For some baseball fans the off-season is a time to be tolerated. For these fans the countdown to the day pitchers and catchers report begins the day after the final game of the World Series. For other baseball fans the off-season is a time to reflect on the season that just ended, speculate about trades, free agent signings, and other transactions and to discuss and debate things like proposed changes to the playoff structure, refining various quantitative measures and Hall of Fame elections. These fans, including me, enjoy the Hot Stove League almost as much as we enjoy the regular season.
This off-season, a noticeable change has occurred in the substance of these Hot Stove discussions, particularly as seen in the blogosphere. If 2010 was the year of the pitcher, the 2010-2011 off-season is the year of the prospect. Discussing prospects has always been part of the off-season, but the intensity and knowledge with which these prospects are discussed has grown significantly over time and seems to have broken out this off-season. In the late 1970s, when I first became a fan, you were considered a knowledgeable fan if you knew the top prospects in the organization for which you rooted. Thinking about or discussing prospects in other organizations made you a little strange.
Even back then, every few years a prospect would come along who for one reason or another would be known to most serious fans, but this was not very common. In the last decade or so the top prospects each year have become relatively well known. Most fans who paid more than casual attention to baseball were aware of Jason Heyward, Stephen Strasburg or Buster Posey last spring. This year, however, there are numerous online presences including Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, Scouting Book, Project Prospect and many more which focus either entirely or largely on prospects. Perhaps most tellingly, the official MLB website not only has a prospect component but saw it fit to have a headline stating that their prospect list will be out soon. There are many technical reasons why there is so much attention paid to prospects this off-season: the internet makes it easier for fans to present their own research and findings, scouting tools and data on minor league players are both more widely available than used to betthe case, and the outstanding 2010 rookie cohort may have stimulated more interest in the topic.
These explanations are all contributing factors to the increasing interest in prospects this off-season, but they do not satisfactorily explain this phenomenon. Perhaps this sudden collective interest in prospects may tell us something more profound about baseball fans, or even society more generally. Interest in prospects indicates hope for the future, but it also may reflect dissatisfaction with the present. This tension between the present and the future is one of the driving forces in baseball with which all fans must wrestle when thinking about their team. The question of when to play for the present or when to plan for the future, for example, should inform most personnel decisions for most teams. Many decisions about bullpen use and even starting pitchers are implicitly about whether to play for today or tomorrow.
There is a small minority of fans who seem to fetishize prospects, and would like their teams to essentially never play for the present, but to accumulate as many prospects or draft picks as possible. These fans are the baseball equivalent of Shel Silverstein’s Lester who used all his wished for more wishes and ended up dead surrounded by his wishes. Fans that always want to trade away players for prospects because the prospect or the draft pick might hold something better are like the guy at the party who is constantly looking over the shoulder of whoever he is talking to looking for somebody more attractive. The team that is run that way will never win anything, just as the guy at the party will always go home alone.
Baseball is uniquely part of the gestalt of American society and has been used as a metaphor for virtually everything. The young Willie Mays making great catches in the Polo Grounds and coming home to play stickball with neighborhood kids on the streets of Harlem is a symbol for youth and innocence. That same player falling down in the outfield in the 1973 World Series reminds us that all of us, even immortals like Willie Mays, eventually get old. Tim Lincecum and the rest of the San Francisco Giants staring down the Texas Rangers and beating Cliff Lee twice reminds us that every now and then things go right and the misfits and the guys with the long hair win.
Accordingly, the interest in prospects could indicate several different things about our current national gestalt. It could be a healthy sign of a growing ability to delay gratification; it might, however, mean that we are increasingly less able to live in the present; most disturbingly, it could mean that things are so bad that we now need to escape from our escapes and think not just about grown men playing a game with no direct bearing on our lives, but about which grown men will be playing that game in a few years.