By W. H. Johnson
‘Tis the season!
No…not THAT season, the one with the fat dude, the wee folk, flying mammals, free stuff, and football on every network. No, that season has passed into memory, gone at least until next Halloween.
The season to which this essay refers, bringing joy in a different form, recurs annually and is also a source of cautious optimism and curiosity about the future of each baseball organization and potential big-leaguer.
It is the time of year in which every major reporting outlet, along with every aspiring writer for said outlets, offers up numerical ranking lists of the best prospects throughout the big-league organizations.
But is there value in such rankings?
Is it even possible to reliably rack-and-stack players within teams and across the entire baseball universe?
The mere act of enumerating a quasi-pecking order for young and unproven players creates an ethos of authority, of superior knowledge, and perhaps of insider access, but in no way connotes a sense of finality.
Prospect evaluations are fluid within every team’s apparatus.
A few years ago, in 2018, this writer was talking to an area scout for a major-league team; that scout focused on draft preparation, and divided his time between amateur (high school, college, and – increasingly – the ‘Perfect Games’ of the world) evaluation while also scouting professional players on a few, regionally appropriate minor-league teams. At the time he had over a decade of scouting experience, yet he was perpetually leery of those sorts of hierarchical judgments.
It was his position that each organization internally classifies prospects based upon an array of different factors, not all of which are common to every team nor accessible to reporters.
A quick look at the Futures Game and Arizona Fall League rosters for the past few seasons reveals a disparity between ranking service estimates and the actual value assigned by parent teams. This is natural, since needs at the major-league level are an input known only to those respective teams, and they exert a dynamic prioritization scheme within the entire minor-league development system.
So, with that stipulated, how consistent are the rankings?
The following example is not a scientifically or randomly-selected population. It just happens that the Milwaukee Brewers’ prospects are among the first of 2023 to be published.
The Top 10 prospects of the Brewers’ are evaluated differently by Baseball America (December 2022 issue), FanGraphs.com (accessed January 2023), and Baseball Prospectus.com (December 2022). Before writing another word, those three sources were selected precisely because they are among the very most authoritative and popular (and this writer – again hiding in the third person – uses each daily). They have genuine experts doing the evaluations and are accessible to just about anyone with an interest in a team or player.
The obvious consensus No. 1, across all three sources, is outfielder Jackson Chourio from Venezuela. He routinely draws comparisons with Ronald Acuna, Jr., and just about every available source raves about his potential.
In contrast, Tyler Black’s rankings range form 6th to 12th overall. This variation may be due, at least in part, to injury history, limited slugging upside, arm strength, or a myriad of other factors.
Again, there are no fixed guidelines or criteria for these rankings, so no two lists are the same. The one element on which all the ranking entities are in firm agreement, though, is that Black merits attention over the next few years.
Notably, and while trying to not cherry-pick examples, in a similarly structured ranking of Orioles’ system in 1998, Baseball America named pitcher Matt Riley as the top organizational prospect.
Riley pitched fewer than 100 innings over four major-league seasons, and finished with a lifetime bWAR of -0.1.
In January 2001, Baseball America named C.C. Sabathia as Cleveland’s top prospect. Today, in 2023, that remains a brilliant call. But the periodical also named RHP Chris George as Kansas City’s best, and he went on to post a lifetime bWAR of -0.5 over four seasons.
In that same ranking, KC infielder Mark Ellis was ranked all the way down at ninth, but managed a 12-year big-league career and lifetime bWAR of 33.5.
There is a broad spectrum of factors that influence rankings, from something as simple as the relative talent level within an organization, especially with regard to team needs, to something as complicated as a player’s individual adaptability to professional baseball and all that the occupation entails.
So are the rankings worthwhile to us as observers and fans, those of us who dwell outside the clubhouses and front offices of major-league baseball teams? Absolutely!
In the selected rankings, if the numerical positioning is erased, every one of the top-10 is a top prospect for each ranking entity. Number 1 versus number 8 is a guess at best, and number 20-25 a true crap shoot, but each of the sources agrees that those listed players have the best chance to populate Milwaukee’s lineup card in the future.
Studying the full rankings is helpful in evaluating a team’s player development plans, and for imagining ‘what might be’ as we get ready for spring training. No one argues that the rankings are perfect, or even universal, but they most definitely offer an informed peek at tomorrow.
IBWAA member W.H. “Bill” Johnson has contributed to SABR’s Biography Project, written extensively on baseball history, and presented papers at related conferences. Bill and his wife Chris currently reside in Georgia. He can be contacted on Twitter: @BaseballStoic.
Comments / 0