The best MLB prospects we ever saw: The Kid, that swing and phenoms' feats ESPN logo
Thursday, March 26, 2020

This was supposed to be opening week, the time when MLB fans everywhere look forward to making a season's worth of memories. Since we won't have games to get excited about for a while, we thought it would be fun to take a walk down memory lane by reliving some of our personal favorite baseball moments.

In the third of our weeklong series focusing on a different baseball theme each day, we asked our MLB reporters to tell us about the best prospect they ever saw, with only one rule: They had to have seen them in person.

Jump to ...

The Kid | From the opposing dugout

Stras or Trout ? | Encountering Trout

Mauer's swing| Kershaw ... in church

Price was right | Sold on Soler

Ace on the Cape | Going old school

Tim Kurkjian:A first look at The Kid

The day he was drafted out of Moeller High School in Cincinnati by the Mariners with the No. 1 overall pick in 1987, Ken Griffey Jr. was as close to a guaranteed star as the draft had ever seen. His swing was fundamentally perfect, he could run, he had a great arm and he glided through the outfield.

"All the Mariner draft picks came to work out at the Kingdome, you know, so they could see where they all wanted to end up eventually,'' said then-Mariners catcher Scott Bradley. "Junior is 18. He gets in the cage. Most kids would be nervous. Not him. While he was hitting, he was carrying on a conversation with the writers, who were all around the cage. He hit line drives all over the field. Then he took a rest. The next round, he hit ball after ball into the upper deck in right field. I've never seen anything like it."

After Griffey's first full season in the minor leagues, the Mariners didn't want him to make the big club in the spring of 1989. He was 19. They wanted to start him at Triple-A.

"So they played him against every tough left-hander in the Cactus League so he would fail and then they could send him back," Bradley said. "But he hit every one of them. So they had no choice. He made the team."

Tim Keown: Seeing a superstar from the opposing dugout

I'm going to cheat and choose two. I was an end-of-the-bench catcher on the Cal baseball team, what I like to describe as the fifth of four catchers, and the highlight of my brief career was occasionally catching bullpens during home conference games. (The paparazzi were intense.)

At that time, 1984, that meant a really good seat, or squat, to watch some of the best college baseball players ever: Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Randy Johnson, Shane Mack, Mike Devereaux. But the most complete amateur player I ever saw was Arizona State center fielder Oddibe McDowell. As a college player, he was a revelation. He hit a home run into the track stadium beyond right field at Evans Diamond and sprinted about 40 yards to track down a line drive to the gap in left-center like he was taking out the garbage. He was fast, strong and absolutely drenched in confidence. He wasn't the best big leaguer, but nobody would have predicted that back then.

I'd never seen anything like McDowell until a scout friend of mine told me I had to accompany him to a high school game in Alameda, California, in the spring of 1996, which brings me to the second of my favorite prospects: Jimmy Rollins. Like any good scout, Doug McMillan made sure we got to the park about 30 minutes before Rollins took infield. "He doesn't look like much," he told me as we walked toward the field, "but he's going to be a [bleeping] star. I've never been more sure of anything in my life."

When I saw Rollins, I was skeptical; he was 5-foot-6, maybe 150 pounds, but as soon as he fielded a ground ball, any cynicism dissolved. His talent was incandescent, and his joy brought joy.

Buster Olney: How could you choose between Stras and Trout?

Forgive me, but I have two as well.

No. 1: The late and great San Diego Padres general manager Kevin Towers pitched in the minor leagues, and his strength was always in evaluating pitching, which is why he got my attention with a spring phone call. "I just saw the greatest pitching prospect ever," he said flatly, and he proceeded to detail all of the extraordinary elements of the college right-hander. The guy throws 100 mph; he has excellent command; and, in Kevin's eyes, he had the robust build -- 6-foot-4, with tree-trunk legs -- to sustain that promise. That was the first time I heard anybody mention the extraordinary ceiling of San Diego State underclassman Stephen Strasburg.

No. 2: In the middle of May of 2012, I was chatting with Oakland GM Billy Beane, and he mentioned how much he loved to watch Los Angeles Angels rookie Mike Trout -- who had just been called up from the minors -- because Trout's extraordinary speed changed everything. The way infielders had to hurry their actions, the way he affected positioning. Billy said, "He's going to be the best player this year."

I followed up: "You mean the best player on the Angels?"

"No," he said with a laugh, "the best player in baseball."

