Choi still has plenty of value

I've had several people ask recently if I'll be writing a prospect book for 2004. The answer is a definite "yes," and I'll have ordering information on my Web site very soon.

Additionally, I'll be a guest speaker (along with Rob Neyer) at the First Pitch Arizona Fall League Conference on Nov. 7-9, sponsored by Baseball HQ. It's a lot of fun, and they still have an early bird rate going. For more information, go to: www.firstpitchforums.com.

On to the mailbag!

K.C. writes: Even after Hee Seop Choi's disastrous rookie season for the Cubs, do you still think he is a legitimate top prospect? He was hailed as one of the front-runners for the NL Rookie of the Year Award but started slumping even before he suffered the concussion. Cubs manager Dusty Baker has a preference for veteran players and has shown no desire to develop a rookie with the NL Central as tight as it is. Do you see him becoming a star with another organization, or can we label him as another high-profile bust?

I refuse to call any 24-year-old player with 251 major league at-bats a bust.

Choi has been disappointing this year, yes. But he still has a .351 OBP, has hit 17 doubles and eight homers in just 201 at-bats, and is drawing walks at an excellent clip. Although Eric Karros is hitting .287, Choi's overall OPS is almost the same: .774 OPS for Choi, .782 for Karros. Choi actually has a higher OBP than Karros at .351 vs .340, and his SLG is almost as good, .423 vs .442.

For those of you who place value in the RBI, Choi has driven in more runs per at-bat than Karros has: .139 RBI/AB for Choi vs. .119 RBI/AB for Karros.

Choi hasn't done as well as expected, but he's hardly been a bust. At his age he still has plenty of time to figure things out. If the Cubs don't want Choi, I'm sure there are plenty of teams out there who would love to have him.

B.H. asks: The Blue Jays are really high on Russ Adams. His batting average was .277 at Double-A New Haven this past season. In a way, he might end up becoming a poor man's Chuck Knoblauch. He has very good speed and could have a very good batting average. What are your thoughts on Adams?

For those who don't know, Adams was drafted in the first round (14th overall) by the Blue Jays in 2002, out of the University of North Carolina. A left-handed-hitting shortstop, he began 2003 at Class A Dunedin, hitting .279 with a .380 OBP. Promoted to Double-A New Haven at midseason, he hit .277 with a .349 OBP and a .387 SLG in 65 games, with 10 doubles, 30 walks, and eight steals in 271 at-bats.

I like Adams, and I can see the Knoblauch comparison, although they don't look much alike physically. Like Chuck early in his career, Russ is a speed-and-walks type leadoff hitter, someone who doesn't have tons of power (at least not yet), but who gets on base and is dangerous once there. Adams hits left-handed, whereas Knoblauch hit right-handed. Knoblauch developed some power as he got older, and Adams might, too. Although Adams is still a shortstop for now, there's been talk of moving him to second base eventually. He made 35 errors this year, and some scouts don't think he has enough arm to play shortstop at the major league level.

Adams' best statistical marker is a good walk rate combined with low strikeouts. In 789 pro at-bats so far, he has fanned just 92 times, while drawing 110 walks. He does a lot of things right, and my guess is that he's going to be a solid all-around player.

J.J. from California writes: I am a huge Stanford fan and was wondering what you think about Ryan Garko, who the Indians drafted this year. Why would they need him? They have Victor Martinez and Josh Bard, who are about the same age and they also drafted a catcher the pick before Garko's. Are they going to trade him? It seems as though the only position he can play besides catcher is first base, and the Indians won't need him to do that with Travis Hafner and Ben Broussard.

Garko was Stanford's best overall hitter in 2003, leading the club with a .402 average, 18 homers, 92 RBI, and a .703 SLG. He finished second among team regulars with a .469 OBP, drawing 28 walks in 259 at-bats, while striking out just 17 times. Drafted in the third round, he was sent to Mahoning Valley in the New York-Penn League after signing. He hit .273, with a .337 OBP and a .406 SLG, pretty mediocre numbers. But it was just 45 games. His walk and strikeout rates were adequate, but I would like to see him draw a few more free passes. At this point, his numbers are neither good enough nor bad enough to draw firm conclusions about his future, given the small sample size.

Garko has a power bat, but there are questions about his defense, and as you point out, the Indians have other catchers ahead of him. He could play first base, but again as you point out, they have Hafner and Broussard, plus '03 first-rounder Mike Aubrey for that position.

So why did they draft Garko in the third round?

Baseball teams seldom draft "for need" at that point in the draft. Most clubs take the "best available" player on their draft board after the second round. In the first and second rounds, you often see clubs drafting players on perceived signability. After the 10th round or so, you'll see clubs drafting "for need" roster filler more often, in the sense of "we need someone to play second base at Podunkville, so let's pick someone who can do that and has a chance to be a prospect, too." In the middle rounds, the "best available" philosophy holds true most of the time, and Garko falls under that rubric.

If Garko develops like the Indians expect, he'll still have value as trade bait, even if they can't find room for him on the major league roster. It's hard to know exactly what the Indians (or any other team) will need two or three years from now, so generally it makes sense to pick the "best available" guy. All the guys ahead of him now could be injured or ineffective by then.

If I was running a team, I would pick the "best available" guy most of the time, within my general guidelines (avoid high school pitching early in the draft, focus on college and advanced high school players, look for plate discipline and work ethic, etc.). I'm not running a team, but GMs and front office types I've spoken with generally feel the same way, though the guidelines differ from system to system of course.

D.J. in Homestead, Florida, asks: I'm a big Marlins fan, and am obviously happy that the team has done well this year. We haven't had much to root for lately. Anyway, I wanted to get an update on 2002 first-round draft pick Jeremy Hermida. How did he do in '03?

Hermida was the 11th overall pick in 2002, and some scouts felt he was the best high school hitter in the draft. A left-handed-hitting outfielder, he disappointed people by hitting just .224 in 38 games in rookie ball. But he turned things up a notch in 2003, hitting .284 in 133 games at Greensboro in the Sally League. He didn't show much power, hitting just six homers and slugging .393, but he also drew 80 walks and stole 28 bases. The interesting thing about all the steals is that his running speed is only average. But he gets a great jump and does a fine job of reading pitches. He was caught just twice.

I like Hermida's excellent walk rate, and the great stealing percentage could be telling us something very positive about his baseball instincts. Listed at 6-4, 200 pounds, he has power potential but hasn't tapped it yet. My thinking is that he'll show some slight improvement in 2004, then really burst out with a big season in '05.

John Sickels is the author of the 2003 Baseball Prospect Book, which can be ordered from his Web site, JohnSickels.com. His biography of Bob Feller will be published this fall by Brassey's. He lives in Lawrence, Kan., with his wife, son and two cats. You can send John questions or comments at JASickels@aol.com.