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Even cream of crop won’t be perfect

By Will Lingo
March 1, 2002

We say it as often as we can because we want to make sure everyone hears us: It’s mighty hard not to be average.

This becomes a particularly apt notion at this time of year, when we release our annual Top 100 Prospects list. We’re giving you our opinion of the absolute cream of the crop of baseball prospects, the best 100 players from among the thousands in the minor leagues.

And yet, if you read the list expecting to find 50 all-stars, you have insanely unrealistic expectations. If you expect to find 20 all-stars, even then you’re aiming a bit high.

What you’re more likely to find is one or two genuine superstars, a few more players who are above-average and sometimes have all-star seasons, a lot more solid major league players, some guys who always lurk on the fringe, and a few absolute flops.

This point should be made even more apparent by Allan Simpson’s fascinating look back at prospects since 1951. Trying as best we can to look back at the past without using hindsight, you can see that superstars have always been rare finds.

Between the Hall of Fame players and the disasters, you find the majority of players like Cesar Cedeno and Ted Simmons. Maybe they didn’t fulfill the grand things predicted for them, but they had solid big league careers. That matters, and that’s an accomplishment.

We say this also because we have to rein ourselves in sometimes. No one loves touting prospects more than we do, but predicting major league stardom for all but a few players isn’t fair. If you can find a prospect who has five productive seasons in the big leagues, you’ve done something.

Hard To Find Stars

If you don’t believe me, just look at the numbers. Online editor Will Kimmey checked the progress of everyone who appeared in our Top 100 Prospects from the first list in 1990 through 1997. He figured most players from those lists have had ample opportunity to make something of themselves.

In those eight lists, 478 different players appeared. Let’s go ahead and pat ourselves on the back first: About 20 percent of those players became all-stars. That’s 96 players who have made a total of 215 all-star appearances.

On the other end of the spectrum, about 11 percent of the top prospects in the game over that period have no time in the big leagues. We’ll call those 54 players zeroes.

About twice that number, 113 players, were on the fringes of the big leagues, getting into Total Baseball but never reaching the rookie minimums in innings or at-bats. They make up 24 percent of the prospect population.

And in between all those players, you have the big chunk of the bell curve, the players who simply have been major league players of some description.

So we’re happy with Mike Piazza and chagrined by Arquimedez Pozo, and in between we should appreciate Jay Payton, Phil Plantier and Jay Powell–just to peruse the P’s.

Gambling On Arms

Another point made clear is that position players are safer bets than pitchers. Again, this is a point we try to make often because it’s important to realize how much can go wrong with pitchers, whether you’re just building hope for your favorite team or trying to assemble a winning fantasy lineup.

Of the 478 players who appeared in the lists from 1990-97, 259 were position players and 219 were pitchers. While 26 percent of the position players we selected became all-stars (67 players who have made 165 all-star appearances), just 13 percent of the pitchers have (29 pitchers who have made just 50 appearances).

The percentage who have become fringe players is comparable–22 percent of position players and 26 percent of pitchers. But again you can see a difference in the number of zeroes. Just 23 of the position players who have made our top 100 have never appeared in the big leagues–9 percent. But 14 percent of the pitchers (31) have washed out, most because of injuries.

Still, nothing is stronger than regression to the mean–the tendency for everything to approach the middle. As successful as our position players have been, 44 percent of them have been between all-stars and washouts. And as risky as pitchers can be, 47 percent of them became big leaguers.

Just something to keep in mind as you peruse an issue full of prospects and prepare for the draft in June. Everyone wants to find the next superstar, but if you nail down a few solid big leaguers then consider yourself lucky.

Will Lingo is the managing editor for Baseball America. You can contact him by sending e-mail to willlingo@baseballamerica.com.

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