It was 25 years ago that Baseball America unveiled its first Top 100 Prospects list.
Braves wunderkind lefty Steve Avery was the original No. 1 prospect, a few months before his 20th birthday. Since then, Baseball America has picked out more than 2,000 players as the rising stars of tomorrow, creating a tradition that has spread throughout baseball and baseball journalism.
Nowadays, compiling an overall list of the best prospects in the game is considered as much a vital part of the offseason as Winter Meetings trades, free agent signings and spring training. But when Baseball America put together its first comprehensive top prospects list in 1984, a Top 25, it was considered an audacious attempt to rank something that hadn’t been ranked before.
To tell the history of the Top 100 Prospects list, you have to go back to the beginning of Baseball America, 34 years ago.
Baseball America founder Allan Simpson:
“My motivation for starting the magazine was because the Sporting News was scaling back on its minor league coverage. It didn’t factor in prospects. They never covered college baseball or the draft with any significance. That was the motivation going in. I wanted to identify future major leaguers. You can’t cover the minor leagues focusing on non-prospects; it gives a misguided impression.”
Even though he had no publishing background, Simpson started what was then named All-American Baseball News out of his garage in British Columbia.
Baseball America correspondent Ken Leiker:
“I lived in Phoenix and worked at the Arizona Republic. Tracy (Ringolsby) worked in Seattle at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer covering the Mariners. Allan was up in British Columbia. He knew who Tracy was, and he contacted Tracy and told him what he was doing. Tracy is my best friend. When Tracy got off the phone with Allan he called me and asked, ‘Do you want to be involved?’
“There wasn’t anything like this, covering baseball from a developmental standpoint. That’s the best thing that Allan did with Baseball America, taking it in that direction. It was a niche that didn’t exist at that point. There was nowhere else to get this.”
Longtime BA staffer (and eventual managing editor and executive editor) Jim Callis:
“I can’t fathom going to my wife with two kids and a third on the way and saying ‘I’m going to quit my job and start a magazine in my garage.’ I can’t fathom doing that.
“I think the thing Allan did is he put the work in. If Allan wanted to do something, he’d do it right. He’d ask a million questions that you couldn’t look up. Tracy and Ken did a good job too. Allan did a very good job of getting people who knew what they are doing. Allan cared and he was diligent.”
From the start, Baseball America’s biggest calling card was rankings. BA ranked the top prospects for the next draft. It ranked the Top 20 college baseball teams, the top prospects in each league and the Top 10 Prospects in each organization. It also compiled Best Tools for every minor league and the major leagues, an idea the magazine borrowed with the blessing of longtime minor league statistician Bill Weiss, who had compiled a best tools list for the California League.
Leiker: “(One farm director) read the scouting reports off word for word to me. It came down to relationships and people on the other end knowing they wouldn’t be burned.
“I was doing the Oakland A’s list. I was talking to Walt Jocketty when he was their farm director. We’re talking about A’s prospects and he says, ‘Ken, do you want to look really smart?’ Of course I did. He said, ‘We have a guy in the Northwest League, a lot of people don’t know about him. His name is Jose Canseco. If I were you, I’d get him in our Top 10.”
Canseco was coming off a year when he hit .159 before being demoted from the Midwest League to the Northwest League. He ranked No. 7 on the A’s Top 10 Prospects list going into the 1984 season.
Leiker: “These guys wanted to let you know, ‘Hey we’re a big part of the organization, too.’ At that point, no one was talking to them except for Baseball America.
“It was completely fertile, virgin territory we were on. No one else was doing it. The Sporting News had a different take on their minor league coverage. Baseball America was the only place to get that information. It was incredibly popular with minor league baseball and scouts. If you introduced yourself to a scout (as being) from Baseball America, generally they wanted to talk to you, wanted to know what you knew and they knew they weren’t going to get burned.”
Callis: “Back then when you were talking to scouts, they didn’t talk to a ton of reporters. When you’re doing a hard-core Baseball America project, people like to have an intelligent discussion about what they do. Especially back then, there were so few people covering player development and the draft, they were happy to talk.”
Leiker: “Those Top 10s that Tracy and I did? We got $25 apiece. We weren’t doing it for the money. We did it because we believed in the product. It may have been 25 cents an hour. It depended on how many people you talked to in an organization. Some scouting directors or farm directors, I’d be on the phone with for three hours or more.”
Simpson: “I think people in the game had become so used to no one caring about prospects, it was a breath of fresh air to them. I don’t think we would have gotten past second base if we were haphazard about how we were covering it. We worked hard to identify the right people. Talk to the right people and get a good handle on the prospects.
