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What's the True Value of That Prospect?

Mike SteffanosMonday, February 19, 2007
By Mike Steffanos

Joel Sherman had an interesting piece on his spring training blog yesterday entitled Be Cautious About Prospects, where he threw a little cold water on the gaudy expectations local fans have for Mets prospects Mike Pelfrey and Philip Humber and Yankees wunderkind Philip Hughes:

In 2002, the top pitching prospects in order were Josh Beckett, Mark Prior, Juan Cruz, Ryan Anderson, Dennis Tankersley, Nick Neugebauer, Jerome Williams, Jon Rauch and Ty Howington. That is five years ago, more than enough time for a class of prospects to graduate and prove themselves. Yet of that group only Beckett has come close to fulfilling such gaudy expectations. Prior, in many ways, is a cautionary tale because talent evaluators were so universal in their admiration. It was amazing how many scouts told me they were watching the second coming of Tom Seaver.

Why bring this up now? Well, spring is the ultimate time of hope in baseball and while I do not want to douse that optimism, I do want to suggest wariness about projecting only the best-case scenarios.

... Both the Mets and, especially, the Yankees have recognized the value of loading up as many pitching prospects as possible. And that is because both organizations know the hard truth, which is that if you think you have 10 really good pitching prospects, you probably have two. It is very, very tough to be a successful major league pitcher. Just ask Edwin Jackson or Greg Miller, Jesse Foppert or Gavin Floyd, and also all of those guys behind Josh Beckett.

So those starry-eyed fans who just expect that Hughes or Pelfrey will step into rotations in New York in pennant races and be stars, well, be cautious. Sometimes you get that with a Justin Verlander. But most times you do not.

As someone who is a big supporter of the Mets new commitment to player development, you might expect me to take some exception to Sherman's post. Actually, I agree with it completely. Without a doubt, one of the toughest things to do in sports is to develop pitching talent. This is why sub-mediocre pitchers with a pulse were able to land huge contracts this past off-season, and pitchers who are actually accomplished in their art can practically write their own ticket.

Pitching prospects fall by the wayside for many reasons. The most common stumbling block is injuries, as the pitching motion is stressful and unnatural. Repeat it thousands of time and many arms will give out under the strain. Add to this that injuries, however minor, to a different part of the body can lead to a change in the pitcher's delivery that can put extra strain on an elbow and a shoulder and cause that to give out.

If a young pitcher survives all of the potential landmines from a physical standpoint, there are more hurdles to overcome. In the case of a Mike Pelfrey, there is the need to develop complementary pitches to that tremendous fastball. For others, such as Oliver Perez, there is the challenge of getting your stuff over for strikes. If, as a maturing pitcher, you develop your other pitches and throw enough strikes to give yourself a chance to win, your next challenge will be to keep those strikes away from the heart of the plate. No matter how good your stuff is, professional hitters will tee off on it if you make your pitches too fat.

For youngsters that can survive the physical pitfalls and master all of the above, there is still another challenge along the way to being a decent major league pitcher -- consistency and mental toughness. It's not enough to pitch 3 or 4 overpowering innings only to lose it all with one bad one. You must be able to maintain a level of concentration throughout your entire outing. Moreover, you have to be able to change your pitching patterns as the game goes on and the hitters have already seen what you got. If you can do this through 5 or 6 innings, you can be a major league starting pitcher. If you can take it even deeper into games, you can be a very good one.

If you take it another step and find a way to repeat good performance every fifth day, and manage to give your team a chance to win when you're not at your best, then you have pretty much become all that anyone could ask from a major league starting pitcher. Meanwhile, along the road to that point, you've seen many prospects that had as much, if not more, talent than you fall by the wayside. This is why starting pitchers who are only average are still worth so much on the open market.

If it is beyond question that developing dependable starting pitching from prospects is a difficult task, it is also becoming more and more apparent that teams who wish to remain competitive will do exactly that. If a Team A is forced to shop in the current marketplace for pitching while another team in their division, Team B, is able to develop some of their own young pitchers, Team A will find themselves at a huge competitive disadvantage. First of all, with the money they save on pitching Team B will have more to invest in other positions and player development. Secondly, even if Team A has fairly deep pockets, there is no guarantee that they will be able to land the best pitching. The current market and solid financial picture in baseball encourages more teams to hold onto their own talent, diminishing the pool of available pitching. This has combined to raise the value of young pitching -- particularly quality prospects -- to a point where teams are unwilling to trade these kids, despite the odds against any one prospect becoming even an average starting pitcher.

