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Prospects That Matter – March 2008

Yes, the glorious day has finally arrived.  After a 20-month hiatus, I'm finally excavating and updating my ramshackle prospect ranking system, formerly known as the Exciting Prospects Standard and now redubbed with the more apt (but no more humble) moniker, Prospects That Matter.  Actually, it's not really a ranking system, it's actually a separating-the-men-from-the-boys system; the specific rankings are secondary, and frankly, I don't give them a great deal of thought.  It is perhaps best described as a way of organizing the way we look at our young talent.

Why the new name?  Well, my friends, I'm older now, and wiser, or perhaps more tolerant, or perhaps just lazier.  If you really find Chris Gimenez exciting, I'm not going to argue with you about it.  If, on the other hand, you want to tell me that Chris Gimenez should actually matter to an Indians fan, well, then, you might just have a fight on your hands.  The aim of the system remains the same, and that is, for a diehard Indians fan who doesn't follow the minors closely, to identify those prospects that are really worth knowing about -- and not to bother that fan with guys who are merely over-hyped or over-drafted.

PTM attempts to identify:  Which guys are the most likely to contribute to the Indians winning a pennant?  Which guys are going to contribute the most, and which guys are going to contribute the soonest?  To that end, the PTM player must meet one of these criteria:

  • In Triple-A: succeeding at age 25, solid at 24, or younger.
  • In Double-A: succeeding at age 23, solid at 22, or younger.
  • In High-A: succeeding at age 21, solid at 20, or younger.
  • In Low-A: succeeding at age 19, solid at 18, or younger.
  • In short-season leagues: solid at age 17 or younger.

Triple-A players making this list are major-league-ready or nearly so and basically just waiting for an opportunity, while the High-A players on the list generally will be fairly high ceiling, and their success at such a young age makes them fairly likely to be a good major leaguer.  The Double-A players are a nice mix of readiness and likely success.  "Successful" generally means that he performed well enough to be promoted, and I try to take a nuanced view of a player's stats.  I start with basic productivity but keep a careful eye on peripherals, and particularly on K rates for pitchers.

Statements from team officials may also be considered, but ultimately the choice to promote or not to promote a player is more credible than any verbal statement.  Scouting reports are taken into account, but mostly with an eye toward projecting a player's defensive skills and likely role in the majors, which affects how good his bat will have to be in order to make it – in other words, in terms of pure hitting skills, the bar is lower for a standout defender like Brad Snyder than it is for a merely solid guy like Ben Francisco.  Injuries are always considered a negative factor, and in the PTM context, I never consider injuries a mitigating factor for a mediocre performance.

In 2006, PTM stubbornly championed guys like Carmona, AstroCab and Lofgren before they were fashionable, Adam Miller even when he was injured, solid successes like Garko and frustrating cases like Ferd and Marte – the system is fundamentally better at predicting who will earn a shot in the majors than who will succeed there, though it may be no worse than other systems in that regard.  Recent draft picks without track record and over-21 types dominating in the low minors were excluded without mercy, a tendency of PTM that irritated some fans in 2006 and will continue to irritate in 2008.  PTM preaches patience, not only at the plate but in our prospect rankings.  There are some guys I don't like leaving certain guys off the list any more than you do, but if the performance is there, those guys will jump on the list soon enough.

A note about the ages listed – it's their "seasonal age" for 2007, not 2008, listed that way because it's based on that age that we're evaluating their achievements so far.  I also pay little mind to "official" rules as to what makes a prospect.  If a player is 25 or younger and not a fully established major leaguer, he's a prospect in every way that actually matters to a team, or to a fan.

Prospects That Really, Really Matter — players who've met PTM criteria at an excessively young age.

