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The biggest Yankees prospect flops: Ricky Ledee

According to KATOH -- my system for forecasting prospects -- Ricky Ledee was supposed to be a pretty good player. Unfortunately, he spent most of his career toiling as a replacement-level outfielder. What went wrong?

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Shortly before the new year, I wrote a piece for the Hardball Times chronicling KATOH -- a methodology I developed to project prospects' big league performance. I won't get into the nitty-gritty, technical details here -- feel free to check out my original piece if you're interested. Basically, KATOH looks at a hitter's age and league-adjusted minor league stats and estimates the probability that a player will reach certain WAR thresholds. These probabilities can then be used to estimate how many fWAR he's likely to accumulate through age 28.

Last week, I took a look at erstwhile Yankees prospect Nick Johnson, who was projected for 20.7 WAR through age 28 by KATOH, but only ended up with 12.6. His deficit of 8.1 WAR was the largest of any Yankees hitting prospect on record. Today, I'll take a look back at Ricky Ledee, who was second on the list with a deficit of 7.9 (7.9 projected, 0.0 actual). In fact, Ledee technically edges out Johnson if you consider that Ledee actually earned negative WAR through his 28th birthday.

The Yankees drafted Ledee as a 16-year-old out of Puerto Rico in the 16th round of the 1990 amateur draft. Ledee spent his early days in the minors as a wiry singles hitter, but started to hit for some pop in his age 19 and 20 seasons. The power continued to develop during Ledee's minor league days, culminating in a 29 home run season in 1996, his age 22 season. Ledee began that year in Double-A Norwich, but was promoted to Triple-A Columbus after slugging .365/.421/.635 in the season's first six weeks. Despite having all of 39 games above Low-A ball, Ledee continued to mash at the Triple-A level, belting 21 bombs on his way to a .282/.360/.553 batting line -- good for the 3rd highest OPS in the International League that year.

Things were looking up for Ledee. Despite being younger than most Triple-A players, he managed to perform better than league average in terms of hitting for power (.271 ISO), drawing walks (11%), and turning balls in play into hits (.328 BABIP). Ledee wasn't purely a slugger, either. He also possessed above-average speed -- he swiped eight bags that year -- and had an strong arm. KATOH was a fan, pegging him for nearly eight WAR through age 28. For reference, the four hitting prospects closest to that mark this year are Domingo Santana, Corey Seager, Giovanny Urshela, and Javier Baez. Two decent prospects and two excellent ones.

The Yankees really liked Ledee at this point, anticipating that he'd be a member of their outfield for years to come.  In fact, he was the sticking point in the trade negotiations for Hideki Irabu  in the spring of 1997, as the Yankees refused to include Ledee in their package for the Japanese hurler. Ledee returned to Triple-A Columbus for the 1997 season, primed to break onto the scene as soon as there was an opening in the lineup. Unfortunately, that day never came, as a couple of groin injuries limited him to just 43 games with the Clippers. Still, he hit an impressive .306/.385/.565 in limited action, which was enough to vault him to #46 on Baseball America's top 100 list.

Ledee finally got the call in June of 1998, replacing the injuerd Bernie Williams on the roster. Although the 24-year-old stuck with the team for most of the remainder of the year, Ledee played sparingly. Buried behind the likes of Williams, Paul O'Niell, Chad Curtis, Darryl Strawberry, Chili Davis, and Shane Spencer, most of Ledee's action came as a pinch runner or defensive replacement. Due to his limited playing time, Ledee maintained his rookie status for another year, and Baseball America's ranked him #70 on their annual list.

The Yankees finally gave Ledee a real opportunity in 1999, and he rewarded them by showing flashes of what made him such a highly-touted prospect. He spent most of the season at the big league level, and although he scarcely played against left-handed pitching, Ledee managed to log 208 plate appearances of solid hitting. By hitting nine homers and walking a healthy 10% of the time, Ledee posted a batting line of .276/.346/.476 -- good for a 106 wRC+, or 6% better than league average. Still just 25, it was starting to look like Ledee might actually live up to his prospect hype, even if a couple years later than expected.

But Ledee's 1999 wasn't all roses and sunshine. Many questioned Ledee's focus, and even Ledee himself publicly revealed that he strugled to bring his A-game day in and day out. Here's an excerpt from a New York Times article from Spring Training of 2000:

I would like to do this every day, just go hard no matter what, and have that positive attitude every day,'' Ledee said. ''Sometimes you have lazy days. You're going slow. Instead of getting going like everybody else does.

Granted that's just one quote, but that's certainly not the kind of attitude you like to see from any player, let alone one as young and promising as Ledee. Ledee got off to something of a slow start in 2000, hitting .241/.332/.419 in 62 games, but his struggles appeared to be driven by bad luck than anything. His strikeout and walk numbers both improved from his 1999 campaign, but his overall line was held back by a .265 BABIP. In any event, Ledee was dealt to the Indians in late June as part of the package that brought back David Justice.

Ledee spent one forgettable month in Cleveland before finishing out the year with the Texas Rangers, where he hit a miserable .235/.317/.347. Ledee stayed with Texas through the 2001 season, but continued to scuffle, managing just a .231/.303/.351 batting line in 58 games. Ledee rediscovered his power stroke as a 28-year-old in Philadelphia the following year, but saw his overall batting line get bogged down by yet another batting average in the .230 range. A 105 wRC+ coming from a corner outfielder just isn't that valuable, especially given Ledee's poor defensive metrics.

Ledee would bounce around for another five years, but his performance was more of the same: Low average, decent power, a few walks, and poor defense. All told, through age 28, Ledee accumulated all of -0.4 WAR, or roughly half a win below replacement. This was weighed down a bit by a couple of really bad seasons -- he was "worth" -1.6 WAR from 2000 to 2001 -- but there's no denying that Ledee was a massive disappointment. Even at his best, he was nothing more than a platoon outfielder due to his poor defense and inability to get on base.

Its hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong with Ledee. Maybe all of the missed development time from 1997-1999 stunted his development -- he did miss out on a lot of at bats due to injury and riding the bench. Perhaps the make-up issues were really as bad as the media made them out to be, and he lacked the #want necessary to fulfill his potential. Whatever the case, Ledee's career accomplishments fell well short of the expectations laid out for him in the mid-to-late 1990's. But hey, at least he gave us a couple of timely playoff hits.