Prospect Preview: 1996

It’s pretty hard to believe sometimes, but with the 2009 season upcoming that means that the 1996 season was 13 years ago. Thirteen. To put that into perspective, by the time the 1991 season rolled around – the first season that I remember really well, as it was the year I turned 11 – both Ozzie Smith and Paul Molitor had been in the league for 13 years, Rickey Henderson had been in the league for 12 years and had already broken Lou Brock’s record, and Eddie Murray had been playing for 14 years. These were all legitimate, certain stars that had all-but-punched their ticket to Cooperstown by that time.

It’s with that perspective, then, that I look back at 1996 and think “Wow, was it really that long ago?” I remember those two home runs that 19-year old Andruw Jones hit in Game 1 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. None of that seems like it was an Ozzie Smith-career ago, but it was, so we might as well embrace it.

The young talent in the majors in 1996 was pretty impressive. It was the year of Jeter’s ROY award, and A-Rod’s breakout season. The young talent went throughout the minors as well. Scott Rolen and Nomar were a year away from the majors, and others were getting close too. With all the young talent in the system at the time, it should be interesting to see what the preview guides had to say.

The 1996 Sporting News baseball yearbook had a slightly different format than other preview guides when it comes to the minor league preview. In an effort to streamline the magazine, the minor league comments were shortened to two pages, with the franchises’ top players listed with a single-line comment in a table. Despite this, there are plenty of interesting comments to be found and read 13 years later.

Derek Jeter: “Derek Jeter’s time has arrived at shortstop. The Yankees’ top prospect, who showed a nice flair in a brief call-up last year, has good speed, a fine arm, and a nice hitting technique. The question is whether he will be consistent afield.”It also mentions that he “has physical ability and instincts to be a star.”

The reports on Jeter were quite accurate, right down to the instincts to be a star, the nice hitting technique, and the questions about his fielding consistency (not that everybody agrees with that last point). Jeter’s run-away Rookie of the Year award was also good evidence of just how ready he was for the majors that year.

Bobby Abreu: Listed as Bob Abreu, it is said that he “has speed and gap-power that’s so vital in Astrodome.”

Abreu made his debut as a September call-up in ’96 and struggled some. He didn’t become an everyday major leaguer until the 1998 season, but he quickly turned into one of the more underrated players in baseball. Of course, he just as quickly turned into one of those so-underrated-he’s-overrated players.

Nomar Garciaparra: “Solid defensively; has shown offensive ability”

It’s been a few years since Nomar was near the top of the list of best shortstops in baseball, but he certainly was a big star for those few years. It was mostly with his bat, though, winning those batting titles. It’s interesting that, as a minor leaguer one year away from the Bigs, his offense was the afterthought in the comment.

Kerry Wood: “Polished delivery and a fastball that touches 98 mph”

Wood actually didn’t break on the MLB scene until 1998, two years later, but it’s interesting to see that he was already highly regarded in Single A. So often, you see young power pitchers featured in a team’s “hot prospects” list, but it always seems like they won’t pan out. This is a nice reminder that some of those pitchers truly are special. Hopefully, though, your organization doesn’t have Dusty Baker out there managing, trying his hardest to have a 20-something’s arm literally fall off while on the hill.

The Atlanta Braves had quite the system in 1996, even after half a decade of NL dominance and coming off a World Series victory. They were ranked as the second best system in baseball, behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers (whose Todd Hollandsworth won the Dodgers’ fifth ROY award in a row in 1996). All of the following players were ranked in the Braves’ system in the 1996 TSN Yearbook:

Andruw Jones: “Only 18; has the tools to be plus-player in every aspect”

Jason Schmidt: “Power fastball with hard slider for out pitch”

Jermaine Dye
: “Excellent arm, developing power at plate”

While none of those three have gone on to Hall of Fame careers – though Jones could have been until he was replaced by an alien clone – they all have been quality all-stars across multiple seasons. That was a good time for the Braves organization, with the World championship and the stars waiting in the wings. It’s a shame they weren’t able to turn it into any further championships.

As recent as 1996 seems, we all know that a significant amount of time has elapsed. Many, many players’ careers – all-stars and Rookies of the Year even – have come and gone. Still, there are dozens of players still playing today who were only up-and-coming at the time, and it’s always fun to see what writers were saying about them before they hit it big.

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.