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December 19, 2004

Duncan and Navarro, We Hardly Knew Ye
by Fabian

Dioner Navarro and Eric Duncan, or as they will often be referred to in the next few days, “two prospects”, figure to be joining the Los Angeles Dodgers organization sometime in the near future as part of the deal that has Randy Johnson landing in the Bronx. So, let’s find out who they are and why you should, or should not, care that they will be gone from the organization.

First things first, from an accolades point of view, Navarro has been a top 10 prospect since his ’02 season in my opinion and the height of his prospect status was following his sensational ’03 where most publications had him as the organization’s number 1 guy. Duncan was the Yankees top pick in the ’03 draft and many publications had him as a top 5 guy last year, and he is the consensus number 1 Yankee prospect following the completed ’04 season. In addition, Navarro won the best defensive C award for the Eastern League (AA) in this year’s best tools issue of Baseball America and Duncan received votes, but did not win, the best defensive 3B award for the Midwest League (A-), but made up for that by being voted the 3rd best prospect in the MWL and the 10th best prospect in the Florida State League (A+).

It is a combination of those awards/mentions, personal fondness, and statistical performance that makes me unhappy to see these two go. While many seem to be saying that it is a pity to lose Duncan, they also seem to be ignoring Navarro who I think may be more valuable down the road. The biggest knocks on Navarro seem to be against his size and how it affects his performance. As I’ve stated on many occasions in the past, sure, Navarro is short (listed height of 5’10’’), but it’s not as though he is a short and frail C. Rather he is short and stocky, which is part of the reason he picked up the nickname Pudgicito, the other part being his throwing arm. So, yeah, I guess it’d be great if he were built along the lines of Jorge or some other C, but as long as he gets the job done I don’t think the size will matter. As for whether or not the job will get done offensively, I seem to be in the minority.

In 2001, Dioner Navarro made his stateside debut playing in the Gulf Coast League, as a 17-year-old, which is young for the league, Navarro hit .280 with a solid .126 IsoP and an excellent 17:23 BB:K ratio. Having already demonstrated the ability to hit for average, power, and control the strike zone, Navarro apparently just needed to stay the course to become a star. While you will just have to trust me here since the information has since been lost, Navarro was well on his way to doing just that through the first half of the ’02 South Atlantic League season and then he simply just fell apart following the All Star break. This was somewhat predictable considering he was an 18-year-old C playing in his first full season, nevertheless, he still had some positive statistical indicators. The .238 average was embarrassing, but the 39:61 BB:K in 328 at bats was not, and neither was the .122 IsoP.

Showing that they understood the positives outweighed the negatives in ’02, the Yankee organization went ahead and placed Navarro as the starting C for the ’03 Tampa Yankees in the FSL, and that’s the point where he took off. While Robinson Cano got much of the prospect attention for that team early on, it was Navarro who was able to sustain and improve on his early season performance. By the All Star break it was clear that Navarro was in need of a promotion as he had hit .299 with a .168 IsoP and 17:27 BB:K ratio in the FSL as a 19-year-old C. For those of you “not in the know” those are some truly outstanding numbers and it was at that point that Navarro began to show up on the mainstream prospect radar. He then went on to certify his status by hitting .341 with a .130 IsoP and 18:26 BB:K ratio in 208 EL at bats.

So, 2+ years after his promising GCL debut, the switch-hitting C had been on the right path, and then it all fell apart in ’04, or so some would have you think. The first misstep in ’04 was coming to spring training out of shape. Some say it is inexcusable for a 20-year-old to be out of shape, but I tend to take a lighter stance with that incident. Either way, his actual statistical performance in ’04 was still poor to many. Those people tend to look at a .723 OPS in AA followed by a .676 in AAA and scoff at the merits of such a “prospect”, my view is different.

