Mickey Mantle was probably the greatest prospect of all time: A switch-hitting shortstop who could run like the wind and hit home runs over light towers. What more would you want? He hit .383 with 26 home runs as an 18-year-old in the Class C Western Association. The next year, he was in the outfield at Yankee Stadium.
Bryce Harper is drawing comparisons to some of the greatest prospects we've ever seen. Still just 18, he's hitting .340 and slugging .615 for the Nationals' Class A team in Hagerstown, Md. His potential at the plate, combined with good speed and strong throwing arm, make him, in scouting lexicon, a five-tool athlete.
Where would he rank on a mythical all-time prospect list? I'm going to go back to 1965 and the advent of the draft, and come up with my list of the top 50 prospects. What does this mean? I'm not thinking of where guys stood when drafted, but where they were at any time before they reached the majors. We know the hype around Harper, and Stephen Strasburg before him, but I tried to imagine how players from 40 years ago would have been evaluated and hyped if we'd had prospect lists and the Internet.
I'm not a scout. I didn't see these guys play. But I've been following this stuff for over two decades and can remember the hype around guys like Ben McDonald or Brien Taylor. Baseball America has been around 30 years and has been running its annual top 100 prospect list since 1990, so that was a great resource. For players before then, I scoured minor league statistics, looked at where players were originally drafted to get a better idea on their tools, factored in age and performance and came up with the following.
Needless to say, our judgment is probably influenced somewhat by future performance, but not all these players became superstars.
50. Greg Luzinski, 1B/LF, Phillies
OK, he was slower than dirt and didn’t have the magazine-cover baseball body, but his bat was so good the Phillies made him the 11th pick in 1968. He was arguably the most dominant teenage hitter of the draft era. He led the Carolina League with 31 home runs as an 18-year-old, hitting for average and drawing walks. The next season, he hit .325 with 33 home runs in Double-A. The next year, he belted 36 home runs in Triple-A. He moved from first base to left field in the majors and let's just say he always tried hard out there. He got fat and became a DH, but he did twice finish second in the NL MVP voting.
49. Shawon Dunston, SS, Cubs
The first overall pick in 1982, Dunston had an absolute cannon for an arm, good speed and range, and hitting potential -- in other words, everything you want in a shortstop. He hit .321 in rookie ball and .310 in Class A and reached the majors in 1985. While he had a long career, his free-swinging ways prevented him from ever being a valuable player.
48. Kevin McReynolds, CF, Padres
A college product out of Arkansas, McReynolds fell to sixth in the 1981 draft over concerns about a knee injury. A five-tool talent, he abated those concerns by hitting .368 with 33 home runs in 1982 and .377 with 33 home runs at Triple-A Reno in 1983. His major league career was more solid than spectacular, although he did finish third in the 1988 NL MVP vote while with the Mets.
47. Jose Rijo, RHP, Yankees
While Dwight Gooden was burning up the Carolina League in 1983, Rijo was doing the same for the Yankees in the Florida State League that year at the same age. He went 18-7 with a 1.88 ERA and 184 strikeouts in 200 innings (including a few starts in Double-A). When Gooden made the majors the following season, George Steinbrenner wanted his own teenage sensation and rushed Rijo to the majors, and then later included him in a trade with the A's for Rickey Henderson. He had his best years for the Reds, winning World Series MVP honors in 1990.
46. Lenny Dykstra, CF, Mets
He didn't come with a high-pick pedigree as a 13th-round selection, but his 1983 season in the Carolina League was one of the best minor league seasons in the past 30 years. As a 20-year-old, he hit .358/.472/.503, with an incredible 107/35 BB/K ratio plus 105 stolen bases. His size and questions about his power potential may have been raised, but he profiled as a classic leadoff hitter and center fielder.
45. Ted Simmons, C, Cardinals
A first-round pick out of a Michigan high school in 1967, the switch-hitting catcher made a major league cameo the next season after hitting .331 with 28 home runs in Class A. He'd go on to become one of the best-hitting catchers in major league history.
