Overvaluing Prospects – Part I

As of right now, oddsmakers have the Toronto Blue Jays listed as the favourites to win the 2013 World Series.

You read that right – our Toronto Blue Jays are the favourites.  Who thought that would have been possible in October after the disaster that was the 2012 season came to a conclusion?

By now we all know how the Jays got here.  A couple of nice signings, and two shrewd trades by our fearless GM transformed Toronto’s roster from patchy to powerful.  The fan base is excited. 

But not everybody – there are still a few people out there who are grumbling about the price of the Jays’ acquisitions.  The Blue Jays have moved several of their top prospects in this overhaul, and while some simply shrug and say that this is the cost of contending, others have spent days lamenting the fact that we may have lost future All-Stars.

It’s true the Jays gave up a lot.  In November, Baseball America released a list of the Top-10 prospects in the Blue Jays system.  Of those 10, five are now gone: #1 Travis d’Arnaud, #2 Jake Marisnick, #3 Noah Syndergaard, #5 Justin Nicolino, and #8 Adeiny Hechavarria.  This comes on the heels of moving previous top prospects Travis Snider (in the Brad Lincoln deal), and Zach Stewart and Marc Rzepczynski (in the three-team Colby Rasmus deal).

But did they really give up a lot?  How much stock should we put into these Baseball America rankings? 

To try and answer those questions, I decided to take a look at historical Baseball America prospect lists.  Beginning in 1990, Baseball America has released a list of the Top-100 prospects in all of baseball.  The list typically comes out in February, so before the season begins.  I think that everybody can agree that players near the bottom of the list carry much more risk (the 90th prospect is less likely to succeed than the 10th ranked player), so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise if the majority of those players are busts.

But what about the top of the list?  Baseball is, and always has been, a crapshoot when it comes to predicting how well prospects will fare in the big leagues, but it should be fairly rational to assume that players at the top of the list should find success.  After all, they are the elite of the elite, the cream of the crop, the top of the heap. 

What I decided to do was take a look at the Top-3 prospects from each annual Baseball America list and see how well they fared in their major league careers.  The Top-100 list has been published for 23  years, meaning there are 69 players that have graced the Top-3.  However, some players have found their way in the top-3 on more than one occasion, including Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Joe Mauer (twice each), and Delmon Young (four times).  After removing all multiple instances, we are left with a list of 53 unique players.  Of these 53, I made the decision to remove all players that were in the top-3 in the past two years, as they haven’t had much of a chance to prove themselves yet . While it might not be too soon to say that Baseball America was bang on with naming Bryce Harper and Mike Trout as top prospects, the jury is still out on Matt Moore and Jesus Montero. 

So that leaves a total of 49 players.  How many of these players have been successful, and how many have been busts?  In order to decide that, we first have to figure out how to determine what makes a player a success or a bust.

For that, I will be using baseball-reference’s WAR stat.  It might not be perfect, but it includes all aspects of a player’s game, and also makes it easier to compare players across era’s, across leagues, and across positions (i.e. pitchers vs. batters).

Baseball Reference defines the final WAR stat for a single season as follows: 8+ is an MVP level, 5+ is All-Star calibre, 2+ is a solid starting player, 0-2 is bench player worthy, and a negative number is just flat out bad.  One way to look at the list of prospects is to take their average WAR (career WAR divided by total seasons) and convert it to that scale.  This would give us an indication of the value that the player provided his team over the course of his career. 

But I decided to use total career WAR instead of average WAR, for two reasons:

1. Average WAR is easily skewed by a bad season or two.  For example, say a player has a five season career.  In his rookie year he was a part time player and struggled, putting up a WAR of -1.0.  Seasons 2-4 he was All-Star worthy with three straight 5.0’s.  However in his final year, he dealt with injuries and struggled to a -2.0.  For the most part he would be remembered as a 5.0 WAR type of player, but because of his first and last seasons, his average WAR would only be 2.4.

2. Longevity should count for something.  If player A suited up for four major league seasons and put together a career WAR of 28, that is good for an average of 7.0 per season.  Very good.  But consider player B, who might have a career WAR of 30, achieved over 15 seasons.  Despite player A having played four outstanding seasons, I would value player B higher due to his career longevity.  Controversial?  Maybe, but that’s how I’m rolling.

