Perils of Prospect Punditry: How MLB Teams Rank Prospects

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Ranking prospects is one of the highlights of the offseason for many. However, how are these rankings put together? How do you decide between the top ten pick and the Cuban import? Brandon Magee explains how MLB teams rank prospects.

In the first three parts of our series, we have looked at how prospect ratings are generated, how major disagreements can exist despite looking at similar data, and how difficult it is to generate prospect lists for all major league teams. Yet, Major League organizations have to have a way to generate the data we seek. How do they do it?

Team Ranking

Making numbered lists is an integral part of the American psyche. Whether it is the top 10 songs or the top 10 movies or the top 10 ice cream flavors, Americans love a list. Simple, ordered, and definitive. For ease of consumption, there is nothing better. And while ordered lists have been around for a long time, the internet has made the obsession with lists that much more obvious.

However, as has been shown, there is nothing simple or definitive about baseball prospect lists. The subjectivity of the criteria used and the biases of each ranker makes every list personal. The mere fact that many lists end up being similar does not change the subjective nature of the exercise and certainly does not make it definitive.

A Different Way

As an outsider looking into the process of player evaluation by major league clubs, I can say nothing with 100% certainty. But, I am fairly certain that when looking at their own club, they do not have a numbered list of prospects. Largely because such a list does not help them in their ultimate goal.

What is that goal? Winning the World Series… or at least, making the playoffs. That is what all 30 teams are chasing. While having a top rated farm system or the top prospect in the game may be worthy of kudos, teams will trade those accolades away in a second if it guaranteed a place in the Series. The farm system is a means to the goal, not the goal itself.

With that being said, teams are looking at their farm system in relation to their major league team. Projecting both their major league players and how they will progress as well as the minor league prospects and how they will progress. More importantly for the sake of this series, they are doing these projections at each position.

In our first article, we took a look at three highly rated positional prospects in the Red Sox organization to determine how an individual may rank them. We determined that despite being the only one of the three players to have played above A-Ball, Sam Travis was likely not a better prospect than Yoan Moncada or Andrew Benintendi. However, comparing Sam Travis, a first baseman, to Yoan Moncada, a second baseman, is counterproductive. They aren’t in competition for the same spot in the lineup. Andrew Benintendi, a centerfielder, is not in competition with either Travis or Moncada.

Positional Depth

By looking at positional depth charts, it is possibly that Sam Travis may be a more important prospect for the Red Sox then Moncada or Benintendi. At this point in time, the Boston Red Sox will likely be utilizing Hanley Ramirez as their primary first baseman; who did not adapt well to his outfield position change last season. Behind Ramirez will likely be Travis Shaw (who could end up being the primary backup to Ramirez and third baseman Pablo Sandoval) and super-utility man Brock Holt. Both have shown themselves to be adequate back-ups, but neither would be considered a star in the making. However, in 2017, Ramirez will likely transition into the primary designated hitter with the retirement of David Ortiz, leaving first base open for Sam Travis.

Neither Benintendi or Moncada have such a clear opening. The Red Sox pre-arbitration outfield of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Rusney Castillo is certainly not impenetrable for Benintendi as both Bradley and Castillo have doubts that they need to remove in their major league performance. However, if the trio can play up to their considerable upside, the Red Sox front office will have a decision to make when Benintendi comes knocking.

Moncada may have an even harder entry into the major leagues as long as he stays at second base. With Dustin Pedroia signed to man the position through the 2021 season and Pedroia’s status as a Red Sox icon, the second base position may very well not be available to Yoan when he is ready to ascend to the Major Leagues. Where Moncada may end up is hard to say, as the situation in the outfield is also crowded and shortstop is manned by the youthful Xander Bogaerts. And third base may not be an option due to fellow prospect Rafael Devers. For the Red Sox, this type of quality depth is a good problem. For the individuals, it may mean a position change or a trade.

Other Teams

If the Red Sox aren’t ranking their own prospects in a “traditional” manner, surely they are ranking other teams in that way? How else can they ask for the #1, #5, and #10 prospect?

The simple answer is that they don’t. The goal is the World Series and the goal in a trade is to win the World Series every year. Which means asking for players that fit into the depth chart. Let’s look at a minor trade from 2014 for the Red Sox and how the two sides matched up. On July 30, the Red Sox traded pitcher Felix Doubront to the Chicago Cubs for a player to be named later. Doubront gave the Cubs a couple of good performances during the 2014 season before leaving as a free agent in the winter. The Red Sox finished the deal in December of 2014 by receiving minor leaguer Marco Hernandez, a middle infielder. In theory, that is a pretty low return for a Major League pitcher… but Hernandez had a very good season in the Red Sox minors in 2015 and projects to be a potential utility infielder in the future. And the Red Sox had a need for a player like Hernandez at that level in the organization. Furthermore, Doubront was no longer a necessary part of the Red Sox depth. While the trade is a minor one destined for footnotes, it is illustrative of the process.

Information Gathering

There is another aspect of the major league organization ranking that individuals don’t generally have. They have far more data and far more resources to evaluate not only their own farm system, but the others as well. Between managers, coaches, and instructors who have full knowledge of each player’s directives, regiments, goals and injuries, a much fuller picture of what the stats actually mean can be established. However, these same managers and coaches also can give insight into the players on other teams and the team’s scouts augment those observations. While the Red Sox, for example, would not have the same knowledge of the players in the Braves’ system as the Atlanta front office should have, they almost certainly have a better picture of the players than you, me, or John Sickels. Because they have far more information, both data and observational, than we do.

Recently, the Cincinnati Reds traded Todd Frazier to the Chicago White Sox with three prospects going from the White Sox to the Los Angeles Dodgers and three prospects going from the Dodgers to the Reds. David Schoenfield of ESPN wraps up his trade analysis with the following statement:

Frankly, I’m not sure why the Reds didn’t just trade Frazier to the White Sox for their trio. Obviously, the Reds’ scouts and front office rate Peraza highly.

The first statement is an opinion of the trade, Schoenfield believes the trio sent to the Dodgers is a better group than the trio sent from the Dodgers based on the information he has. However, the second statement is also obvious. There is no reason to do a complicated three team trade if you don’t have to… the Reds obviously did not like the package the White Sox offered.

Of course, opinions differ on who made out well. Cliff Corcoran of Sports Illustrated uses the same data and says:

Peraza is the key player here and the best prospect in this deal: He was the only one included on Baseball America‘s or Baseball Prospectus’ preseason top-100 or midseason top-50 lists (he made all four).

Who is right? Only time will tell. Assuming that the prospects the Dodgers received in this deal could have gone to the Red’s instead, these two major league teams have different opinions on the prospects dealt… despite having more data than either Schoenfield or Corcoran.

In our final part of the series, we’ll take a look at two major off-season trades from this offseason and break down why the teams gave up the prospects they did.

Brandon Magee is our minor league expert. He has also written about fan expectations, travel in the minors, and the first steps in his life as a journalist.

Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.

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