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Preparing for Failure. But Staying Optimistic.

The next phase of the coming out party for Cardinals prospects will probably entail failure, departure, or both. But optimism should remain.

John Mozeliak likes to sit all alone and meditate upon his faberge eggs sometimes...
John Mozeliak likes to sit all alone and meditate upon his faberge eggs sometimes...
Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals have earned a lot of accolades for successfully retooling their farm system while remaining competitive at the major league level. Not only were they one win away from returning to the World Series for the second consecutive year in 2012, but they were ranked as having the best farm system by both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus entering this season.

Here at Future Redbirds, we celebrated how many Cardinals prospects were ranked in various top-100 lists. Baseball America had the unanimous six. Baseball Prospectus had seven (including Tyrell Jenkins) and John Sickels had eight in his top-150 (including Tyrell Jenkins and Matt Adams). The Cardinals placed only two prospects in Baseball America's top-100 list as recently as 2011.

While it was easy to dream upon who these prospects might become, no one predicted how quickly we'd see many of them arrive in St. Louis. Of the six ranked by Baseball America, only Oscar Taveras and Kolten Wong still await their debuts (though Carlos Martinez has been sent to Memphis for reconditioning as a starter). Best of all, the rookies have been crazy effective as they have generated forty percent of the Cardinals' pitching staff bWAR (before Sunday's game).

It doesn't seem to matter much who the Cardinals call up from Memphis or Springfield, even if they're less heralded prospects. John Gast pitched capably until he hit the DL with a shoulder strain. Tyler Lyons struck out more men than base-runners allowed in his first two starts and has only given up six runs total in his first twenty innings. Seth Maness has induced six double plays in thirteen innings. And Michael Wacha easily disposed of the Royals less than one year after he was drafted by the Cardinals. But this type of success isn't normal, and almost certainly isn't sustainable.

Back in 2011, a member of Royals Review, Scott McKinney, examined the success rates of Baseball America's top-100 prospects between the years 1990 and 2003. Players were categorized as "busts" if their average seasonal WAR was less than 1.5 and "successful" if their WAR was greater than 1.5. I highly recommend reading the entire study if you haven't already, but here are his takeaway findings:

I think several conclusions are warranted, at least for the period of the study (which includes a great many current major league players).

  • About 70% of Baseball America top 100 prospects fail.
  • Position player prospects succeed much more often than pitching prospects.
  • About 60% of position players ranked in Baseball America’s top 20 succeed in the majors.
  • About 40% of pitchers ranked in the top 20 succeed in the majors.
  • About 30% of position players ranked 21-100 succeed in the majors (with the success rate declining over that ranking range from about 36% to about 25%)
  • About 20% of pitchers ranked 21-100 succeed in the majors (with the success rate declining over that ranking range from about 22% to about 15%)
  • The success rate of prospects (both position player and pitchers) is nearly flat and relatively undifferentiated for players ranked 41-100, and especially those ranked 61-100.
  • Corner infield prospects and catchers are the most likely to succeed in the majors, but outfielders, third basemen and shortstops are the most likely to become stars. Second basemen and pitchers are the least likely prospects to succeed in the majors or to become stars.
  • Prospect success rates have not improved much over time and there is little data to support the contention that prospects are more likely to succeed now than they have in the past.
  • McKinney went on to suggest that even the best minor league pipeline would be lucky to have half of their prospects (who make top-100 lists, specifically Baseball America) become successful. In general, we might expect two of the Cardinals' top-6 prospects to succeed (average greater than 1.5 WAR during their cost-controlled seasons). Perhaps one of Oscar Taveras or Kolten Wong will succeed, but probably not both. Even though they seem like sure bets at the moment, it's unlikely that Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal, and Michael Wacha will pan out given their 21-100 rankings. And that's not even considering the Tyler Lyons or Seth Manesses of the world.

    Of course, generalizing McKinney's results to specific players would be foolish. Each individual is a unique consideration. Take a look at the table below and you will see that the Cardinals have made incredible decisions when it comes to keeping players in the system or trading them away. Please note that average seasonal WAR does not include rookie seasons with less than one-hundred plate appearances or twenty-five innings pitched (same limits used by McKinney).

    Cardinals Prospects Featured on BA's Top-100 (2006 - 2013)
    Player Years Ranked Ranks Avg. Seasonal WAR
    Oscar Taveras 2012-2013 74, 3 N/A
    Shelby Miller 2010-2013 50, 13, 8, 6 N/A
    Carlos Martinez 2012-2013 27, 38 N/A
    Trevor Rosenthal 2013 39 N/A
    Kolten Wong 2012-2013 93, 84 N/A
    Michael Wacha 2013 76 N/A
    Zack Cox 2011-2012 62, 88 N/A
    Tyrell Jenkins 2012 94 N/A
    Colby Rasmus 2007-2009 29, 5, 3 2.1
    Brett Wallace 2009 40 -0.3
    Chris Perez 2008-2009 97, 91 1.0
    Bryan Anderson 2008 85 N/A
    Jaime Garcia 2007 70 1.4
    Anthony Reyes 2006 41 0.0

    Of the players who appeared on Baseball America's top-100 lists prior to 2012, who is there to miss? Much of Rasmus' value came while he was still playing for the Cardinals. Since he was traded to Toronto mid-2011, Rasmus has only been worth a total of 1.8 fWAR. Brett Wallace, a player used to acquire Matt Holliday, has been below replacement level. Zack Cox, who was flipped for the Cardinals' current closer, is still in double-A. Trading Chris Perez is even a defensible move as no one could have predicted Mark Derosa injuring his wrist on a hit-by-pitch in 2009.

    Instead, the Cardinals have stood by lesser hyped players like Jon Jay, Allen Craig, and David Freese. Jay, who was supposed to be nothing more than a role player, has been worth an average of 2.5 fWAR over his first three cost-controlled seasons. Meanwhile, Matt Carpenter, who has never been ranked in the Cardinals' top-10 prospects by Baseball America, currently leads all second basemen in fWAR.

    Maximizing a farm system is as much about leveraging some of the shiny toys in trades as it is just endlessly promoting from within because you can. There has to be a breaking point at which some of these performances come up short, because this type of pipeline just doesn't exist. Or at least it isn't supposed to.

    While it's unreasonable to expect all of these rookies to develop into prolonged major league contributors, we should take heart because the present regime has been incredibly shrewd at internal player evaluation (i.e. knowing who to keep and who to trade). And they better be or, as Jonah Keri and Rany Jazayerli remind us, a top farm system can devolve into an empty accolade quite quickly:

    So from nine Top 100 Prospects, more than any team has ever had since Baseball America started ranking them in 1990, the Royals have a pair of corner infielders who can't hit, two years of James Shields, and the lottery ticket that is Wade Davis, who was also included in the trade.

    Having tempered expectations would serve us well going forward so that we aren't totally surprised when Seth Maness learns pitching to contact has its limits and/or Tyler Lyons' ERA once again lags behind his FIP. History warns that most prospects will fail and others will get traded. That's true for any organization, but at least Cardinals fans have the comfort of knowing that the reins are held by competent leadership.