44. Keith Hernandez, 1B, Cardinals
Hernandez fell to the 42nd round of the 1971 draft after sitting out his senior season following a dispute with his coach. By 1974, he was in Triple-A at age 20, displaying a sweet stroke to the tune of a .351 average and 14 home runs, and showing off the slick glove that would make him one of the best defensive first basemen of all time.
43. Clint Hurdle, OF, Royals
"This Year's Phenom" screamed the 1978 Sports Illustrated spring training cover story. The ninth pick in 1975, Hurdle shot through the minors and hit .329/.449/.529 at Triple-A in 1977, a year in which he turned 20 years old. He didn't have much speed but he had everything else -- including the attitude. The SI story tells how he had asked for a single room on the road as a rookie -- not exactly a request that won over the veterans (back then, you had to earn a single room with a few years in the majors). Hurdle hit a decent .264 that year and .294 with 10 home runs in 1980, but the Royals traded him 1981 and he never escaped the phenom label.
42. Mike Ivie, C, Padres
The Padres made Ivie the first player selected in the 1970 draft, a power-hitting catcher with a strong arm from a Georgia high school. In 1971, he hit .305 with 15 home runs at Class A, playing most of the season as an 18-year-old, and getting a cup of coffee in the majors. Trouble is, he soon had to move to first base. After getting drafted, the Padres brought Ivie to San Diego and he caught batting practice for the big league team. One of his throws back to the pitcher hit the protective screen and veteran Chris Cannizzaro reportedly said, “That, rook, is why they’re sending you to Tri-Cities.” Ivie developed a block about throwing the ball back to the pitcher (although the Cannizzaro incident may be more apocryphal than anything) and had to move to first base. As Rick Monday once said, "Mike Ivie is a $40 million airport with a $30 control tower."
41. Jack Clark, 3B, Giants
You have an 18-year-old third baseman hitting .315 with 19 home runs in the California League? Yes, that’s a top prospect. Clark had a strong arm (he actually pitched some his first season as a pro) but never did master the intricacies of playing third base and moved to right field (and later first base), but he became one of the most feared hitters in the majors in the '80s.
40. Dwight Evans, RF, Red Sox
He wasn’t drafted until the fifth round in 1969, but was already in Triple-A at age 20 in 1972, winning International League MVP honors by hitting .300 with a .409 OBP and 17 home runs. Add in his legendary throwing arm (he’d win eight Gold Gloves with the Red Sox) and prospect mavens would have been drooling over Dewey.
39. Barry Bonds, CF, Pirates
Five teams passed over Bonds in the 1985 draft, even though he was a power-speed threat at Arizona State (it was a loaded draft, with B.J. Surhoff, Will Clark, Bobby Witt and Barry Larkin going ahead of him). In the minors, he quickly showed it wouldn't be long before he reached the majors, although it seems there were some doubts about his home run potential ... including from Bonds himself. I dug up a fun quote from a 1985 newspaper article: “I’ve never thought of myself as a home run hitter," Bonds said. "But I have the ability to put the ball in play and hit it to all fields. I like getting on base better than going around the bases."
38. Corey Patterson, CF, Cubs
Prospect analysts drooled over his package of tools, a mesmerizing mix of athleticism and baseball skills. Baseball America rated him its No. 2 prospect in 2001, behind only Josh Hamilton. Patterson lacked one thing, however: strike-zone judgment. It derailed his career. And while he's hung around, it's mostly been as a backup outfielder/Triple-A call-up.
37. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Dodgers
Just 17 years old in 1996, he hit .284 with 26 home runs between the South Atlantic League and the California League (somehow, that made him only the 30th-best prospect in baseball, according to Baseball America). The next year, he hit .327 with 26 home runs in the Florida State League and jumped to the No 3 prospect.
36. Vida Blue, LHP, A's
A second-round pick out of a Louisiana high school in 1967, Blue had an electrifying fastball. In 1970, he dominated at Triple-A Iowa, with a 2.17 ERA, 88 hits and 165 strikeouts in 130 innings. That September he pitched a one-hitter for the A's ... and then followed that up with a no-hitter later in the month.