Billy knew of what he spoke.

Sam Miller: A quick encounter with Trout

It happened that in 2010, Mike Trout's first full season in the minors, I had to write a daily update on the Angels' minor league system. So throughout the season's first three months, I stared at Midwest League box scores every morning and watched this incredible prospect hype growing like Jack's beanstalk. He was only 18, hitting .360 in Class A Cedar Rapids, with minimal power but feats of speed that were hard to grasp. In a monthlong stretch early in the season, he hit .400 with 19 steals, as the league's youngest player.

Then, still 18, he got promoted to High-A Rancho Cucamonga, 45 minutes from my office. So I took a point-and-shoot camera to his home debut, trying to document his arrival in California with a slideshow of blurry-ish photos. It was tricky to get his face in any of them, because my attention clearly made him reticent. He would see me out of the corner of his eye and try to keep his face angled away; to my interview request, he asked for time to stretch first, then stretched for over an hour, glancing over constantly to see if I'd left yet. There were very few fans at those games, and he was still relatively unrecognizable, and I was trying to screw it all up. I was sympathetic, but it was hopeless: His talent -- the fastest strong player I've ever seen, and the strongest fast player -- was simply too much to hide. Less than a year later, at 19, he was in the majors.

Jeff Passan: Meeting Kershaw ... in church

The first time I saw Clayton Kershaw was in church. It was a Sunday morning, May 11, 2008. We were in Mobile, Alabama. I was there to write a story about this fairly new phenomenon to baseball -- prospect worship -- and arrived to a gift-wrapped metaphor when he spent that morning in chapel.

Kershaw was 20 and bore the look of someone who would be carded wherever he went. His face was incapable of sprouting whiskers. Successes and failures hadn't yet hardened him. He was just the kid with a left arm kissed by something magical.

When he pitched the next day, Kershaw happened to turn in the second-worst outing of his minor league career. He was livid. As he returned to the dugout, he took off his glove, held it in his left arm, readied to chuck it against the wall and ... calmed himself down. Even then, Kershaw was as acute mentally as he was physically.

And don't let the five runs he allowed in 3 innings that day fool you. They certainly didn't distract the scouts sitting behind the plate. A fastball that topped out at 97 mph. A curveball that left his hand as an illusion. He wasn't even throwing the slider, which eventually evolved into his best pitch. And yet the purity of the stuff, the fact that it emanated from this unique, perfectly calibrated left-handed delivery -- even on an off night, it was undeniable.

Two weeks later, Kershaw made his debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Outside of a brief return to Double-A to manage his innings that summer, he has remained there since. The best prospect I'd ever seen, it turned out, happened to be the best pitcher of his generation too.

Dan Mullen: Yes, I really wrote a college paper about Joe Mauer

Joe Mauer happened to come through New Britain as baseball's top prospect right about the time I was really starting up my journalism career at UConn. I somehow managed to turn a random college feature writing class assignment into a sit-down interview with Mauer that also became an actual story for a prospect site as I got to know him a little bit in the very beginning of my baseball writing career.

But it's the first time I saw Mauer that is why he was the first name that jumped to mind for this question (though I must add that I ruled out Futures Games since choosing someone like Mike Trout based off of one just didn't seem fair).

Back in those days, before Instagram and YouTube, baseball phenoms were more word of mouth than highlight clips, and I hadn't actually seen Mauer play yet when I dragged a group of college friends to Norwich to see his Double-A debut after hearing he was getting called up from Fort Myers.

I'll never forget walking into the stadium concourse, looking down to the group of Rock Cats players warming up while wondering how I'd pick him out from the group to show my friends and then seeing him take literally one swing with a practice bat and knowing immediately that it was Joe Mauer because only the top prospect in baseball could have a swing that looked like that.

Mauer went on to bat .341 the rest of the season as a 20-year-old in Double-A and made his MLB debut the next Opening Day.

Alden Gonzalez:The Price was right from the start

It was May 28, 2008, in Port St. Lucie, Florida. I was there to cover Pedro Martinez, who was making a rehab start for the New York Mets' Class A affiliate as he neared the tail end of his prestigious career. Instead, the story became about the young phenom on the other side. David Price, pitching less than a year after the Tampa Bay Rays made him the No. 1 overall pick out of Vanderbilt University, was impossible to hit that night.

