Cooper: Prospects In Perspective

Image credit: Corbin Carroll (Photo by Patrick Mulligan/Getty Images)

For years, prospect coverage has included a lot of talk about ceiling and floor.

We’ve been focused too much on the wrong parts of the house.

The floor for nearly every Top 100 Prospect is lower than commonly imagined, and the ceiling is often higher than expected. Players are humans, which adds a layer of unpredictability that doesn’t get adequately captured by talk of ceilings and floors.

The mass of careers will unfold in between the perceived floor and ceiling, meaning it’s better to think in terms of high-variance versus low-variance prospects.

Our No. 2 prospect Corbin Carroll is a low-variance prospect. Our No. 3 prospect Jackson Chourio is a high-variance prospect.

Both are extremely talented outfielders, but their ranges of potential outcomes vary.

Carroll is 22 and has reached MLB after dominating the upper minors in 2022. His likely range of outcomes—ones that cover 80% of possibilities—would range from fringe-average (45) to nearly double-plus (65) on the BA Grade scale.

Most likely are outcomes between 55 and 65. 

Carroll’s lack of exceptional power will likely keep him from being the best player in baseball. Yet, his combination of present tools and skills—including top-of-the-scale speed, an excellent bat and great defense—makes him a near-surefire above-average MLB regular.

The 18-year-old Chourio’s likely range of outcomes could end up anywhere from 35 to 80. He spent most of 2022 at the Class A levels and has both a higher ceiling and a lower floor.

If Chourio’s understandably less-developed pitch selection skills don’t improve, he could struggle at the upper levels. If he can’t improve that aspect of his game, there’s still a potential outcome where his strikeout rate soars, his batting and on-base averages plummet, and he relies on his speed, defense and power to become more of an extra outfielder. 

That’s unlikely but possible for a teenager with fewer than 40 games above Low-A.

If Chourio’s pitch selection continues to improve, his strength and power continue to grow and his athleticism doesn’t dissipate as he moves into his 20s, then he could develop into one of the best players in baseball.

Looking at prospects through this lens makes it easier to compare vastly different players. Twins prospects Emmanuel Rodriguez, a 20-year-old outfielder, and Brooks Lee, a 22-year-old shortstop, rank side by side on the Top 100, but their likely outcomes are far apart.

Rodriguez is extremely high-variance. He has barely played in Low-A and has already had a troublesome knee injury. He also swings and misses too much in the zone.

At one end of the scale, it’s possible for Rodriguez to end up as a 35-grade player with a career hindered by chronic injuries. There’s also a chance that his impressive full-season debut won’t have staying power as advanced pitchers will expose a weaknesses.

But Rodriguez also was one of the pickiest hitters in full-season minors. And when he gets a pitch to hit, he has massive power, as his exit velocities have consistently demonstrated. If the knee injury was a blip, not a chronic issue, he can also play center field. 

Put it all together and he could be a 70-grade player. Maybe even better than that.

Lee’s range of outcomes likely fit within half of Rodriguez’s error bars. The former Cal Poly star was one of the better pure hitters in the 2022 draft class and has the athletic ability to stay in the dirt, most likely at third base. 

Where Rodriguez’s statistical résumé is rather brief, Lee was viewed as one of the better hitters in his high school draft class as well as one of the best in last year’s college draft class. He has demonstrated his ability to hit against age-appropriate competition for a number of years. His most likely outcomes range from 40 to 60.

Thinking about a prospect’s variance of outcomes helps explain why it’s almost impossible for a pitcher to be No. 1 on the Top 100. Every pitching prospect is high-variance when compared to a close-to-the-majors hitter.

Phillies righthander Andrew Painter’s range of outcomes spans from a 35 (up-and-down arm) to a 70 (front-of-the rotation ace). As good as Painter is, we have seen too many examples of promising pitchers going off the tracks. Five years ago, Forrest Whitley seemed poised to join the Astros’ big league rotation. Today, he has yet to even reach the majors. 

With the benefit of hindsight, we can reassess the top three prospects—Bryce Harper, Matt Moore and Mike Trout—in the 2012 class. 

In the case of Harper and Trout, their likely range of outcomes were 60 to 80. At that point, there were virtually no scenarios in which they didn’t develop into all-stars. They were viewed as truly special prospects. 

It seems crazy that we considered Moore in that group, but at the time it seemed reasonable. The Rays lefthander had exceptional stuff and had dominated the upper minors in 2011. He finished the year by shutting out the Rangers for seven innings in a playoff start.

Moore’s likely outcomes ranged from 40 to 80. There was a scenario where Moore was the best pitcher in baseball if he continued to improve from what he had already demonstrated. But there was also a scenario where Moore had already peaked, and that his stuff would deteriorate as he matured. That’s what ended up happening. His best season was 2013, right before Tommy John surgery in 2014.

It’s hard to find many examples of hitters who are at their best in their early 20s. They may not improve as much as desired, but they rarely go backward. The same is not true of pitchers. For many, their best output is in their early 20s.

Stories like Jeffrey Springs’ development from fringe big leaguer to Rays midrotation starter happen more often for pitchers. Acknowledging there is more unknown to projecting pitchers is a useful consideration. Elite pitching prospects will sometimes go backward. Also, some pitchers, like Springs, seemingly ticketed for long minor league careers can turn into valuable big league starters and relievers.

This consideration of variance can be viewed as akin to applying error bars to a prospect’s projection. Those error bars generally get smaller as a prospect nears the majors, but their reasonable best-case scenarios often diminish at the same time. 

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