35. Tim Raines, 2B, Expos
He may have fallen to the fifth round of the 1977 draft due to his short (5-foot-8) stature, but by 1980 the Expos had a super prospect on their hands. Playing second base for Triple-A Denver, Raines -- just 20 years old -- hit .354 with 77 stolen bases and more walks than strikeouts. His fielding numbers actually looked pretty good, but the Expos moved him to the outfield and he became one of the best leadoff men in the game’s history.
34. Jim Rice, OF, Red Sox
Rice and Fred Lynn shared the Pawtucket outfield in 1974 … and the team finished 57-87. Rice was named International League MVP after hitting .337 and slugging .579. Just 21 and powerfully built, Rice ran well as a young player as well. The next year, Lynn and Rice led the Red Sox to the AL pennant and finished first and third, respectively, in the MVP vote.
33. Don Baylor, OF, Orioles
While many of us may remember him only as a barrel-chested designated hitter and manager, Baylor was a superior athlete coming up through the minors, having all the tools other than a strong throwing arm. A second-round pick in 1967, he tore up Triple-A Rochester as a 21-year-old, hitting .327/.429/.583 with 26 steals.
32. Cal Ripken, 3B, Orioles
The Orioles took Ripken in the second round of the 1978 draft -- their first-rounder was actually another high school third baseman named Robert Boyce. Ripken had excelled as a pitcher in high school (100 strikeouts in 60 innings with a 0.70 ERA) but the Orioles liked his bat. Of course, they had an inside track -- his father was the team’s third-base coach. Junior took BP once at Memorial Stadium. "He was 15 and he was hitting them into the concrete seats,” Earl Weaver said later, in 1982. Ripken may have lacked foot speed, but he had everything else and rose quickly through the system. At Triple-A, spending most of the season at 20 years old, he hit .288 with 23 home runs, playing mostly third base -- but also some shortstop. "He's very intelligent, too, like a young [Ken] Singleton,” Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller said before Ripken’s rookie season. “He's a low-key guy whose voice doesn't carry, unlike his father, but he'll make people notice him. I just wish he were my kid."
31. Josh Hamilton, CF, Rays
Tampa Bay made the five-tool talent the first overall pick in 1999. We know the detours he took along the way, but the talent did, indeed, prove to be special.
30. David Clyde, LHP, Rangers
His story is pretty well known: The Rangers made the Houston high schooler the first pick in 1973 and put him immediately in the big leagues as a gate attraction. While he won his first start, he wasn't ready for the majors, his career fizzled and he became a famous "what-if."
29. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners
As Baseball America wrote after he dominated the minors at age 18 in 2004: "It's difficult to project Hernandez's ceiling because his ability seems limitless." The Mariners prevented him from throwing his slider for several years to help prevent injury. I'd say that worked out and his ceiling turned out to be pretty high.
28. Gary Sheffield, SS, Brewers
Scouts weren't sure if he'd be able to stay at shortstop, but there was no denying his bat: He hit .327 with 28 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A in 1988, earning a late-season call to the majors while still at teenager.
27. Ben McDonald, RHP, Orioles
Before Stephen Strasburg and Mark Prior, there was McDonald, the 6-foot-7 hurler from LSU who moonlighted on the basketball team. At the time, I remember there being more pre-draft hype about McDonald -- stuff like how he wrestled alligators -- than previous No. 1 picks. The negotiations with the Orioles were a bit contentious and there was talk of a new baseball league starting, with McDonald being the big name. That never happened, he signed with Baltimore and had a solid career before getting injured.
26. Steve Avery, LHP, Braves
Smooth, efficient and hard-throwing, Avery was your classic lefty pitching prospect. The No. 3 overall pick in 1988, he was the No. 1 prospect in the game before the 1990 season (ahead of McDonald). By 1991, he was winning playoff games for the Braves at 21. While you wouldn't say he was abused or overworked, the heavy workload at a young age took its toll and he lost his fastball by the mid-'90s.
