Why do we worry about Top 100 prospect lists?

Andy Lyons

Arbitrary analysis activates angst.

An interesting conversation started in the comments of yesterday's Mug when we learned that Baseball Prospectus had released their list of baseball's top 101 prospects for 2014 and did not include a single Brewer. This came shortly after the Brewers received just one spot in MLB.com's top 100, with Jimmy Nelson checking in near the bottom of the list at #83.

This news inflamed people who are heavily concerned about the Brewer organization's ability to locate and develop impact talent. There's reason to be concerned about the Brewers' drafting and development, but I don't think prospect lists are a fair indication of talent levels across organizations. Baseball-wide prospect lists are, for the most part, an educated guess at best.

Consider, for a moment, the logistics of one person or a small group trying to evaluate every player in the minor leagues. On any given Friday night in July or August there may be a full slate of games going on in:

  • The Pacific Coast and International Leagues (AAA)
  • The Southern, Eastern and Texas Leagues (AA)
  • The Florida State, California and Carolina Leagues (A+)
  • The Midwest and South Atlantic Leagues (A)
  • The New York-Penn and Northwest Leagues (Short season-A)
  • The Pioneer and Appalachian Leagues (Rookie+)
  • The Arizona Summer and Gulf Coast Leagues (Rookie)

Even if watching minor league baseball was your only job, you worked around the clock and somehow functioned without sleep, there's literally no way to monitor every top prospect on anything beyond an "occasional" level. At best, these lists are compiled by people doing their best to see as much as they can and form their own opinions based on a potentially too-small sample size.

In reality, though, even that would be nearly impossible to do. The actual end result is frequently closer to an echo chamber. Scouts talk to other scouts, they talk to other talent evaluators, and sometimes what we get is the end result of a game of telephone across the scouting community.

There's another issue, though:  Some teams highly prioritize getting their guys on these lists. They'll talk them up and take advantage of the fact that these list producers can't see everyone. One pretty notable prospect writer once told me point blank that some teams do this, some teams don't, and the teams that like to talk about their guys frequently get more attention.

Furthermore, sometimes challenging the "consensus opinion" of the scouting community carries a risk for those on the inside. This summer I talked to a longtime scout who told a story about having written a negative report on then-Rangers catcher Taylor Teagarden, who at the time was viewed as a top prospect. The scout was called out onto the carpet for failing to see the inherent skill set in a "can't miss" guy. Years later, Teagarden is a career .206/.266/.390 hitter. The organization that criticized this scout might have been better off listening to him.

I'm not writing this to discredit Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com, Baseball America or any of the other writers or organizations that produce prospect lists. They're the best in the business at their jobs and do a remarkable job using the information available to produce a result that's multiple times better than anything you or I would do. But the combination of volume of noise and the biased nature of some of the information they're given makes their task nearly impossible.

For further proof of the challenge of this task, consider some of the results: Kyle Lohse, Jonathan Lucroy, Scooter Gennett and Khris Davis, for example, were never top 100 prospects. Tyler Thornburg was #100 in Baseball Prospectus' list last year but left off of Baseball America and MLB.com's.

Meanwhile, here are some of the significantly less successful players who have been ranked by Baseball America over the years:

Player Seasons in 
BA Top 100
Highest rank, season
Jeremy Hermida 3 #4, 2006
Brad Nelson 2 #23, 2003
Zach Duke 1 #34, 2005
Mark Rogers 2 #44, 2006
Manny Parra 2 #69, 2004
Ben Hendrickson 1 #90, 2003
Jeremy Jeffress 1 #100, 2009

In the end, these lists represent the end result of some teams' internal marketing campaigns as much as a reflection of actual talent. And there is some value to that marketing: If you're a team trading for prospects, being able to say you got a Baseball America Top 50 or 100 player is a big deal in terms of public relations. Everyone wants to hear that their favorite organization has a bright future and smart people evaluating talent.

The Brewers, for what it's worth, say they're not out chasing those accolades. Mark Attanasio suggested as much in his comments at On Deck on Sunday. I've heard similar sentiments in the past from outside the organization. The Brewers say they'd rather have their talent development staff doing their jobs than chasing credit.

Again, I don't mean this to be an endorsement of the Brewers' drafting or development process. The criticism that they've failed to bring impact talent to the majors in recent years is a fair one, especially when compared to the talent pipeline other organizations (the Cardinals, for example) have greatly benefitted from. Many of you are concerned about this team's ability to remain viable without help from within, and I think that concern is valid.

In short: there are valid reasons to be concerned about talent development in the Brewer organization, but failure to appear on prospect lists aren't one of them. In my opinion, anyway.

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