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January 17, 2012
The Advantage of Low Expectations
Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.
M.J. Lloyd is the editor of the Angels site Halo Hangout. He previously wrote general baseball nonsense at Off Base Percentage and covered the Atlanta Steam of the Lingerie Football League for Monkeys Throwing Darts. M.J. lives in New Orleans, where he becomes frustrated when trying to explain baseball to drunks. He also wanders around Twitter @MnkysThrwngDrts.
Prospects are like new car smell. They’re exciting and intoxicating. They make it seem like your favorite team is about to turn the corner.
With prospect analysis and news having penetrated every corner of the Internet, it’s hard not to get carried away with prospect love. I can’t imagine how many tweets Kevin Goldstein and Keith Law have to see every day asking if Team X’s third- and fifth-best prospects would be enough to score Felix Hernandez.
It’s prospect-mania out there. I’m guilty of it. I sponsor Brandon Wood’s Baseball-Reference page, and I’m no longer hopeful that it will fund my retirement plan.
But I have managed to identify a few of the pitfalls of prospect worship.
Don’t Count the Chickens Before They Hatch
Sure, it’s a strange idiom, but it aptly applies to the world of prospects. Not every Top 100 prospect or Top 10 pick is going to make it to the major leagues. The odds are better for those guys, but even they don’t come with guarantees. For a fan base, having the first pick in the amateur draft is a bittersweet experience. Your team was the worst in baseball the year before, but at least it has a chance to acquire one of the top non-professional players.*
*Results may vary.
The Yankees drafted high-schooler Brien Taylor with the first pick in the 1991 draft. The hard-throwing southpaw looked so promising that Scott Boras was able to get him $1.55 million, topping “Todd Van Poppel money.” Taylor never sniffed the majors, though, after suffering a torn labrum during a fist fight. The unfortunate event proved that trailer park and bar fights are meant to be eventual YouTube sensations, not off-season workout plans. Just ask Matt Bush.
The Prom Date Tease
Once in a while, your team might get a prospect so sexy that you can’t wait for the big night. Everything leading up to prom (or the MLB debut, in this case) has been wonderful. Top 10 Baseball America rankings in back-to-back years, monster home run shots in the minors, a low-cut fancy dress. The kind of stuff that makes grown men drool. When the big night finally arrives, it’s one big swinging strikeout. Just getting to first base seems unlikely.
Brandon Wood debuted for the Angels on April 26, 2007 by striking out swinging against Jae Seo. It never got better for the former power-hitting shortstop prospect. Wood has a career .186/.225/.289 line, with 218 strikeouts and 32 walks in 751 plate appearances. He was DFA’d by the Angels in 2011. After a brief stint with the Pirates, Wood signed a minor-league deal with the Rockies for 2012. The Pirates will have to hope he didn’t give Pedro Alvarez any tips on being a prospect tease during his brief time in Pittsburgh.
It’s hard not to fall head-over-heels for a prospect when most writers, bloggers and hobos-in-the-know are telling you he’s the best in baseball. I suggest tempering expectations until the much-anticipated youngster can post one .300 OBP season in the majors.
In 2005, Baseball Prospectus called Marte “The best prospect in baseball and a future superstar” but three years later described him as Triple-A filler. Marte has hit just .218/.277/.358 over six partial big-league seasons. BP wasn’t alone missing on Marte. John Sickels compared him to Adrian Beltre in 2003, Baseball America ranked him in the top 15 for three straight years (2004-2006), and most of the industry people Keith Law knew at the time were fans.
I’m not saying Bryce Harper will be a bust, but exercise caution, even with the consensus top pick.
Perhaps it’s unfair of me to criticize Dusty Baker here. But where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. Then Tommy John surgery. Baker certainly isn’t alone in his alleged abuse of young arms, but he is the most famous offender.
Mark Prior was the second pick in the 2001 draft, behind Joe Mauer, but he didn’t waste any time showing signs of brilliance with the Cubs. From 2002 to 2005, Prior posted a 133 ERA+ over 613.1 innings. Baker took most of the blame for the injuries subsequently suffered by Prior and his teammate Kerry Wood because of the high pitch counts the two hard throwers racked up early in their careers.
Pitching prospects carry a lot of risk under the best of circumstances. Dusty Baker might not have been the best babysitter for them (though he may have learned from his mistakes). Just saying.
Is It Too Late to Choose Football?
Bo Jackson might be the best pure athlete I’ve ever seen. Deion Sanders was pretty good, too. Splitting a career between the NFL and MLB is a thing of the past, but it was impressive when a select few players pulled it off.
There are plenty of NFL stars who could have made it to baseball’s main stage. John Elway was a second-round pick by the Yankees in 1981 but ultimately scratched out a living throwing an oblong ball.
Zach Lee and Bubba Starling recently passed up opportunities to quarterback at LSU and Nebraska, respectively, for the MLB draft. I hope it works out for them.
Joe Borchard might have advised them to try a different course. The White Sox gave Borchard $5.3 million as the 12th pick in the 2000 draft. The Stanford QB chose baseball over a potential NFL future. He posted a .205/.284/.352 line over parts of six seasons spent with Chicago, Seattle and Florida, but his intensity got in the way of his performance. Then again, it didn’t get in the way of his $5.3 million, which he got to keep anyway.
The road to being a major-league player isn’t easy, and splitting time between sports doesn’t help.
Hype is hype. There’s nothing wrong with your prized prospect turning into an above-average regular with a few All-Star appearances. That prospect beat the odds. If everyone was meant to be a future Hall of Famer, that walk I drew as an eight-year-old in little league would have led to something more.
Matt Wieters, at 25, was an All-Star in 2011 and hit 22 home runs with a .262/.328/.450 line. He also won a Gold Glove, if that means anything. Wieters might not hit 35 bombs per year for the next decade and walk into the HOF, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy his shirsey and continue to root for him. You shouldn’t buy his shirsey because shirseys are ridiculous and your friends will make fun of you.