25. Brad Komminsk, CF, Braves
The fourth overall pick in 1979, Komminsk was an outfielder with all the tools. He hit .322 with 33 home runs and 35 steals in the Carolina League in 1981, leading Braves farm director Hank Aaron to say, “He will do things Dale Murphy never dreamed of.” In 1983, he still looked like a future star after hitting .334 with 24 home runs in Triple-A. The Braves reportedly turned down an offer of Jim Rice from the Red Sox. For whatever reason -- maybe a victim of great expectations, maybe a stiff swing, maybe never getting a full season in the bigs -- he hit just .218 in his major league career.
24. J.R. Richard, RHP, Astros
Outside of Randy Johnson, maybe the most intimidating pitcher who ever lived. The 6-foot-8 righty threw about 100 miles per hour and didn't always know where it was going. The second pick in 1969 (after Jeff Burroughs), he took a few seasons to refine his control but became a durable, 300-strikeout pitcher in the late '70s, before a stroke sadly ended his career in 1980, in the middle of his best season.
23. Mike Trout, CF, Angels
He doesn't turn 20 until August, but is already putting up big numbers in Double-A, showing tools across the board, including plate discipline and a flair that few possess.
22. Todd Van Poppel, RHP, A's
The top prize in the 1990 draft, the Texas high school sensation was threatening to attend college, so he fell to the A's with the 14th pick. The A's signed him to a major league contract, and while he pitched well that first year in the minors -- earning him Baseball America's No. 1 prospect status before 1991 -- he never again dominated. The Braves' consolation choice as the No. 1 pick? Chipper Jones.
21. Joe Mauer, C, Twins
"Mauer combines a picture-perfect left-handed stroke with impeccable strike-zone judgment to generate high batting averages and on-base percentage," wrote Baseball America before the 2004 season, when it made Mauer its No. 1 prospect. The Twins had taken a chance in drafting the hometown kid over Mark Prior in 2001, but their homework paid off.
20. J.D. Drew, RF, Cardinals
As John Sickels recently wrote in a career retrospective about Drew, "A superstar outfielder at Florida State University, J.D. Drew was rated as the best position player available in the 1997 draft class. He was the first 30-30 player in college baseball history, and many scouts felt he was a once-a-decade talent." The Phillies drafted Drew second in 1997, but he didn't sign in a famously contentious Scott Boras negotiation and the Cardinals drafted him the next year.
19. Bobby Grich, SS, Orioles
He hit .383 (with a .503 OBP!) as a 21-year-old slick-fielding shortstop in Triple-A in 1970 and then won league MVP honors the following season after leading the International League with 32 home runs and a .336 average. Mark Belanger’s presence in Baltimore forced him to second base in the majors, where he’d make six All-Star teams and win four Gold Gloves as one of the most underrated players of the past 40 years.
18. Josh Beckett, RHP, Marlins
Baseball America's No. 1 prospect before the 2002 season, it's easy to understand why: In 2001, Beckett pitched 140 innings in the minors, allowed just 82 hits and delivered a strikeout/walk ratio of 203/34. He was big, he threw hard and he was a cocky Texan. They compared him to Roger Clemens with good reason.
17. Delmon Young, RF, Rays
Baseball America ranked him as one of baseball's top three prospects four years running, including No. 1 in 2006. Scouts loved his bat and -- oddly, considering his major league reputation on defense -- his range and arm in right field. He hasn't been a bust, but he hasn't lived up to the hype.
16. Darryl Strawberry, RF, Mets
Before he became the first pick in the 1980 draft, Sports Illustrated ran a short feature on Strawberry that included this quote from scout Phil Pote: "He's got a [Ted] Williams-type physical makeup -- tall, rangy, good leverage. He's got bat quickness, he can drive the ball. The ball jumps off his bat. He's got what we call 'bat presence' -- an intangible, a something. Any swing of his can hurt you. He's just a natural hitter. He could make a lot of money in baseball."