So with that long preamble out of the way, let’s look at the 49 unique players rated in the top-3 by Baseball America between 1990 and 2010.  I split the list into seven categories: Elite Slam Dunk Hall-of-Famers (career WAR > 100), Likely Hall-of-Famers (75 – 100), Very Good Players (50 – 75), Solid Players (25 – 50), Good Players (10 – 25), Disappointing Players (5 – 10), and Flat Out Busts (< 5).

Elite Slam Dunk Hall-of-Famers – 1

Alex Rodriguez

Likely Hall-of-Famers – 1

Chipper Jones

Very Good Players – 4

Adrian Beltre, Andruw Jones, Vladimir Guerrero, John Olerud

Solid Players – 10

Mark Teixeira, J.D. Drew, Joe Mauer, Eric Chavez, Josh Beckett, Felix Hernandez, Jose Reyes, Evan Longoria, Paul Konerko, Kerry Wood

Note: I would expect Mauer, Hernandez, and Longoria (who are all still playing and realtively young) to jump to the next echelon.  Other active players will likely stay here.

Good Players – 15

Ryan Klesko, Cliff Floyd, Josh Hamilton, Ben McDonald, Alex Gordon, Pat Burrell, Mark Prior, David Price, Jason Heyward, B.J. Upton, Justin Upton, Giancarlo Stanton, Hank Blalock, Matt Wieters, Steve Avery

Note: There are a few active players in the list.  Hamilton might rise up to the next level, as may Heyward, Price, Stanton, and Wieters.  The jury is still out on the Upton brothers.

Disappointments – 10

Jay Bruce, Rocco Baldelli, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Rick Ankiel, Corey Patterson, Jeffrey Hammonds, Ben Grieve, Colby Rasmus, Joba Chamberlain, Ruben Rivera

Note: Stephen Strasburg technically falls here with a WAR of 5.1, but it’s obvious that he doesn’t belong.  Bruce will likely move up as he has played only five seasons.  Rasmus has only played four, but has (sadly) not shown any signs of putting it together.

Flat Out Busts – 7

Paul Wilson, Delmon Young, Roger Salkeld, Brien Taylor, Todd Van Poppel, Andujar Cedeno, Brandon Wood

Note: Taylor never made the majors.  Van Poppel, Cedeno, and the still active Wood all have career WARs below 0.

Conclusion

So what was the point of this exercise?  What was I trying to prove? 

Well, I mainly wanted to point out how badly we as fans have the tendency to overvalue prospects.  Each of those 49 players was ranked in the top-3 in all of baseball at one point.  There is a good chance that fans of those teams were expecting each of those players to be perennial All-Stars and future Hall of Famers.  Of that list, only two ( or 4.1%) will be in Cooperstown.  Others, such as Beltre, Teixeira, Mauer, King Felix, Longoria, Strasburg, Price, Heyward, and Stanton are certainly on the right path.

But look at other names.  Delmon Young was ranked in the top-3 an unprecedented four times, and has thus far put together a career WAR of 0.6.  Corey Patterson was a former #2 overall draft pick and found himself ranked #2 in 2001 and #3 in 2000, yet has a career WAR of 7.6.  Brien Taylor never made the majors.  In all, 18 (or 36.7%) of the list have a career WAR of less than 10.0, meaning that Baseball America is flat out wrong about its top-3 prospects over a third of the time.

Now, take into account that pre-2012, Travis d’Arnaud, the man that many Blue Jays fans felt was the next Johnny Bench, was only ranked 17th by Baseball America.  If they are consistently wrong about the top-3, how can we expect them to be accurate about #17?  Jake Marisnick, dealt in the Miami deal, was thought by many to be a future All-Star outfielder.  He was ranked 67th.  Adeiny Hechavarria wasn’t even ranked.

The bottom line is that prospects don’t always pan out.  In fact, they very, very rarely pan out.  So next season, when you watch the Jays pull off a three game winning streak behind R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, and Emilio Bonifacio, remember that the players that were used to bring them to Toronto, if history is any indication, may never amount to anything.

Stay tuned – next week I’ll take a look at the history of Blue Jays prospects.

3 thoughts on “Overvaluing Prospects – Part I”

  1. As a Jays fan, I really like what the Red Sox have done this year. Gomes, Napoli, Victorino, Dempster and Stephen Drew are probably a total of about 2.5 decent players. And the Sox are paying them a combined $54 million this year. Dickey, Johnson, Buehrle, Reyes, Cabrera, Bonafacio and Izturis won’t make that much combined in 2013.

  2. Very true! I could build a house out of the Todd van poppel ‘all star prospects’ upper deck cards I collected in hope of his guaranteed brilliance.

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