March 14, 2013
Editor's note: This is a piece I posted last year at this time which I updated and have re-posted as it serves as a good way for many fans and families of minor leaguers to get a true feel for how players are evaluated and how value is determined.
I get this question every year at this time:
“So where do you think so and so will start this season? He really did well last year at…”
There is so much that goes into determining where a player goes to open a season. Obviously, a player’s talent, readiness, and upside are probably the three biggest components to determining who goes where at this time of year, but a fourth component – value – is also something to consider.
A lot of times questions like the one above are asked about a player that may be a fringe prospect or is a guy that may just be “inventory” in the Indians’ minor league system. For as mean as calling a guy inventory or filler may sound, the reality is that over 50% of the players in the system are not considered legitimate Major League prospects and are just in the organization to help fill out rosters.
The reason for this is quite simple: spots are limited as a player moves up the minor league ladder. The Indians have close to 180 minor league players in camp every year, and only 98 of them can break spring training at the end of March on an active roster for a full season affiliate. That leaves around 80-some players that will have to stay behind for extended spring training to get ready for short season leagues that start up in June at Single-A Mahoning Valley or rookie level Arizona. Also, over the course of the month of minor league spring training about 20 to 30 or so of those players will be released.
This is a tough time of the year as a lot of players will be disappointed either with being assigned to a level lower than they thought they would start, staying behind in extended spring training, or being released. The truth of the matter is that most of the opening day rosters for Triple-A Columbus, Double-A Akron, High-A Carolina, and Low-A Lake County are already mostly known going into camp, so in most cases what players do in spring training has little effect on who goes where.
Not to be a buzz kill to minor league spring training which is just getting going, but Vice President of Player Development Ross Atkins said so himself back in an interview with me over five years ago:
“We have a very good idea before spring training starts where guys will be heading. The offseason can change that, and certainly games or strides they make in the offseason can change that. But spring training typically does not change that, other than injury. So performance in spring training does not change those things as far as prospects are concerned.”
Like Atkins said, injuries are often what mostly leads to some reshuffling of rosters to start the season and is what opens up an opportunity for a player that may not have otherwise gotten the opportunity. This does not mean players do not have great springs and get themselves on rosters, as this definitely happens. It is just not as often as some would think.
An example of this – and I am not saying this is what happened – could be outfielder Anthony Gallas in the spring of 2011. He was an undrafted free agent signing in 2010 and was a long shot to make the Low-A Lake County roster to open the season, but he had an awesome spring training that year and really changed some minds which helped get him onto the Lake County roster to start that season.
But Gallas probably would not have gotten the opportunity had outfielders LeVon Washington and Jordan Casas not gotten hurt during spring training that year. While Gallas played great in spring training, it is those two injuries that opened the door for him to get an opportunity. He responded with a great showing in Lake County hitting .314 with 6 HR, 21 RBI and .910 OPS in 57 games, which is about as good as one can do when making good on an opportunity.
That opportunity that Gallas got in 2011 is really how it happens for a lot of players. Not just in spring training, but during the season. A lot of players will be crushed when they find out they will open the season in extended spring training and will be staying in Arizona for much longer while so many players depart for their full season destinations. But each of those players in extended spring training are essentially on call as they are but an injury away from getting a call and told they are being activated. Opportunity then knocks.
This is not to say that all players that start the season in extended spring training have little value. That’s not true. Some players may be rehabbing from injuries. Others may be too young for a full season team and need more time to develop and will play later in the year in the 56-game rookie league in Arizona or the 75-game short-season league in Mahoning Valley. Some of the Indians more established prospects this season such as Jose Ramirez, Grant Sides, Jeff Johnson, Luis DeJesus and others started last season in extended spring training, but some were quickly assigned to teams as injuries surfaced early in the season while others made good once short seasons leagues kicked up in June.
But if you pay close enough attention you can often get a good feel for the players that are more valuable and will be given more opportunities.
