I thought I'd try to gage the real, projectable value of prospects in an utterly unscientific way to see if the study will yield any useful insight. So what I did is go back in the archives of the most widely-cited source for prospect evaluation - Baseball America - and pull out an old "Top 100" list to see how the youngsters fared in post-adolescence. I somewhat arbitrarily chose Year 2000, primarily because it's a nice round number, and secondarily because the prospects of seven years ago are players that should be approaching their prime years about now. So what do we find?
Well, first, let's start with the Top 10:
1. Rick Ankiel, lhp, Cardinals
2. Pat Burrell, 1b/of, Phillies
3. Corey Patterson, of, Cubs
4. Vernon Wells, of, Blue Jays
5. Nick Johnson, 1b, Yankees
6. Ruben Mateo, of, Rangers
7. Sean Burroughs, 3b, Padres
8. Rafael Furcal, ss, Braves
9. Ryan Anderson, lhp, Mariners
10. John Patterson, rhp, Diamondbacks
Anybody moved to tears looking at numero uno? All-in-all, rather uninspiring for a "Top 10," eh?
Newsflash: Don't Put Much Stock in Young Pitchers
Looking at the Top 10, we see that a shocking 4-of-10 have had their careers destroyed by injury (including mental illness) - Ankiel, Mateo, Anderson, and Patterson. Note that this includes all 3 of the pitchers in the Top 10. Now let me tell you more. Here are the rest of the players on the Top 100 list who have had good careers derailed by injury: Mark Mulder (12), Kip Wells (14), Eric Gagne (49), Ben Sheets (65), and Wade Miller (69). Notice anything? All pitchers. Every last one. Then there are a number of other pitchers on the list who, just from memory, have had major injury problems, some career-ending-before-it-started: Matt Riley (15) (what a waste of a fantasy league minor league draft pick he was), Tony Armas (27), Wes Anderson (43), Jason Standridge (47), Jesus Colome (53), Kurt Ainsworth (58), Kyle Snyder (70), Orber Moreno (83). Add to that a host of other pitchers who never made it for reasons unknown, some of which were undoubtedly arm injury-related. So conservatively, about 20% of the list consists of pitchers with blown-out soup bones. Wow.
Now, which pitchers made it? Josh Beckett (19) (numerous injury problems), AJ Burnett (20) (Tommy John surgery), Brad Penny (22) (numerous injury problems), Francisco Cordero (injury problems), Jon Garland (32), Danys Baez (39), Barry Zito (41), CC Sabathia (57), Adam Eaton (64) (numerous injury problems), Byung Hyun Kim (81). So only about 10% of the Top 100 were pitchers who remain successful today, and most of them battled through arm woes before emerging and settling in.
Stars and Scrubs
On the list of the Top 100, I rate only the following as superstars: Vernon Wells (4), Alfonso Soriano (16), Lance Berkman (37), Zito, and Jimmy Rollins (95). That's 5%, and Zito, the lone pitcher, only belongs on this lofty perch due to a Cy Young trophy and a 9-figure contract; otherwise, I would question it.
The following I would rate presently as very good, established players: Pat Burrell (2) (barely), Nick Johnson (5), Rafael Furcal (8), Beckett, Burnett, Garland, Milton Bradley (36), Adam Dunn (56), Sabathia, Carlos Guillen (73), Marcus Giles (74), and Aubrey Huff (98). That's another 12%.
Here are other players of note (some of whom arguably could be plotted one category above): Corey Patterson (3), Michael Cuddyer (18), Penny, Cordero, Felipe Lopez (38), Baez, Eaton, Cesar Izturis (67), Jason Jennings (87), and Wily Mo Pena (88). That's another 9%.
In sum, from the 2000 list, about 1-in-20 players have become perennial all-stars, about 1-in-7 are at least good, established players, and about 1-in-4 are even worth mentioning. Pretty alarming, to me. Perhaps it shouldn't be. And I know financial control over players during their early years is a big factor ... But are these the odds teams are facing when they hang onto prospects like grim death?** Can the wise GM regard a highly touted pitching prospect as anything more than trading currency? Food for thought. What it tells me is that if the Nationals want Clay Buchholz or Craig Hansen in a Chad Cordero deal, Theo, don't hesitate.
Of course, maybe I just looked at a bad year. On 1994's list, 5 of the top 16 are likely Hall-of-Famers: Chipper Jones (2), Carlos Delgado (5), Alex Rodriguez (6), Manny Ramirez (7), and Derek Jeter (16). Any of them pitch? Didn't think so.
**My previous post paid homage to the almost all-rookie Florida Marlins of 2006. This analysis may add a little more context. The accomplishments of that team -- led by four rookie starting pitchers -- look no less impressive, now. Of course, by the time 2012 rolls around, a number of those guys may be bagging groceries in the hometown Winn-Dixie, too. In case you were wondering, only 5 Marlins were even on the BA Top 100 list going into the year: Jeremy Hermida (4), Hanley Ramirez (30), Scott Olsen (34), Anibal Sanchez (40), and Josh Johnson (80).