Prospects are the opiate of the masses, especially to fans of long-suffering franchises or franchises about to start suffering. Prospects are used to sell hope to fans to ensure that they don’t lose hope or faith in the major league franchise. Prospects are a placebo. The haul that the Philadelphia Phillies got for Cole Hamels was impressive, but their fans shouldn’t bank on every one of them developing into a viable major-league starter and catapulting the Phillies back to the playoffs next year. The hope of obtaining prospects buys time for front offices until they can acquire major league talent that is already producing at the major league level, while sorting through a trove of prospects to determine who will make the cut.
The usefulness of prospects all depends on where a team is located at on the ‘win curve’. The 2015 Pirates are at the peak of the win curve right now and should be utilizing every available chip they have to not only make the playoffs, but make a run at the World Series. A team like the 2015 Phillies are on the opposite end of the win curve and should be accruing as many of these lottery tickets as possible.
A farm system is good for two things:
- Providing the major league team with cost-controlled production for six seasons
- Used as trade chips to acquire talent for the major league team
This may seem harsh to some of you, but our research on surplus value of prospects generated some eye-opening data on the bust rates of Baseball America Top 100 prospects from 1994-2005. Here’s the chart from the original article:
|Tier||Number of Players||Avg. WAR||Surplus Value||% Less than 3 WAR||% Zero WAR or less|
The “Less Than 3 WAR” designation means that over the six years of team control, that player didn’t even average 0.5 WAR/season, the typical threshold for a bench or bullpen piece. And obviously the “Zero WAR or less” column shows the absolute bust rate for that tier of player.
And remember, these are the so-called elite prospects culled from all 30 major league teams. Look at the rates for hitters #26-50, #51-75, and #76-100. Then look at the rates for all pitchers that are not in the #1-10 tier. Pretty sobering, right?
That’s why obsessing over where supposed top Pirate prospects, like Josh Bell and Reese McGuire as two recent polarizing examples, will land on Baseball America’s next list is a waste of time. Unless they are the cream of the crop, which neither will be, then evaluate whether or not their respective trendlines are pointing up or down. For me, a player like McGuire is trending down. The 2015 season will be his second consecutive season with an OPS in the low 600’s. Josh Bell is trending down, too, with only 5 HR’s from the 1B position. Jose Osuna, a player of modest future, was recently promoted to Bell’s Altoona team and hit his 5th HR in half the at-bats that Bell has accrued at the same level this year.
And this doesn’t even delve into the tracking of non-BA Top 100 prospects in the Pirate system. There are hundreds of players across the seven domestic levels of minor league teams in the Pirate system. Only a tiny, tiny percentage will even make it to the pinnacle of Triple A and warrant consideration for a call-up to Pittsburgh. And of that tiny number, a much more minuscule number will stick around to make a meaningful contribution. Jaff Decker for the Pirates is a great example of this — supplemental 1st round draft pick of the Padres in the 2008 draft, so automatically he has some pedigree and built-in hype. Decker put up good, not great, stats in his minor league career and got rated as the 82nd best prospect prior to the 2010 season. Now 25 years old, he’s received only 54 plate appearances over parts of three seasons (and now two franchises) and has accrued a whopping -0.4 WAR. It’s not hard to see that he’s on track for adding on to the bust rate columns.
Here’s where every Pirate starting position player ranked in their last year on Baseball America’s list — not their peak position, but last time on the list — and their career WAR, plus their draft round.
- C — Francisco Cervelli (international FA signee) — never ranked, 6.1 career WAR
- 1B — Pedro Alvarez (1st round) — #8, 5.7 career WAR
- 2B — Neil Walker (1st round) — #61, 14.8 career WAR
- SS — Jordy Mercer (3rd round) — never ranked, 3.8 career WAR
- 3B — Josh Harrison (6th round) — never ranked, 6.8 career WAR
- LF — Starling Marte (international FA signee) — #73, 12.5 career WAR
- CF — Andrew McCutchen (1st round) — #33, 37.7 career WAR
- RF — Gregory Polanco (international FA signee) — #10, 1.2 career WAR
And the pitchers:
- SP1 — Gerrit Cole (1st round) — #7, 8.0 career WAR
- SP2 — A.J. Burnett (8th round) — #20, 43.0 career WAR
- SP3 — Francisco Liriano (international FA signee) — #6, 22.1 career WAR
- SP4 — Charlie Morton (3rd round) — unranked, 6.5 career WAR
- SP5 — Jeff Locke (2nd round) — unranked, 2.6 career WAR
Look at how disparate all that information is. There are starters on a championship-caliber club that Baseball America (and other scouting services) never ranked. There are players from outside the 1st round. There are four players from the international ranks.
