MLB prospect rankings a much-needed shot of hope for Cubs fans

In the wake of the news that the Cubs had lost to the Yankees in the high-stakes bidding war for Japanese sensation Masahiro Tanaka came a much-needed shot of hope for Cubs fans when MLB.com released its list of the top 100 prospects of 2014. On that list, there were seven players from the Cubs minor league system, including two in the top 10, Javier Baez (7) and Kris Bryant (9).

This is the best news for hope-starved Cubs fans in some time. But don’t start popping the corks on the champagne bottles just yet. History tells us that when you’re mining for baseball prospects, a player that looks like gold often turns out to be nothing more than fool’s gold.

When dealing in hope, you want to know just how much of it you’re holding. As Kenny Rogers informed us, you have to know when to hold them and know when to fold them. Of course, hope is difficult to quantify. But we do have a measuring stick of sorts, in the form of Baseball America’s annual top 100 prospects list. Their list is fairly comparable to MLB’s and they’ve been doing it a long longer. On BA’s website, they have archived their annual top 100 prospect lists back to 1990. You can learn a lot from these lists, which remind us of those can’t miss prospects of days gone by, names like Lance Dickson, Earl Cunningham and Ty Griffin. Oh, yeah, not all prospects pan out.

The good news for Cubs fans is that if the MLB’s 2014 prospect list is comparable to BA’s lists dating back to 1990, this is the best year for hope in Cubdom in a decade. You have to go all the way back to 2002 on the BA prospect archives to find a year in which the Cubs prospects were viewed so favorably.

Looking at these two years reveals striking similarities. In both years, the Cubs placed exactly seven prospects in the top 100 and two in the top 10. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two years is that in 2002 the Cubs strength was largely built on pitching while in 2014 it is largely built on position players. In 2002, both of the top 10 Cubs’ prospects were pitchers, Mark Prior (2) and Juan Cruz (6). That 2002 prospect list also featured Carlos Zambrano (80), who, along with Prior and Kerry Wood (BA’s No. 3 and 4 prospect in 1997 and 1998, respectively), made the core of the Cubs’ 2003 title run, which of course fell five outs short.

If you measure hope by prospects, that 2002 year was as good as it has been for Cubs fans since 1990, until, according to MLB, 2014. Those are the high mark years for both total numbers in the top 100 and total numbers in the top 10.

How much stock should one put in prospect rankings like these? The success at the major league level for the Cubs that followed the 2002 rankings was short-lived. The four position players on that list – Hee Seop Choi, Bobby Hill, Nic Jackson and David Kelton – barely combine to make a blip on the team’s history records, the latter two never even getting promotions to the majors.

We know from history that a top 10 prospect ranking doesn’t necessarily translate to a long, successful career in the major leagues. The Cubs, historically, haven’t raised too many top-tier prospects. Between 1990 and 2013, a 24-year span, only four Cubs prospects reached the top 10 level. In addition to Prior, Cruz and Wood, only one other achieved that lofty status: Corey Patterson (ranked Nos. 3 and 2 by BA in 2000 and 2001, respectively).

The successes of these most heralded of Cubs’ prospects have been marginal, at best. Riddled by injuries, neither Wood nor Prior lived up to expectations raised by their early successes, including Wood’s 20-strikeout game and Prior’s 18-6 record and third place finish in the National League’s Cy Young Award voting. Wood eventually converted to the bullpen and Prior’s major league career ended just three years after it started. Cruz, too, battled injuries throughout a career that saw him bounce around from team to team, primarily as a middle-inning reliever. Patterson became a middling platoon outfielder with frequent return stints in the minors, to date recording a lifetime .252 BA.

One might think that the rival Cardinals, the team the Cubs presumably want to be, a team that routinely reaches the postseason year after year, would be clubbing the Cubs when it comes to top prospects. That conventional wisdom, however, appears to be off the mark. While the Cubs as a team rank third in the MLB’s 2014 prospect watch (behind the Astros and Red Sox), the Cards don’t even make the top 10. And if you count the number of Cards’ prospects to make BA’s prospect lists over the last decade, the Cubs actually beat them in total numbers by a fairly impressive margin, 43-27. The Cards, however, do beat the Cubs in prospects ranked in the top 10 during that same 10-year span, 3-0, though only one of those three (Shelby Miller) played for the team at the major league level last year. The team traded former top 10 prospect Colby Rasmus to Toronto in 2011 for pitcher Edwin Jackson, who is now with the Cubs. The other top 10 prospect, Oscar Taveras, is still waiting for his promotion.

That brings us back to the question of how much stock one should put in these prospect rankings. The answer is probably not much. Through all of the doom and gloom, however, they do give us a ray of hope and reason to believe that better days are ahead.

Randy Richardson is the author of CHEESELAND. An all-new edition of his Wrigleyville murder mystery, LOST IN THE IVY, will be released by Eckhartz Press on Opening Day.

The Prospect Breakdown

Total # of Cubs top 100 prospects 1990-2013, according to Baseball America:

2013: 4
2012: 4
2011: 2
2010: 5
2009: 2
2008: 5
2007: 3
2006: 3
2005: 4
2004: 6
2003: 5
2002: 7 Mark Prior (2), Juan Cruz (6)
2001: 6 Corey Patterson (2)
2000: 2 Corey Patterson (3)
1999: 1
1998: 1 Kerry Wood (4)
1997: 3 Kerry Wood (3)
1996: 2
1995: 1
1994: 1
1993: 1
1992: 5
1991: 3
1990: 5

Total # of Cards top 100 prospects 2003-2013, according to Baseball America:

2013: 6 Oscar Taveras (3) Shelby Miller (6)
2012: 6 Shelby Miller (8)
2011: 2
2010: 1
2009: 3 Colby Rasmus (3)
2008: 3 Colby Rasmus (5)
2007: 2
2006: 1
2005: 1
2004: 2
2003: 0
Total: 27

Comments

  1. David says:

    Apart from the top 10, though, three Cardinal pitchers on the 2013 BA Top 100 – Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, and Michael Wacha — helped the Cards win the NL pennant last year. The Cardinals are clubbing the Cubs in many ways. They also have had probably the best player development system in baseball – a system the Cubs are now emulating — so even if they don’t have as many top 100 prospects more of them are getting to the Majors. They outpace all of baseball in this, not just the Cubs.

  2. The Cardinals top 100 prospect numbers actually caught me by surprise. I would have expected the results to be just the opposite. Obviously they have been doing something much better than the Cubs. They’ve managed to dominate the Cubs over the last decade despite the Cubs beating them in the top 100 prospect rankings over that same span. That just makes me wonder how much stock to put in prospect rankings, that maybe we place more emphasis on them than they deserve.

    1. David says:

      It’s an interesting point. There is a lot more attention paid to prospects now than there was 10 – 15 years ago. The internet obviously has a lot to do with it – the bloggers and the quasi-professional scouting that takes place at Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. I call it quasi-professional not to demean it, but to point out it is not taking place within professional baseball, but outside of organized baseball. There is nevertheless a lot of high quality scouting and analysis going on within these organizations (to go with all the amateur stuff going on elsewhere in the blogoshpere). You would think that all of the additional scrutiny, over time, would make the process more reliable in the aggregate, that more top 100 prospects would pan out into major league players. But high attrition rates have always been the rule with baseball prospects. You can have all the tools in the world – but baseball demands highly developed and very specific skills. It requires a great deal of motivation to develop those skills. All the best athletes don’t necessarily get there, for example, the way they tend to in football.