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Prospecting

By Will Lingo

While it’s not true that prospects didn’t exist before Baseball America, it is true that they weren’t nearly as well known–or, may we say, well analyzed.

From the very founding of Baseball America in Allan Simpson’s garage, part of the point of the magazine (or newspaper, or tabloid, or whatever term you want to use) was to look into baseball’s future and see who the stars were going to be.

This had been done before, but never in such a dedicated and organized way. Rather than just trying to find a few of the brightest stars in the minor leagues, Baseball America started looking deep into the minors and making lists.

Our first top 10 list came in our first summer, 1981. Steve Sax was the top prospect in the Texas League and Kent Hrbek was the top prospect in the California League. You could look it up.

And we often do. Rarely will you find a Baseball America prospect list that isn’t accompanied by a look back at previous lists. All of our minor league top 10s are accompanied by a list of the top 10s from five years earlier. And our organizational lists include a look back at the team’s top prospect going back 10 years.

We do it in part because we’re proud of our track record. We have figured out an effective way to find prospects over the years, and we think we do it better than anyone else.

We also do it to show the world that finding prospects is an inexact process, at best. We can find out all there is to know about a player’s tools, ask everyone in the world about a player’s intangibles and desire, and still get surprised when the games get under way.

Educated Guesses

A lot of factors come together to make a Baseball America prospect list good. The first is Allan Simpson’s dedication from the time the first list was put together to make it as good as it can be.

That means doing a lot of research and digging into the players, their backgrounds and their numbers. Then it means talking to as many people as possible, from coaches and managers to instructors and scouts and front-office executives. Anyone with an informed opinion on a player is sought.

Finally, there’s the strange alchemy of applying the Baseball America philosophy to all the information you’ve gathered. It’s why being entrusted to assemble a prospect list, especially one of the 30 organization lists, is considered an achievement in the BA world.

Ken Leiker and Tracy Ringolsby, who wrote most of our top 10s in the early days, always preached that approach.

We care about how advanced a player is. We care about what kind of numbers he has put up. We care about how he’s regarded by the organization. We care about his desire and passion for the game.

But what we care about more than anything else is how good a player can be in the major leagues, and his chances of actually becoming that good. And that almost always comes back to tools.

Tools are the physical skills considered essential to success in the game–how hard a pitcher throws, how much power a hitter has. And whether a player is in Triple-A or Rookie ball, tools are the great equalizer. They’re why we ranked Rick Ankiel as the top prospect in the Cardinals organization before he had pitched a professional inning, for example.

They’re also why fans and people inside the game often disagree with our rankings. While we’re impressed when a 27-year-old player leads his minor league in batting, we’ll be more impressed with a 20-year-old who puts up solid numbers while earning a promotion from one league to another during the season.

Fun In The Journey

When all is said and done, though, there are no absolutes. And that might be what makes Baseball America’s prospect lists the most fun of all.

If nothing else, they’re great argument starters. We can’t be sure how the story is going to end; we just think we do the best job of gathering the most information and making a well-informed prediction. If you’ve followed our rankings for any significant part of the last 20 years, you probably agree.

One of the things that makes the lists good, and makes working at BA fun, are the debates in the halls of Baseball America Towers about whether one player is better than another. You’d be hard-pressed to mention a prominent prospect in the midst of a few BA staffers and not start a discussion on his relative merits.

We hope our enthusiasm shows through. We want to tell you about these players and what they might become because we’re genuinely interested in finding out ourselves.

Going back to our Ankiel example, I remember it because I’m the one who got to make him No. 1 before his debut season in 1998. I remember talking to a veteran Cardinals scout who had seen Ankiel pitch in instructional league that fall. I still have my notes: "You can put him anywhere you want to. He was a man among boys."

Ankiel struck out eight straight in a game against the Reds, and nine total in three innings. Though other Cardinals officials didn’t put him in their personal top 10s, it seemed like an easy call to me. I still remember ducking into Allan’s office to give him the word and see if he also thought Ankiel should be No. 1. He did.

Ankiel made us look like geniuses after that, winning our Minor League Player of the Year award in 1999 and putting together one of the best rookie seasons in baseball in 2000. Of course, we questioned our wisdom in 2001 when he couldn’t find the strike zone and fell all the way back to the Appalachian League.

That’s the way it goes in the prospect game. One day you know more than any general manager in baseball. The next you can’t figure out the difference between Corey Patterson and Corey Slavik.

We keep doing it because we know one of these days we’re going to publish a prospect list that gets every player exactly right. And until we do, we’re going to have a great time searching for that holy grail. We hope you’ll continue to come with us on that quest.

  Copyright 2001 Baseball America. All rights reserved.
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