  1. Asdrubal Cabrera – 21, SS-2B, thrived in Double-A and was solid in the majors.  As if you didn't know.
  2. Aaron Laffey – 22, RHP, not a lot of strikeouts but also not a lot of walks, performed  well and "equivalently" from Akron to Cleveland.
  3. Adam Miller – 22, RHP, struggled with injuries but way ahead of the curve in Triple-A.  Still very much a potential ace.
  4. Jensen Lewis – 23, RHP, unusual to rank a reliever this high, but Lewis truly dominated in Akron, and then Buffalo, and then Cleveland, and then against the Yankees in the playoffs, with an ERA under 2.00 and K rate over 10.  Frankly, this ranking might not be high enough — no other Indians prospect performed at this high of a level in 2007.
  5. Andy Marte – 23, 3B, and you don't have to like it.  For one thing, once a guy has made the list, he only graduates by getting too old or succeeding in the majors.  Try to imagine 2007 was Marte's first season in Triple-A — 766 OPS, 23-year-old third baseman, it's actually pretty good.  But of course, his actual first season in Triple-A was at age 21.  His three-year total, ages 21-22-23, are .268/.337/.473.
  6. Chuck Lofgren – 21, LHP, those who were disapointed by his season in Akron were forgetting how young he is to be an above-average pitcher at this level.  Lofgren will spend his age-22 season in Double-A, and he's a lefty with better stuff than Laffey or Sowers.

Prospects That Really Matter — those who beat the PTM criteria with room to spare.

  1. Jeremy Sowers – 24, LHP, and like Marte, he would make the list based only on his age and 2007 numbers alone, but the high ranking is for his dazzling 2006 performance at age 23.
  2. Sean Smith – 23, RHP, not turning any heads but had a very solid season in Triple-A.
  3. Shin-Soo Choo – 24, OF, obviously slowed by injuries, but as with Sowers, we'd do well not to forget what he did at age 23.
  4. Eddie Mujica — 23, RHP, also slowed by injuries, and also more impressive in 2006 than in 2007, but check out the great K/BB rates.  Still a potential impact reliever if he's healthy.

Prospects That Matter — others who've cleared the bar.

  1. Nick "Weglarz!" Weglarz – 19, OF, bounced back from injury to make a stellar full-season debut.
  2. Ben Francisco – 25, OF, improved on his age-24 numbers and made a solid debut in the majors.
  3. Jordan Brown – 23, 1B, a knee injury reportedly sapped his power, but he still hit .333, and it will be interesting to see how his power develops this season.
  4. Jeanmar Gomez – 18, RHP, suffocated Dominican Summer League hitters at 16 (2005) and dominated the Gulf Coast League at 17 (2006), although a bit reminiscent of Carmona, you have to wonder how a guy manages a 2.50 ERA with just 5.92 K/9.  His full-season debut was merely decent, and he's going to have to show more strikeouts and fewer home runs as he progresses, but he improved in both areas as the season progressed.  He'll be starting his age-19 season at High-A, something nobody else on this list has done or will do – youth and progress, that's what we're looking for here.  Somebody really needs to do a scouting report on this guy.
  5. Jeff Stevens – 23, RHP, eye-popping K rates in Double-A and apparently not content to be a footnote, he may well hit the  Cleveland bullpen in 2008.
  6. Carlos Rivero – 19, SS, marginal overall numbers, but a plus defender with a solid walk rate, and a decent amount of pop for a teenage middle infielder.
  7. John Drennen – 20, CF, not unlike Lofgren, his struggles caused some to:: forget that he was one of the youngest players in his league.
  8. Hector Rondon – 19, RHP, pitched better than Gomez at Lake County but is a year older, will also start the season in the Kinston rotation.

A few themes emerge on this year's list.  For one thing, it's huge, which either means I'm getting more lenient, or the criteria are letting in certain types of players too easily, or  that the Indians are justified in their strong confidence about the depth of their farm system, defying most "organizational talent" rankings.  A small core of players has been promoted to the advanced-A Kinston club to start the year at age 19 or 20, and it's a happy mix of two pitchers, one skill position player and one power-hitting Canadian.  This complements well the small core of college draftees who will converge on Akron in 2008 (with a good shot to make next year's list).

The other theme is guys succeeding in Triple-A at very young ages – not just at 25 but at 22 – but then possibly being stuck there, possibly because of a limited ceiling, possibly because that last jump to majors is the hardest.  Spots 5-10 are fairly dominated by a sense of, "Don't give up on me, I'm still young, I still matter!"  They all reached Buffalo by 22, and not one of them is 25 yet.

