There are many variables that determine which prospects are the most promising and have the brightest futures. These include quantitative measures, scouting reports and even things like size, body type, makeup and family background. For example, prospects who come from baseball families are often seen as having a slight advantage over others. One variable that is often overlooked regarding minor league prospects is the organization for which they are playing.
Some organizations are better at developing prospects into good major league players than others; and some organizations are more willing to give young players a chance than others. Moreover, this varies by position. Some teams may be better at developing young pitchers while others have a better track record with young position players.
The San Francisco Giants, for example, won the World Series last year with an extraordinary four man pitching rotation and a closer who were all products of their farm system and under thirty years old. A fifth starter, Barry Zito, joined the Giants as a free agent, but he did not pitch at all in the post-season. The Giants organization in general has demonstrated an ability to develop good young pitchers. Giants vice-president for player personnel Dick Tidrow and pitching coach Dave Righetti are among those individuals who deserve some of the credit for this.
The Giants recently traded their top pitching prospect, Zach Wheeler, who is considered among the best pitching prospects in the game to the New York Mets, a team which has not been nearly as successful developing pitchers in recent years. This has been a bad trade for the Giants as Carlos Beltran, who they received in exchange for Wheeler, and who becomes a free agent at the end of the season, has been either slumping or hurt since the trade. Wheeler is a top prospect, but he is 21 years old and has never pitched at a level higher than single A. Clearly, Wheeler still is a few years away from being ready to pitch in the big leagues. Navigating those few years now falls to the Mets, an organization that has been less successful doing that in recent years than the Giants.
This raises two related questions. First, is Wheeler less valuable to the Mets than he was to the Giants; and second is he less of a prospect than he was before the trade because his future is now in the hands of a less accomplished organization? Another way to think about this question is to ask whether Giants pitching stars like Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum would have accomplished so much if they had been with a different organization. It is not hard to imagine, for example, that if Lincecum had been a Yankee prospect in 2006-2007, he would have been subject to “Timmy Rules,” moved back and form from the bullpen to the rotation and criticized for the length of his hair by the Steinbrenners every time he pitched poorly.
Interestingly, the same Giants that have done such a great job of developing young pitchers have been overly reliant on veterans elsewhere and have a less impressive record of developing position players. Last year the team delayed bringing up top catching prospect, and eventual NL Rookie of the Year award winner, Buster Posey for so long that the failure to use Posey sooner almost cost them a playoff spot. This year, Brandon Belt a top hitting prospect has only recently begun to play with any regularity despite the Giants anemic offense and weak production at first base and the corner outfield spots, the positions Belt plays.
Many position players change positions in the minor leagues with varying degrees of success, while others are left in the minors too long or rushed to the big leagues too quickly. Some organizations notice flaws in players’ swings right away, while other organizations do not. Getting these decisions right is a key part of player development and can have enormous impacts on players’ careers. Baseball history is littered with examples of this. If, for example, Cliff Johnson had been made into a designated hitter or first baseman instead of spending years as a minor league catcher in the Astros system, he might have been a star. If the Yankees had not made Jorge Posada a catcher, they would have missed out on more than decade of a near Hall of Fame catcher. Today, Yankee prospect Jesus Montero is in danger of missing out on the beginning of what might be a sterling career because the Yankees have kept him behind the plate.
It is certainly possible that Wheeler will develop into a star with the Mets, and Montero will do the same with the Yankees, or that other pitchers toiling in organizations with poor records of developing pitchers will also become stars, but the odds are worse for Wheeler than they were before the trade. This suggests that when evaluating prospects we should recognize that the organization for which the prospect is playing is important variable. It also creates another challenge for forecasting the future of young baseball players, but one that cannot be easily ignored.