Sports Sense: The overvaluing of prospects

Eric Landis ('17), Eastside Staff

It is not hard to figure out that the Red Sox love Cole Hamels.

They could definitely use him and their rotation does not look like it will hold up through the postseason. The Phillies could certainly benefit from Boston’s abundant farm system to replenish their vapid team. Yet the Sox have a hard time parting with their young talent to acquire Hamels despite being blessed with one of the best farm systems in baseball.

Ten years ago this would have been a no-brainer move. Desperate team finds a piece that could be crucial for their World Series run. Done deal. Not so fast in today’s game. Prospects have drawn much more attention today that now teams feel reluctant to part with them. However, the question is, do these prospects have anything that past prospects do not have to complement their hype?

The numbers disagree. A study done by blogger Shane McKinney in 2011 that rated Baseball America’s annual Top 100 Prospects from 1990 to 2003 by WAR (Wins Above Replacement) over a player’s career to date found that 70 percent failed in terms of producing at least an average WAR of 1.5 in their career (considered the baseline for what a successful career entailed being a top prospect).

Prospects in the MLB are considerably harder to predict the future of than prospects in other sports due to the amount of development it takes a player to go from draftee to the Major League lineup. Many have the talent to do great things but get lost in the minors. Others are luckier, they get to play in the majors, but flounder or fail to maintain a stable career. Yet both fail to meet their sky-high expectations.

For decades, scouts have used the eye-test of player’s ability. They also consider players based on the five-tool criteria. The problem with this method is that everything is projection. Scouts understand most prospects will not come into professional baseball being able to contend with the best of the best. Development is key, and some players do not progress properly through their career.

So it has been established that scouts have not differentiated on their evaluations of prospects from the past. Could it be that there is more certainty in scouting methods through evolution of the process? Actually, in some ways it can be considered that the uncertainties have increased over time. With the rash of Tommy John surgeries growing seemingly exponentially, the ability to predict the long-term success of a pitcher becomes clouded. Also, position players still have to transition from the aluminum bat to the wood bat in the pros. So what has changed for the better? Really nothing.

It is easy to think that today’s prospects will be tomorrow’s stars. Unfortunately that is not always the case. There is nothing stopping Kris Bryant from being the next Jeff Clement or Lucas Giolito the next Todd Van Poppel. Maybe one prospect will never make it to the majors, like Brien Taylor or Matt Bush (well, we assume on this one).

Seventy percent of prospects will fail to live up to expectations. That means of a team’s top 10 prospects, about three will live up to expectations, possibly less considering the fact that the study was done on the Top 100 prospects, which does not include prospects out of that range. The prospects who didn’t cut the top 100 might have even more odds against them.

Will this trend end soon? I do not think so. It’s a trend years in the making; teams will not realize this until prospects do fail. And they will. I admit, I have been sucked in by the industry’s clouded vision that prospect evaluations have changed. Yet after seeing the statistics, my mind has been changed. I just have one hope: that the miners will realize they are protecting fool’s gold…