In light of all the recent Adam Jones trade rumors (and I will continue to refer to these as AJ rumors, not Erik Bedard rumors), we've had frequent discussions concerning prospect reliability, and how much we can depend on upper-level guys to contribute at the Major League level instead of busting. A lot of people are fearful of trusting young players who haven't proven anything in the big leagues, but those of us on AJ's side have countered the argument by pointing out that few prospects who've reached AJ's level flame out.
Today I decided to put this to the test by going through old prospect lists and evaluating how well the players went on to do. Baseball America provides a handy database, and using this information, I compiled a list of 101 position players whose names appeared in the top ten for position players between 1990-2003 at least once (excluding Hideki Matsui and Ichiro). I didn't bother looking at pitchers, since they're a whole other animal.
Once I had the names, I gave them a score of either 3, 2, or 1. A "3" means the player went on to have a starting job in the Majors for several years. A "2" means he bounced around, starting occasionally but struggling to find regular work. And a "1" means he never arrived. I know this is kind of subjective, but play along.
I wound up with the following results:
3: 68 (67%)
2: 16 (16%)
1: 17 (17%)
Pretty good odds - over that 14-year window, BA's top-10 position players went on to have long, productive Major League careers two-thirds of the time. That doesn't mean that 67% of them went on to be All Stars, but generally speaking you don't find consistent starting work if you aren't bringing a lot to the table.
You shouldn't just take that at face value and apply it to AJ, though, because not every player who wound up in the top 10 had accomplished as much as Jones at the time of his rating. What follows is a list of the 1's and 2's, and a brief statement about why they may not have turned out:
Jason Stokes: rated after A-ball
Sean Burroughs: rated after AAA, mid-.800's OPS
Drew Henson: all tools, never hit
Joe Borchard: rated after AA
Antonio Perez: rated after A+
Alex Escobar: rated after AA
JR House: rated after A, career torn apart by injuries
Ruben Mateo: genuine bust
Dee Brown: rated after A+/AA
Chad Hermansen: rated after AA
Ruben Rivera: rated after bad year in AAA
Karim Garcia: genuine bust
Derrick Gibson: rated after A
Ray McDavid: rated after A+
Dave McCarty: rated after AA
Jeff McNeely: rated after awful year in AA
Marc Newfield: genuine bust
Rocco Baldelli: rated after A+; ruined by injuries
Wilson Betemit: rated with zero track record
Corey Patterson: rated after AA
Hee Seop Choi: old player skills
Pablo Ozuna: rated after A
Ben Grieve: old player skills
Travis Lee: rated after half-A+, half-AAA; old player skills, hitter's ballparks
Brad Fullmer: ruined by injuries
Ben Davis: rated after rookie ball
Rey Ordonez: rated after horrible year in AAA
Brian Hunter: rated after AAA; BA-driven skillset
Jeffrey Hammonds: mostly tools, little track record, ruined by injuries
Wil Cordero: rated after mediocre AAA
Andujar Cedeno: rated after AA
Mark Lewis: rated after AA
Eric Anthony: rated after AA
Of all those players, only Newfield, Mateo, Garcia, Choi, and Grieve had accomplished anything close to what Jones did last year in AAA as a 21/22 year old. The overwhelming majority of them were ranked by their tools and/or performances at lower levels, and the further you get from the Majors, the more chances you have to wash out. As a kid, Jones was arguably the best all-around player in the PCL in 2007. Very, very rarely do those players fail to develop. His odds are extremely good.
What about established Major Leaguers, you ask? I went back and grabbed the 154 qualified ML hitters from 2004 and looked at how they did the next year. Excluding Edgar, who retired, 27 of them lost at least 15% of their Gross Production Average (I used the THT stat because it made things a lot easier), and another 20 of them dropped below 400 plate appearances. In other words, 31% of established veterans in 2004 failed to sustain anywhere close to the same level of success in 2005. More than a quarter of them are now without any kind of meaningful job. That's a pretty sizable drop-off.
The point of all this is not to say that you can always rely on prospects, or that Erik Bedard is too big of a risk in 2008. Prospects are volatile and Erik Bedard is totally awesome. The point is that the best prospects - the ones who're truly the cream of the crop, and especially the ones who've succeeded at the highest levels of the system - have very good odds of blossoming into capable Major League starters. We need to do away with this antiquated myth that no one's worth anything until they've proven themselves in the big leagues, and that established veterans are guarantees. Neither is true. Veterans crumble all the time, and top prospects probably have even better odds than shown above now that our evaluation skills have gotten so much better than they were in the early 90's. I mean, Andujar Cedeno? Really?
Adam Jones is a prospect, but not in the same way that Greg Halman and Tony Butler are prospects. Adam Jones is a prospect whose chances of going on to substantial, sustained Major League success are every bit as good, if not better, than those of guys who've already broken in. Talented minor leaguers have flamed out before. Who cares? So have talented Major Leaguers. It's time to stop treating AJ like some kind of huge question mark and start treating him like the valuable player he already is.