Obviously the first two indicators are their draft slot and the bonus they were paid. If a player was a top 10 round pick or got a large six figure bonus, that player is going to get priority and be given several opportunities early on in their career to give the organization a good return on their investment. However, the further away from their draft year these players get, the less their draft slot and bonus have an impact on their value to the organization. A player from the 2011 Draft that was a top ten pick or got $100,000 or more is going to still get a lot of priority over say a player taken in the 2009 Draft that was a big money signing for $100,000 or more and has stalled as a prospect.
This means for the players that were signed for little as a late round pick, a senior sign, or an undrafted free agent, they have to really make some strides and prove themselves. When given an opportunity they have to jump on it and not squander it since they may only get one shot. They are long shots, but there are players that were in their place in the past that made themselves into prospects. Two such former Indians’ prospects are outfielder Brian Barton and right-handed pitcher Frank Herrmann, both of whom were undrafted players that came in and made good on the limited opportunities given to them initially. They turned themselves into prospects and eventually made it to the Major Leagues.
Another indicator is which players skip levels. Most players go through a standard level to level progression, but when a player flat out skips a level to start a season and sticks there as an everyday player, that is a sign that the player has a higher value as a prospect. An example of this is the college players from the previous year’s draft that often flat out skip Low-A Lake County the next season and go right to High-A Carolina. Recent examples of this were third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall, second baseman Cord Phelps, and outfielder Tim Fedroff in 2009, right-hander Alex White, second baseman Jason Kipnis, and outfielder Jordan Henry in 2010, left-hander Drew Pomeranz and outfielder Tyler Holt in 2011, and Tony Wolters in 2012.
Another indicator is which players are aggressively pushed up the system at a young age. Shortstop Dorssys Paulion is expected to open the season at Low-A Lake County, but that is a given as he is a top prospect in the organization. There are other young players that are pushed up, for example right-handed pitchers Hector Rondon and Jeanmar Gomez at age 19 in Lake County back in 2007, and more recently the Indians pushed the likes of Leonardo Castillo and Robel Garcia to Lake County last year. This year there will be a lot of young players pushed to Lake County again and some college players that skip that level and go right to Carolina, and thus will be a good indicator of who has higher prospect value in the organization.
Yet another indicator is which college juniors or seniors do not make it to Low-A Lake County at the start of their first full season after being taken in the draft the previous year. If one of these players do not make the opening day High-A or Low-A roster, then they must have either gotten hurt or they are inventory in the system. If you take it a step further, it is also interesting to see which of those college juniors and seniors end up returning to short season Single-A Mahoning Valley for a second straight season and do not get to Lake County the year after their draft.
Another good indicator is which players get short callups to another level. Over the course of a season you will see players be pushed up from Low-A or High-A and make a spot start or fill in as a bullpen arm or bench player for Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus. You almost never see the high end prospects make these quick jumps to make these short appearances in the upper levels before they go back to the original level. This is because the organization wants their higher end prospects to continue to work on their development and not leave the current level they are at until they are considered to be ready to leave for good. The second level prospects or organizational players are the ones that are often used to fill those temporary roles in the upper levels until the organization finds a suitable longer term solution from outside the organization or someone gets healthy. Getting bounced around and playing at a higher level for a few games or late in a season as a fill in does not mean much, in fact, it may mean more bad than good.
Yet another determination of value is who is given a non-roster invite to Major League spring training. This mostly applies to the veterans that have been in the system and who may be at Double-A or Triple-A in the coming season. If you have been around awhile and pitched in Triple-A for a few seasons, yet do not get an invite to Major League spring training, that's a sign of lower priority and value. A great example of this is lefty Eric Berger who was not given an invite to Major League spring training even though the Indians only really have three left-handed bullpen options at their disposal at the moment.
There are several other indicators to determine prospect value, but these are a few of the most noticeable.