15. Matt Wieters, C, Orioles
After hitting .355/.454/.600 between Class A and Double-A in 2008, Wieters became everyone’s No. 1 prospect before the 2009 season. As Kevin Goldstein wrote at Baseball Prospectus: “A monster on offense, Wieters is a switch-hitter with plus to plus-plus power from both sides of the plate, an excellent batting eye, and a fantastic feel for contact. He walked more times (82) than he struck out (76) in '08, hits to all fields, rarely chases a bad pitch, and punishes mistakes. Defensively, he's incredibly agile behind the plate, and his plus-plus arm can shut down an opponents' running game.” Wieters is hitting better this season, but his not turning into an elite hitter is one of the biggest prospect disappointments in years.
14. Jason Heyward, RF, Braves
His .323/.408/.555 line in the minors as a 19-year-old brought comparisons to other tall right fielders like Dave Winfield and Dave Parker, only with a little more speed and a more precocious understanding of the strike zone.
13. Mark Prior, RHP, Cubs
Coming out of USC, many scouts called him the best college pitcher they'd ever seen, and the hype around him was similar to what Stephen Strasburg would experience nearly a decade later. He was the consensus best player in the 2001 draft but went No. 2 to the Cubs as the Twins took Mauer. The minor leagues were no problem and he was dominating major leaguers by 2002.
12. Gregg Jefferies, SS, Mets
Was he overhyped because he was a Mets prospect? I don't think so. A first-round pick in 1985, Jefferies was a pure hitter and won Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year award in 1986 after hitting .353 with 16 home runs and 53 steals, and then again in 1987 after hitting .367 with 48 doubles and 20 home runs. He was a switch-hitter who rarely struck out and reached the majors a few weeks after his 20th birthday. Turned out he wasn't a shortstop (or a second baseman, for that matter) and he did end up having a decent career after leaving the Mets.
11. Bobby Valentine, SS, Dodgers
The fifth pick in the 1968 draft by the Dodgers, Valentine was a football and baseball star from Stamford, Conn., owner of blazing speed and a good bat. By 1970, just 20 years old, he was the Pacific League MVP after hitting .340 with 69 extra-base hits and 29 steals as a shortstop. He was a little raw in the field (54 errors), but he was penciled in as the Dodgers’ starting shortstop in 1971. But that offseason he tore up his knee playing touch football, an injury that caused his leg to knit with an 18-degree bend between the knee and ankle. "The doctors said the condition would restrict my running," Valentine said in a 1974 Sports Illustrated article, "and to really correct it would require a 13-to-16-month project with surgery, plates and screws and another cast, and that after two years my leg would be good as new." The speed was gone. He later broke his leg in two places running into an outfield fence.
10. Reggie Jackson, OF, A's
A high school catcher named Steve Chilcott was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1966 draft by the Mets -- the only team that apparently didn’t have Jackson as the top player on its board. A star at Arizona State, Jackson was a center fielder with power, speed and a strong throwing arm. The A’s gladly took him with the second pick and he was in the majors by 1967.
9. Dwight Gooden, RHP, Mets
He was the sixth overall pick in 1982 and the next season he struck out 300 batters in 191 innings in the Carolina League ... at age 18. He then pitched for Tidewater in the Triple-A playoffs. (Can you imagine that kind of workload today?) At 19, he was the best pitcher in the National League.
8. Brien Taylor, LHP, Yankees
To this day, many scouts still say Taylor was the best left-handed pitching prospect they've ever seen, throwing in the upper 90s with a smooth, easy delivery. The first pick in 1991 and signed to a then-record $1.5 million deal (shattering the previous mark by nearly $1 million), Taylor was on his way to stardom when he injured his shoulder in a bar fight after the 1993 season.
7. Bryce Harper, RF, Nationals
Too high? Dave Cameron recently asked: "Best prospect ever?"