Firstly, I think it is worthwhile to note that in the period that Navarro was in Trenton the park played to a .902 PF. This may have little to no predictive value, but I feel it should be taken into consideration when evaluating performance at the level for the first half of the season. Basically, a .723 OPS in and of itself is under whelming, but considering the run-scoring environment for half the games and the player being 20-years-old I would be a little more forgiving. Also, of the components of his OPS, his .098 IsoP was extremely disappointing, but the 33:44 BB:K in 255 at bats was very encouraging, as that aspect of his game continued to mature.

The Yankees then moved Navarro up to AAA for the sake of advancing his trade value and Navarro proceeded to do what any reasonable observer would have expected, he struggled. In 136 at bats, Dioner could only manage a .250 average with a somewhat promising .110 IsoP and 14:17 BB:K ratio.

With all this in mind, I feel pretty safe that at the least, Navarro should be in the majors for sometime as guys who play good defense, and he reportedly does, can always hang around as backup C. As for the high-end of his potential, I think if everything works out, Navarro will be a player of similar value to Jason Kendall.

Moving on to Duncan, seen by many as the key prospect in the deal, his history in the Yankee system is much shorter as he was just drafted in ’03. Similar to Navarro, Duncan is adept at drawing walks with 18 in 180 at bats in the ’03 GCL, 2 in 59 NYPL ’03 at bats, 38 in 288 MWL at bats in ’04, and 31 in 173 FSL at bats in ’04. However, that is about where the offensive similarities between he and Navarro end.

While Navarro is adept at making contact, Duncan has more trouble doing the same. He struck out in 18.3% of GCL at bats, then 18.6% of NYPL at bats, then 29.2% of MWL at bats, and in 27.2% of FSL at bats. This trend has given many people cause for concern, but I wouldn’t really count myself too much as part of that crowd. Yes, Duncan, does strike out a lot, but part of the reason for that strikeout rate is that he consistently works deep counts and just like how patient big league hitters tend to have high strikeout rates, Duncan will also. In addition, though I have not come across any research concerning the minor leagues that says that at “X”% a strikeout rate is cause for great concern, I feel safe in thinking that Duncan has yet to reach that point from a purely subjective perspective. My view is only strengthened when I see that Baseball Prospectus’ prospect projection system sees Duncan’s K rate as a harbinger of great power to come, as opposed to a hitter like, say, Dallas McPherson whom the system seems to think will not be as great as many make him out to be, in part due to strike zone management past the danger zone.

Going back to the topic of Duncan’s power, which is his calling card as a prospect. It may seem ridiculous to some, but I have a hard time not believing that Eric Duncan is one of the top 10, at least, power prospects in the minor leagues. Duncan already has a career IsoP of .200, which is extremely impressive for a 20-year-old and this past year he posted a .219 in the MWL and a .208 in the FSL. Both marks would have had him in the top 5 of the respective leagues had he had time to qualify for either leader board. In addition, his extra base hit percentage of 52.9% would have you believe that his IsoP should be higher and that will come as soon as some of the 47(!) 2Bs and 3Bs he hit this year begin turning into home runs. Coinciding with the statistical power Duncan has shown, BA has in the past described some of his physical tools as reminiscent of Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, or Nick Johnson with more opposite field power.

In the end, the Randy Johnson trade will most certainly make the Yankees a better team in ’05, despite this; I am not sold on the idea. Part of it is that I love to see Yankees come up through the farm system and contribute to the big club, rather than the team just going out and getting the best “mercenary” available. In addition, I think that Navarro had a role with this team starting as the Jorge Posada to Jorge Posada’s Joe Girardi in the year ’06. Eric Duncan, I felt, had an outside chance of contributing sometime within the next two seasons, depending on how bad the Giambi/1B situation gets. Now, the chances of either of those things happening are gone and the organization is without its top C and CIF prospects, but alas, this is the price you have to pay to be a Yankee fan, and hey, it’s not like there’s a guarantee either of these guys will turn out to be anything at all, much less something special or worthwhile.