The season of prospect rankings is upon us.

For minor league enthusiasts, wannabe prospect experts and the truly invested, this is our Christmas. For more casual MiLB fans or those looking for a quick refresher on their favorite team’s farm system, it’s a great time to familiarize oneself with the names you’ll see popping up in the majors and in trade rumors all season long.

Henry Ownes is not the same caliber of prospect as Matt Barnes or Allen Webster right now, but he could be viewed as such in 2014. Photo by Kelly O'Connor, sittingstill.net.

Henry Ownes is not the same caliber of prospect as Matt Barnes or Allen Webster right now, but he could be viewed as such in 2014. Photo by Kelly O’Connor, sittingstill.net.

Prospect rankings are fun, prospect rankings are everywhere, and to a certain extent, prospect rankings are useful. But just as is the case for a list or ranking of any sort, there are inherent flaws in the methodology that can make simply citing a player’s or organization’s rank when making evaluations or posing arguments very dangerous.

The main concept behind the flaw is simple: the variance in talent between one organization or player and the next can be far greater or smaller than the variance between that second player/organization and the next. Essentially, that’s a convoluted way of saying the difference in value between X and Y does not always equal the difference in value between Y and Z.

A simple and practical example of this would be to rank the Red Sox current projected starting rotation. Personally, I’d probably rank them as such:

1) Jon Lester
2) Clay Buchholz
3) Ryan Dempster
4) Felix Doubront
5) John Lackey
6) Franklin Morales

Presenting the ranking to you in that way is still useful, but also significantly easier to misinterpret than if I break those same players into tiers in addition to ranking them, as follows:

TIER ONE TIER TWO TIER THREE
1. Jon Lester 3. Ryan Dempster 4. Felix Doubront
2. Clay Buchholz 5. John Lackey
6. Franklin Morales

You might want to flip Lester and Buchholz or Lackey and Morales (and that actually further illustrates my point), but overall I think most of us can agree on this.

Consider, however, the relative gaps in value between Lester and Buchholz and then between Buchholz and Dempster. The first two pitchers cited have ace potential, despite their inconsistencies. I prefer Lester but a very reasonable case can be made for Buchholz. Dempster, meanwhile, is a fine pitcher and was a solid signing, but his value is significantly less than the two starters listed above him. A case cannot be made to rank him ahead of Lester or Buchholz.

To get back to my prospect point, here’s how I (and many others) would rank the Top 7 minor leaguers in the Red Sox system.

TIER ONE TIER TWO TIER THREE
1. Xander Bogaerts, SS 2. Jackie Bradley, CF 5. Henry Owens, LHSP
3. Matt Barnes, RHSP 6. Garin Cecchini, 3B
4. Allen Webster, RHSP 7. Blake Swihart, C

While they are both considered Top 50 prospects, the gap between Bogaerts and Bradley is enormous. Bogaerts is universally regarded as a Top 10 prospect – Top 5 on some lists– and is a potential franchise cornerstone-type player. He’s talented enough to serve as a centerpiece in a deal for almost any player you can think of. On the other hand, Bradley projects as a good everyday player and is very talented in his own right, but doesn’t project as a perennial All-Star or the key piece in a deal for a true impact player.

Bradley and Barnes, meanwhile, generally appear within 10 slots of each other in rankings, and many in fact prefer Barnes to Bradley. They have very similar values, and Webster is in their mold too. Not to beat you over the head, but the gap between Webster and Owens is, comparatively much wider, and the same can be said for Cecchini and Swihart. Interestingly, you could almost argue that Webster belongs in a “Tier 2.5” category between Barnes and Owens, but that should further illustrate how difficult lists or rankings can be.

Let’s take one more look at an example we can all relate to. In this instance, let’s examine athletes who have shot themselves accidentally.

TIER ONE TIER TWO
Plaxico Burress Bryce Brentz

Yes, that was a cheap shot. Yes, that was another pun. Let’s move on.

I covered this briefly in a post last Monday, when Red Sox nation had a collective aneurysm over Keith Law ranking Boston as possessing the 17th-best farm system in baseball, but the same pitfalls that befall player rankings apply to organizational rankings as well.

In Baseball America’s 2013 Prospect handbook, the Marlins are ranked as the fifth-best organization, with the Red Sox weighing in at sixth and the Diamondbacks at seventh. I’d argue that the Marlins’ farm system is significantly better than the Red Sox’ thanks to comparable top end talent and significantly more depth. The Red Sox and Diamondbacks, however, seem much more even, and in fact I’d argue that a “tier” exists with the Red Sox, Diamondbacks and the next three organizations – the Pirates, Astros and Twins – before a gap widens with the No. 11 team, the Yankees.

Once again, the ramifications here are clear: if you run up to a Diamondbacks fan and brag about how much better the Sox’ farm system is than theirs … that’s sort of a silly argument. You have much more ground to stand on (and more probably cause) to do the same to a Yankees fan though, as the two organizations are largely considered to be in different tiers.

Many of you knew this before you read this article, but it’s important to keep in mind as the rankings and lists keep rolling out this offseason. Top 100 lists are fun to look at, serve as excellent outlines of player talent and do have some use, but they are not the end-all-be-all of MiLB evaluation.

The Red Sox have one elite prospect, three very good ones and a bunch of interesting names who could make the jump to very good next year. The Red Sox do not have an elite farm system, but they have a very good one, and you can rank their system and four or five other systems in any order and be justified in doing so.

If you can take this into consideration as you read up on Boston farmhands this offseason, you’ll have a better notion of exactly what we have to look forward to as the next wave of great Red Sox players makes its way to Fenway.

Categories: Allen Webster Blake Swihart Blake Swihart Boston Red Sox Bryce Brentz Clay Buchholz Felix Doubront Franklin Morales Garin Cecchini Henry Owens Jackie Bradley John Lackey Jon Lester Keith Law Matt Barnes MiLB Xander Bogearts

Ben is a graduate of Boston University with a degree in journalism and a love of all things Red Sox and minor league baseball. He has experience writing for Baseball Prospectus, NESN, RotoExperts, BU Today and other sites, and typically serves as an in-house MiLB writer. An editor for a business website by day, Ben likes to grill, sample IPAs and re-read Faulkner novels by night. He is an unabashed J.D. Drew apologist with a deep-seated fear of middle relievers. Follow Ben on Twitter here.

2 Responses to “Putting Prospect Rankings In Perspective” Subscribe

  1. Brian February 11, 2013 at 10:23 AM #

    Would there be any difference in rankings if Rubby De La Rosa was still considered a prospect?

    • Ben Carsley February 11, 2013 at 12:08 PM #

      RDLR would likely slot ahead of Webster but behind Barnes on most lists. He wouldn't boost the Red Sox out of that tier with ARI/MIN/PIT that I mentioned, but he could move the org up within that tier, if that makes sense.