Every year I underestimate how difficult it will be to rank the Cubs’ 40 best prospects, and this year was no exception. Last year the tough part was working out the ranking at the very top of the system; this year it was sorting through the legion of candidates for the final few spots. As with every year, though, it wasn’t easy.
When I first started into the prospect ranking game, my goal was to build towards a purely objective ranking system. Eventually, I hoped, I’d be able to load the relevant stats into the model and out would pop my rankings for the year. Unfortunately, even though this is the fourth year for the Top 40, I may be further away from that purely objective measure than I was when I started. Ranking prospects remains more an art than a science. (On a side note, if you are interested in a purely objective system, be sure to read up on KATOH over at FanGraphs.)
It is also an ever-evolving art. What I look for and how I analyze it changes (hopefully improves, but at the very least changes) at least a little every year. There is a lot more video available on most prospects than there was in 2013, for example, so I am able to rely a little more on video and a little less on pure statistics. The available statistics on players in the lower level have gotten better as well, as have our general understanding of what stats to look for each level.
The numbers used to evaluate prospects vary as well. I don’t think any major prospect analysts are still using pitching wins or runs batted in as significant factors (thank goodness), but the statistics that are used vary from analyst to analyst. Add all those variables together and it isn’t surprising that opinions can vary widely.
So what was I looking at this year? Glad you asked.
Once again I aimed to balance Projection (how good a player is likely to be, not the same thing as ceiling) and Risk (how likely a player is to reach that Projection). This method does have the side effect of potentially overvaluing prospects in the upper levels of the minors. To try to better account for that, I didn’t value those two factors evenly for all prospects this year. At the lower levels of the farm system, I gave a little more weight to Projection, and at the upper levels, a little more to Risk. We’ll see how well that worked out when we get into the actual rankings later on.
As for the statistics I look at, there is also some variation in the relative weights on each value at each level. In general, though, I am trying to get a sense of how likely a hitter is to make solid contact on a consistent basis, how likely a defender is to be at least average at his position, and how likely a pitcher is to get outs. I like walk rate (BB%), strikeout rate (K%), and isolated power (ISO) in particular for hitters, and walk rate (BB/9), strikeout rate (K/9), ground ball rate (GO/AO), and home run rate (HR/9) for pitchers. Among others.
And then there is the age question. In general, younger is better, and I really like to see players performing well in leagues where they are one of the younger players. In a broader sense, the age question is getting tricky, though, because we are starting to see very high-profile examples of players breaking out at a relatively advanced age. Jake Arrieta, for example, was only producing ordinary results until late in his age-27 season, well past the point when he was considered a prospect. And in the Cubs system now we have a catcher, Taylor Davis, who is producing very well at the plate but doesn’t get a lot of prospect respect because he is much older than we’d expect a prospect to be.
I’m starting to suspect that we are going to be re-evaluating the role of age in prospect analysis, at least to some degree, before this decade is out. For now I mostly stick to the ‘younger is better’ line, but am willing to vary that when a compelling case presents itself.
To see how all this can work, let’s consider three outfield prospects: Rashad Crawford, Jacob Hannemann, and Charcer Burks. Two of them made the Top 40, and the third is in the (large) group of players who just missed the cut.
Crawford is a switch-hitter who spent all season in South Bend. He did not turn 22 until October, but that still left him in a good place on the age curve for full-season Low-A. At 6’3′ and just 185 lbs, he probably has some muscle to add, and that in turn could translate into some additional power. Last season he hit just 4 homers (but stole 20 bases) on his way to a line of .280/.322/.382 with a walk rate of 5.1% and a strikeout rate of 23.0%.
Burks is the youngest of the three; he just turned 21 this March. He also played in South Bend, splitting his time in center with Crawford. Burks may wind up with the least power of these three, but his 10.2% walk rate and 16.7% strikeout rate led him to a productive line of .257/.339/.347 with 28 steals and 3 home runs.
So … how do you rank them? None of them are going to rank among the elite tiers of prospects. In fact, with possibly one exception, I think the most likely hoped-for future for any of them would be as a Major League fourth or fifth outfielder. The highest ranking I placed on any of them is 32. If I were to rank prospects into broad buckets, they would all probably be in the same bucket. But prospect ranking is synonymous with lists, not buckets, and so those three have to be slotted into some kind of order.
Repeat that exercise, or something very similar to it, a couple dozen times and you have a pretty good idea what goes into ranking prospects. My ranking of those three will appear in the coming days as more articles in the Top 40 series are published, but feel free to drop yours in comments.
And be sure to check in regularly. This is only the first of the Top 40 articles. Seven more are planned in the coming days.[Brett: Luke is the man.]