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3.11.2005

When Prospects Become All-Stars 

As others have amply noted, Baseball America recently released its 2005 list of top 100 prospects. The Giants placed three: Fred Lewis at #78, Merkin Valdez at #58, and Matt Cain at #13, or #12b if you're superstitious.

Our black-and-orange panties are in a collective twist over Cain and Valdez. Fanned by the flames of such lists and breathless reports from spring training, most Giants fans have practically written the pair into the starting rotation at some point this year.

But as we'll see, there's actually very little chance either one will become good enough to be, say, a major-league all-star, let alone a good major leaguer.

Before I get into that, how does the Giants' showing on the 2005 list stack up against other teams? I don't have an intern to do this type of drudgery, so I'll start with a smaller sample that still matters intensely to the Giants: the other NL West teams.

Dodgers
So much for getting excited about the Giants' three prospects. The Dodgers have seven:

5. Joel Guzman, ss
19. Chad Billingsley, rhp
30. Edwin Jackson, rhp
62. James Loney, 1b
74. Andy LaRoche, 3b
89. Russell Martin, c
100. Greg Miller, lhp

Padres
Ha! Just one!

45. Josh Barfield, 2b

Rockies
Four total, three in the top 23.

4. Ian Stewart, 3b
23. Jeff Francis, lhp
26. Chris Nelson, ss
82. Ubaldo Jimenez, rhp

D-Backs
Three in roughly the same distribution as the Giants' top three.

22. Carlos Quentin, of
40. Conor Jackson, of
61. Sergio Santos, ss

Now, back to the larger question: Does inclusion in the BA Top 100 prospect list presage a useful or valuable major league career?

It turns out others have done similar studies. Sorry to kill the suspense, but the short answer is no, especially for pitchers. Here's an article from 2002 by Paul Covert in Baseball Prospectus. Covert examined career VORP (a handy way to estimate a player's value above the baseline of a "replacement-level" scrub) for the top-100 list prospects from 1990 to 1997. (You can peruse all the lists going back to 1990.) I'll quickly summarize Covert: Hitters ranked in the top 10 are at least twice as likely to contribute major-league value than any other percentile. Pitchers ranked in the top 10 contributed an average VORP akin to hitters who rank in the middle of the list, i.e., just barely above replacement level. In fact, top-ten hitters are just about the only percentile that average out to mediocre-at-best major league careers.

(Permit me a slight tangent: This backs up a point I've been making with a degree of obnoxiousness for some time now. Trade Matt Cain or Merkin Valdez for an established major league hitter, dammit. Top minor-league pitchers rarely have useful major-league careers.)

How have the Giants fared over the years? (Grant at The McCovey Chronic has listed all the Giants by year here.)

They've had 44 appearances on the BA lists by 25 players. Only two -- Johnny Ard and Derek Reid -- never made the bigs. Only two have made All-Star apperances: Shawn Estes and Royce Clayton, both in 1997. Five others -- Steve Hosey, Joe Rosselli, Joe Fontenot, Jason Grilli, and Dante Powell -- have had one or multiple cups of coffee in the bigs, but nothing valuable. Five became fringe journeymen: Steve Decker, J.R. Phillips, Eric Gunderson, Calvin Murray, and Salomon Torres (who had a nice renaissance last year). The rest were either cut down by injury (Kevin Rogers, Kurt Ainsworth) or are still a bit young to pigeonhole (Valdez, Niekro, Linden, Cain, Williams, Liriano, Torcato, Foppert).

I like sabermetrics, but I don't like spending hours calculating hundreds of career VORP totals. Instead I'm going to use a very un-saber yardstick to compare the Western Division teams: All-Star appearances.

They're subjective, como no, but over a larger sample size, they're pretty indicative of quality. And let's count each appearance on the list as a type of minor-league "all-star" selection. So with two All-Star appearances and 25 players touted at least once by Baseball America, there's a 8% chance that a Giant in the all-time BA top 100 will have had an all-star year (or half-year) in the bigs. Let's call this the All-Star Ratio.

How does that compare to others in the division?

Dodgers

68 BA appearances by 39 players. Those 39 players have made 26 All-Star appearances. They've also won 4 Cy Youngs and 4 Rookies of the Year. Much of this gloss is thanks to two near-certain Hall of Famers: Pedro Martinez and Mike Piazza. But still, whatta farm system. Check out this list of players who at their peaks were (or are) valuable major leaguers: Jose Vizcaino, Eric Karros, Jose Offerman, Raul Mondesi, Henry Rodriguez, Roger Cedeno, Todd Hollandsworth, Chan Ho Park, Darren Dreifort, Paul Konerko, Adrian Beltre....and on. Except for the too-young-to-tell crowd, only Kiki Jones and Dan Opperman never made it to the bigs.

(By the way, I wouldn't have guessed that Eric Karros was never an All-Star.)

All-Star Ratio: 67%

Padres

55 BA appearances by 30 players, but not a single All-Star appearance by any of them. This will likely change in the next few years as Jake Peavy, Khalil Greene, Derrek Lee, Matt Clement and Sean Burroughs continue to improve.

All-Star Ratio: 0.

Rockies

44 BA appearances by 24 players. The Rockies didn't exist before 1993, but they've placed nearly as many players with the same number of appearances on the BA lists as the Giants. Ouch. And thanks mostly to Todd Helton, they outpace the Giants in All-Star appearances, 6 to 2. (Helton is a five-time All-Star, and believe it or not, Shawn Chacon went in 2003. Other notable hardware: Jason Jennings, 2002 NL ROY.)

All-Star Ratio: 25%.

Diamondbacks

Baby Snakes started appearing on the BA list in 1997 for a total of 23 BA appearances by 15 players. One all-star appearance: Byun-Hyung Kim in 2002.

All-Star Ratio: 4.3%.

So what? As the Dodgers prove, even when your top-rated prospects become major league stars, you don't necessarily benefit. More important is keeping those stars, or trading the hyped prospects (Joe Fontenot) for real major leaguers (Robb Nen). Rebuilding with homegrown talent only goes as far as the talent. Ben Petrick and Alex Cintron should have been traded at their peak of hype before major-league time exposed their weaknesses.

If you want to try calculating All-Star Ratios for other teams or divisions, be my guest. Let me know when you post it. Or send me the data and I'll post it.

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