Debates about a prospect’s ceiling vs. the likelihood of reaching that ceiling have been going on for more than a quarter century.
Leiker: “Tracy and I had different ideas. I said I believe we should start at this: What do we think when a player is completely fleshed out and at his peak in major league baseball? That’s how we should rank him. Tracy was looking at Double-A and Triple-A guys and who was going to get there quicker. I was looking more down the ladder. I was adamant about Gary Sheffield as a 17-year-old, he had to be a top guy. Scouts said he was the best high school breaking ball hitter they had ever seen.”
Before long, it became apparent that Baseball America wanted to do more than just rank the top players in each organization. In 1984, Leiker, Ringolsby and Simpson compiled the first Top 25 Prospects list. Juan Samuel, Shawon Dunston, Jose Rijo, Dwight Gooden and Tony Fernandez formed the top five, while Roger Clemens ranked 11th. Lining up the top prospects in an overall ranking didn’t stick, though. From 1985-89, the magazine did the Select 70, ranking the top players by position, while sliding in some future names to watch, swelling the list to a top 90 or so. In 1985, Greg Maddux and Tommy Glavine were among the future names to watch.
BA started ranking each farm system’s talent around the same time. The Mets were No. 1 in the organization talent rankings in 1983 and 1984, talent they quickly turned into a run that included 108 wins and a World Series title in 1986 (led by Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Lenny Dykstra and several others on those initial prospect lists).
But after Rob Rains of The Sporting News published a Top 150 Prospects book before the 1990 season, BA staffers decided the Select 70 needed to become the Top 100.
Callis: “I remember telling Jon Scher and Allan Simpson, we should be doing this. We’re Baseball America, we’re supposed to be the authority, we need to be doing a Top 100 Prospects list. I don’t remember the exact conversation but I remember there was no debate. Everyone said, ‘Yeah, we should.’ It was a natural for us.
“The first year of the Top 100, we didn’t put them in a spreadsheet and go from there.”
Simpson: “We just had a pen and paper. Those were all our resources.”
Callis: “We got the staff, maybe it was five of us, all of us came together with different degrees of preparedness. We sat down and it was, ‘Who should be in the top 10?’ Everyone threw out names for the Top 10. Once we did that, then it was, ‘OK, 11-20, who should be in that group?’ I think it took six or seven hours. I think Allan was frustrated. Some knew a lot more about prospects than others. Some would make legitimate arguments and others couldn’t support their opinions. It was a very long, long meeting.
“I don’t think Allan was unhappy with how the list turned out, but he didn’t like the process. Back then, Allan and Leiker and Tracy did the vast majority of the Top 10s, so the next year, those three just did the Top 100 list. They got on the phone, and Allan then said, ‘Here’s the list.’ “
Leiker: “Those early Top 100s, the way they fleshed out. Allan would call me and then Tracy or all three of us together and between the three of us we’d determine it. I’m certain all three of us had a lot of input from scouts.”
The first Top 100 was led by Avery (although No. 53 Deion Sanders was on the magazine’s cover). Ben McDonald, John Olerud, Juan Gonzalez and Sandy Alomar rounded out the top five. Of the 11 position players in the top 20, 10 finished their careers with more than 1,000 big league games played. Frank Thomas (No. 29) became the first Top 100 Prospect Hall of Famer.
Callis: “I’m a little surprised looking back at that list. (Dodgers righthander) Kiki Jones is a guy who jumps out. He’s the only guy in the top 20 who didn’t make the big leagues. If you look at that list, everyone else in the top 15 had a major league career of a decent duration. It seems odd that we ranked Kiki quite that high because he wasn’t like the No. 2 pick in the draft or something like that. McDonald and Olerud were the two big guys out of the draft. Kiki did have an unbelievable arm. He just got hurt.
“At the time, we weren’t poring over a guy’s strikeout-to-walk ratio. We weren’t ignoring stats, but it wasn’t the same degree of analysis. You couldn’t look at home-road splits or see how much he improved over the second half of a season. We had final official reports for each league. If it wasn’t in that, you didn’t have anything beyond that.”
Simpson: “The information you had was so limited. If you ask the right questions you could find out a lot of information, but it was much more difficult doing the Top 10s or Top 100 back then.”
In 1991, the Yankees selected prep lefthander Brien Taylor first overall in the draft and signed him for a record $1.55 million bonus. Taylor shot to the top of the Top 100, but a shoulder injury sustained during a fight in the offseason of 1993 diminished his arm strength, and he’s the only No. 1 prospect–other than Byron Buxton, who is obvioiusly still very early in his career–never to have reached the major leagues. Taylor, now in jail on drug charges, is often held up as a cautionary tale, but his impact on the prospect landscape was profound.
