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Prospect Retro: Bernie Williams

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Prospect Retro: Bernie Williams

Bernie Williams was signed by the Yankees as an undrafted free agent out of Puerto Rico in 1985. At the time, Puerto Ricans were not eligible for the amateur draft. If they had been, Williams would probably have been something like a second or third round pick. He was highly-regarded as an athlete with speed and good defensive ability, but there was some question about how much power he would develop. He was also a very talented guitarist, and at one point considered giving up baseball to go into music for his career. The Yankees got him to sign, outbidding at least two other clubs for his services in the fall of 1985.

Assigned to the rookie level Gulf Coast League in 1986, Williams hit .270 with just a .343 SLG. But he stole 33 bases, drew 39 walks against just 40 strikeouts, and earned plaudits for his defense. At this point, given his athleticism, control of the strike zone, and good glove work, you could rate him as something like a Grade C+ or B- prospect, "with higher potential," if the power developed.

Williams played just 50 games due to a shoulder injury in 1987, split between the New York-Penn League (where he hit .344 in 25 games) and the Florida State League (where he hit .155). A broken wrist limited him to just 92 games in 1988, but he did very well, hitting .335/.450/.487 with 29 steals for Prince William in the Carolina League, winning the batting title. At this point we were starting to see his name appear on top prospect lists due to his speed, contact hitting, plate discipline, and defense. I'd give a similar player a Grade B or maybe a B+ nowadays, only hesitating to give the higher grade due to injury questions.

Williams moved up to Double-A in 1989, and he hit just .252. However, he did knock 11 homers in 91 games for Albany, stole 26 bases, drew 60 walks with 72 strikeouts. He lost batting average, but his isolated power improved and he maintained his strike zone judgment. A 50-game trial in Columbus saw him steal 11 bases but hit just .216/.320/.315. He was just 21, and considering everything I'd probably rate a similar player Grade B or B- nowadays.

The Yankees sent Williams back to Double-A for 1990, and he had a decent year for Albany, hitting .281/.410/.414 with 39 steals. Power was still a question, but he showed excellent plate discipline, drawing 98 walks at age 22. I'd likely rate a similar player as Grade B given that he was repeating the league.

1991 and 1992 were split seasons between Triple-A Columbus and the Yankees. He did well in the minors but was just mediocre (if promising) in the majors, showing gap power, speed, a good glove, but just mediocre power. At this point, Williams was considered a potentially solid regular, but not really a future superstar. Adequate seasons for the Yankees in 1993 and 1994 followed, then he broke out in 1995 at the age of 27, hitting .307 with 18 homers. As he aged, Williams lost speed but gained power.

Bernie's minor league track record was marked by a high walk rate, a decent strikeout rate, speed, and gradually improving power. His minor league record did not scream "superstar," but he was able to combine his tools, baseball skill, and a New York stage into an excellent career.

Comparable Players to Bernie Williams

Roy White
Luis Gonzalez
Dwight Evans
Reggie Smith
Chili Davis
Ellis Burks
Paul O'Neill
The only player in the Hall of Fame who shows up on Bernie's Sim Score list is Tony Perez, with a rating of 874, which isn't really similar at all really and doesn't account for Williams' superior defensive value.

Question: Is Bernie Williams a Hall of Famer?