The Meaning of “Potential”

“Potential means you ain’t done it yet.” – Darrell Royal, Head Coach University of Texas Football (1957-1976)

What exactly is potential, and why do we dwell on it so much in sports?  According to Oxford Dictionaries Online, potential is defined as “having or showing the capacity to become or develop into something in the future” (adjective) or “latent qualities or abilities that may be developed and lead to future success or usefulness” (noun).

In its most basic form, I would describe potential as untapped or unmet future expectations.  We hear about it so often in sports that it has become second nature.  For instance: Phil Kessel has the “potential” to be a 50-goal scorer in the NHL; Justin Verlander has the “potential” to throw a no-hitter in each and every start; Bryce Harper has so much “potential” that he might be a big league force at 19-years old.

Of course for a Toronto Blue Jay fan, potential is a word that comes with loads of doubt.  For years we have been told about several key prospects who were loaded with potential.  For years the fan base has become excited about this player who has the potential to become the next Gary Carter (Kevin Cash, Guillermo Quiroz, Angel Martinez), or that player who has the potential to become the next Cal Ripken or Ozzie Smith (Alex Gonzalez). 

More often than not, as per the cases above, the excitment didn’t pay off.  Not even close.

Potential has always been a sticking point for the Blue Jays, even going way back in franchise history.  A good proxy to use as an indicator of potential is the draft, espeically the first round of the draft.  In order for a player to be a first round draft choice, he has to be special.  The team that drafts him must believe not only that the kid is a good player, but that he has the “potential” to be a future major league star.  Why else take him with your first pick?  A quick glance at Toronto’s history of first round draft choices will show a huge disconnect between potential and results:

– In 1979 Toronto drafted Jay Schroeder 3rd overall

– 1980: drafted Garry Harris 2nd overall

– 1981: drafted Matt Williams (pitcher, not the slugger) 5th overall

– 1982: drafted Augie Schmidt 2nd overall

More recent drafts also show the same issue.  From 1998 – 2004 the Jays first round picks were as follows: Felipe Lopez, Alex Rios, Miguel Negron, Gabe Gross, Russ Adams, Aaron Hiill, and David Purcey.  Aside from one or two decent years from Hill and Rios, those players never lived up to their potential.  Looking back at those drafts is especially painful when you realize who was still available when Toronto chose the players they did: Tony Gwynn in 1981, Dwight Gooden in 1982, David Wright in 2001, Cole Hamels in 2002, and Dustin Pedroia in 2004.

I know that the same exercise can be done for other teams, with other draft misses thrown into the mix.  This is not meant to be an investigation into the poor drafting of the Blue Jays.  The baseball draft is a crapshoot – everybody knows it.

No, this is meant to be an exploration of potential and how we evaluate it.  Because right now, there are four very important players in Toronto’s spring camp that have a ton of potential.

Those players are Travis Snider, Colby Rasmus, Kyle Drabek, and Brandon Morrow.

Travis Snider and Colby Rasmus are loaded with potential, the potential to be future All-Stars in the outfield and to hit 30+ HR each year.  Drabek and Morrow have the potential to be top-of-the-rotation starters for the next decade – their stuff is that good.

It’s not only me who thinks so either.  Baseball America ranked Snider the 6th best prospect in all of baseball in 2009 and Rasmus was #3; Kyle Drabek was listed at #25 in 2010; Brandon Morrow was #87 in 2007.  The Blue Jays front office also thought quite highly of these four, drafting Snider 14th overall in ’06, and trading a future All-Star (Brandon League), the face of the franchise (Roy Halladay) and five players from the major league roster in two trades (Corey Patterson, Jason Frasor, Marc Rzepczynski, Octavio Dotel, and Zach Stewart) for Morrow, Drabek, and Rasmus respectively.  That is a lot.

But so far, the results have been far less than desired.  Snider and Drabek have struggled mightily in their limited exposure to the big leagues, as has been well documented.  Morrow has been wildly inconsistent, showing only glimpses of the dominating brilliance he appears to be capable of.  Rasmus only had a cup of coffee with the Jays last year, but had a bad year overall and looks nowhere near the #3 prospect he was pegged to be.

Which leads me to the entire point of this post.  What is the potential of these four guys at the present time, and what does it mean?   Should they still be considered as top-of-the-line major league talents that are ready to explode and lead the Jays?  Or should we temper our expectations a bit?  And if so, by how much?

For anybody who regularly reads this site, you will know that I am still very high on Rasmus and Morrow.  I think both are primed for a big year, so the potential for me is still there.  But I’m lost on what to think about Snider and Drabek.  Clearly neither remains a top-25 prospect.  That ship has sailed, floating away on a tide of underwhelming stints in the majors.  I don’t think Travis Snider should be thought of as a 35-HR threat, and Drabek as a 20-win, 200 strikeout, low 2.00 ERA ace – which many might have thought of them before. 

More realistic expectations?  Hard to say, because neither are likely to make the team out of spring training.  But would a full season of decent play by Snider and numbers equal to a #3 or #4 starter for Drabek suffice?  Or would they still be considered failures?

The bottom line is that I would much rather have a player with “potential” then one without, but there comes a time when that player must translate that potential into tangible, on-field results.  As Darrell Royal said at the beginning of this post, potential means you ain’t done it yet.

For our four Jays, that rings true.  They just have to be careful that the “ain’t done it yet” doesn’t turn into a “never did it.”

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