He breezed through six scoreless innings, striking out nine and allowing only two baserunners in what was only his second professional appearance. The stuff and the command and the poise were glaringly obvious then -- even to a young reporter who barely knew anything about pitching.

Later that night, Martinez stopped on his way to the parking lot, leaned against a tree in front of the stadium and couldn't stop raving about Price. "Oh my god," he said at one point. "God bless him and keep him healthy."

Less than four months later, Price debuted as a dynamic reliever in the big leagues -- a weapon the Rays rode to an improbable World Series run.

Bradford Doolittle: Sold on Soler by BP

My scouting eye is lacking; I need data. Armed with numbers and good scouting intel, I can then sometimes translate what I see while eyeballing a player into some kind of intelligible observation. It's not often that I can just look at a player with no prior knowledge of his strengths and weaknesses and then immediately pick any of them out. There was one exception that I can recall.

Teams will often trot out their first-round draft pick at a press conference or, on occasion, will do the same for a high-profile international signing. Sometimes, if the prospect is a hitter, they'll let him take a turn or two in the batting cage during BP before he is farmed out to the minor leagues. He's there, so why not? It's not something that usually stands out as anything more than a curiosity.

But when the Cubs brought out Jorge Soler for his introduction at Wrigley Field after he signed in 2012, when he was just 20 years old, it was hard not to notice just how powerfully built he was.

Then he got into the batting cage. By then, I was back up in the press box. It was a warm day with the windows open and an unusual thwack caught my attention. So I sat back and watched Soler hammer ball after ball into the far reaches of the center-field bleachers and onto Waveland Avenue. I knew nothing of his overall skill set -- whether he could get the bat on the ball, field, had any plate discipline, etc. But I knew if that skill set could get him to the major leagues, he was going to hit a heck of a lot of home runs.

Kiley McDaniel:Finding an ace on the Cape

When I went to the Cape Cod League to scout in the summer of 2013, I went in somewhat blind, knowing there would be a mess of high-round prospects to see that week but not sure of all the names in advance. One afternoon I went to Hyannis to see a pitcher who I was told was the best in the league, who just got to the Cape and wasn't staying long.

It turned out I saw the third of four starts for Jeff Hoffman on the Cape and it was electric: 7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 11 K. He was sitting in the mid-90s with plus life and hit 98, his curveball was anywhere from a 60 to 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, his changeup was above average as well and his strike throwing, while not perfect, was enough for these hitters and enough to project him as a starter, due to his strong athleticism.

The next summer, Hoffman went No. 9 overall despite having Tommy John surgery in the interim. He has been injured, had diminished command and inconsistent stuff in pro ball. He hasn't quite put it all back together for long stretches like he did that night, but it was the best amateur pitching performance I've ever seen.

David Schoenfield: An old-school high school pitching sensation

I saw Ken Griffey Jr. play for Bellingham his first year in pro ball, so it's hard to beat that. That's not much of a story, though.

Maybe the best prospect I ever saw was one I actually don't remember seeing: Floyd Bannister. In 1973, Bannister went 15-0 with a 0.00 ERA for Kennedy High School outside of Seattle, throwing a no-hitter in the state semifinals as Kennedy won the state title. He allowed just two unearned runs all season and fanned 196 in 112 innings. My dad always told me about taking me to see him pitch, although I was too young to remember. Maybe that was the first baseball game I ever saw. Maybe Floyd Bannister was the player who got me hooked.

The A's drafted Bannister in the third round out of high school, but in those days, when the first pick in the draft -- David Clyde -- received a bonus of just $65,000, Bannister attended baseball powerhouse Arizona State. It didn't help that cheapskate A's owner Charlie Finley never made a serious offer. Bannister went on to a dominant career at ASU, leading the NCAA in strikeouts in both 1975 (217 in 157 innings) and 1976 (213 in 186 innings, when he won 19 games and threw 17 complete games).

The Astros drafted the hard-throwing lefty first overall in 1976. How good was that Arizona State team? It had 13 players drafted that year, and 26 of the 27 members of the team eventually got drafted. (Eastern Michigan and Arizona upset ASU in the College World Series.) Anyway, Bannister reached the majors in 1977, but after two so-so seasons, the Astros traded him to his hometown Mariners for shortstop Craig Reynolds. Bannister had a solid career, pitching mostly for bad teams in Seattle and Chicago, and won 134 games, leading the AL once in strikeouts and twice in K's per nine.

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