The cult of the sure thing

With all the hype surrounding SDSU right-hander Stephen Strasburg this spring, I got to thinking about prospects and predicting their future. It’s harder than it looks. In fact, it’s impossible. The best we can do is make educated guesses based on assumptions and then hope we are right.

I’ve seen Strasburg pitch three times so far this season. There is no question that he’s a dominant collegiate pitcher. When you’ve got a guy who can go Jonathan Broxton on you for six or seven innings at a time, that causes problems for the other team.

And by all accounts, Strasburg’s stuff should lead to a successful professional career. Like Mark Prior before him. Or Kris Benson before Prior. Or Paul Wilson. Or Ben McDonald. Or…well, you get the idea.

Curious to see what happened to some hyped youngsters from just a few years ago, I grabbed my copy of the Baseball America Almanac 2003 off the shelf and turned to the prospects section.

Before we get rolling, let me say that none of what follows is meant to disparage the work of Baseball America. The point of this exercise is to demonstrate how difficult it is to look into the crystal ball and get anything resembling a clear picture. I use Baseball America here because they are better at it than most. They know what they are doing, but they cannot overcome the unknowable nature of the beast.

Also, this isn’t a study. It’s a survey, meant to remind us anecdotally of things we already ought to know.

The first thing I did was look at the list of top 100 prospects as of March 2002. I went position by position and found the highest-ranked player, the most successful player, the highest-ranked bust, and a notable omission. For your dancing and dining pleasure:

Pos Top Best Bust Unranked
C Joe Mauer, #7 Mauer J.R. House, #41 Victor Martinez*
1B Carlos Pena, #5 Pena Hee Seop Choi, #40 Ryan Howard
2B Bobby Hill, #48 Orlando Hudson, #81 Jake Gautreau, #77 Chase Utley
3B Hank Blalock, #3 Mark Teixeira, #10 Drew Henson, #9 David Wright
SS Wilson Betemit, #8 Miguel Cabrera, #38 Antonio Perez, #52 J.J. Hardy
OF Joe Borchard, #11 Josh Hamilton, #18 Borchard Grady Sizemore
OF Austin Kearns, #12 Carl Crawford, #59 Chin-Feng Chen, #64 Ryan Ludwick
OF Hamilton Jack Cust, #100 Nic Jackson, #68 Aaron Rowand
RHP Josh Beckett, #1 Carlos Zambrano, #80 Dennis Tankersley, #16 Francisco Rodriguez
RHP Mark Prior, #2 Jake Peavy, #28 Nick Neugebauer, #17 Brad Lidge/Jose Valverde
RHP Juan Cruz, #6 Beckett Jerome Williams, #19 Dan Haren/John Lackey
LHP Ryan Anderson, #14 Erik Bedard, #90 Anderson Oliver Perez
LHP Carlos Hernandez, #24 Kazuhisa Ishii, #35** Hernandez Hong-Chih Kuo

*Okay, I cheated with Martinez. He checks in at #97. Catchers listed ahead of him: Mauer, Josh Phelps (#36), House, John Buck (#43), Jayson Werth (#70).

**Yeah, Ishii stunk, but you should see the rest of these guys: Ty Howington (#24), Corwin Malone (#32), Brandon Claussen (#37), Mario Ramos (#49), Jimmy Gobble (#50), Mark Phillips (#54), Chris Narveson (#86).

Guys get hurt or fail to develop. Stuff happens.

From that left-most column, Mauer, Pena, Hamilton, and Beckett are studs, although it took Pena and Hamilton forever to get there. Blalock and Prior appeared poised to join the elite as well, but both have seen their careers stall.

It’s difficult now to envision a world in which Hill was considered a better prospect than Utley. Same with Henson and Wright, Betemit and Cabrera (or Jose Reyes for that matter), Borchard and Sizemore, Tankersley and Zambrano, Anderson and Bedard, etc.

