Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Prospect Lists

After Truck Day and MLB.TV Day, this coming week brings us the next important off-season landmark when pitchers and catchers officially report to the 30 MLB Spring Training camps.

Or potentially report to the Players Association camp for un-signed free agents.

Despite the news yesterday of Yu Darvish reportedly agreeing a six-year deal with the Chicago Cubs, the Hot Stove continues to be lukewarm with Todd Frazier being the only ther notable name to come off the market this week, leaving plenty of players without a team Spring Training camp to go to as yet.

While the experienced Major Leaguers are struggling to get the attention of teams, talented young players are always in demand.

Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs published their top 100 prospect lists (101 in BP’s case) this past week, joining the previously-released lists by Baseball America, ESPN’s Keith Law and MLB.com Pipeline.

Prospects are prospects

Some people absolutely obsess over prospects, taking ranking lists and expert comments about their favourites (usually from their chosen team’s farm system) far too seriously for their own good.

The attraction with thinking about prospects is the wonder of what they might become. There is always hope with a prospect, unlike a player that is struggling to lay off a big league breaking ball or a pitcher heading to the bullpen because their third-best pitch hasn’t turned out to be quite of the quality to allow them to be an effective Major League starter.

Essentially what you’re buying into with a prospect is that they haven’t yet proved they can’t be a quality player in the Big Leagues.  Some are able to make the step up, but many more never quite live up to the hype others build up around them.

Appel says farewell

Take the case of Mark Appel, who has just announced he’s taking an indefinite period of leave from baseball.

When he was drafted number one overall out of college by the Houston Astros in 2013 the consensus wasn’t just that he would become a Big Leaguer but that he would get there quickly. However, for various reasons it just never worked out for him.

In this case it didn’t hurt the Astros much and happily Appel seems quite content with his decision, to the point where it looks more likely than not he will move on completely from the game.

He’ll have to accept being labelled a ‘baseball bust’ if he does become only the third ever player to be picked number one and not to make the Majors, but he’s a 26-year-old with a degree from Stanford University and a $6.35m draft bonus so he’s achieved an awful lot to help him plot a new course in life and good luck to him.

Why does [insert prospect writer name] hate my team …

When FanGraphs’ Top 100 was published I jumped onto the Oakland A’s UK Twitter feed to highlight that their list was clearly the most well-informed:

Obviously that was tongue in check, but it’s pretty funny witnessing the huge personal offence some fans feel when a prospect list dares to not be quite so positive about their team as they are.

What makes this all the more curious is that just because a player may be your team’s prospect today, that doesn’t mean he will still be tomorrow.  You don’t last long as an Oakland A’s fan without learning not to get too attached to any player and that doesn’t just apply to those on the Major League roster.

Addison Russell was the recent big hope for A’s fans before he was traded to the Chicago Cubs in the deal for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in July 2014.  The blow was softened slightly at the time by the fact that the club was being bold and going ‘all in’ to win a World Series, but the gamble didn’t pay off and only felt worse when Russell was celebrating in the Fall Classic with the Cubs two years later.

Prior to that, notable ‘what ifs’ included Andre Ethier who caught my eye when reviewing the 2005 Minor League season only to then be traded to the Dodgers that December for the combustible Milton Bradley, and the memorable case of Grant Desme. He had an excellent 2009 season, capped off by winning MVP honours at the Arizona Fall League, to get me all excited about seeing him in an A’s uniform before he gave up baseball a couple of months later to become a Catholic priest.

If it can happen, it will happen to the A’s.

Trading prospects

The other thing with fans is that they can often change their views on a prospect very quickly when it comes to a potential trade.  Outstanding or intriguing prospects can turn into average or long-shots when a deal is completed and they are no longer part of their farm system.

Drawing on the A’s again, that came up at last year’s trade deadline when rumours were rife of Sonny Gray being traded to the Yankees. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on the A’s prospects let alone anyone else’s, but I knew better than to rely on the thoughts of Yankee fans as I was glued to ESPN’s coverage via BT Sport.

And Keith did, taking a measured but optimistic view on all three players the A’s got in return.

Jorge Mateo and Dustin Fowler both appeared on some of the Top 100 lists and James Kaprielian received some honourable mentions as he works his way back from Tommy John elbow surgery.  I’m interested to see what their futures may hold, Fowler may well make the Opening Day roster if he’s fully recovered from a knee injury suffered in his Major League debut for the Yankees last year, but I know not to get too excited.

I’ll enjoy watching them in an A’s uniform if and when they do.

Exciting debuts

That doesn’t mean I’m a killjoy about prospects, mind you.  Every baseball fan enjoys seeing a young star blazing a trail as they begin their Major League career, regardless of which team they are on.

The 2010 season sticks in the memory as being a particularly good vintage for prospect debuts.  Jason Heyward grabbed the headlines on Opening Day at Turner Field when he launched a home run in his first Major League at-bat for the Atlanta Braves.

And then we had the Stephen Strasburg show.  I can’t remember a more hotly-anticipated debut, nor one that subsequently lived up to expectations, quite like Strasburg’s first start in June 2010 against Pittsburgh.  It was absolutely mesmerising watching him mow down hitter after hitter, striking out 14 batters in total whilst consistently shooting out fastballs at 98-99 MPH.

You didn’t have to be a Nationals fan to be captivated by it, nor to be absolutely gutted when just a couple of months later he went down with a serious elbow injury that kept him off the mound for just over a year.

On a similar theme, it was almost a year ago to the day that news broke of the St Louis Cardinals’ exciting pitching prospect Alex Reyes requiring elbow surgery that would put him out of action for at least a year.  His recovery is going well and he’s averaging around the 17th-18th mark on most prospect lists right now, with Baseball Prospectus being the most optimistic by still ranking him 8th (he was number 1 on their 2017 list).

He’s currently on schedule to return sometime in May and all true baseball fans will be hoping that he can put the injury behind him and live up to his potential.

The Shohei Show

Which brings us to another pitcher, Shohei Ohtani.  One of the main questions those publishing prospect lists this year answer right from the start is whether they are including him as a prospect, bearing in mind he has played professionally in Japan.

Baseball Prospectus and ESPN (Keith Law) have not considered him for their rankings, whilst Baseball America (#2), FanGraphs and MLB Pipeline (both #1) have and not surprisingly he is right near, or at, the top.

There will be a huge amount of coverage of Ohtani’s Spring Training as he prepares for his first season in MLB.  The Angels start their regular season with a four-game series in Oakland, so I may well get to see him pitching his debut against my club. However, the Angels will want to keep a cap on his innings this year so they could decide to skip their star pitcher from being the Opening Day starter and push him back to their fifth game to tie in with their home opener against Cleveland.

Whenever Ohtani’s debut happens it will be a big event and something every baseball fan will be keeping an eye on.

Back to the lists

As someone who doesn’t invest a lot of my ‘baseball time’ in prospects, I suspect I value the work of prospect experts all the more.

Despite what some fans will claim, they put huge amounts of research into constructing the lists and do so fully in the knowledge that they’re ultimately projecting the development and future work of human beings, introducing lots of variables that could knock them off their current course (for good or bad).

Even if you find the Major League marathon can be a challenge to keep up with at times, it’s well worth checking out the lists and following the progress of your team’s prospects and the key names around the Minor Leagues.

Baseball America (can see the list for free, commentary requires a subscription)

Baseball Prospectus (can see the list for free, commentary available in the BP 2018 Annual)

FanGraphs (list and commentary available for free)

Keith Law at ESPN (list and commentary requires an ESPN Insider subscription)

MLB Pipeline (list and commentary available for free).

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