Yesterday was an emotional day in Virtual Cardinals Land. Tommy Pham was a beloved major league player who was traded for three minor leaguers. Oscar Mercado was an intriguing minor leaguer who was traded for two lower-level minor leaguers.
In total, the Cardinals dealt one of their most popular major league players and a high-minors guy who was already on the 40-man roster for five guys that we all had to Google to find out who they even were. That’s not gratifying in the moment.
But I was struck by how many responses I saw on Twitter and elsewhere damning the Cardinals and confident that none of these five players they added to the system were any damn good at all.
I realize that the baseball blogosphere has greatly increased the coverage we have of everything, including much more insight into the minor leagues than ever before, but folks: We truly have no idea how good these guys are going to be.
In particular, please-please-please don’t ever use the MLB Pipeline or any other prospect ranking list to compare players. I saw so many complaints about not even getting a “top 10” prospect, or the relative rank of the players between the two systems. Friends, that’s nonsense.
Prospect writers, including Aaron Schafer and our other very talented ones here at VEB, do an amazing job of describing and tracking players as they develop. Because the world runs on lists, we also ask them to rank the players... and that’s like trying to catch smoke out of the air.
Try taking a 23-year-old with two years of professional experience and success, but some clear limitations, and compare him to an 18-year-old child who looks very promising but has never seen a pro breaking ball. Which one is better? Now do that with hundreds of players at every point in-between.
Does elite talent stand out? Sure it does. And you won’t find much dissent in the OVERALL MLB Top 10 lists. And in most organizations, the top two or three are probably pretty clear. But get even to maybe 5-10, then compare those to 15-20. That seems like a huge difference in the numbered rank, but the overall difference in actual projection is probably nothing at all.
MLB Pipeline’s current Cardinals rankings place Alex Reyes #1, with a future value of 55 (on the 20-80 scouting scale). Daniel Poncedeleon, ranked 30th, is given a 45 future value. That’s not much of a spread, and the range of likely outcomes for these guys spread far and wide.
Even elite players regularly reach the majors without ever having been a top prospect even within their own system. Aaron Judge was ranked 10th in the Yankees system GOING INTO THE 2017 SEASON. Less than two months into that season, he was so good the Yankees built him his own section in the f***ing ballpark. Just behind him at #11 on that Yankees list? Current Rookie of the Year candidate Miguel Andújar.
And it’s beyond ironic that much of the frustration about these incoming prospects comes from fans who are also bemoaning the loss of Tommy Pham. Name me a more out-of-nowhere performance than 2017 Tommy Pham?
As a reminder, here’s how some Cardinal outfielders were ranked coming into 2015:
Entering 2015, #stlcards had five outfield prospects that we ranked in the Top 15 for Baseball America's top 30.— Derrick Goold (@dgoold) July 31, 2018
All have been in the majors this season. All now traded by #Cardinals. #MLB
How well would you say that list did of ranking the future value of these Cardinals outfielders?
I’m not going to get hung up on where these players the Cardinals acquired ranked in any prospect list. I’m also not going to pretend like I have much insight into what they might become... because I don’t. But I like some of the things I’ve read.
Of Justin Williams, acquired in the Tommy Pham deal, MLB Pipeline says he has the potential to merge as an annual 20-HR threat. They rank him #9 in the Cardinals system, one spot better than Minor League Ball ranked Aaron Judge in 2017.
This is what one blogger had to say on Conner Capel, from the Mercado deal:
The people ripping the Mercado trade should probably do some research on Capel. Big time power potential, has a 12% BB% and 18% K%, above average speed and strong arm. And only 21. And Left-Handed. #STLCards— Rusty Groppel (@hes_verygood) July 31, 2018
MLB Pipeline ranked Capel 14th in the Indians system at the time of the trade, so one better than Baseball America ranked Tommy Pham in 2015.
And there you have it folks: The Cardinals acquired two outfielders who are ranked higher than Aaron Judge and Tommy Pham.
I’m being ridiculous of course, but it would have been just as ridiculous in 2017 to tell someone that Aaron Judge was going to become Aaron Judge. Was it amazing or unprecedented that a prospect only ranked #10 in their system became an overnight superstar? Not really, because these rankings are not particularly meaningful.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t evaluate, track and discuss these players. We absolutely should. But let’s not pretend like we have any meaningful idea where these players will end up. And today anyway, I’m going to choose to be optimistic.