The takeaway from all this is as follows — No one knows for certain how players will develop. Not the industry-standard Baseball America, not any site that has people at every affiliate of the Pirates system, and certainly not me. Everyone is taking educated guesses. I look at things using numbers; others rely on first-hand scouting, even though most of the people aren’t scouts at all.
I encourage everyone to think for themselves and develop your own methodology of what a good prospect looks like. For me, I use two criteria:
- What is this player’s ultimate ceiling?
- How likely is that player going to reach that ceiling?
Let’s take Harold Ramirez as an example. The Pirates signed him out of Columbia as an international free agent back in 2011 at the standard age of 16. Now 20, Ramirez has ascended to High A Bradenton. Ramirez battled hamstring issues last year and missed a chunk of time this year due to injury as well, but has put up an excellent season line of .365 AVG/.413 OBP/.517 SLG (930 OPS) in 45 games. But it’s only 45 games and there’s just a month of the minor league season left — we can’t expect him to realistically maintain that level over the course of a standard 140 game season.
He’s hit 3 HR’s and stolen 16 bases, but has been caught 11 times for a less than stellar 59.2% success rate (72% is the go/no-go cutoff line). He’s a boxy player at his listed height/weight of 5′-10″/210 lbs, although those are notoriously wrong, so he’s kind of a Jose Tabata-shaped player. To me, Ramirez seems like a 4th OF and not a starter (question #1 from above). Due to his injury history and non-proximity to the majors, his likelihood of reaching his ceiling is medium-low (question #2 from above). For me, Ramirez is the 8th best prospect in the Pirates’ system and not a BA Top 100-caliber prospect as of yet. I would have no qualms in dealing him in the proper trade for a player that would help the Pittsburgh Pirates at the major league level.
Many of the Baseball Americas, Baseball Prospectii, Fangraphs of the world put an over-emphasis on tools. I prefer to balance tools with production and track record. That’s how you get a player like Jordy Mercer that keeps chugging along through the minors, with little to no fanfare from national services, and he turns into a productive starting shortstop.
Don’t get enamored by a player’s draft position. Don’t get caught up in a hype machine over what a player could become if all the stars align. Just look at what a player is doing and his proximity to the Majors. Look at his strikeout and walk ratios. In the minors, a hitter should be walking close to 10% of his plate appearances and striking out no more than 20%. If a player is doing worse than that in the minors, how does he expect to get better magically in the Majors? The same is true for pitchers: look at their strikeout rates, which ideally should be 1 strikeout per inning pitched and less than 1 walk per 3 innings pitched. How does that pitcher fare against righties and lefties in their split stats? If it’s not well, that indicates a poor offspeed pitch like a changeup to opposite-handed hitters or a poor slider/curve to same-handed hitters.
Yes, I believe that the Pirates’ farm system is having a down year. No, that doesn’t mean I believe it is a desolate wasteland with tumbleweeds rolling by. Lost in all the sound and fury of the response to that article is the takeaway that the system is trending downward and I don’t see true impact talent, outside of Tyler Glasnow, on the horizon for the Pirates. Everything is great at the major league level and should remain that way through 2018, but the players that should be coming up in the next few years to possibly extend that window don’t appear to be at that necessary production level for me.
These minor leaguers are just another form of currency for the Pirates and Neal Huntington to barter with at today’s trade deadline and in the offseason. If you don’t have an attachment to them, it makes it much easier to move them or, in our case, watch them get moved to another team. Did their movement help the Pirates? That’s the only question that needs answered in these deals. Jacoby Jones for Joakim Soria? That’s a great deal to get a reliever that should lock down the 7th inning for the Pirates on their way to the playoffs in exchange for a player that was overage at High A in 2015, has poor K/BB rates, and will probably not stick at SS in the Majors, if he makes it. I know I won’t be losing any sleep over Jacoby Jones.