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What Makes a Prospect Successful?

Colby Rasmus was the Cardinals "Next Big Thing". Will Oscar Taveras fulfill that tarnished mantle?

Dilip Vishwanat

Yesterday, the question was posed whether Tommy Hanson should be considered a success story in his graduation from top project to the majors. For me, that question is difficult in light of the last season and his precipitous drop in performance. It shows how precious few starts some pitching arms contain and is a worthwhile footnote on why you bring pitching prospects up as soon as they are ready.

That conversation, however, wasn't as interesting to me as the mention of former top prospect Reid Brignac. Baseball, as a whole, has been a little spoiled in the last few years by the instant superstar. Reid Brignac was a player slated for big things that never materialized but consider another player who did. Jayson Heyward's 2010 line: .277/.393/.456. That line, from a then 20 year old player, was the kind of instant gratification that people love.

It's fitting that Heyward's writeup in Baseball America prior to his breakout rookie season references the previous prospect that was expected to break out in a big way:

With the trade of former golden boy Jeff Francoeur in July and the expected free-agent departure of Garret Anderson, there are openings for Heyward to make his major league debut sooner rather than later.

The Braves, despite their best attempts at patience, would bring Heyward up at 20 and be rewarded that season. In 2011, Heyward's performance would take a significant step back before returning to impressive levels this past year. For the most part, Heyward has rewarded Atlanta.

Similarly, Bryce Harper's explosion on to the scene aided by intense media hype led to a freshman campaign with a .352 wOBA -- a tick higher than Heyward's 2012 line for reference. Harper was a big deal before he was even out of high school with coverage from Keith Law and fawning headlines in Sports Illustrated. Harper delivered. He named his dog Swag and then went and hit the cover off the baseball for an entire season. He became an instant celebrity in baseball: beloved by his fans and vilified by his detractors.

I'd be remiss in not mentioning the emergence of Mike Trout in 2012 who provided baseball with a clear choice for MVP and Rookie of the Year. Again, from Baseball America's writeup:

Strong, broad-shouldered and built like a football safety, Trout has a high baseball IQ and full-throttle approach that allow him to get the absolute most out of his tools, four of which grade as future plusses or better. He combines a rare blend of bat control, strike-zone management, blazing speed and burgeoning power. His running speed continues to garner the most initial attention. He gets down the first-base line in four seconds flat from the right side to grade as a true 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale.

Whether the frequency of these kind of breakout rookie seasons are increasing or not isn't relevant. The psychological impact of a player having a monster year and then -- just as importantly -- staying relevant makes it much easier to remember the Jason Heywards of baseball than the Reid Brignacs or Colby Rasmuses. Those once top prospects who just can't claim stardom at the major league level are forgotten to time. Tommy Hanson and Colby Rasmus have accumulated an equivalent level of WAR in their time in the majors. Is either one a prospect success story?

They certainly don't fall into the Jason Heyward or Mike Trout camp of instant name recognition for casual baseball fans. This is, to an extent, the range of outcomes that you can see for Oscar Taveras if we assume his floor is being a major league player in some capacity. Taveras has the ability to break out onto the scene in a big way -- compete for a batting title, lead the team in WAR -- on day one. He's a prospect with that kind of talent.

He could also wind up like Colby Rasmus. Something doesn't translate well to the majors and it begins the unraveling of his game as a whole. While Taveras bathes in the adulation earned from an impressive AA season, one that was a bit better than Rasmus's at that level, fan memories are short and his performance in the majors will ultimately dictate his legacy regardless of his prospect status prior to his rookie year.

There's not an easy answer to what constitutes a success story for prospects. At this point, I accept Pete Kozma's 2012 as something of a success story. (The kid hit .100 points higher in AVG, nearly that in OBP and had .200 points on his SLG comparing his MLB line to his Memphis line last year.) So even if Hanson's arm falls off tomorrow, 10 WAR from a once top prospect isn't something to sniff at. The Cardinals hope to get more from their cadre of pitching arms. They hope to see Oscar Taveras do big things but prospects are fickle tales. And for every Bryce Harper or Mike Trout that you remember, there's at least one Reid Brignac that you forgot. Don't let the fact that some prospectscolby aren't pitchers lull you into a false sense of security.