Hakuna Matata: Don’t Worry About Prospect Lists

What annual prospect lists tell us and what they don’t.

With Keith Law’s top 100 prospects list posted on ESPN.com this week, most of the major prospect lists for 2014 have been released. The Red Sox system ranks highly, with anywhere from five to ten prospects on every list. This would normally be the time of year where I freaked out when Red Sox weren’t ranked as highly as I thought they should be.

This year, though, I’m taking it all with a grain of salt. I’ve realized that these lists are only guides to the top prospects in baseball, and can mean little when the prospects make the major leagues.

A Mookie for all seasons. Photo by Kelly O'Connor, sittingstill.smugmug.com

A Mookie for all seasons. Photo by Kelly O’Connor, sittingstill.smugmug.com

Mookie Betts’ tremendous 2013 season vaulted him on to many top 100 lists this year. He ranked the highest on Keith Law’s list, at 61st overall in baseball. Baseball Prospectus, though, gave him no love at all leaving him off their top 101.

My old response to leaving a favorite prospect of mine off a top prospects list would have been HOW DARE THEY MB=THE GREATEST JOSH SMASH (laptop destroyed, no more internetz). Now with a slightly better perspective, I realize it just means Baseball Prospectus doesn’t have Betts ranked as highly as some of the other sites (they have Betts ranked eighth in their Red Sox top ten).

My personal ranking for Betts is 1A to Xander Bogaerts, and I expect him to win the Eastern League triple crown in 2014, ride onto the field for every game on a golden unicorn, and find the lost city of Atlantis in his spare time. I do realize my own personal bias may have a role in that projection.

Rankings give industry opinion on the impact a prospect will have at the major league level. Prospects, though, don’t finish developing when they reach the major leagues. These lists often underrate solid performers, and overrate prospects with great tools but lesser baseball skills.

A great recent example of an underrated prospect is Kevin Youkilis. His highest home run total for a season in the minors was eight, so he lacked the power to be considered a high level prospect at a corner position. Youkilis had a strong enough work ethic to continue to make improvements once he reached the majors. Some tweaks to his swing led to more power and All-Star level performance for several years with the Red Sox.

Allen Webster could be the cautionary tale in the other direction. With his mid-90′s sinking fastball, disappearing changeup and emerging slider, he has the pitches to rival Kevin Brown in his prime. This premium stuff wows scouts, but he’s yet to show the command and control to harness his pitches. He still has a chance to put it all together, but there’s a strong possibility that the command will never improve and he’ll wind up in the bullpen.

The organizational rankings were another source of angst for me in the past. Last year I was convinced that Keith Law from ESPN was crazy to rank the Yankees farm system ahead of the Red Sox. Angry chat questions were sent, and emergency gchat sessions erupted between Fire Brand staff. In the end, none of it really mattered. Once the 2013 season began, those rankings went out the window.

Law could have been right at that moment when the rankings were written. Then pretty much all the Red Sox top prospects excelled in 2013, while the Yankees prospects either underperformed, got hurt, or both.  The lists and rankings happen in the offseason before the next pitch is thrown. Injuries, performance and other factors can drastically impact the next round of lists. One year later, Law has the Red Sox ranked fifth in MLB, with the Yankees way back at 20.

In the end, these lists and rankings are great for generating discussion and debate on prospects, but don’t determine the eventual success of a player once they reach the major leagues. The rookies who helped the Red Sox most in 2013 were Jose Iglesias and Brandon Workman, two players who weren’t on most Red Sox top ten lists heading into the season.

Remember to look at all prospect lists with some perspective, especially when we post our Red Sox prospect list on Fire Brand sometime soon.

Categories: Allen Webster Kevin Brown Kevin Youkilis Mookie Betts Xander Bogaerts

I've been a Red Sox fan since before birth, as my mom was watching the '75 World Series while pregnant with me. 1986 was a major life trauma, but I have always been a fan who believed that "next year" was the year. That faith was finally rewarded in 2004, and again in 2007, coincidentally the last 2 years that I have seen games in Fenway Park. I now follow the Sox from Texas, and love that I will see them in person in Houston this season. Follow Josh on Twitter here

6 Responses to “Hakuna Matata: Don’t Worry About Prospect Lists” Subscribe

  1. Gerry January 31, 2014 at 8:26 PM #

    Refreshing view from the mountaintop. Thanks. It’s so easy to get upset at ranking systems, rigid projection systems, even posters who damn young players using data without context. As Alex Speier points out, it’s more about stuffing sausages than prescience.
    The good news is that more than a dozen players wearing Red Sox were placed in various high positions on these lists … Including “just missed” like Betts and Webster with BP. DLR wasn’t eligible for any, while Workman, Britton weren’t eligible for some. Consider also Normadin’s musings about the next large wave of talent already forming in the lower levels (Margot, Devers, Ball, etc.) and we have sooooo much to akhuna mutata about. Including being WS champs. Can’t wait to hear Victorino come to the plate in April and 36,000 voices sing “Don’t worry, be happy”.

  2. Coby76 February 1, 2014 at 8:49 AM #

    Great. I am happy to find another big fan of Mookie, He should dominate AA and prove evaluators wrong.

  3. Josh Cookson February 3, 2014 at 2:42 PM #

    Coby76  I think many were wary of ranking him too high solely on one strong season. As you said, a strong performance in Double A will shoot him up the rankings.

  4. Josh Cookson February 3, 2014 at 2:54 PM #

    @Gerry  Greenville will be the team to watch in the minors this year, to see if any of the guys from the lower ranks take a real step forward. As this article mentions (http://www.overthemonster.com/2014/1/3/5269476/greenville-drive-red-sox-prospects-2014), it could be an absolutely stacked roster if Ball, Margot, Denney, etc make the team out of Spring Training.

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