Ranking The Rankings

The Prospect Handbook was completed during the first week of January, with the final proofs sent back to the printer. It was one last chance for us to look over all those rankings, 30 teams of 30 players, then 30 more depth charts with each position ranked.

And of course we rank every farm system, plus we present our Top 100 rankings of high school and college prospects for the 2011 first-year player draft. Jim Callis doesn’t rank every draft for every club for the last four years, but he does grade every draft, which isn’t too far off.

When the Handbook got done, I started going through our college questionnaires for our preseason Top 25 college rankings, and then it’s on to predicting the finish in every conference for the three regions that I’ll write up for the College Preview issue.

I’ve written before that we love to rank stuff at Baseball America. I think I never quite realized just how often we do rankings, though. Heck, we used to do “lunch power rankings” for our favorite restaurants, and we still vigorously debate which local barbecue restaurant reigns supreme (I contend it’s The Q Shack).

So before I start another season of rankings, here’s one man’s ranking, naturally, of all the rankings we do at BA in the course of a calendar year:

1. Prospect Handbook Top 30s: The grandaddy of ’em all, in that these take the most work and that the Handbook brings the amateur side (draft) and the pro side (prospects) together like nothing else we do. I think that makes putting a Top 30 together so rewarding, and that comes to the fore for me when I do a new organization. This year’s Astros list brought my total of organizations that I’ve done in the Handbook to 12.  I also enjoy ranking the farm systems and compiling my personal Top 50, but those take a back seat to putting together a Top 30.

2. Draft Top 200 Rankings: This is another labor-intensive ranking to compile. Often ranking players for the June draft is much more challenging than anything we do. First, we rarely see those players, and it’s not always easy to find scouts who will talk about all the players we need to report on. Second, we’re often making those calls in April and early May—a full month out from the draft. Things change rapidly come draft time. Third, “signability” shapes the order in which players are drafted as much as talent, but we try hard to keep signability out and focus only on talent. That’s difficult to do, but we try hard to be consistent.

3. College Top 25 Rankings: This is the one I’ve done the most over the years. I’ve been involved heavily in the Top 25 every year since 1997, did our Defending The Poll chats for a couple of more years, and now participate with Aaron Fitt in our weekly College Podcast, discussing the rankings. The college Top 25 always generates debate but is in some ways the most useless ranking we do; college baseball settles its champion on the field, thankfully. But I do love ranking college baseball teams, balancing talent—scouts are great sources for which college teams we should be watching—with “good college players,” who are essential to winning on the Road to Omaha.

4. Top 100 Prospects: Always a tough one. It’s such a collaborative effort that at times it’s frustrating, because I never agree with every part of the Top 100. But I’m glad it’s the Baseball America Top 100, not mine.

5. League Top 20s: One of the tougher deals to do, because these can be a moving target. First, you have to know all the players who are eligible for each league, and sometimes players barely qualify or barely don’t as you’re making calls. Second, you have to balance the opinions of league managers with those of scouts, who don’t always have the same perspective. Managers liked Austin Jackson a lot more in the 2008 Eastern League more than scouts did, and I round up ranking him 10th in the league, kind of a compromise spot—still in the top 10 but behind players with bigger raw tools, such as No. 9, Daniel Bard.

6. Top 20 Rookies: Another tough one, because we do two rankings, one in the preseason and one postseason. The preseason one always involves balancing immediate opportunity with overall talent. Every once in a while, we get a combo like Jason Heyward, who was talented and had a clear chance at playing time. But most of them aren’t that easy—Buster Posey wasn’t clearly the Giants’ 2010 catcher, not in the spring, and it wasn’t clear if they’d trade Bengie Molina to make room for him. That postseason vote always was difficult, and both Posey and Heyward were worthy of winning.

7. Summer College Top 10s: My least favorite rankings, but ones that are necessary. Summer College Top 10s lay the groundwork for much of the following spring’s college and draft coverage, so they are important, but we do 20 of them, which strikes me as probably 10 too many. I think we take summer college baseball more seriously than many of the players, and I also believe major league organizations over-emphasize summer leagues because it’s their best chance to see college players with wood bats. I also believe college players showcase in the summer because they know they are under scouting scrutiny; I think it matters more to see how players perform when they are actually trying to win games, rather than just showcasing for scouts.

The Summer College Top 10s appear to be the only rankings we do without a chat, and we do a podcast to discuss those rankings instead. One of the things I’m most proud of is that when we do a ranking, we explain the rankings. We’re accountable. And in 2011, it’s easier than ever to be accountable, as every BA staffer is on Twitter; you can ask me about this column or any of our rankings any time at twitter.com/johnmanuelba (@johnmanuelba for the Tweeps out there).

Rankings are just opinion, so we often get the order wrong. The most important part of all these rankings is compiling the information that determines the rankings and that goes in all those reports. I’d rather have an accurate writeup that goes with the ranking than get the order of the teams or the players correct. The news part of these rankings—the who, what and how of all these players—is more important than whether No. 6 wound up better than No. 7.