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Better than Vlad? The top hitting prospects of 1996

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Vladimir Guerrero ranked 14th among my list of top hitting prospects back in 1996. Who ranked ahead? Here's a look at the good calls and the bad ones.

Andruw Jones
Andruw Jones

In the Vladimir Guerrero Prospect Retrospective yesterday, I noted that I ranked the Impaler as the 14th-best hitting prospect in 1996. In the comments section, a reader asked who the players were who ranked ahead of Guerrero. So I decided to look it up.

Here are the 13 hitters ranked ahead of Guerrero on my 1996 Top Prospect list from the STATS Minor League Scouting Notebook. This was the first book I ever wrote and the first prospect list I ever did for public consumption.

At the time, Guerrero was coming off a season where he'd hit .333/.383/.544 in Low-A at age 20.  He finished with a career WAR of 56.6.

1) Johnny Damon, OF, Royals: He'd hit .343/.434/.534 in 111 games in Double-A at age 21, then .282/.324/.441 in 47 major league games. He would not be eligible on a current list, with 188 big league at-bats, but I was much looser with eligibility requirements back then. Given his minor league performance and proven major league ability at a young age, it made sense to me to have him ahead of a guy in A-ball. Career WAR 43.0.

2) Andruw Jones, OF, Braves: Hit .277/.372/.512 with 25 homers in Low-A at age 18, in the same league with Guerrero, with glowing scouting reports, but two years younger than Vlad. Given age/league factor, I put Andruw ahead. Career WAR 67.8.

3) Derek Jeter, SS, Yankees:
Hit .317/.394/.422 with 20 steals in Triple-A at age 21, with excellent scouting reports of course. Career WAR at 73.7 currently.

4) Ruben Rivera, OF, Yankees:
Hit .293/.402/.523 in Double-A, .270/.373/.598 in Triple-A at age 21, with 24 steals combined. Scouting reports were enthusiastic; strikeouts were an issue, but I thought he could be a Bobby Bonds type. Obviously a bust, but he was closer to the majors than Vlad and had outstanding tools himself. There were already rumbles about makeup trouble, a factor that I might weigh more strongly nowadays. Career WAR 4.9.

5) Karim Garcia, OF, Dodgers:
Hit .319/.369/.542 with 20 homers for Triple-A Albuquerque. Yes, it was Albuquerque and the PCL, but his bat speed was terrific and he was supposed to be only 19 years old, a full year younger than Vlad and playing two levels higher. It made sense to rank him ahead but he was an even worse bust than Rivera, -3.9 career WAR.

6) Scott Rolen, 3B, Phillies: Hit .290/.392/.487 in High-A, .289/.353/.447 in Double-A, just 20 years old, excellent reviews for his defense. Given defense and playing at a higher level, he ranked ahead for me. Career WAR 70.1.

7) Bobby Abreu, OF, Astros:
Hit .304/.395/.516 in Triple-A at age 21. Finished with a career WAR of 58.6, giving him a career of equal value to Vlad, although shaped differently.

8) Jose Valentin, C, Twins:
Later changed his name to Javier Valentin to avoid confusion with his brother Jose. What is this guy doing here? He was just a journeyman catcher with a career WAR of 2.9! How did he rank this high? Well, you see, he hit .321/.398/.564 in the Low-A Midwest League at age 19, with19 homers and solid plate discipline, and outstanding scouting reports for his glove. He hit just as well as Vlad at the same level, at a tougher position, and was younger. It didn't work out, but the logic was sound.

9) Steve Gibralter, OF, Reds:
Who? He crunched Triple-A pitching at age 22, hitting .316/.381/.616 with 18 homers in just 79 games, his season cut short by a thumb injury. I saw him when he was healthy and he could mash, handling fastballs and breaking stuff without problems, but he was the biggest bust here. He got just five major league plate appearances, his career undone by frequent injuries, rumored problems with confidence, and trouble with strikeouts.

10) Todd Walker, 2B, Twins:
He hit .290/.365/.478 with 21 homers and 23 steals at Double-A New Britain, which was a pitcher's paradise at the time, at age 21. I loved him since his days at LSU. He had some decent years with the bat, hitting .289/.348/.435 overall, but his defense was troublesome and drove his value down. Career WAR 9.5.

11) Shannon Stewart, OF, Blue Jays:
Batted .287/.398/.390 with 42 steals and 89 walks for Double-A Knoxville at age 21. I saw him as an excellent leadoff man for the future, sort of a lower-case Rickey Henderson type with the combination of speed, walks, and some power potential. He was nowhere near that good, of course, but Stewart did have a career of some note, with a 21.8 WAR.

12) Mike Sweeney, C, Royals:
Wilmington was absolute death on hitters back then (and isn't much easier now), but Sweeney hit .310/.424/.548 with 18 homers, 60 walks, and only 39 strikeouts there at age 21. Scouting reports about his defense were actually pretty solid; he wasn't yet seen as a certain first baseman, if you look at what was written back at the time in 1996. Like Stewart, he wasn't as good as Vlad in the end but he did have a significant career, emerging as the face of the Royals franchise. Career WAR 21.0.

13) Jason Kendall, C, Pirates
: At age 20, he hit .326/.414/.448 with 56 walks and only 22 strikeouts in 429 at-bats in Double-A, with excellent reviews for his defense. You know his story; he was terrific at his peak. Career WAR 40.3.

Of the 13 guys I ranked ahead of Guerrero in my 1996 book, the biggest busts were Rivera, Gibralter, Garcia, and Valentin. Interestingly, three of those guys were in Triple-A at the time and young for that level, and all three were power hitters with strike zone issues.

Garcia was at Albuquerque, known for producing misleading stats, but I tried to adjust for that. He was extremely young for the level and I thought that balanced the PCL factor out. Rivera had a lot of personal problems that ate him up. Gibralter's career might have been different if he'd stayed healthy, but he was also the oldest guy on the list. Valentin was a bust, but it made sense to me at the time, given his position, hitting just as well at the same level, and the fact that he was a little younger than Vlad.

So there you have it. There was a reason behind each choice.