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Prospects and ZiPS

Process and projections.


It was revealed earlier this week that the Cardinals have the best farm system in the major leagues according to Baseball America. This comes just eight years after ranking dead last. Derrick Goold has an articulation of the ranking including some discussion with Jim Callis from BA. The key is not just talent but elite talent:

"I look for elite talent," Callis explained. "I think you do win with stars. I don’t think you can only win with being solid everywhere but not having a superstar. … I look for balance in the system. I look for how advanced the talent is through the system. (With the Cardinals) you’re looking at an extremely talented farm system with players like Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal who are close to being big-league ready or already are."

Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Oscar Taveras and Kolten Wong could all make the case for being top tier prospects. The Cardinals, who have built substantial depth in the system over time, have managed to field a competitive major league team while rebuilding a badly broken farm system. It's impressive but you don't get any trophies for farm systems.

Fundamentally, this is still a process argument. The Cardinals have installed an excellent system and staff to draft and train minor league players. The goal of the process is not, however, to field a great team in Memphis. The goal of any farm system is to feed the parent club with talent either by graduating rookies or returning value in trades.

That is where the Cardinals are about to flex their prospect muscle. That is the next step in the process. If the Cardinals convert perceived talent and minor league talent into real major league talent then we can all sit back and watch as they are a power house for the next few years at least. If they squander their minor league talent in poor trades or mishandling of rookies, then the process needs to be refined.

One of the lessons of sabermetrics is to watch the process more than the results. Bad process can occasionally yield good results but usually it yields bad results. Good process can occasionally yield bad results but usually it's the opposite.

We've seen the Cardinals move "top" prospects in recent years. Players like Brett Wallace and Zack Cox. Young major leaguers like Colby Rasmus and Chris Perez. The team has never be adverse to trading talent. What's interesting about the current situation is 1) the types of top prospects currently in hand and 2) the uncertainty of the major league club.

The Cardinals have built their system, in part, on the backs of a tremendous set of high velocity pitching prospects. That's all well and good until someone blows an ulnar collateral ligament. Discussions about prospects, including pitchers, center around talent evaluation. What has to be remembered is how few of those player manage to stay healthy. Combine that with the uncertainty of the Cardinals current major league rotation, which has three players who have missed significant time due to injury in the last 18 months, and the Cardinals seem to be caught in a bit of a Sophie's Choice.

On the one hand, there has to be concern about prospect injury rates among pitchers. On the other hand, injury rates among pitchers in general have particularly afflicted the major league rotation. How can you trade away your depth when you may need it but that depth could lose tremendous value if it becomes injured. Will a prospect or a major league pitcher suffer an injury first? That is the constraining factor on whether the Cardinals would attempt to fill in gaps like shortstop by moving pitching prospects.

It's amazing to think about it but the Cardinals could turnover their entire rotation and, conceivably, still compete next year. Think about that as a testament to the farm system they've built. A rotation of Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Joe Kelly, Carlos Martinez and Tyler Lyons/John Gast/Michael Wacha would be obviously less than ideal but probably doesn't rule out being a competitive baseball team (better than .500 record) in 2013.

The Cardinals have clearly done big things with their talent pipeline. Now they have to leverage that pipeline to do big things where it counts: the majors.

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The St. Louis Cardinals ZiPS projections came out and they tend to be bearish on most of the individual players for the Cardinals. Fangraphs lays out why that is for the most part. High BABIP hitters for the Cardinals get regressed toward league average as the system attempts to estimate the statistical guess based on the general population's distribution. There may be some reason to believe the club is targeting players highly proficient in BABIP. If so, that will always be problematic to project given the typical sample size needed for that statistic.

The projection system also doesn't like a few pitchers with short track records -- namely Lance Lynn -- because of his minor league performance. The system doesn't know that he changed his mechanics to increase his velocity. It doesn't know that there was an actual change in process, if you will, that is driving the change in results. ZiPS essentially suffers from a sticky narrative about Lance Lynn even though that narrative is probably wrong.

Without agonizing over the projections as a whole, two players caught my eye: Oscar Taveras & Kolten Wong. Taveras already has a better hitting projection than Jon Jay (.328 wOBA versus .317). It's unlikely that Taveras is the better outfielder compared to Jay but the hitting profile means Jay has to be 6 runs better in other skills (baserunning, fielding, etc) to be a better player than Oscar Taveras next year.

The Kolten Wong projection actually was a little higher than I had hoped and soothed some of the concerns I have about Wong after a tepid season in Springfield. Scouting reports and prospect lists have remained universally positive on Wong but he was only slightly above average in Springfield, a park that is generally kind to left handed hitters. (Look up Daniel Descalso's Springfield numbers if you ever want a jolt of skepticism.) ZiPS thinks Wong is a roughly league average (2 WAR) player at second base. A tick below average offensively, a tick above average defensively. That's probably a better player than Daniel Descalso projects to be but only marginally so.

ZiPS says Shelby Miller is the better pitcher compared to Trevor Rosenthal but will have worse results. Baseball, you crazy.

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The St. Louis Blues take on the Minnesota Wild tonight at 7pm. They're coming off of a 4-3 win over the Dallas Stars. The Blues look to be pretty bad ass this year so if you've got time to tune it, it's probably worth your while.