of you remember, went #2 overall in 1997, but held out and signed the next year as the 5th overall pick. Drew's small-sample-size minor league debut showed that Boras isn't necessarily full of it all of the time, as he jumped straight into Double-A and showed that Boras's claims about him being major league ready really weren't far off base. Drew cruised through Double-A and Triple-A, proving one of the hardest outs in recent memory, posting a .328/.444/.627 line in limited action in AA before hitting .316.471/.519 in his brief stint in AAA. These numbers alone wouldn't justify ranking anyone this high due to small sample sizes, but the combination of Drew's storied prospect history, his excellent tools, and the fact that no college player in recent memory has jumped straight into Double-A and excelled this quickly put Drew way up there for me. Drew has gone on to have an excellent career when not injured, and is one of the more underrated players in the game today despite playing for the uber high-profile Red Sox. How many players could ever run a career .896 OPS over more than 5000 plate appearances and only have one all-star appearance to show for it?
5. Jason Heyward, 2010
This is as high as I can see myself ranking Heyward, not through any fault of his own, but because of the absolutely incredible performances that rank ahead of him. Everyone knows what Heyward's done. I was preaching a conservative ranking on the kid after 2009. After all, I reasoned, he was a corner outfielder who had very good but not gaudy stats. In 2009, Heyward shut me up in a big way. It's not the raw stat line that impresses me most about Heyward. Several other players have put up comparable batting lines in the last few years. The three things that put Heyward in the company of the giants on this list for me are A) his age relative to league (least important), B) the fact that he improved upon his promotion to Double-A from great to really great, and C) (most important), the fact that he was able to maintain a .259 ISO in Double-A while striking out in fewer than 10% of his plate appearances. That combination of power and contact is unbelievably rare, evoking a player who ranks just a couple spots above Heyward on this list.
4. Matt Wieters, 2009
In recent catching prospect history, only Mike Piazza has ever put up a minor league season remotely similar to what Matt Wieters did in 2008. The two main differences between Piazza in 1992 and Weiters 16 years later are that Wieters was a year younger and flashed an above average glove, while Piazza was always a defensive liability at the position. Wieters combined the glove of Mauer with the offensive performance of Piazza. We don't know yet whether Wieters' major league career will live up to his historic 2008 season, but I can't wait to find out.
3. Vladimir Guerrero, 1997
Guerrero fell just short of BA's #1 prospect ranking this year, and his 1996 season combined with that of the #1 prospect that year (yet to come) show why that was the most exciting minor league season in recent memory. Guerrero, like Heyward, combined ridiculous power with the ability to make contact at a level that would make Ichiro jealous. I grappled with the order of Guerrero/Wieters/Heyward, and on Guerrero v. Heyward specifically, I gave the edge to Vlad because A) he ran his > .600 SLG the entire season, while Heyward's came during a mid-season breakout, and B) Guerrero ran his contact rate over the entire season, while again, Heyward's amazing combination of plus-plus power and plus-plus contact emerged at Double-A (Heyward's contact and stats at Myrtle Beach were merely great, not quite ridiculously historically great. Vlad played at that level all season). Heyward was 2 years younger than Vlad, but the fact that he didn't put up the numbers over a full season still justifies ranking him below for me. If Heyward spends another full season in the minors (which I doubt), I wouldn't be surprised to see him turn in a performance that would cause me to rank him above Vlad, but I can't do it yet.
2. Andruw Jones, 1997
One of the most absurdly ridiculous performances from a 19-year-old ever. Andruw Jones was probably too good for the minor leagues when the season began, but the Braves understandably refrained from skipping him from the SALLY league straight to the majors. On the way, Jones hit .339/.421/.652 over 3 levels of the minors, smacking 34 home runs and swiping 30 bases while exciting scouts as a potential gold glove center fielder.
1. Alex Rodriguez, 1996
A-rod's 1995, like Jones' 1996, saw him play at a level unheard of for a 19-year-old, either before or since. Drafted as a toolsy shortstop with questions about his bat, A-rod advanced quicker than anyone could have possibly predicted. In 1995, A-Rod hit .360/.411/.654 in the first half of the season, and then was called up to serve as a bench player during the Mariners' 1995 playoff run. 2 things about A-rod's '95 cause me to rank him about Jones' '96 season: first, he logged substantial time in Triple-A while Jones' performance came at A+/AA with only a 12 game cup of coffee in AAA, and second, A-rod was an excellent defensive shortstop. Andruw Jones was clearly the best center field prospect the game had seen since Ken Griffey, Jr, but other players have shown similar (though ultimately inferior) abilities. Scouts could look at young CFs and say "that kid's an Andruw Jones-type of player" and not get laughed out of the room. Alex Rodriguez, on the other hand, was a class all by himself. There have been other great shortstop performances in the minor leagues, but 15 years later nobody has ever looked at a prospect and drawn a comp to Alex Rodriguez with a straight face. Shortstops with A-rod's glove get ranked in the top-30 if they merely project to hold their own on offense (see: Andrus, Elvis). Shortstops with great bats come along, but very rarely are any good at the position (see Wood, Brandon). In 1995, A-Rod was the best defensive shortstop in the minors and the best offensive prospect alive. The rest, as they say, is history.
Honorable Mention: Justin Upton, 2007 - missed prospect eligibility by 10 at-bats, but would have been the clear #1 that year, and would have made my top-10 right ahead of Joe Mauer had he met BA's definition of "prospect."
Pitchers will come in a few days.