. Brian Matusz
. Not every prospect who's going
to be this, or going
to be that, turns out. (And the busts aren't all Orioles, but hey, they're down, so let's kick ‘em.) Prospects are exciting and, more than that, can hit you with some serious production, like Mike Stanton
, Buster Posey
and Eric Hosmer
have of recent vintage. And then there's the .136 spot Chris Carter
hung on owners last year. When it comes time to take that flier on the next big lottery ticket, it helps to know how to slice through the hype and pick the right prospects.
Top 100 lists are a great first stop, but they aren't the whole show. The writers may judge the risk of a bust differently than you and could very easily be ranking prospects with a different sort of league in mind than yours. You want to make your own judgments, but the essential data you need starts with the best top 100 lists, and more importantly, the scouting reports that accompany them.
• RotoWire Top 100 by Jason Collette
- Sure, we're biased, but most prospect lists are pure baseball, whereas Jason has you and me in mind. Other lists can rank defensive wizards highly and you want to avoid those, which can be difficult if there aren't scouting reports to go along with the list. So start with a list based on fantasy potential.
• Baseball America Top 100
- This is the granddaddy of prospect lists and an industry standard, but it's pure baseball and likely to have those defense-first players here and there, so read the scouting reports. Another reason to read analysis: you may prefer the high-risk, high-reward fireballer to the low-ceiling, more certain control artist and the lists alone don't tell you which is which. The control guy might be higher on the list than guys of more fantasy potential, so you need to know who's who. BA has great scouting reports if you've got a subscription, and they've got a ton of experience compared to others in evaluating prospects. Their list, out each year towards the end of February, is compiled by a team of six, rather than one person, so it's awfully durable.
• Keith Law's Top 100 on ESPN Insider and Kevin Goldstein's Top 101 on Baseball Prospectus
- We don't all have Baseball America subscriptions to access their scouting, but many have ESPN Insider and BP logins. Their experts have quality pure baseball lists, too, with in-depth scouting reports you can more than rely on for your own rankings. If you don't have BA access, try these, or add them to get valuable second opinions on players.
Scouting vs. Stats: It's No Contest
The sabermetric revolution has brought more, and more powerful, statistical methods to our fingertips, but there's a reason teams had come to depend on scouting: it's got a lot to offer and every team employs a combination of both no matter how sabermetrically inclined. This is no contest, it's a marriage.
The scouting community has built up lifetimes of knowledge on the body types that most often lead to, say, velocity or durability in a pitcher, or a lower half that will indicate a quick 18-year-old will lose his speed by the time he's of typical major league age. Think about what you looked like when you graduated high school and then after college. It's a big difference for most of us. Scouts have experience both with the physical maturation of players and the way they develop their skills. They can look at two Low-A hitters who slug .500 and tell you which one's swing is likely to start whiffing big-time once they face advanced breaking stuff in Double-A. They can talk about a pitching delivery that has a strong chance to lead to injury. You need this wisdom, before you think Edwar Cabrera
's 217 Ks that led the minors last year mean something (they don't – he'll be exposed as he moves up).
Scouting is essential, then, but neither scouting, stats, nor the combination thereof seals the deal. No amount of accuracy about a player's tools, body type or performance can account for their head: will this kid actually take to heart learning to hit for contact like his tools indicate he can or will he choose to sell out for power despite not having to? Will the potential ace learn to trust his stuff and pitch in the zone? Does this catcher have the smarts to call a good game? All that's hard to know and there are few projections or stats for it.
It's all an imperfect science. Start with the experts' opinions. Combine statistical output with what scouts say about it and what they see is possible for a player. You'll get an awfully strong sense of who's your kind of player.
Ceiling and Likelihood of Reaching It
Scouts and fantasy owners alike have to look at what the highest level of production is a prospect might ever achieve, but also the player's likelihood of reaching it. Let's jump back to 2007 for an example whose results we know a little bit about. Jason Heyward
was drafted out of high school with a very high ceiling due to a combination of big power, some speed and strong average, and had the plate discipline, body and work ethic that caused great confidence he'd get there. Colorado's Franklin Morales
had both blistering stuff and poor control in the high minors – very close to making the show. His ceiling was high but the likelihood wasn't comparable to Heyward's even though Morales was in Double-A and Heyward was a draft pick in rookie ball. Fast-forward and Morales hasn't reached his ceiling, but Heyward has, when healthy, shown he's heading for his. Time will still tell for these two, but you get the idea: everyone has potential, but also a likelihood of hitting it.
