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 the difficulty in ranking all the teams’ prospects.
For those who delve deep into looking at a farm system, the rewards can be immense. Not only can you see the progression of the next great prospect, but you can also see the difficulty that even the best players have in their rise up the ladder. How prospects react to these downswings oftentimes gives insight into the type of player they may become at the major league level. However, looking at even one team’s farm system is a great undertaking. For those who attempt to look at all of major league baseball, the task is enormous.
During the height of the minor league season, the Red Sox fielded a total of nine teams in eight leagues, ranging from the Major League club in Boston to a pair of teams in the Dominican Republic. While each league has different roster limitations, all teams have at least a 24-player active roster. Simple math tell us that the Red Sox had 216 players (24×9) active on any given day during the dog days of summer; 191 of which would be minor league players. For the sake of argument, given DL stints and other roster statuses, we’ll just say round that number up to 200 for illustrative purposes. The number of active minor leaguers at a given time is probably slightly higher… and the number of minor leaguers over the season (given trades, releases and signings) is much higher.
Now, all 200 minor leaguers in the Red Sox organization could not be considered prospects, could they? Obviously, the definition of prospect is nebulous and individual. However, to do a thorough prospect rating of any individual team, one would have to go through each minor league player to actively include or exclude them. While eliminating a 35-year old Humberto Quintero may be a relatively easy call, is eliminating a 29-year old Dalier Hinojosa or a 27-year-old Rusney Castillo as easy?
Even if we consider eliminating “prospect status” from older players at AAA, players who by virtue of being at that level are considered at least good enough to be a stop-gap player in the Major Leagues, how does one go about doing so at the lower levels? Player development is far from exact, so a player who struggles in their first appearance at Lowell may be the next breakout player the following season. Even a generous pruning at all level leaves at least 100 “prospects” in a farm system.
That’s just a single team. With 30 major league teams, that is 6,000 minor leaguers and 3,000 “prospects.” And that is just in the affiliated major leagues, this does not include the hidden gems, the future Daniel Navas, hiding out in unaffiliated minor leagues. Pruning through those lists to come up with the top 100 prospects in the game? A daunting task.
While I am unwilling to state with 100% certainty that there is not a single person in the world capable of the task, I am willing to say that the makers of the top 100 lists, that are the basis for conversation and comparison, do not have an encyclopedic knowledge of all 30 farm systems. Following even one team takes enormous time… putting thought to paper (virtual or otherwise) and doing any research to validate points also takes up time. Even assuming that your only job is writing and researching and watching baseball – and that you have no interest in any outside entertainment or having a family or sleep – it would be a gargantuan task.
The truth is, Top 100 MLB lists are compilations that require input from multiple sources. Specifically, the people who compile these lists will often look at the team lists compiled by their friends, colleagues, and co-workers in order to prune their list to a manageable number. Even if they were to look at the top 20 prospects in each organization, that is 600 players to prune to 100 as opposed to 6,000. By working off the work of others, they have eliminated the need to look at 90% of minor league players. They may also be able to quickly eliminate others off the list based on other criteria they utilize.
Generally speaking, this is not a major issue. Consensus ranking and the power of crowdsourcing tend to bring results that are arguably correct as they tend to eliminate the biases inherent in an individual’s rankings. However, the potential downside is that all the sources miss out on seeing the one individual who will break out in spectacular fashion the next season. The inevitability of the meteoric rise of a prospect or the spectacular fall of a player is a given. The inputs being utilized are not fine enough to predict them.
John Sickels is one of the preeminent minor league prospect pundits and he publishes a top 20 list for each team over the winter months. An impressive task. But, the most impressive thing that he does is that he has a very clearly defined grading system which influences his rankings. However, just as importantly, he is not afraid to say that these are not definitive rankings. For example, in his Red Sox Review column, Sickels lists his top 15 and then says:
Slots from this point on are fungible; I selected players who I have received the most queries about.
In his Atlanta Braves column, Sickels writes at the end:
This list went through multiple drafts due to borderline grades and several players with pronounced performance/projection dichotomies. This won’t be truly final until spring but I have to move on to other clubs.
Sickels is attempting to do the gargantuan task, ranking the prospects with all the knowledge available to him for all the organizations. While he has almost certainly eliminated large swaths of the minor league players in each organization due to lack of performance data or lack of status (draft/bonus/etc.), he is still listing 30-40 individuals in each column. But, with just a few words, he also shows us the difficulty and futility in the task.
With the enormity of the task of rating even one system, let alone all 30, how much confidence should we have when utilizing a top 100 list, or even a compilation of multiple top 100 lists? How much difference is there between the top prospect and the #100 prospect? What about #35 and number #65? How comparable are the top prospects in each organization? Are these numbers giving us a false sense of knowledge? In our next installment, we’ll look at how major league teams look at prospects.