Musings on the Fetishization of the Modern Baseball Prospect

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Prospect: The possibility or likelihood of some future event occurring.
-Oxford English Dictionary

“I can’t believe [Anthopoulos is] thinking about doing this,” said one AL official Saturday, before the Jays and Mets finished the structure of the deal. “He’s out of his mind,” said another.
-ESPN’s Buster Olney, following the Blue Jays acquisition of R.A. Dickey

We live in a world in which there exists an inexorable relationship between the proliferation of technology and the accessibility of information. One could argue that there is not an industry on earth that has been immune to the sweeping changes brought about by the dawning of the internet age, and this is certainly true of the business of baseball.

Technology has facilitated the use of advanced statistical analysis, governing the way the game is managed. It has changed the way organizations scout players, the way Major League Baseball tests for performance enhancing drugs, and increasingly, with the implementation and expansion of instant replay, the way in which umpires oversee games.

Further, technology has fundamentally changed the way in which we consume baseball. Fans have access to virtually every major league game, through their televisions, computers, smartphones and tablets. We live in a world of 24-hour sports coverage, where All-Star Game balloting, out-of-town box scores, farm system reports, and fantasy baseball leagues are but a click away. This saturation of information has resulted in an increasingly sophisticated fan base. Indeed, where once the typical barroom debate over the superiority of Williams to DiMaggio turned on batting average and All-Star appearances, it is difficult to envision the same conversation occurring today without some mention of each player’s WAR, UZR, and VORP.

The emergence of the internet paved the way for websites such Baseball America to chronicle the development of the game’s top prospects, from High School to AAA, extolling the virtues of previously unheard of ballplayers roaming the outfields of the baseball wilderness. These websites succeeded in bringing mass awareness to the previously-veiled world of amateur and minor league baseball, at the same time satiating baseball fans’ voracious appetite for information, while expanding the breadth and depth of the meaning of fandom. No longer was it enough to be a fan of one’s local Major League team. The modern, educated fan was soon expected to have a working knowledge of their team’s minor league affiliates, top prospects, and draft position.

Mainstream sports outlets, such as ESPN, seized upon the growing popularity of prospect watching, and soon every columnist, analyst, and blogger was producing a top 100 prospects list, breathlessly anointing the ‘next big thing’.

However, a funny thing happened. In an industry in which everyone was in a rush to find the next Jake Peavy, Randy Johnson, and Carlos Beltran, the luster of the present day versions began to pale by comparison. Before long, the act of trading top prospects for Major Leaguers became cause for criticism, as untested prospects became overvalued.

As a case in point, one needs look no further than the offseason orchestrated by Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos. After a disappointing 2012 season that saw the 73-win Blue Jays decimated by injuries, Anthopoulos aggressively set out to revamp his team through a series of bold trades and free agent signings. Enter Jose Reyes. Enter Josh Johnson. Enter Mark Buehrle and Melky Cabrera. Each acquisition was greeted with fanfare by the media and fans alike, not just on account of the caliber of players Anthopoulos was able to stockpile, but for his ability to maintain a firm grasp upon the crown jewels of the organization’s farm system, namely catcher Travis d’Arnaud, and pitchers Aaron Sanchez and Noah Syndergaard. Such was the reason that Hall of Fame General Manager Pat Gillick lauded the Marlins swap.

“The one thing Alex was able to do, he gave up talent but didn’t give up some of his premium prospects, so consequently I think they got a lot more back in return from the Marlins than they gave the Marlins,” Gillick told Shi Davidi in an interview in the aftermath of the blockbuster trade.

“That’s in the back of your mind any time you make a deal, what impact will the players have coming and what impact do the players have going. In his situation, I don’t think he gave up a whole lot and he got a lot back in return.”

However, seizing the opportunity to bolster the team’s pitching staff, Anthopoulos pulled off a trade for reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, R.A. Dickey. In doing so, the Blue Jays sacrificed Syndergaard, the team’s top pitching prospect, as well as d’Arnaud, the consensus top catching prospect in baseball.

