Who Will Top The Diehard Top 50 In '09?

This year's top two prospects in the annual Diehard Top 50 countdown were the same as last year's: Clay Buchholz and Jacoby Ellsbury. An impressive feat, to be sure, but their time atop the rankings is almost surely over.

Indeed, given the standards for eligibility in our rankings—namely, that any player who is no longer rookie-eligible no longer qualifies for consideration—only a catastrophe would leave Buchholz and/or Ellsbury eligible for a third year among the top two.

Buchholz has 22 2/3 big league innings under his belt, which leaves him 27 1/3 frames shy of the 50-inning maximum for rookie consideration. So his rookie eligibility will likely expire by the end of April.

Ellsbury should exceed the rookie standards far quicker: He finished last year with 116 at-bats, only 14 away from the cutoff point of 130 at-bats, and should surge past the barrier by the time the Sox return to Fenway Park for the home opener Apr. 8.

So with Buchholz and Ellsbury out of the running, who will succeed Buchholz at no. 1? Here's a list of the seven candidates most likely to top next year's chart.

1.) Lars Anderson, 1B (Ranked no. 7 this year)
We tend to favor pitchers in compiling the Diehard Top 50. But Anderson has a few things in his favor: He's young (one of only two players in the top 10 who played last season as a teenager), he's got perhaps the highest ceiling of any minor leaguer in the chain and he's about to have a monster season at Lancaster. Any stats compiled at hitter heaven have to be viewed with some skepticism, but Anderson displayed legitimate plate discipline and power potential during his first professional season last year. The big numbers he's going to put up this year will be legitimate and he projects as perhaps the bigger difference-maker among anyone (beyond Buchholz and Ellsbury) in the top 10.

2.) Michael Bowden, P (Ranked no. 6 this year)
Not the highest-ranked pitcher among the holdovers, and his lowered strikeout rate at Double-A Portland last year opened up some questions about how well his stuff will translate at higher levels. But he's just 21 years old, younger than any pitcher in the top 25, and his competitiveness and work ethic are off the charts. Reporting to camp looking much leaner than a year ago is an indication a big season could be in the offing. It'll be tough to keep him out of the top two if he thrives for a chunk of the season at Triple-A Pawtucket.

3.) Justin Masterson, P (Ranked no. 3 this year)
The highest-ranked holdover isn't no. 1 on our list of potential no. 1s, largely because we wouldn't be surprised if he uses up his rookie eligibility over the second half of the season. The power sinkerballer can help the Sox as a starter or as a reliever and it wouldn't be a surprise at all if he is promoted to fill a need in the bullpen sometime this summer. Even if he's not no. 1 next year, he's as likely to have a successful and sustained career as anyone else in the top 25.

4.) Ryan Kalish, OF (Ranked no. 10 this year)
The caution we exercised in projecting Anderson as the most promising talent in the top 10 outside of Buchholz and Ellsbury was due to Kalish, who showed sky-high potential last year (.368, 18 stolen bases in 21 attempts) before a broken hamate bone ended his season after just 87 at-bats at short-season Single-A Lowell. Hamate bones are tricky, so it won't be a shock if Kalish struggles at times this year. But the power-speed-intangibles combination he displayed at 19 is rare indeed, and no one should be surprised if he picks up right where he left off.

5.) Jed Lowrie, IF (Ranked no. 4 this year)
The highest-ranked position player among the holdovers is hampered by a lack of position in Boston, where Dustin Pedroia is entrenched at second base and Julio Lugo's hefty contract assures him a long rope at shortstop, as well as the perception that his ceiling is not as high as some of his fellow prospects. Of course, the same thing was said about Pedroia and that didn't stop him. Lowrie appears likely to spend much of the season at Pawtucket, but given how much playing time he's received this spring—he leads the Sox with 31 Grapefruit League at-bats—he'd be the probable choice to replace Lugo, who has battled back woes for more than a week, if the starter is shelved for an extended period of time.

6.) Nick Hagadone, P (Ranked no. 9 this year)
We're quite cautious with college pitchers after the demise of Craig Hansen and the struggles last season of Bryce Cox, but neither of those guys were left-handers with the ability to dial the fastball into the high-90s. And unlike Hansen and Cox, who stormed through their first professional summers with nary a hiccup before subsequent stumbles, Hagadone dealt with challenges last year, albeit just once: He gave up five runs in 1 1/3 innings in his professional debut yet didn't allow a run over 23 innings the rest of the way. He's still likely to be nearer the bottom of the top five than the top given the this will be his first full professional season and that his long-term role is still in question, but a dominant season could make him the most promising hurler in the chain.

7.) Brandon Moss, OF (Ranked no. 5 this year)
This isn't like college: You can be on the Diehard Top 50 for more than four years. (Actually, you can be in college for more than four years too, trust us) Moss is one of a handful of prospects to appear on the list all four years (we'll reveal the rest of them later in the week), but for his sake, let's hope he's ineligible for the list next year. As we noted in our Top 50 profile of Moss, he's as close to a finished product as you'll find thanks to the four 500 at-bat seasons he's collected at the ripe age of 24. He's got nothing left to prove in the minors, but no spot to play in Boston, especially now that the presence of Sean Casey means he won't be collecting at-bats as Kevin Youkilis' backup. The guess here is Moss uses up his rookie eligibility traveling back and forth from Pawtucket this year. But even if he's still eligible for the countdown next year, spending another year in Triple-A is far more likely to lower his stock than raise it, as unfair as that may be.

Diehard managing editor Jerry Beach can be reached at diehardmag@yahoo.com. To receive a free issue of Diehard, call 888-501-5752.

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