So while I agree with Joel Sherman that you need to be careful with your expectations towards pitching prospects, I still wholeheartedly endorse a team philosophy that places a high value on these kids. Sherman is correct in that it is always a numbers game with young pitching, but to my mind that's why only disciplined franchises that have a clear philosophy of developing talent will be able to succeed. I think the Mets organization has finally reached a point where they are equipped to develop some of their own talent again. Equally as important, they have started to stockpile some arms in the organization for both the rotation and the bullpen. While there is no guarantee that any of these kids -- even Pelfrey and Humber -- will make it, more talent in the Mets system increases the odds that some of these kids will make it in New York. While some Mets fans may get discouraged if the phenom that they read so much about doesn't pan out, it's important that the organization doesn't let talk radio chatter influence what they do going forward.

So while it is important to be realistic about pitching prospects, it's equally important to understand that the only way for the Mets to have some success with their kids is if we are all willing to live with the failures. I guess that's why I get such a headache when people drag up Generation K as a reason to trade away pitching prospects. To me, the tragedy wasn't the failure of Wilson, Pulsipher and Isringhausen to lead the Mets to the Promised Land; it's the failure of the organization to develop a single true impact starting pitcher in all of the years since.

About Mike: I was the original writer on this web site, actually its only writer for the first 15 months of existence. Although I am grateful for the excellent contributions of my fellow writers here, I have no plans of stepping back into strictly an editorial role. I started this thing in the first place because I love to write and I love the Mets, and blogging here keeps me somewhat sane. If you haven't had enough already, more bio info can be found here.

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Comments (9)

There are waaay too many elements that go into prospects, especially pitchers.
Alot of it is based on trying to predict the future and predict what they're going to do next. A toolsy guy depending on certain trends would be "expected" to improve upon his prevoius season. It's always ASSUMED that prospects will progress and improve on thier previous season, so that's a trap.

Then there's the inability to improve on thier weakness, whatever it may be. BAM! Then they're stuck.

And then there's injuries. Injuries can ruin any player. Whether they're out of shape, don't stretch, or just have bad luck and get freak injuries. Injuries ruin alot of the major prospects that have the other aspects figured out and they lose development time. Josh Beckett? Constantly injured.
Mark Prior? Unlucky. I think Mark Prior is one of the greatest pitchers in a long time. He's big, strong, has great stuff, and he knows HOW to pitch. BUT... he's been unlucky with freak injuries and can't stay on the field.

Then there's also how the actual organization is. Thier philosophies and all that. Listen, the Pirates are a horrible organization, atleast when it comes to pitching. All thier guys are constantly injured, have no guidance, thier coaches are not that good. It's just a mess. They don't really develop talent. I mean even though they get traded, how many former Met farm hands have gone on to do good things in a non-Met uniform? I would credit that to the organization as a whole, even though thier sucess dind't come in as a Met.

There are so many tangible and intangible things going on in baseball that it really is hard to pin your hopes on these guys. That's why it's important to build depth. Like the Braves and Dodgers have. Then there are some guys that are so impactful and so good the ONLY thing standing i nthier way is health. Guys like Philip Hughes, Pelfrey, and Humber, they're just good.
I honostly could go on and on about this for like a 10 page essay but I'll stop, haha.

I'm just glad current Mets mgmt remembers how the Braves ran off 14 years of domination, at least at division level. Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz, as good as they were, still needed two more guys each year to fill out the rotation. As much as I hate them, the Braves did a helluva job doing that over a long period of time.

There aren't many of us who can remember who their 4th and 5th starters were over the years, or their best long relief guys, etc. We can remember who filled in the gaps for US last year, though, can't we? It'll change from year to year, and how long will it take before most of us forget who helped us get those 97 wins last year, especially if we put a few more division title flags up over Shea and CitiField? I'm liking where we're going--win now, yes, but stay in it for the long haul, too.

I agree and disagree with Joel Sherman and Mike here.

Certainly, it's agreed that all prospects aren't going to make it to the finish line.

But watching the various franchises over time, it becomes clear that some teams have a lot more success with their kid pitchers than others do. Sometimes it's the same team over a different time frame that show such different results: remember the big draft that fetched the Oakland A's Todd Van Poppel and three other prize prospects, none of whom ever amounted to squat? A far cry from all the success Oakland has had with its kids more recently, wouldn't you say?

Kid pitchers are never a sure thing, but there are some things a team can control: training that focusses on what a prospect can do and develop, rather than trying to fit every kid into a desired mold; conditioning and work load schedules that increase the odds that their prospects will develop and not get hurt; and, probably, teaching their kids how to live in the Big World while they're developing their abilities, to minimize flameouts and emotional implosions. A team is also in control of its scouting crew, what sorts of players they draft, how they value character and intelligence in relation to physical ability and potential, et cetera. And simply identifying the talent is not a given, either; Johann Santana is currently pitching for his third organization, having passed through Houston and Florida.

As we all have seen, all teams DO NOT perform these various tasks equally well.

The better a team does these jobs, the more like a sure thing having a passel of strong prospects becomes. Some teams like Minnesota and Oakland today, and Atlanta, Los Angeles and Baltimore in earlier days, always seem to have kids around that successfully cash in on their talent. Others, like the pre-Valentine Mets, don't. I submit that the big difference is the individuals running the organizations, not merely that prospects are risky.