Alan Schwarz, Baseball America staffer from 1991-2006:
“He gets a very bad rap because he got hurt, and he got hurt in a bar fight where there’s a question as to whether he was coming to the aid of his brother. He gets held up as a symbol of squandered talent, and that’s really not fair.
“There’s no question he attracted more interest to prospects and the draft. Upper Deck started its minor league card set in 1992 or ’93 with Brien Taylor; they had him and Frankie Rodriguez. They made a big deal with Taylor, and I did stories on baseball card companies starting to bid on minor league players. It really started the minor league card boom, and put it on the mainstream collecting map. Taylor absolutely was at the forefront.”
The process became smoother as the list became a much-anticipated signal that spring was coming. Participating BA staffers now know to put together their own top 150 lists, which are compiled into a consensus raw list, allowing for a much smoother (and shorter) process.
Callis: “If you did the Top 100 now like we did then it would be a three-day meeting. There’s so much more information. The people in the room have more knowledge about more players. You care enough about who should be 86th and 87th. You actually care about it, even if it probably doesn’t make all that big of a difference.”
Conor Glassey, assistant editor from 2008-13:
“There were some good debates at the top of the list while I was at BA–Matt Wieters vs. David Price, Jason Heyward vs. Stephen Strasburg and, of course, Mike Trout vs. Bryce Harper–but I also remember serious deliberations about the last few spots on the list, as well. Limiting the list to 100 players is arbitrary because the 97th best prospect in the game isn’t all that different from the 150th. So, spending a half hour arguing in circles about where we would draw the line in the sand–who’s in and who’s out–was frustrating at times. Looking back on it, though, it shows just how much passion everyone at Baseball America has, and it shows how much pride they take in their product.”
Former BA staffer Josh Boyd probably affected the BA process as much as anyone other than Simpson and Callis. He joined the staff and quickly became known as the magazine’s prospect maven, writing the Daily Dish on the website and authoring the first iterations of the Prospect Hot Sheet. He was on the editorial staff from 2001-04 before he left BA to become a scout and now is the director of player personnel with the Rangers:
“(As a fan) each of the Top 10 issues were so anxiously awaited. I remember checking the bookstore on Tuesday and Wednesday until they got it. Brien Taylor, Chipper Jones, Cliff Floyd. The memories of those names, it was so exciting what those guys meant at the time.”
“I think you earned your way into getting your Top 50 in the Prospect Handbook and getting into the Top 100 meeting. All of us took so much pride in sitting there. You get to No. 75 vs. No. 76, it wasn’t just throwing it on there to get to the 150. It was is No. 75 really better than No. 76? I remember being so passionate that J.R. House was better than Josh Phelps or something like that.
And it wasn’t just fans paying attention.
Callis: “I remember in 2001. Dan Jennings was saying, ‘Don’t leave Matt White off this list. (White ended up at No. 100.) We think he’s coming around.’ Two or three years after we started doing the list, people started saying ‘Don’t forget this guy or that guy.’ People in the industry care. They want their players to get what they think they deserve.”
Boyd: “I felt going to a lot of games and talking to a lot of scouts and executives, it did carry weight in the industry and it mattered to people in the industry. You’re going to swing and miss sometimes. But you had a sense of pride that it was meaningful to our readers and that the Top 100 would be in clubhouses and front offices. It represented something that was important. It can influence value in trades for some teams. Knowing that, it was exciting to be part of the process.”
Glassey: “It really is difficult for me to imagine what it must have been like before Allan Simpson came up with the idea to publicly rank prospects. The depth of baseball’s popularity has come so far over the past 30-plus years that this magazine has been covering the sport. Now, we have high school players on national television, increased interest and exposure for the draft, and prospects becoming household names.”
Mike Berardino, Baseball America staff writer from 1992-94:
“Allan Simpson was a visionary . . . No one had attempted to do an organization Top 10 Prospects or a league Top 10 Prospects list until Baseball America came along. The whole possibility to attempt to rank 100 prospects, there weren’t many casual or even crazy fans who could name 100 prospects back then. You did feel like you were in the middle of something special.”
Leiker: “Allan Simpson belongs in the Hall of Fame. There are two guys, Bill James and Allan Simpson, there’s not a sportswriter on earth who belongs in the Hall of Fame more than those two guys. Those two guys changed the way we look at baseball. It gave people a new perspective on the game. It was always there but it had never been.”