Every one of those Top 100 lists up above has an easy time putting the high-ceiling, high-likelihood guy at the top of a list: Mike Trout
, Bryce Harper
, Matt Moore
. But for the vast majority of players where there's a divergence of opinions from scouts and far from anything totally assured, the experts try to balance ceiling and likelihood. A guy at No. 89 on a list could have huge potential but big holes, whereas No. 54 has very plain stuff, with low strikeout potential, but knows how to pitch and is a lock to make next year's rotation in a very humdrum way. You need to decide which guy you want: what's your tolerance is for risk?
If you can keep prospects from year to year for free, you've got more room for boom-or-bust players. If you're looking for single-season or in-season free agent help, you want someone close and likely. Even with a keeper squad, you may want to try some portfolio management and balance high-ceiling gambles with some surer bets. Stashing some boring junkballer named Chien-Ming Wang
before the 2005 season turned out well for a few years thereafter.
So, check those stats and scouting reports and pick out the kinds of players you're looking for. And don't be afraid to make big changes in the order the experts have the players in: the further away from No. 1 you get, the more and more of a toss-up the rankings are, and anyway, that's their criteria that produced those rankings, not yours.
Scouts often say a player was young or old for their level. There's a general idea that at a certain age, you would typically be at a given level of the minors. You'd want to reach Double-A by 21 or 22, for instance. A 19-year-old who struggles at Double-A, as highly regarded Rangers prospect Martin Perez
did, might get a mulligan. But a 21-year-old who rakes at Low-A has to be taken with a grain of salt because he should at that age be far more developed and physically mature than his competition. The minors are a world of escalating physical development and skill as you look up the chain so there's a sliding scale in play. This is why the age of international players is huge: what is advanced for a 16-year-old can be pedestrian for a 19-year-old. When assessing prospect stats, be aware of the age relative to the level. At these ages, years matter.
Top high school draft picks will often debut in rookie or Low-A ball. The most advanced might be rushed to High-A. College draftees might debut in anywhere from Low-A to Double-A depending on how the system they're in likes to play it, and their skill level. Latin American signees often come over young and work in extended spring training and rookie ball before moving on to what's called full-season leagues (Low-A and up). There's no shame in moving up one level at a time, and some stars even had to repeat a level, but chances are your star players are the ones that move faster.
What a player does in Double-A is a huge test. Breaking balls get tougher to hit and hitters are far more able to take your weak stuff yard. Pretenders get exposed. Stats below Double-A are notoriously variable due to disparate talent levels and the fact that toolsy players are receiving instruction and working on certain skills, and not just playing for production. They may even have their swings or deliveries tinkered with, or have the added distraction of learning a new position. Below Double-A, it's very much like spring training: the stats can be meaningful, but they often can mask true ability. That's why you need the scouting report to make sense of the stats. Once a player has success at Double-A, though, you can be much more confident in their production, and definitely want to see those raw tools showing up in stat sheets, the potential becoming reality. Players even get promoted to the majors from Double-A at times. The hardest jump is always from Triple-A to the MLB, but the difference between High-A and Double-A is perhaps the next most important to keep an eye on, along with what age the player is when he does it.
How many errors a position player commits doesn't matter in most leagues, but defense still matters for prospects. The first bar they need to pass is being able to play a position at all. The Luke Scott
's of the world have a hard time getting enough at-bats to get their sea legs in the majors and can take longer to reach their potential at the plate. If the masher with no position is in an NL system, that's bad news.
Of course, most guys can play a position at least at an acceptable level. But their fantasy value may be tied to what position they'll qualify at. If you've ever said, "He's an All-Star… for a catcher," you know the story here. Like Pittsburgh's Tony Sanchez
, the prospect has to project to stay at catcher, short, or second, etc., if he projects to being fantasy worthy only relative to that position. If there are questions about staying at a premium position, look for guys whose bats "will play at any position." (This is what they say about Jesus Montero
, by the way - schwing!) And in general, take note of comments that he won't be special if he moves out from behind the plate, or will only be average if he slides to second. There are perennial questions about shortstops and catchers staying there, and most scouts will opine about whether they will; if there's doubt, they'll likely note how the bat rates at other positions.
Defense even applies in the outfield and corners. Some guys have a great tool for hitting for average but not enough power. If they have to play first or left field because they've got concrete hands, it means that a perfectly acceptable bat may not even make the majors. If only he could play second.
So this is where real life baseball really comes in. Will the player hit well enough for his position for him to earn playing time. And back in the fantasy realm, will he suck at 3B but excel at SS? If so, you better know where he's going to qualify.