We can do the same thing on a team-by-team basis:

Team Top Best Bust Unranked*
Ana Casey Kotchman Francisco Rodriguez, #7 Chris Bootcheck, #4 Chone Figgins
Ari Luis Terrero Jose Valverde, #5 Terrero Brandon Webb
Atl Wilson Betemit Kelly Johnson, #3 Brett Evert, #4 Adam LaRoche
Bal Rich Stahl Erik Bedard, #2 Stahl Mike Fontenot
Bos Seung Song Freddy Sanchez, #6 Song Kevin Youkilis
ChN Mark Prior Carlos Zambrano, #6 David Kelton, #4 Dontrelle Willis
ChA Joe Borchard Aaron Rowand, #10 Borchard Aaron Miles
Cin Austin Kearns Kearns Ty Howington, #2 Edwin Encarnacion
Cle Corey Smith Victor Martinez, #6 Smith Jhonny Peralta
Col Chin-Hui Tsao Garrett Atkins, #3 Tsao Matt Holliday
Det Nate Cornejo Cody Ross, #9 Cornejo Fernando Rodney
Fla Josh Beckett Miguel Cabrera, #2 Allen Baxter, #5 Josh Willingham
Hou Carlos Hernandez Brad Lidge, #5 Hernandez Adam Everett
KC Angel Berroa Berroa Colt Griffin, #3 David DeJesus
LA Ricardo Rodriguez Hong-Chih Kuo, #6 Rodriguez Shane Victorino
Mil Nick Neugebauer J.J. Hardy, #7 Neugebauer n/a
Min Joe Mauer Mauer Michael Restovich, #4 Grant Balfour
Mtl Brandon Phillips Grady Sizemore, #3 Donnie Bridges, #4 Jason Bay
NYN Aaron Heilman David Wright, #5 Pat Strange, 3 Heath Bell
NYA Drew Henson Juan Rivera, #5 Henson Dioner Navarro
Oak Carlos Pena Pena Chad Harville, #3 n/a
Phi Marlon Byrd Chase Utley, #7 Anderson Machado, #5 Ryan Howard
Pit J.R. House Chris Young, #10 House Nate McLouth
StL Jimmy Journell Dan Haren, #9 Journell n/a
SD Sean Burroughs Jake Peavy, #3 Burroughs n/a
SF Jerome Williams Boof Bonser, #2 Williams Francisco Liriano
Sea Ryan Anderson Rafael Soriano Anderson Cha Seung Baek
TB Josh Hamilton Hamilton Dewon Brazelton, #3 n/a
Tex Hank Blalock Mark Teixeira, #2 Mario Ramos, #3 n/a
Tor Josh Phelps Orlando Hudson, #5 Tyrell Godwin, #10 n/a

*Unranked among the top 10. Some of these guys made their organization’s top 30. Although I dug fairly deep, I couldn’t always find someone for a particular organization.

Terrero over Webb? Song over Youkilis? Tsao over Holliday? Byrd over Howard? These aren’t just garden variety big leaguers, either; these are All-Stars and award winners.

The Marlins, incidentally, had a sick system. Their No. 4 guy was Adrian Gonzalez. Ditto Montreal, before MLB ripped that franchise a new one: Cliff Lee shows up in the Expos top 10 as well.

Anyway, I’m not telling you anything new when I say that prospecting is as much art as it is science, and that if predicting the future were easy, we’d all be rich by now. If the best experts can miss the mark this badly, that’s not a reflection on their abilities. They had good information; it’s just that conditions change in unanticipated ways.

I’ve cherry picked a bit here, but that’s kind of the point. Who could have foreseen Webb’s greatness? Or Holliday’s? Heck, Webb didn’t even crack the top 10 pitchers in the Arizona system. Here’s who ranked ahead of him in 2002:

  1. Mike Gosling
  2. Jose Valverde
  3. Jason Bulger
  4. Beltran Perez
  5. Oscar Villarreal
  6. John Patterson
  7. Jeremy Ward
  8. Chris Capuano
  9. Brian Bruney
  10. Bill White
  11. Jay Belflower
  12. P.J. Bevis
  13. Corby Medlin

How well did some imagined future correlate with the one that actually happened? If our best minds have missed the mark before, what’s to say it won’t happen again?

These are questions to ask when evaluating a kid like Strasburg. Is he a great college pitcher? Absofreakinlutely. Is he a great pro prospect? Sure looks that way to me and everyone I’ve heard talk about him. Is any of this a guarantee of future success? Not so much.

Mark Prior blows out his arm, Sean Burroughs forgets how to hit. Miguel Cabrera adds muscle to his frame, Jose Reyes learns the difference between balls and strikes, Chase Utley outworks everyone.

You can look back and see signs, but that is cheating. The trouble is, you don’t always know which ones are important until after the outcome is determined, which limits their utility.

On the bright side, this same lack of predictability makes watching the future unfold exciting. You know, like life.

References & Resources
Baseball America Almanac 2003, Baseball Prospect Handbook 2002

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