The Best Talent, on the Average

Baseball America recently published its 2007 Prospect Handbook. The Angels were ranked #4 in the annual Talent Rankings.

BA analyst Alan Matthews wrote, “For the better part of the new millennium, the Angels have accrued talent as effectively as any organization in baseball.”

I did a little number-crunching to test that statement.

Over the last five years of rankings (2003-2007), the Angels’ average ranking was 3.4, the best of any of the thirty major league organizations. The top five rankings were:

  1. Angels 3.4
  2. Dodgers 5.2
  3. Twins 5.4
  4. Brewers 6.0
  5. Indians 6.6

Within the Angels’ division:

  1. Angels 3.4
  2. Mariners 16.6
  3. Rangers 19.0
  4. Athletics 20.0

While it’s great to be recognized as one of the consistently better farm systems, if you look at recent World Series participants you don’t necessarily see a link between minor league talent (as ranked by BA) and championships.

The World Series champion Cardinals, who were also in the 2004 Series, were #28 at 26.0. The Tigers, whom they faced in 2006, were #19 at 18.0. Their 2004 opponents, the Red Sox, were #17 at 17.6.

The two 2005 World Series participants? The champion Astros were #27 at 23.2. The White Sox were #16 at 17.4.

Part of the problem, in my opinion, is how BA ranks minor league prospects. They tend to look at a player’s ceiling, that is his tools and how successful he’ll be if he maximizes his potential sometime, somewhere in the major leagues. The result is that many times the top prospects in organizations are those in the lower minors who are “toolsy” but haven’t actually maximized their potential.

Using the Angels’ 2007 Top 30 Prospects list as an example, only three of the Top 10 spent a substantive part of 2006 in Double-A (Brandon Wood) or Triple-A (Erick Aybar, Jeff Mathis). One player, Young-Il Jung, hasn’t even played in a regular season game. Three of the ten (Hank Conger, Sean O’Sullivan and Tommy Mendoza) spent 2006 at Low-A or Rookie-A.

This is one reason why, as I’ve written my annual Top 10 reports over the years, I’ve tended to skew away from “toolsiness” and started to weigh a bit more towards proximity to the major leagues. Given two players with equivalent talent, I’ll go more with the one closer to the majors. It also allows for weeding out players whose careers might have been sidetracked due to injury.

I’ve no data to prove my system is better or worse than anyone else’s. But then neither is there any proof that the statistically-obsessed people at Baseball Prospectus get it right more often either. (Not that it stops them from claiming they do, while they try to sell you more of their merchandise, but that’s a different subject.)

Despite what some in the sabermetric world might claim, the fact of the matter is that there’s simply no reliable way to project the future when it comes to prospects. No one could foresee Casey Kotchman’s mononucleosis or Dallas McPherson’s lower back injuries. No one foresaw Mike Napoli going from second-string catcher at Rancho Cucamonga in 2003 to 29 HR at Rancho in 2004 to 31 HR at Arkansas in 2005 to the majors in 2006.

And the final judgment on whether a prospect lived up to expectations may not come for many years. The Angels selected Jim Edmonds in the seventh round of the 1988 draft, at age 18. In his first season at Short-A Bend, he hit an AVG/OBP/SLG of .221/.329/.254 in 122 AB. In his first full year, 1989, he hit .261/.313/.337 in 92 AB for Low-A Quad City. Let’s see a show of hands how many people honestly think the statheads would have projected Edmonds at that point to hit 350 HR (and counting) in the majors?

Anyway, after crunching the last five years, I looked at BA Talent Rankings going back to its inception in 1999.

The Top Ten were:

  1. Braves 5.67
  2. Twins 7.56
  3. Marlins 8.56
  4. Cubs 10.89
  5. Devil Rays 11.33
  6. Indians 11.33
  7. Yankees 12.00
  8. White Sox 12.78
  9. Angels 13.11
  10. Blue Jays 13.44

The bottom five were:

  1. Red Sox 19.78
  2. Reds 20.00
  3. Orioles 21.78
  4. Nationals/Expos 22.00
  5. Cardinals 24.33

Wow, there are those pesky Cardinals again at the bottom, even though they went to the World Series in 2004 and 2006. The Red Sox have been competitive as well. And although they’re ranked highly, the Cubs, Devil Rays and Indians aren’t exactly the elite of their leagues.

There are three ways to build a competitive major league team — scouting and player development, free agent signings and trades.

One can’t help but be impressed by the consistently high rankings posted by the Twins over the years. Even though they operate in a small market, they’ve used their farm system to remain competitive most years in the AL Central.

The Braves have been consistently competitive over the last two decades, going to the World Series in 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, and 1999. They won the NL East every year from 1995 through 2005. Clearly that track record of success can be linked to the fertility of their farm system.

The Angels are fairly close to the Braves’ model, but it was only in recent years that they’ve been consistent competitors. They won the World Series in 2002, and went to the post-season in 2004 and 2005. In 2003 and 2006, injuries were the main problem, although in 2006 a fertile farm helped them remain competitive into the final weekend.

In an era of three-tier playoffs that allow for mediocre teams and wild cards to enter the post-season, perhaps the lesson to draw from all this is that a farm system deep in prospects gives an organization the ability to absorb more mistakes and unforeseen developments. It won’t excuse poor decision-making (e.g. the Devil Rays and Cubs), but it does allow an organization to swap away talent for a quick-fix (e.g. the Cardinals) that might be enough to get over the hump in one year.

Beyond that, nothing is guaranteed. And that includes Talent Rankings.

This article is copyright © 2007 Wordsmith Resources and FutureAngels.com. It may not be used elsewhere without the prior expressed written permission of the author.

1 Comment

Yup. Tools are nothing without brains. Or desire/motivation. Anyone here live through the Alex Johnson years in an Angels uniform? Or wonder why Wilton Guerrero couldn’t keep a job in the bigs? These guys had spectacular talent that they horribly misused, either intentionally or unintentionally.

I’d have to think that a scouts most difficult measurement isn’t how far a player can hit a ball, or throw it, or how fast they can run. It has to be figuring out how well their head is screwed on. The scouting department that can figure out how to quantify this will always get the most players to the big club even if they don’t get the highest ratings from Baseball Prospectus based on raw talent.

Good luck to the Angels scouts in this endeavor. Looks like they know when to cut their losses (Bobby Jenks). Let’s wish them success so we can see a steady flow of talent to Anaheim.

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