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A Monday Morning Prospect List Discussion

A question, less clearly phrased than the author intended.

League Championship Series - St Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals - Game Four Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

Morning, everybody. This is going to be a shorter column than usual, but that’s because I actually have more of a question to ask, hopefully to generate some discussion, rather than a fully-formed idea for one of my normal articles.

See, the thing is, I’m working on the annual prospect list right now, and I’ve mostly got it pinned down how I think it’s going to end up. There are a few bits here and there I expect to be controversial, but for the most part the list is not exceptionally surprising. Dylan Carlson is, spoiler alert, at the top, Nolan Gorman is a close-ish second, and we go from there. I’m higher than Randy Arozarena than most — not a big surprise there — and Elehuris Montero fell further on my list than I’ve seen most other places. So obviously some personal divergence, but for the most part you can probably guess what the list looks like and be about 85% correct, I would imagine.

There are, however, a couple players I’m trying to figure out what to do with. The specific players are not really that important; rather, the question raised in my head has to do more with a player from last year’s list. That player is Tommy Edman, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how to rank players in light of Edman’s success at the big league level.

I don’t recall exactly where I ranked Edman on last year’s list, but it was way too low. Here’s the thing, though: I was fairly certain even as I was making the list that he was too low, but I couldn’t come up with a better spot for him. I think he ended up in the low- to mid-20s, which in hindsight is clearly a bad ranking. However, at the time I was looking at tons of other players, all of whom had something they did better than Edman, or something about their respective games which stood out more to me. Something to hang my hat on, so to speak. In retrospect, though, the fact Tommy Edman does basically everything reasonably well, while playing a premium position (or positions, as the case may be), on the field, made him a much better bet to be a contributor than my ranking would seem to suggest.

It’s that part about the premium position that I’m really kind of grappling with this year, specifically. Obviously, you always want to mentally include some sort of positional value when trying to rank prospects; a shortstop is significantly more rare than a left fielder, and so should be ranked as such. However, my issue here is much the same as my issue with the positional adjustment component of WAR; namely, while comparing players across positions requires us to adjust for the rarity of a player capable of playing a given position and give extra credit, the on-field reality of baseball dictates that you have to have a first baseman, and while the positional adjustment gives the impression of a smooth curve moving from position to position, I think we all understand that you cannot actually take a shortstop, move him to first base, and expect him to suddenly be worth 1.5-2.0 wins defensively because the positional adjustment states he should be. And to be fair, that’s not really what the positional adjustment is trying to do, so this isn’t a criticism of the framework, just me trying to acknowledge some of the limitations.

Where this comes in to prospect rankings, though, is when I try to decide exactly what criteria I’m using to rank the players. Should I be using a framework similar to WAR, in which I’m considering primarily what I think the player’s mathematical, adjusted worth should be? Or should I be comparing the player mentally to only players of his position, and deciding how good I think the guy can be relative to his actual peers? Like I said, we do this all the time, using mental shorthand to get where we’re trying to go in terms of balancing various factors, but I’m curious how everyone else looks at this problem. If a shortstop automatically has a huge head start over left fielder due to simply playing shortstop, should the shortstop always be a better (or at least more highly ranked), prospect unless the other factors are hugely mismatched? Or should a left fielder who has a chance to be an awesome left fielder be more highly ranked than what should be an average shortstop, even if the hypothetical value framework tells us their ultimate values could be much closer than we might expect from watching them?

As I said, this is always a consideration in trying to rank prospects; deciding who should be slotted where always includes some mental calculations taking into account the positions of the relative players. But I guess what I’m asking is do you all think that prospect lists should basically just always be dominated by middle infielders and catchers (catchers, in particular, tend to be underrepresented on prospect lists in my experience)? Or do you tend more toward wanting to see the best, most exciting players pushed regardless of position? Hmm. That doesn’t make sense, because part of being the best, most exciting prospect is playing a premium position much of the time. But also, excelling at a less “valuable” position could be considered exciting.

In the end, none of this is really going to change my rankings all that much, probably. I’ll try to factor in everything I know or can find out about the player, offensively and defensively (including position), and then lay out the players I think have the brightest futures in some order or another. There will undoubtedly be a player or two who falls through the cracks, and I end up ranking too low a la Tommy Edman, just because putting together a list is tough, and sometimes you can’t figure out where to put someone. But I’m curious what you all think. How strongly do you mentally factor position in when considering how good you think a player is. Have we all acclimated to WAR or something like it as the ultimate expression of player value? Or do you look at it some other way?