6. Andruw Jones, CF, Braves
Baseball America's two-time Minor League Player of the Year and No. 1 overall prospect, Jones was a precocious talent with more speed and range than Ken Griffey Jr. After hitting two home runs in Game 1 of the 1996 World Series at age 19, the potential seemed unlimited. Some may view his career as a disappointment, but that's a little harsh for a guy who won 10 Gold Gloves and hit more than 400 home runs.
5. Bo Jackson, OF, Royals
Jackson’s tools made scouts drool. Monster 500-foot home runs. Electrifying speed. A laser-beam arm. Considering there have been few athletes like Bo in any sport, his tools were off the charts. He fell to the Royals in the fourth round of the 1986 draft only because everyone thought the Heisman Trophy winner would play football (the Angels had five of the first 28 picks and passed). Jackson did sign with Kansas City ("Now it's time for what I love to do," he said then) and was in the majors that September. In this Sports Illustrated article after he signed, Royals owner Ewing Kaufman compared him to Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, saying he had more power and speed then George Brett. The Royals' scouting director said he had a better arm then Roberto Clemente. Reggie Jackson said he could become ... the next Reggie Jackson.
Truth be told, Jackson’s tools never translated to great baseball results. He had raw power but struck out too much, wasn’t a great outfielder (despite his speed and strong arm, he played left field), and didn’t steal many bases because he didn't get on base enough. Before he injured his hip in the NFL, he had become a good player -- but not a great one.
4. Johnny Bench, C, Reds
How did Bench fall to the second round in the 1965 draft? Scout Jim McLaughlin tells the story in Kevin Kerrane’s classic book, “Dollar Sign on the Muscle”: “A friend of mine with another club said, ‘You better send someone down to Binger, Oklahoma, to look at this kid Bench. We’re not gonna draft him, because the general manager’s seen another catcher he likes up in New England.’ … Nobody else knew much about him; his team hadn’t played many games, and our scout was usually the only one there, so we could wait.”
The story may or may not be true -- the Orioles did draft a catcher from Dartmouth one spot ahead of Bench -- but Bench’s legendary throwing arm and power quickly asserted itself. At 18, he hit .294 with 22 home runs in the Carolina League and the next season he was The Sporting News’ Minor League Player of the Year after hitting 23 home runs at Triple-A Buffalo. By the time he reached the Reds at 19, he was already a big name.
3. Ken Griffey Jr., CF, Mariners
The Mariners nearly took a college pitcher named Mike Harkey instead of Griffey with the first pick in the 1987 draft. If they’d done that, Seattle may not have a major league baseball team right now. Griffey tore up the Northwest League as a 17-year-old, and as an 18-year-old hit .325 with 13 home runs in 280 at-bats in the California League. With power, defense, speed and the prettiest swing you'll ever see, Griffey broke camp with the Mariners in 1989 at age 19 and never looked back.
2. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals
We seem to hear "best pitching prospect" ever more often than "best position player prospect," and maybe Strasburg was a product of getting drafted in the Internet age, but everyone agreed: This kid was one of a kind. Before blowing out his elbow, he was everything the scouts had promised, blowing 100-mph fastballs by minor leaguers for a few weeks then striking out 12.2 hitters per nine innings in the majors.
1. Alex Rodriguez, SS, Mariners
"The next Cal Ripken," a scout said before the 1993 draft. "He's not just a field-and-throw guy, he's got all of the tools." Interestingly, Baseball America actually rated Trot Nixon as the best pure high school hitter before that draft, and Derrek Lee as the best power hitter. It did rate Rodriguez as being closest to the majors. "I originally wanted us to go for the college relief pitcher," Mariners manager Lou Piniella told the Seattle Times in 1993, referring to Darren Dreifort. "Then I saw films of the shortstop [Rodriguez]. He's a man among boys out there. Wow! No way we could pass on him." Baseball America was correct: Just 18, Rodriguez made his major league debut the next year, and hit .312 with 21 home runs between three levels in the minors. With power, speed, work ethic and an excellent glove at a premium position, he was the perfect prospect.