And, by the way: veterans are risky too. Mark Mulder?

DD, I actually think the Mets were very good at developing talent. They just never did it while wearing Met uniforms. They were either traded or peaked real late and became stars later on.

Alot of it I really feel has to do with the organization and the staff. The Pirates seem to have alot of bad luck with thier pitchers. The Indians over the past few years have had AMAZING scouting and pick up guys form other organizations in trades.

There are so many elements aside from the players themselves. The scouting for the draft. Scouting of other organizations. The coaching, ahh, I'm going to stop because what I'm saying is pretty much obvious and I'm not really adding anything to the conversation, haha.

Mike this is just one of those "I agree" posts.

Benny - I appreciate the long comments, because you have something interesting to say.
geezer - I agree.
dd - I don't completely agree with Joel Sherman, but I do think it's better for fans to be realistic about prospects than to get totally turned off to them when something like Gen K happens. As far as the rest of it, we are actually in agreement that the organization has a big effect on how many prospects pan out.
Anonymous - I hear you to a point, but I think a team needs to develop their players all the way to the pros to really be given credit for developing the talent.

There's another element to this discussion that's being overlooked I think, and that's how much that free agent pitcher is worth, or that pitcher you traded for is worth. These are the conventional means of acquiring players: prospects, free agents, and trades. Although pitchers with MLB track records have a better chance of being successful in subsequent seasons, its still far from a science.

Just look at two of the pitchers that the Mets picked up this season: Chan Ho Park and Aaron Sele. With Park, 4 of his 5 full season with LA were really strong. In 1997, 1998, 2000, and 2001 his ERA ranged from 3.27-3.71, he won 14-18 games, and threw between 192-234 innings and 1997 was the only year of those where he didn't reach 220 IP. He had a bad year in 1999 with a 5.23 ERA, but he still managed 13 wins and 194 IP. He signed as a 29 year old free agent with Texas in 2002, and guess what? He flopped. Could be the AL, could be the injuries, could be both, but a guy whose been pitching that well for the last 5 years seems like as safe a bet as you can get save a mega-superstar. Aaron Sele was an AL pitcher until the Dodgers, and had his best years with the the Rangers and Mariners but has struggled since. Josh Beckett is another example of an NL pitcher with powerful stuff who went to the AL and struggled. After a solid start, Greg Maddux finally wore down in Chicago in 2006 despite career long consistency. The Mets thought Glavine should be a safe bet at 36 years old, but it turned out they'd have to wait a couple years before he became effective again. El Duque was a mess after he left and really struggled as an NL starter, but somehow he's been revatized back in NY. The point is, although there's certainly more consistency with proven players, NO ONE is a sure bet. Its not just prospects. The nice thing about a prospect is that growing up in a certain environment and around certain players is easier than suddenly switching teams. Also they're cheaper for the organization and have automatic marketability as a home grown talent. As for MLBers changing teams, some guys just don't hack it in new environments.

Sure, Barry Zito is more likely to win 15 games than Mike Pelfrey, that's obvious. But the odds that Pelfrey might win 15 games compared to what he's getting paid have exponentially more value than the same ratio for Zito.

Who knows if Carlos Zambrano could pitch somewhere else? The high walk total is a bigger concern in the AL, because its that much harder to get outs and kill rallies. Who knows if he could do it in the NL East even facing teams like the Braves and Phillies all the time (although the Cubs may now have a better offense than the Braves now)? I'd be more inclined to think he'd be a more effective pitcher than Phillip Humber or Phil Hughes in 2008, but again if he's getting paid $20 million and these guys have some kind of shot to put up comparable numbers at a younger age and for a fraction of the cost, there's a ton of value in that. Even if you go, say, 2:1 that Zambrano wins 15 games in 2008 and 10:1 that one of the either Pelfrey or Humber can win 12 games, there's still value there. And I think that's being way over optimistic for Zambrano in 2008 (just cause its too early to tell) and 10:1 that one of Pelfrey or Humber can win 12 in 2008 is being pretty cautious.

I also totally agree about the average prospects argument. Johan Santana was a Rule V pick. A better example is Chris Carpenter. He was never a big prospect, he wasn't even that great a pitcher until he went to the Cards, and all of a sudden he's a perennial Cy Young contender. Who knows, five years from now it may not be Pelfrey's fastball or Humber's curve we're talking about, maybe it will be Devaney's knowledge of the strike zone and command, or Mulvey's steady deamenor.

Good points, Mark.

Mark, it's a pleasure to read your comments--you do your homework and make me think. (Hey, Mike! How about some "Word" buttons to help with the comments? Nobody likes to CAP things for fear of being accused of yelling.)

Oh, and we're going to the WS this year... did I mention that? Pedey will be back.

geezer - you can use html tags for style, but the blogging platform I use doesn't have those buttons for bold, italic, etc.

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