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On Prospect Rankings

Photo: Marcus Pond

Baseball, seemingly more than any other sport, is a game of numbers.  The difference between getting a hit 27% of the time and 31% is a big one.  Catching up to a 98 MPH fastball is tougher to do than one that reaches only 93 MPH.  If the Padres had won two more games last season, their pick in the June draft would’ve fallen from third to seventh, and they’d have been well out of the running for MacKenzie Gore.

There is, however, a group of numbers that are very much arbitrary: prospect rankings.

From national publications to prospect experts to team blogs, everybody has a prospect list, and none of them are identical.  While most of them will have the same players on them, the order isn’t a consensus, and the deeper you dig, the more differences you’ll see.  Like asking someone what their favorite Mexican restaurant is or the best beach spot, you’re bound to get lots of different answers, and it boils down to preference.  There are a variety of factors, and how you weigh each one determines your valuation.

In thinking about our own Top 50 (there are already a few things that I would change if we did it again, and it was published just over a month ago), I’ve been considering the different factors that went into it.

Ceiling

When discussing the “ceiling” of a prospect, you’re usually talking about what could happen given a best case scenario.  It’s sometimes paired with a “floor” projection of what the player could do if everything doesn’t pan out.  If you are big on identifying players with the highest ceiling, chances are that you’re really excited about a lot of players that are still in the lower levels of the minors.

Fernando Tatis Jr. and Anderson Espinoza have both been the youngest player in their league at one point in time, so if their numbers haven’t looked great, it’s noted that they’re facing advanced competition and have still held their own.  A high ceiling player usually has a loud tool or three – in Tatis Jr.’s case, his power, with Espinoza his velocity and his curveball.

High-ceiling players do need to eventually show more concrete proof of their ability, but at those lower levels, scouts have identified something in them that shows they could be stars at the next level

Examples of high-ceiling players in the Padres system: Fernando Tatis Jr., Michel Baez, Adrian Morejon, MacKenzie Gore, and Cal Quantrill.

Proximity

A lot can happen between the time a player is drafted or signed, and when they make their MLB debut.  While not every player makes a stop for every team in the organization, there are six levels of the minor leagues that they need to climb, and sometimes looking at how close they are to the majors is helpful.  While a player may not have the ceiling of a younger prospect, if they’re already at Triple-A, while the latter is at Low-A, then you might think it’s a safer bet to put the one that’s closer to the bigs a little higher.

I know that this isn’t really what other people classify as “proximity”, but I think that it’s also easier to fall in love with players who you’ve been “closer” to (wether in geographical proximity or availability via MiLB.tv), but there are examples of scouts/evaluators who fall in love with a prospect because they’ve seen them with their own eyes instead of reading a scouting report.

Anyways, it’s worth mentioning that of MLB.com Top 20 prospects, 15 of them are at Double-A or Triple-A, and it’s easier to project a player who’s having success at the highest level above a player having similar success a few levels below.

Examples of close-proximity prospects in the Padres system: Franchy Cordero, Carlos Asuaje, Michael Kelly and Luis Urías.

Track Record

Judging a prospect on what they’ve been able to produce during their time in the minors is probably the easiest way to do your research.  Instead of reading what scouts say, their stats can tell their story, and looking on Baseball Reference or their MiLB page can give you that data.  While it’s obviously preferred if a player consistently excels at all levels, it’s also worth looking at how they’re adjusting to the levels as they advance.

For example, second baseman Luis Urías doesn’t look like a top prospect.  He wasn’t signed for an obscene amount of money, and he doesn’t often make highlight-reel plays.  What does he do that gets him on the prospect radar?  The dude just hits.  And hits.  And hits.  As an 18-year-old in Single-A, he hit .290 with a .370 OBP.  The next season, he won the Cal League batting title and MVP with a .330 average and had a .397 OBP.  This year, as the youngest player in the Texas League, he has a .309 average and a career high .408 OBP.  At some point, despite eight career home runs and standing at 5’9″ and 160 lbs, you have to look at what he’s been able to do and realize that he could be the real deal.

Examples of track-record prospects in the Padres system: Luis Urías, Phil Maton, Logan Allen, Brett Kennedy, and Joey Lucchesi.

Prospect Pedigree

While there are always plenty of lower round draft picks that make it big, or international signees that come out of nowhere, the biggest impact prospects are often first-round picks or ones that were signed for big money internationally.  With those players, even if they struggle a bit, you give them a little longer of a leash, because at one point, they were showing that potential.

The “pedigree” part can also take into account the player’s literal lineage.  If there’s a “Jr.” at the end of their name (e.g. Lance McCullers, Vlad Guerrero, Cal Ripken, Ken Griffey), they’ve been around the game in their youth, and often have the mindset that’s needed to be a big leaguer.  It shouldn’t be surprising that two of the players at the top of the Padres farm system, Cal Quantrill and Fernando Tatis Jr., come from a major league family.

Even if a high draft pick like Quantrill struggles initially, if you value pedigree, you’ll give them a chance to prove themselves.  In the case of MacKenzie Gore, who has only thrown two innings in the lowest level of the minors, you’ll rank them higher than a more advanced prospect who has less pedigree.

Examples of pedigree prospects in the Padres system: MacKenzie Gore, Cal Quantrill.

***

Ugh, what’s the point of all of this?  I guess that each factor needs to be taken into consideration, but how each one tips the scales is entirely up to you.  Do you like Urías or Tatis Jr. more?  Well, if you value proximity and track record, then you’ll probably give Urías the edge.  If you prefer to look at ceiling and pedigree, Tatis Jr. is a more appealing prospect.  If you are debating where to rank Gore and Quantrill, Gore might have the higher ceiling, while Quantrill has more of a track record and is closer to the majors.

It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees when ranking prospects, because, really, does anyone remember where Hunter Renfroe or Manuel Margot were ranked last year?  Or Rymer Liriano and Casey Kelly a few years back?  In the end, the goal is to have those prospects turn into productive major leaguers.

Until then, though, it’s still fun to rank and make lists.  Just realize that if the list doesn’t look how you think it should, it’s likely because the value system that was used is different from yours.

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