It may be that a future refinement of PTM should raise the bar in some way for Triple-A pitchers in particular, but then again, maybe the bar is just fine.  Part of the premise of the system is that a guy who reaches Triple-A at 22 may have the same stats as a low-ceiling 25-year-old, but he's got three whole seasons to figure out how to make that last jump.  Some research suggests that unlike a hitter's raw tools, a pitcher's stuff doesn't really improve after age 23, but it takes pretty good stuff just to get this far, and there's more to pitching than just stuff.  Something to ponder going forward.

More lists after the jump.

Too Accomplished to be Prospects — the graduates.

  1. Grady Sizemore – 25, CF, two-time All-Star, Gold Glover, 30/30 threat and crush object.
  2. Fausto Carmona – 23, RHP, arguably the best starter in the game in his first full season in the majors.
  3. Jhonny Peralta – 25, SS, questionable range but very solid bat, was stellar in the postseason.
  4. Rafael Perez – 25, LHP, truly dominated out of the bullpen.
  5. Franklin Gutierrez – 24, OF, established major league starter, even if not all that well established, superior defense will keep him in the majors even if his bat disappoints.
  6. Josh Barfield – 24, 2B, and like several guys on the main list, his accomplishments at age 22 and 23 suggest strongly that he will be back

Taken along with the PTM list, the Indians' total collection of significant talent, 25 and under last season, is truly staggering, and the 24 players on the above lists don't even include recent college-draftee luminaries like Beau Mills.  Ryan Garko and Tom Mastny also both graduated from PTM with solid first full seasons at age 26.

Too Old To Matter — notable players who are not on the list and not ever gonna be, not a complete list.

  1. Michael Aubrey – 25, 1B, and wow, hate to see the guy here, but the best I can do is to put him on the top.
  2. Brad Snyder – 25, OF, and oh, Brad Snyder, Brad Snyder, Brad Snyder.  I threw Snyder off the list two years ago -- that is to say, PTM correctly excluded him, and I incorrectly put him on the list anyway because everyone was so crazy about him.  He nearly makes it this time, having turned 25 mid-year, owing to his viability as a fourth outfielder.  It's doubtful he can ever be a major league starter, but he's got plus range and a plus arm even in CF, and he might hit RHP well enough to make a reasonable platoon option.  But he hasn't shown us quite enough yet to state that with real confidence.  Sorry, Brad, I wanted to, but fool me once ...
  3. Brian Slocum – 26, RHP, may have missed his narrow window, like Jason Stanford a few years ago.
  4. Rich Rundles – 26, LHP, and maybe he will turn out to matter, but PTM says no.
  5. Ryan Goleski – 25, OF, and hopefully, having gone un-selected in this year's Rule 5, he'll stop blaming other people for his position.  Shares this spot honorarily with Brian Barton, who probably isn't coming back and wouldn't have made the PTM list anyway.
  6. Ryan Mulhern – 26, 1B.
  7. Jason Cooper – 26, OF.
  8. Nate Panther – 26, OF, but hey, at least his name is Nate Panther.
  9. Juan Lara – 26, LHP, with much bigger fish to fry.
  10. Bubbie Buzachero – 26, RHP.

Prospects That Might Matter At Some Point — notable players with a reasonable shot at making the list next year, not a complete list.

