Who was your favorite prospect bust? It’s not a really fun question, kind of the spiritual cousin of “What was your most heartbreaking romantic rejection?” and “What would you say is your greatest personal and professional regret?” But it is a question that I think is more likely to come up than the other two, if only because there are so many prospect busts to choose from and so many prospects tantalizing with what-will-ultimately-become-false promise. So, since we’re all friends here, I’ll ask again: Who’s your favorite prospect bust?
Mine is probably Brody Colvin. I’m a Phillies fan, and the “Baby Aces” period of farm system watching might be too particularized to be a communal memory, but you probably get the gist: There were three or four pitchers on the Phillies’ farm who looked like they might be future aces. As is wont to happen, only one, Jarred Cosart, has made the major leagues in any sustained way, and he’s currently languishing on the Marlins’ Triple-A squad. Colvin was even more disappointing. An overslot signee from the seventh round of the 2009 draft, Colvin never overpowered with strikeouts, but pitched to a 3.39 ERA/3.55 FIP at 20 years old in Single-A in 2010. There was so much to dream on there—maybe he’d put on muscle and velocity! Maybe he’d be the Roy Halladay replacement the team would need! Maybe he’d team up with Cole Hamels and solve mysteries!
Or maybe he’d be out of baseball entirely in 2014. Such are prospects, as we know all too well. I could rattle off 20 prospects, Phillies and non-Phillies alike, who I thought would be surefire major leaguers and got summarily drummed out of the prospect corps, while afterthoughts like Adam Eaton or Khristopher Davis wandered into the major leagues and hit enough to earn a full time job over a number of years. Or while pitchers like Jacob deGrom and Corey Kluber managed to shake their non-prospect status and become truly elite in a way that the Brody Colvins of the world could only dream of.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, though. Prospects are weird. They develop weirdly, their minor-league numbers translate weirdly, and their potential often isn’t valued properly until it’s all but determined. Don’t worry, I’m not about to go on a “prospects are just prospects” rant, like a 2005 screed being eviscerated on Fire Joe Morgan. No, I’m going to be arguing that, figuratively speaking, what we understand as a prospect has never existed. I’m taking my cue here from Jean Baudrillard’s provocatively titled The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. In this book, which encompasses three essays, Baudrillard – famous for his theories of “hyper reality” and “simulacrum” which described the anomie and detachment of postmodern, contemporary culture – is not literally arguing that the Gulf War of 1992 never happened. Rather, he is arguing that the Gulf War as we imagine we experienced it never happened: There was no “war” as we might expect, but a series of shock and awe styled attacks that overwhelmed and destroyed the enemy before war could really happen. That it is considered a war at all, Baudrillard would say, is all thanks to concerted media repackaging after the fact. In that way, glossing the politics here for the sake of brevity and sanity, the Gulf War (Such as We Imagined It) Did Not Take Place.
And in the same way, Your Favorite Prospect Bust Did Not Take Place, and also what’s more, Your Favorite Prospect Success Story also Did Not Take Place.
Brody Colvin, for instance, was not who I imagined he was. He was not some sort of saving grace for a thin-ish Phillies system; there were no “baby aces”; Roy Halladay wasn’t going to be replaced or even going to be pitching past the first month of 2012. Much of what I still understand about Brody Colvin’s life as a prospect is part of this narrative I wrote about him through the lens of my own fandom. In reality, he’s a 25-year-old dude, going on 26, who is on at least his second career, not of his own choice, and probably not because of anything that he or we can pinpoint.
Basically, we make up stories about these guys to make the randomness of their human rise and fall a bit less maddening. You don’t even need to be a fan of a particular team to be susceptible to this. Byron Buxton is, to so many fantasy baseball owners, mercurial, frustrating, and becoming too much trouble to keep around. Joey Gallo is a guy who if he could only stop striking out might be the next big star. But neither of those guys is, really, that. They’re still kids trying to make the right adjustments to succeed at their job.
There’s a sort of vertigo when we think about prospects that way, as like us or like we once were, trying to succeed in our first steps into adulthood, but it’s a vertigo worth facing. And much as we are careful to discuss the non-linear physical development of prospects, I think it might be time to consider their non-linear personal development as well. In plain English, prospects are not the same as their major-league selves, in both their ability to play the game, and in terms of the people they are. They change epistemologically, which is to say a bit clinically that they change into different objects of analysis, different subjects to be understood differently.
We might then say that not only did Brody Colvin Not Take Place, but that Jake Arrieta Did Not Take Place or Matt Duffy Did Not Take Place. At Baseball Prospectus and elsewhere, we are committed as baseball writers to coming up with a narrative that glosses this disjunction between prospect and professional by using the science and art of analyzing adjustments to hitting, pitch delivery, defense, et al. But the hard truth is that as fun as it is to wishcast prospects, we need to remember that not only are we being pie-in-the-sky optimists about the numbers that they’ll produce, we’re also being wholly speculative about the kinds of people they will become.
Put another way, there is a long-standing story (that I assume is true) that Albert Pujols used the fact that he was picked in the 13th round of the draft as motivation to become one of the all-time great players of baseball. And maybe that’s what he felt for real! Who knows? But what I want to suggest is that, more than it may have been true in the moment, it is truer after the fact. It is a spin put on the story by Pujols, by the Cardinals, by us, by whoever wants to make it a legible story. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But make no mistake, the kid drafted in the 13th round by the Cardinals and the slugging first baseman MVP are really only the same person as far as biology, history, family, etc. are concerned. In terms of their Being as ballplayers, there is no contiguity.
Because the development of a major leaguer isn’t just difficult to trace, it’s literally impossible. The magic of minor-league development is magic in the most classical sense: it is the magic that, after the wonder passes, assures us all that It Did Not Take Place At All.