Some may be surprised that stats are not necessarily a very good way to determine value in the minor leagues. Stats are the be-all-end-all when it comes to evaluating performance at the Major League level, but at the minor league level they are not. I think part of the problem is that people spend too much time looking at stats when evaluating minor leaguers, when in fact it is one of the last components viewed when teams evaluate minor leaguers on their Major League potential. Sure, they want the player to perform, but ultimately the only thing a team cares about is how their tools and abilities translate to the big league game. The minor league stats often do not translate, it is the talent that does. The value of the stats is in helping reaffirm those subjective beliefs.
This is why so many people have a hard time understanding why so and so player that does well with their stats in the minors never get a Major League shot or washes out at the Double-A or High-A level. Just because a player hits around .300 in the minors one season does not make him a prospect with value. What makes that player have value is how their tools and talent translates to the Major Leagues and if they have the talent to have success. Do they have significant upside? Are they maxed out as a player? Are they still maturing and expected to get much bigger and stronger? And so on.
The brutal reality of it all is that at any given time only about 30-40 players in any organization are truly viewed as legit Major League "prospects". The rest are mostly just guys to fill out minor league rosters so they can have teams so they can develop their prospects. Some of those "non-prospects" can jump onto the scene and become a prospect - and likewise prospects can fall into the non-prospect category - but everything is typically based on their development as a player and not because of statistical success.
All of the players that are in the minor leagues are talented and very good players. They would have never had so much success as amateurs and been signed to a professional contract if they were not. But the reality is that there is a separation in talent among the 180-200 players within an organization’s farm system, so determining their value is a key component to making an assessment on a player and their future in an organization.
Follow Tony and the Indians Prospect Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2013 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.
Juan, your comments are definitely on point, and after watching last nights WBC game between the USA and DR, what a great idea.
How many on 25 man rosters are career "cream of the craap" .235 hitters or low velocity junkballers relying on scuffing the baseball or whatever means Harris used in Major League, the movie.
Then again, love the ones who fight back and use every ounce of baseball ability to try and prove them wrong.
Pro baseball is a business, a brutal one, and the reality is this. There are more MLB caliber players in the minors than the MLB rosters can handle, its a numbers game.
Maybe crazy Selig is right. Let's make it a real global game, MLB for US born Americans and every other country have their teams and expand the entire thing.
How much individual instruction do players in EST get? There is so much downtime for players on a full season squad, I know it would be disappointing for young guys to stay in Arizona but there should be so many more opportunities to improve with full time training than there would riding the bench in Lake County.
How odd is it for a player to get released in ST and his daily coaches and instructors didn't even find out about it until the player told them himself?
Getting released while doing everything right with solid results makes absolutely no sense regardless of draft slot. It goes against the game of baseball, meaning score runs, but not against the business and politics of it.
No expert ever wants to admit they are wrong.
Also, while some of these guys only get 250 ABs or whatever and are let go, it should be noted that the organization already views them as filler when they sign. They are there to fill in for 1-2 years and not much is expected....a very select few surprise and become more....but typically the evaluation process prior to the draft by the scouts has already projected what kind of value they have to the organization, and that mostly sticks when they sign. For example, a guy like Matt Curtis who was just released. He signed as an UDFA last summer.....but was never viewed as a prospect or to stick long. They don't need 100+ innings to evaluate him and determine if he can be more as they pretty much already have a good idea when they signed him. He was signed simply to fill innings for an affiliate....something that is done every year by every team. Close to half of the guys from every draft are viewed that way where they are more just filler and non-prospects (though as I said, some break through and make themselves a prospect).
I would find it difficult to evaluate a player in a limited sample size, say around 250 plate appearances in short-season or A ball especially after the college player just came off 60 games using a metal bat, but as stated in the article by Tony, unless their is a measureable financial investment in the player, the leash can be short, and often unfair.
Giving a college player a full season regardless of draft slot/bonus is usually the norm, especially when the player makes the adjustment and closes out his draft year strongly, and when the affiliate doesn't, I can tell you the nighmare feels like you woke up in an alternate universe.
Still hoping and praying for a great kid
He is currently playing independent league baseball, trying to work his way back to an affiliated organization.