  1. Beau Mills – 20, 3B-1B, and let's face it, we'll be crushed if he doesn't dominate in High-A and/or make it to Double-A, which is all he needs to do, but there's just not enough in his 2007 numbers to justify putting him on the list yet.
  2. Tony Sipp – 23, LHP, piles of strikeouts for the Aeros bullpen in 2006 but missed all of 2007 with elbow problems, eventually undergoing Tommy John surgery last July.  He'll be out half of 2008, too, and will be nearly 25 by the time he's back, but Tommy John surgery has become remarkably consistent in returning players to their top form, and Sipp was on the verge of the majors when he left.  If he smokes Triple-A hitters once he gets back, nobody will be surprised.
  3. Josh Rodriguez – 22, 2B, very solid prospect, just needs to do it in Double-A.
  4. Wes Hodges – 22, 3B, very solid prospect, just needs to do it in Double-A.
  5. Jared Goedert – 22, 2B-3B, very solid prospect, just needs to are you beginning to pick up on the pattern here?
  6. Reid Santos – 24, LHP, coming off a fine season split between rotation and bullpen, and like Rafael Perez, could move quickly now that he's a full-time reliever.
  7. Scott Lewis – 23, RHP, followed up a stellar debut in Kinston with a fine season in Akron, but a delicate elbow still had him on very limited pitch counts and sitting out the postseason.  He was good enough to make the PTM list outside of his continuing injury problems, which are significant and may never go away.
  8. Paolo Espino – 20, RHP, made a very fine pro debut at Lake County and has been promoted to Kinston to start his age-21 season.
  9. David Huff – 22, RHP, a level behind Lewis and also troubled by elbow problems, but while his took out most of his 2007 season, they may be less severe.  Huff needs to progress to Akron and excel there and may well do that.
  10. Wyatt Toregas – 24, C, struggled at the plate in 2007, and while superior defensive skills could take him a long way, he needs to look competent, or at least not overmatched, in Buffalo this season. 
  11. J.D. Martin – 24, RHP, another year removed from surgery, needs to have that breakout season in Buffalo.
  12. Chris Archer – 19, RHP, opens the season as the youngest player on any full-season roster – well, actually, Jeanmar is six days younger, but still.  He's got the stuff, we'll see if he's got the control.
  13. Matt McBride – 22, C, wields a highly regarded bat but has yet to show it off, and he's out with an injury.  He'll rehab in High-A but really needs to face Double-A pitching this season.
  14. Gregorio Rosario – 18, RHP, still waiting to make the jump to full-season ball and yet obviously, obviously destined to win multiple Cy Youngs.
  15. Cirilo Cumberbatch – 20, OF, currently at Kinston and just a few months from turning 22, switch-hitter and adequate defender in CF, makes good contact with a solid walk rate but really needs to develop more power to go anywhere.  But hey, how'm I supposed to not list a guy named Cumberbatch?
  16. Chris Gimenez – 24, C-3B-OF, could be carving out an interesting role for himself as a super-utility guy, but needs to do it in Buffalo now.
  17. Matt Whitney – 23, 1B-3B, and Trevor Crowe – 23, OF.  Whitney and Crowe share the final spot in part because you could argue neither guy even belongs on this maybe-next-year list.  Either guy would have to achieve something at Triple-A in order to make the list next year, and neither has accomplished anything at Double-A to date.

I think there's a reasonable case that Whitney is already a better hitter than Crowe, who is more or less the epitome of the type of player PTM doesn't like.  He's 24 and constantly discussed, but his biggest achievement as a player was having two good months – two! months! – in High-A at age 22.  If you didn't know he was supposed to be a top prospect, you certainly would never discover that fact by looking at his numbers.  Based purely on the stats, he's done nothing to distinguish himself from the likes of Nate Panther or Stephen Head.

A few final thoughts.  I am not a scout, and PTM is meta-evaluation at best, not a real system for evaluating prospects, because we really don't have good information on any of these guys.  We're missing high-quality scouting reports, and in fact we see basically no scouting reports that haven't been spun for public consumption.  We're missing good splits and game logs to hunt for revealing details, and there is never, ever a reasonable sample size anyway.  We're also missing the kind of valuable data on how hard balls are hit that we're starting to get used to using for major leaguers.

Because the data is relatively weak, PTM is just making the best out of what we've got.  It is fundamentally econometric, valuing likely and near-term usefulness over daydreams about a young player's ceiling, a concept that is largely subjective even on its best day.  And while not purely objective, it has a fundamentally objectivist bent, which means not only the numbers but also valuing what organizations do over what organizations say.  I think you will find that there aren't really that many close cases requiring a judgment call, based on the basic rules I've set up.

In sum, PTM is merely ongoing experiment in looking at our young talent through a certain, pre-defined prism, to see what that perspective tells us.  I do think that PTM more revealing than other prospect lists, but I also think it has its problems and could use more work.  One thing I can say is that whenever someone asks me about a prospect, if he's actually accomplished something in the minors, if he's put up good numbers aside from having beat up on younger players, then I know he's on the list, and if he hasn't, I know he's not.  To me, that's a really good first test, and that's why PTM is the way it is.