What is the value of a prospect? How tightly should a team hold its best up-and-coming assets? How certain can I be that a prospect will "make it" as a major leaguer?
These question are darned near impossible to answer - and this post won't succeed in doing that, either. The best we can do is to examine the trends of history in the hopes of providing some guidance.
I have cataloged the lists of Braves top-10 prospects as selected by Baseball America over the years 1995 through 2012.. the eighteen seasons since and including the World Series winning year of 1995 (exception: I could not locate the full 1998 list). A cap tip to thebaseballcube.com for the original information that made this possible. Baseball America's listing were chosen for two reasons:
- The existence of the data
- The consistency of the selections from year-to-year
Evaluation: In each case, I tried to make a call on the success level of each player, according to these criteria:
Top level: Hall of Fame level player
2nd Level: All Star game participant
3rd level: Established Major Leaguer
4th level: minor Major League career; not a household name; not consistently a starter; bench guy.
5th level: AAA/AAAA player. Might have touched the majors, or seen just a few games
6th level: "Bust" - did not progress beyond AA level.
Pitchers and position players have been separated; due to incomplete information, current/recent prospects and those players with current major league experience of 1-2 years are omitted from the overall tabulations, and placed into their own "Too Soon to Evaluate" category.
That's the general rule, but I will make a subjective exception or two... Freddie Freeman, for instance. We clearly expect him to be a major contributor in 2013, so I am going to call him a 3rd level player. Brandon Beachy, however, I will omit and label as "Too Soon"... and this is because his experience thus far is limited, and there exists the possibility - however slight - that his career never picks back up. We do have a couple of pitchers in our prospect history that unfortunately fell into that category. Likewise, Andrelton Simmons is still too new to evaluate.
Examples of players in each category:
1st level: Chipper
2nd Level: Craig Kimbrel, Jermaine Dye, Jason Schmidt
3rd level: Adam LaRoche, Bruce Chen, Mike Minor
4th level: Andy Marte, Jo-Jo Reyes
5th level: Anthony Lerew, Ron Wright* (see below)
6th level: Eric Campbell, Junior Brignac
Too soon to evaluate: Gorkys Hernandez, Adam Milligan, Simmons, Julio Teheran
I am not identifying a distinction between players who 'made it' with the Braves club specifically, because this is more about the success of prospects, and not about the organization. That, and I don't wish to get sidetracked on the topic of bad trade memories. We've done that cathartic cleansing numerous times. But what we'd hope is that all prospects reach level 3 or better when we check their careers in the rear-view mirror.
There are several players that I was on the fence about... and Jordan Shafer is the poster child for all of them. I could justify putting him in any of level 4, level 5, or even the "too soon" group. The fact that he started for Houston all of 2012 doesn't actually help him, IMHO, for he likely would not have started for many other clubs. Plus, he's still playing, but has been 'close' to breaking through since way back in 2008 - when he was our #1 prospect. In the end, he was put into level 5.
* Ron Wright is worthy of a specific mention. In 1996, he was 6th on the prospect list for Atlanta. He toiled through 11 minor league seasons, including 4 at AA and 6 at AAA with multiple organizations, averaging a .263/.344/.471 slash line. But he did experience one game in the majors - with the Seattle Mariners - April 14th, 2002.
Let's just say that he wasn't exactly able to make the most of the opportunity. Ron went 0-3, and actually accounted for six outs in the process... one K, one GIDP, and one GITP... yes, a triple play. His career major league OPS+? -100. So back to Tacoma, where he hit .273 that year.
So with that an an introduction, here's the stats I've been able to glean from these 18 years of prospects.
18 years: 1995-2012
Distinct names: 92
Position players: 43
A sizable majority of these players reached the majors in their careers. A sizeable plurality (40%) of the position players became productive major leaguers, while that figure dropped to only 22% for the pitchers. I feel (Fredi-ism alert) that it is significant that nearly 39% of the pitchers failed to break through in the majors beyond a cup of coffee, and 61% failed to achieve "regular" status. I suppose this is why careful evaluation should be done when determining whether to keep or trade a pitching prospect.
Case in point? Adam Wainwright. Traded for J.D. Drew in a deal that kinda worked okay for both clubs (though Drew stayed only for one year with Atlanta). Wainwright was prospect #1 in 2003, and slipped to #3 in 2004 - the year of the trade. I recall hearing that he and Leo Mazzone were not seeing eye-to-eye about something, and there was fear that he might have plateaued. Apparently not.
Significantly, a number of those pitchers in those top categories are recent prospects - Minor, Medlen, Kimbrel, and Hanson... until these guys emerged, we'd had a bit of a dry spell since seeing guys like Jason Schmidt, Jason Marquis, and Bruce Chen. Clearly the organization changed their focus in recent years. The "Too Soon to Say" group looks promising as well, led by Beachy, Teheran, and Delgado... plus, neither Alex Wood nor J.R. Graham were on the BA/2012 list.
I recognize that there are problems like that with this data...it deals with people, which means that as one differs from all the rest, you cannot definitively say there are trends worth investing in. Some guys hit their ceiling and fell by the wayside based on talent. Others because of injury (Kevin McGlinchy, for example). Some perhaps due to talent around them while in other cases, the organization may not have been the best to showcase their abilities. It is certainly also possible that players were evaluated wrong, and should not have been on the top ten list in the first place. Small Sample Sizes are yet another issue.
For the most part, however, being in the top 3 or 4 for a given year is significant. But then there are players like Jordan Shafer or George Lombard who were 'sure things'... and haven't been.
It is for these kinds of reasons that I call "caveat emptor". You can differ with my slotting of these names in some cases, and moving a couple of names has the chance of skewing the percentages significantly... but that's part of the fun. Of course, I'm also not revealing all of my choices, either...you have to trust me that I used common sense :D. You can check the year-to-year rankings at the baseball cube link cited above.
It would make a better data set to do this for all 30 major league clubs, and also to extend the name pool to the top 20 prospects. But that requires much more time than I have, and I doubt I'll be offered the [paying] job to keep track of all that!
Let's hear your thoughts.