Criticism of the trade was instant, intense, and practically universal. Almost lost amid the flying barbs and ardent cynicism was the fact that the Blue Jays had acquired a proven, front-of-the-rotation pitcher, for unproven young players with upside, but lacking a single day of Major League service between the two.

While Blue Jays fans may yet rue the exodus of prospects, it is worth remembering that, despite the ever-increasing value the industry has placed upon them, prospects as a whole remain a volatile commodity, with no guarantee of achieving future success.

Exhibit A can be drawn by taking a trip down memory lane. Consider the two following scouting reports of young catching prospects, each lifted from the pages of Baseball America’s 2008 Prospect Handbook:

Player A:
“Offers rare, above-average lefthanded power from the catcher position. Stays inside the ball and makes consistent, hard contact to all fields. Gets such good backspin and carry on the ball that he can drive it out of any part of the park. A natural leader with work ethic to spare, he offers average arm strength to go with solid receiving, blocking and game-calling abilities behind the plate. Has worked extensively with the organization’s roving catching instructor on getting his feet to work with his arm on throws.”

Player B:
“Has above-average catch-and-throw skills. His game-calling still needs work, but he improved in that regard during the summer. Scouts weren’t entirely sold on his bat, and he didn’t light up Gulf Coast League pitching, but he did show some ability to stay inside balls and drive them to the opposite field. He has a quick swing with potential for some loft power.”

The report on Player A is by far the more glowing of the two, and this is reflected in each player’s overall prospect ranking. Where Player B ranked as his team’s 16th best prospect, Player A was the top ranked prospect in his organization. Further, where Player A was a top 50 prospect and the sport’s consensus second-best catching prospect to Matt Wieters, Player B’s name was far removed from any discussion of the game’s best young prodigies. And now for the reveal: Player A is none other than….

The immortal Jeff Clement! The University of Southern California product and then-Mariners wunderkind catching prospect was coming off a season primarily spent mashing Pacific Coast League pitching to the tune of 20 homeruns, 80 RBI and an OPS of .867. Clement had also made his Major League debut that season, hitting .375 in 19 plate appearances with the big club.

As for the player in question that inspired the second scouting report? That would be a then-18 year old Philadelphia Phillies prospect by the name of Travis d’Arnaud. The same player who, 5 years later, would be deemed “untouchable” by media, fans, and front office executives alike, was, at the time, a middling prospect ranked behind the likes of Jason Donald, Freddy Galvis, Edgar Garcia, Scott Mathieson, and Drew Carpenter. Within his own organization, d’Arnaud was ranked behind fellow catching prospects Lou Marson and Jason Jaramillo.

Fast forward to the dawning of the 2013 season, and the roads each player has since walked could not be any more divergent. While d’Arnaud’s emergence as one of the elite prospects in the game has allowed him to be a centrepiece to trades for Cy Young winners R.A. Dickey and Roy Halladay, Clement has traveled more frequently by charter bus than charter jet, bouncing between AAA and the Major Leagues for Seattle and Pittsburgh. Over parts of four Major League seasons, Clement has produced a batting average of just .218 with 110 strikeouts in 385 at-bats, while also making the transition to first base. As d’Arnaud seems poised on the precipice of Major League stardom, Clement hangs on to what big league career he has left.

While it would be easy to dismiss the present-day comparison between the two players, one need only consider the similarities between 2008 Jeff Clement and 2013 Travis d’Arnaud. Both were one-time first round picks with sterling minor league track records, going into seasons in which it was assumed they would seize Major League jobs. Both were considered their organization’s top prospect, and among the very best catching prospects in the game. While this is not to say that the same fate that befell Clement awaits d’Arnaud, it should serve as a caution to those ready to celebrate d’Arnaud’s ascendancy.

General Managers live in fear of one day being known for completing a trade the likes of Larry Anderson for Jeff Bagwell, Doyle Alexander for John Smoltz, or Glenn Davis for Steve Finley, Pete Harnisch, and Curt Schilling. That said, Alex Anthopoulos deserves credit for rolling the dice and going all in on a team that has upgraded its talent quotient exponentially. For a fan base starved for playoff success, the initial trade opposition amongst Jays fans will quickly dissolve if Dickey can lead the team deep into October. – GP

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