Skills vs. Tools
Just a quick note here: tools can be raw, undeveloped athletic capabilities, but skills are actual baseball abilities that prove out through production. A player might have great batting tools, like strong wrists and hand-eye coordination, but he'll need to put it all together into batting skills: a short, compact swing with natural loft and hopefully no tendency to chase pitches. Note the difference when scouts use these two words.
Some talented players' tools will play anywhere, without refinement. And in general, keep in mind that it is not required for a player to overcome every noted challenge before becoming a major leaguer. Some guys have enough talent to get there, but perhaps won't hit their ceiling without developing. Some never do. Others arrive but continue to develop once in the show. This isn't about getting it all right in the minors. Look for scouting reports that indicate a tool or skill is major league ready, and for statistical output that proves it's not just a tool but a skill.
Enough ground rules. Let's get into some common types of players and skills, and the sorts of things to look for.
- Huge power don't mean a thing if you can't put the bat on the ball. Somehow Mark Reynolds
has a job, but others likely never will. One has to be able to hit the breaking and offspeed stuff to survive, so the Holy Grail is big power and as low strikeouts as possible, an indication of being able to make contact. For players who are all about power, but lack discipline, this is where the rankings come in: the better ranked the more likely the experts think it is this free-swinger will hack it in the majors. This often isn't statistical, but rather based on the characteristics of the swing, and the player's work ethic.
- Being fast doesn't mean you can read pitchers, so for one you want not just someone with the speed tool, but the ability to use it. Scouts may address this: at draft, Dee Gordon
was very fast, but raw, meaning he hadn't yet learned to use the speed. Stats can also bear this out: steals percentages of 75% or more indicate the player has learned the skill fairly well. Second, you need to get on base to use that speed. Just ask Carlos Gomez
. In addition to strong bat skills, you want someone with high OBP already, or the scouted potential for it.
- Power guys can get away with subpar bat skills, but for the most part, every position player needs this. Ideally, you want a clean, compact swing, strong wrists, pitch recognition skills, good weight transfer and low strikeouts to expect high average in the majors. It's not so much about K:BB than K per at-bat and the BB per at-bat to show he isn't out chasing junk.
- If you've got this one figured out, call us. To start, you need three pitches. Many draft phenoms have one dominant one, another strong one, and a third they never even had to use. That doesn't mean they can't learn it in the minors, but they will have to. And not everyone who is expected to does that. There's also projection: is the curve ball above average for his age, or already above-average for the major leagues? Those are two very different things. Projection also includes whether the fastball is expected to gain a few mph because this skinny kid has super-long arms and shoulders that have yet to fill out. But even there, it don't mean a thing if you can't locate it. Optimally, you want stuff (velocity, movement) with the command and control (sometimes together called polish) to use those tools. You'll see scouts talk about a pitch flashing plus, or being above average at times. That's the bright side of saying the pitch is inconsistent.
Let's put all of this together. For fantasy purposes, a guy with low strikeouts (K/9 below 7.5 in the low minors, say) is unlikely to provide strong strikeout totals, which not only will require him to be an artist with location and keeping hitters off balance, but also fails to contribute to that category in the fantasy world. There's more upside in the high-K guys, but this is where that strategy thing kicks in: the guy with four pitches and polish but low strikeout projection might be a more of a mortal lock to make the majors.
Nonetheless, it makes sense to look at the guys with top Ks. What are the walks like and how is the player assessed by scouts? Great K:BB but injury prone? That's a huge risk. Huge Ks and BBs? Pitchers can learn to get control of things as they mature, but there's almost no telling who it'll be. Do your best to find prospects with numbers and scouting that indicate some polish to go with the stuff.
Often, the best bet is to listen to the scouts. They look at the numbers, too, and talk about what a player needs to do to smooth things out, whether it's likely and how bad-ass that fastball or killer curve truly is.
- Most major league relievers work their way through the minors as starters but don't develop that necessary third pitch or simply are too valuable to their teams as fireballers. They often are converted to relief in the high minors, or more likely, in the show. So be wary of guys who are dedicated relievers from the get-go. There are always a few of them of note, but few star relievers in the majors started in the pen. Plus, you can almost always pick up great young relievers really cheaply once they make the show.
Now, if you're dying to play in a league with a prospect squad or one that otherwise makes prospects more relevant, we've done our job. As an owner who's acquired King Felix Hernandez
, Joey Votto
, Troy Tulowitzki
, Evan Longoria
, Andrew McCutchen
, Matt Moore
, Brett Anderson
and Daniel Hudson as minor leaguers over the years, I can tell you it's a hell of a rollercoaster ride following these guys as they move closer and closer. And they sure as heck help you win championships.