Prospect Watching 101
Posted by Jason A. Churchill on April 8, 2006
If you are one of a new set of many that like following baseball prospects, there are some things you should probably know before you go jumping off the deep end about certain players and their performances.
Simply wanting to see domination will only frustrate you to no end and it doesn't matter whether you are talking pitching or hitting. And if you see a dominant force, it doesn't mean that player is a blue chip, can't-miss talent.
So how do you know?
- There are several factors to take into consideration.
– Park Factor – Are the ballparks, particularly the player's home park, hitter or pitcher friendly?
– League Factor – What level of competition is the prospect facing? Did he repeat the league?
– Age/Level Factor – How does the prospect's age and experience match up with the rest of the league?
– Progress – Is the prospect making progress from month to month and year to year?
One way to assess all of the above is to keep the player's age in mind, find out about the league (whether it's a hitter's league, a fair league or a pitcher-friendly circuit), and check the statistical leader boards. Hitting .300 in the California League at age 22 isn't all that special. At 20, it's unique and deserves some positive attention, which is why Adam Jones gets props for performing well in the California League at age 19, including an impressive SLG, and then nearly duplicating his numbers in Double-A at age 20 during the second half of the season.
Matt Tuiasosopo spent last season in a pitcher-friendly environment, especially in the first 70 days of the year when the average gametime temperature is often below 45. His numbers didn't stick out and actually looked downright awful until you realize he was 19 years old in his first full season in pro ball, and of course was hitting against the wind in the Midwest League. The average age in that league was over 21 for pitchers and hitters both. In retrospect, Tui did fine, though his season is not what you'd call impressive.
But don't get too excited if he posts a .280/.340/.450 line in 2006 – that wouldn't really be an impresive line for him. A good year for Tui will result in him slugging .480 or better and evening out his K/BB ratios. Each would show that he has improved both his plate coverage and his ability to turn on pitches middle-in.
For Adam Jones, just an example, he could put up mediocre numbers and actually improve his stock as a prospect. He won't be 21 until August and is tackling a big, huge plate of changes as he makes the jump to Triple-A baseball. As close as the Texas League is the PCL, the pitchers he will be facing this season are far more experienced than those in Double-A and Class A ball.
Those hurlers have much better breaking balls, an achilles heel of Jones at the present time, and are much more intelligent than even the best that Double-A has to offer on a yearly basis.
All Jones has to do this season to impress me is hold his own at the plate and develop his skills in center field. I wouldn't be surprised to see him hit .250 or less with 130 strikeouts. But if he counters those numbers with 30 doubles and 15 homers and improves three-fold defensively, it will most definitely be a wildly successful season for the former first round pick.
With pitchers, it's the same. Dominating a lineup that is 2-3 years younger and less experienced isn't proving much. So don't look too deep into the numbers that Jason Snyder puts up in Wisconsin. His skills suggest he should be in San Antonio, but he's relatively inexperienced and is coming off an injured shoulder a year ago. The only thing I want to see him do in the Midwest League is log lots of innings and repeatedly post low walk totals. When he reaches the Cal League this year, then I'll start paying attention to everything else.
One reminder: With pitchers and hitters both, age isn't always the only issue when comparing a prospect to his league. Experience has a lot to do with it, also. Rob Johnson was a 2004 draftee out of the U. of Houston and has played one full season in the minors. He's already in Triple-A and though he's 22 years old, it's the equivalent of Adam Jones or Asdrubal Cabrera shooting to Tacoma so quickly.
There are going to be times when you will see a player with pretty good numbers and wonder why he isn't talked about more. You'll go and check out his age and see that he's relatively young for his league and has progressed from year to year.
This is when you can take it another step or two… or three.
What position does he play and can he stay there? This isn't something you can quantify with statistics so this is when I make my own judgments or make some phone calls and get a few scouts' opinions.
Eddie Esteve-Martinez is a good example of this very thing, as is Kendry Morales.
Esteve-Martinez is a San Francisco Giants prospect, and he can rake. He was actually a former draft pick of the M's but didn't sign and went to the U of Miami instead. If he was a better athlete and projected as even an average outfielder or first baseman, he'd have been in the top 30 of Baseball America's prospect list. But most scouts from most clubs, including the Giants, believe he's a DH in the long run, greatly reducing his value to the team.
Morales, a Cuban defector who originally was thought to be a surefire right fielder for the LA Angels, is now seen as a 1B or DH and his road to the big leagues has been slowed considerably as a result.
Morales has a bat that is likely to be ready for the majors in 2006, but he has no position.
For comparison, both Esteve-Martinez and Morales are better bats than Erick Aybar and Marcus Sanders.
Aybar is an Angels prospect and Sanders is the Giants top minor leaguer. Both are better prospects than either Morales or Esteve-Martinez because they have a position they each project to play regularly in the big leagues – and at a high level – not to mention that Aybar is a shortstop and Sanders is a second baseman, among the most premium defensive spots on the field, along with center field and catcher.
This isn't a matter of defense over offense, both Aybar and Sanders are expected to be plus hitters for their positions. It's a matter of the big club having a way to get the bats in the lineup without suffering too much defensively.
Morales will likely end up as LAA's DH in a year or so, and Esteve-Martinez will get a shot to play left field or first base in '07 or '08, but if he can't prove worthy, he's destined to be traded to the AL.
So take a peak at where on the field a prospect is playing, ask someone in the know if he's any good there, and then get excited about his offense.
For me, I'm very much attracted to the catchers that can stick at the position defensively, but hit somewhere between three and six in the lineup. There aren't usually a lot of them around, but right now there are three in the minors, all within two years of the majors.
Legit shortstop and center fielders with better than average power and on-base skills are always at a premium, as are polished pitchers, specifically lefties, who have no history of arm injury.
I was asked at the ball game on Thursday what I look for in a minor league hitter. My response was simple:
Power, preferably from the left side of the plate, the ability to draw walks and limit strikeouts; performing well against the top pitchers and the aptitude to continually get better.
Control and command of at least two pitches, a plus breaking ball or change, and a lot of intelligence and competitiveness. Velocity is a plus, and with all else being equal, I'd want the guy that throws 93 over the guy that throws 88, but other factors can even that out, too… such as ground ball tendencies.
So have fun with the minor league season, it's a blast and a never-ending quest for more knowledge as well as a bottomless pit of talent rolling through every city in every league at every level. And remember: Your first reaction to a prospect's numbers may not be the right one. Take a deeper look.
And if you ever get stuck or are wondering about defense and other abstract tangibles, feel free to give me a hollar. If I don't know the answer, I'll do my best to track down those who do.