I need to start this article off with two disclaimers. First, I’m not ‘anti-rankings.’ I love rankings. In fact, I probably love rankings too much. That love is partially what compelled me to write this article; hopefully my attempt at persuasion will provide needed perspective, even if only for myself. To clarify, I’m talking specifically about lists that rank prospects. Here at Seedlings to Stars, we have our top 100 list. As a Pirates fan, I love seeing Jameson Taillon ranked #9 and Gerrit Cole #15. It helps vindicate in my mind that both are elite prospects. Furthermore, a ranking system allows me to, for example, to differentiate between the two Arizona Bradley’s, Archie and J.R. (more on him here) Archie comes in on our top 100 list at #63 while J.R. isn’t on the top 100 and doesn’t even garner a mention in our Arizona Diamondbacks organizational report. Conclusion: Archie is a significantly better prospect than J.R.
I alluded to the second disclaimer earlier. I am a Pittsburgh Pirates fan. I say that because the examples I use in this article revolve around prospects in the Pirates farm system; I’m most familiar with those players. Also, my persuasive argument in this article is not meant to defend the Pirates and Neal Huntington. I’m not trying to be a Pirates apologist. At the same time, I want to emphasize I’m not criticizing any specific farm system either. I’m merely attempting to point out a particular trap that I often fall into, hopefully so others avoid falling into it as well. That trap is caring about where a player is ranked to a point where what truly matters, the finished product, is de-emphasized. Clearly, any team and any fan would rather have the player who never sniffs a top 100 list but goes on to a productive, valuable career than the guy consistently ranked well that busts. Now, it is true that the former is more rare than the latter. In fact, that’s the reason prospects are ranked; to predict the future as accurately as possible. However, prospecting is far from an exact science. That is hardly a revelation. What is seemingly less obvious is how I believe the best path for a particular player to develop is not always the path that will land that player as high on a ranking list as possible. To illustrate my point, I will use pitcher Jameson Taillon as an example.
Tim William of Pirates Prospects (a fantastic site dedicated to coverage of the Pirates farm system) gave his opinion on Taillon. Here, he talks about Taillon’s curveball, “The focus on Taillon’s fastball prevented him from using his curveball as often. His curve is already a Major League pitch, with one American League scout calling it the best in the game. The pitch was unhittable to low-A batters, and if he was given the chance to use it more often, his ERA might have been below a 2.00.” I saw Taillon pitch a half dozen times this summer, and I can attest to the filthiness of his curveball. Tim’s words are far from hyperbole. Had reality happened that way, I believe there would be a great chance that he would have been even higher on prospect lists. Instead of #9 on our list, Taillon may have been the highest ranked right handed pitcher on our list had he put up an ERA of under 2.00 and a K/9 of say 11+. However, it’s conceivable that by not emphasizing fastball command, Taillon may have been hurt in his development for the future. I am willing to his argue that while his prospect ranking may have been boosted, Taillon would not have become as strong a finished product. It is important to point out that in this specific case, others may disagree. For example, noted expert Keith Law says of Taillon, who he ranks at #16, “The Pirates’ handling of Taillon’s workloads has raised eyebrows across the game. He’s been on such tight pitch counts that he faced more than 20 batters in a start just three times all year, never recording more than 15 outs. Despite that, he performed worse as the season went on, with reductions in his command and control. I still see Taillon as a future ace, but at some point, the Pirates will have to take the reins off.” Despite who ends being right between Law and myself in this particular case, (It took me a while to write this sentence with a semblance of seriousness), the point I’m trying to make is larger.
Looking at another Pirates pitching prospect that was actually drafted the same year as Taillon, Stetson Allie, may help me make that point. Allie will also be in his second year as a pro next year. After being drafted in 2010, Allie saw some love on the back end of several top 100 lists. However, this past year was a disastrous one, specifically in the realm of command and control. In twenty-six innings, Allie managed to walk twenty-nine batters and hit nine more. Simply put, that’s abysmal. As a result, Allie has fallen off all but the rare top 100 list written by people who still are enthralled with his upside. Last year, he was a consensus top five prospect in the Pirates system. This year he’s more in the eight to fifteen range. Tim Williams did offer some encouragement here, stating “If you watched Allie throughout the year, you could see the change in his command of the fastball. He went from having zero control of the pitch in Spring Training, to being able to work both sides of the plate in his last outing of the season. He brushed batters off the plate, then immediately went to the outside corner for a strike.” I set up this scene to further my point. For the purpose of that point, I will argue Allie’s season next year could go two ways. First, the Pirates could continue on their route of sharpening Allie’s command and working on his change-up, potentially keeping him in extended spring training before sending him back to State College. Considering how bad his command and control were last year, that seems prudent. It would offer Allie the best chance of the most success as a finished product. That path will also keep Allie far from any top 100 lists. He won’t pitch enough to impress and will spend another year in short season ball already at the age of twenty. The other option is to push him. As Tim pointed out, Allie showed some semblance of command, so pushed to Low-A West Virginia it’s conceivable Allie could terrorize batters with a manageable-yet-high control rate overshadowed by an elite strikeout rate and elite batting-average-against using his lethal fastball-slider combination. It’s even possible he could move up to High-A Bradenton for a few starts at the end of the year. That route would showcase Allie’s tantalizing potential. In turn, that would cause his prospect status to skyrocket and Allie could easily find himself in the top 50 of some prospect lists and as a consensus top 100 minor leaguer. However, at the same time, by competing so hard, he will not spend the optimal time working on his mechanics to truly improve his command and control. In addition, Allie would not be able to spend as much time improving his changeup. While his prospect status may have improved, the second route could hurt the finished product.
Ultimately, a prospects value doesn’t come from where he ranks on a preseason or midseason top prospect list. It doesn’t matter where he falls on a top 20 list. It’s the value a player is able to provide on a major league field. For me, that means the next time I look at a prospect rankings list, I’ll take it with a small grain of salt. While it’s important because it helps assess the present to predict the future, it’s not as important as the finished product. And that’s what matters.
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