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John Manuel's Prospect Pulse
How The Sausage Is Made: Inside The Ranking Process

by John Manuel
March 4, 2005

Baseball America has been putting Top 100 Prospects lists together since 1990, when Steve Avery graced the top of our first list.

Just over one year later, Avery was winning a National League Championship Series MVP, and he won 47 games from 1991-93 as the Braves began their still-unbroken string of division titles. He was, in other words, a deciding factor in helping his team win championships.

That’s the essence of an elite prospect. While Avery’s career took a path few anticipated—early highs followed by a sudden loss of arm strength and drawn-out period of dwindling returns—he fit exactly the profile the Braves had set out for him. He was a front-of-the-rotation power pitcher, and only John Smoltz surpassed him as a big-game pitcher for Atlanta.

Players with a peak value like Avery, short career and all, are what scouts look for in the draft, what organizations look for in their farm systems, and what Baseball America looks for when it compiles its Top 100 Prospects list. The goal of teams is to win championships, and when ranking prospects, we seek out players who can help their teams do that.

Of course, if a player can help his team win a championship, he won’t be in the minor leagues for long; these players, for the most part, aren’t ready yet. So organizations have their scouts project what a player can do against big league competition. By definition, divining the major league future of minor league players is an inexact science. It’s also an area of disagreement in baseball today that has been well chronicled.

Use All The Evidence

While statistics are an important tool in assessing a player’s past and predicting his future, championship tools make championship players, so the top of BA’s top 100 will always be dominated by players with above-average tools in several categories. To understand how BA ranks players, let’s break down Joe Mauer, this year’s No. 1 and the first repeat holder of the top spot since Andruw Jones in 1996-97.

First and foremost, Mauer projects to bat .300-.320 as a big leaguer, making his hitting ability a well-above-average tool. The Twins also project him to hit for above-average power, despite his minor league track record of hitting just nine homers and slugging .423 in 1,030 minor league at-bats. Their power projections gained credence when Mauer mashed six homers and slugged .570 in 107 at-bats in Minnesota last season before he went down with a knee injury.

In any era since Babe Ruth came along, the bat has been the most important tool in the game for position players, and the offensive surge of the last decade has just reinforced this fact. Mauer’s hitting tools are enough to merit consideration for the top spot, and his defense at a crucial position puts him over the top. His blocking and receiving skills rate as 80s on the 20-80 scouting scale as does his amazingly accurate arm. He’s also considered a first-rate person on and off the field, a leader for pitchers and for the entire Twins team despite his tender age of 21.

So if he stays healthy, Joe Mauer should be more than just a good major league player; he should be a perennial all-star.

The evidence for Mauer’s lofty prospect status comes from both scouting and statistical analysis. Mauer hit .330 as a minor leaguer and was one of the youngest players in his league at every stop. Twins’ scouts, however, had to rely on their acumen as talent evaluators—and the track record they had built by seeing Mauer play more than 100 times as an amateur before they ever signed him—to project Mauer to hit for power, because the evidence wasn’t in his minor league numbers. And while the numbers can say how Mauer threw out 52 percent of opposing basestealers in 2003, a scout with a stopwatch tells you whether that’s because of arm strength and a quick transfer rather than because of the ability of pitchers to hold runners.

It’s not news that BA emphasizes tools in putting together its rankings. However, the magazine doesn’t have a monolithic approach to the top 100, or to any of our prospect lists. Our Prospect Handbook, for example, has 17 different writers who assemble the top 30 rankings for the 30 organizations. While Jim Callis, the book’s editor, and other BA staffers and sources help massage the lists, the book still allows for different viewpoints on the rankings to come through.

Rankings 101

Tools for hitters are the basics—hitting, hitting for power, fielding, running and throwing (arm strength). For most positions on the diamond, that’s also the order of importance that scouts place on position players’ tools. For pitchers, tools essentially boil down to his stuff—how hard he throws his fastball, the quality of his secondary pitches and the command of his repertoire.

Some other important basics of BA’s prospect analysis philosophy include:

Age. Elite major league players usually get to the big leagues at an early age. The younger a player is for his league, the better his chances of being a prospect, though just being young for a league (say, 18 in the Double-A Texas League, as was the case for Mariners righthander Felix Hernandez last year) isn’t enough. Performing well while being young for the league speaks volumes. Similarly, seeing big numbers out of a 24-year-old in the low Class A South Atlantic League—hello, Sally League home run champion Jon Benick—demands a hefty dose of skepticism.

• Inside the Numbers. Some statistics in the minor leagues mean more than others. For hitters, strikeout-walk ratios usually provide a good indicator of whether a batter will be able to continue his success at higher levels, against more discriminating pitching. A classic example of this in recent years is Diamondbacks outfielder Reggie Abercrombie, formerly of the Dodgers. One of the minors’ most athletic players, Abercrombie would be a five-tool player if he could develop the plate discipline to be a better hitter. But his career strikeout-walk ratio, a downright hellish 666-96, indicates better pitchers will carve him up consistently at high levels.

For pitchers, so-called secondary numbers such as strikeout-walk ratio, strikeout-to-innings ratio, and hits-to-innings ratios matter more than wins, losses or even ERA, which pitchers have less control over. But ratios alone do not a prospect make. Pitchers like Cubs farmhand Jon Connolly, a lefthander with below-average stuff (particularly in terms of fastball velocity), have less margin for error against better hitters at higher levels. Connolly, 21, has gone 29-17, 2.86 in four minor league seasons, and won the midwest League ERA title in 2003, yet doesn’t rank among the Cubs top 30 prospects because scouts doubt his ability to repeat his success at higher levels with his below-average stuff.

These basic principles, which continue to grow and evolve in the magazine’s 25th year, guide BA in its prospect rankings. In that time, we’ve amassed a track record of informing our readers of the best and brightest future big league stars. Those are the players major league organizations try the hardest to find, and that continues to be the type of player who graces our Top 100 Prospects list.

QUICK HITS

Cubs lefthander Raul Valdez, the 27-year-old Cuban defector whose visa trouble relegated him to pitching in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League last year, put himself on the prospect map with a dominant Dominican Winter League performance. Valdez went 5-2, 0.79 in 57 innings for Azucareros, but he broke his left thumb on a comebacker late in the winter season and was expected to miss up to a month of spring training. When he gets healthy, he’s a candidate for the big league bullpen due to his average fastball and inconsistent curve and slider, which at times are above-average pitches.

• Padres first baseman Daryl Jones, the organization’s fourth-round pick last year, had ankle surgery in February and was expected to miss up to three months. Jones, who hit .295-1-25 in the Rookie-level Arizona League in his pro debut, will start 2005 in extended spring training as he recovers from the surgery.

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