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Thursday is the second Opening Day of the baseball season as the Pirates’ full-season minor league affiliates start their seasons.  This year on Steel City Buzz, I’ll be posting about both the major league team and the minor league teams for your reading enjoyment.

I thought it would be a good idea to explain what a “prospect” is in my mind.  Not every player in the Pirates’ system is a prospect, even if on the surface they appear to have good numbers.  My analysis won’t be like other sites that try to put a positive spin on every pitcher — if a 22 year old has an 87 mph fastball and gives up a bunch of homers, he’ll probably end up being a 25 year old washout.  And I’ll be upfront and tell you that.

When I look at a player I always ask myself two questions:

1.  What is this player’s ultimate ceiling?

2.  What is the likelihood that he will reach it?

The first question incorporates the player’s position.  A starting pitcher is more valuable than a reliever.  A shortstop or center fielder is more valuable than a second baseman or a left fielder.  Here’s the defensive spectrum, with defensive importance decreasing from left to right:

C-SS-CF-3B-2B-RF-LF-1B

The further to the right on the spectrum you are, the more offense you must provide to make up for your defensive shortcomings.  Players are at 1B and LF because their speed and lack of range puts them there (the exception is the Pirates with their massive LF, so their RF is actually their weakest defender).

The second question involves a player’s injury history and his distance from the majors.  If a pitcher has the “stuff” to be a top of the rotation pitcher, but he has elbow or shoulder surgery, that’s going to affect his potential to reach his ultimate ceiling.  If a player is having a fantastic debut in the Rookie Gulf Coast League, you shouldn’t get too high on him until he experiences the grind of a full season league.  I’m not one to only rate AA and AAA players highly, but if you are doing well at those levels AND you have the tools to be a top player, that’s going to get you a bump in my rankings.

A player’s age relative to his level is also a big factor.  I always like to use the analogy of Kramer from Seinfeld taking karate lessons with little kids.  He absolutely dominated them.  The same holds true with a 24 year old with great numbers in High A.  He’s 1-2 years older than a typical prospect at that level.  Here’s the ages for a “prospect” for each level:

Rookie — 18-19

Short-Season — 20-21

Low A — 20-21

High A — 21-22

Double A — 22-23

Triple A — 23-24

The way I deal with a player’s age is how Baseball Reference does it.  They go by what age the player is on July 1st of that year.  I don’t do the “Player X is going to be 22 at the end of August, so he’s too old for the level” game.  It’s what his age is on July 1st.  Period.

If a player is repeating a level, no matter what his age is relative to the level, that also downgrades him in my book.  There’s no reason for a player, if he is a true prospect, to not be able to advance each year.  The one caveat is when a player is at AAA and there is no available spot for him in the majors.

A player’s size does matter in most cases.  A shortstop that is 5’-9” is probably not going to hit for much power in the majors, so his ultimate offensive profile needs to be adjusted accordingly.  Likewise, if a pitcher is only 5’-10”, his frame may not be able to handle 180 to 200 innings per year in the majors, so his ceiling will be downgraded no matter how great his numbers appear to be in the minors.

Strikeout to walk ratio is also important to look at, both for hitters and pitchers.  For a hitter, you ideally want to see 8 to 10% walks in his plate appearances and no more than 20% strikeouts in his plate appearances.  Walks show batting eye and discipline that will be important to establish as the player climbs the ladder and sees better pitchers.  Strikeouts are the corollary to that and also show his discipline.  More strikeouts are acceptable if there is a corresponding output of power by the player.  A pitcher should have at least 7.5 strikeouts per 9 innings and no more than 3.5 walks per 9 innings in order to be considered a viable starting pitching prospect in the minors.

And finally, I look at lefty-righty splits for both hitters and pitchers.  Being anemic in one portion of the split may consign a hitter to being a platoon player or a pitcher to being a reliever specialist, thus downgrading their overall value in my eyes.

It’s a lot to absorb at first, but it helps to take these factors into consideration when you see a player tearing it up in High A Bradenton this year.  He could be a real prospect or he could just be beating up “little kids”.

Kevin Creagh

SCB, Pirate Blogger

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