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Ranking Prospects

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Three years ago, Kevin Goldstein told the following to both of the readers of this site:

McCovey Chronicles: When ranking prospects, how do you balance the five-tool, high-ceiling types with the one- or two-tool types who are already close to impacting a major-league roster at something less than an All-Star level?

Kevin Goldstein: That's kind of the secret sauce in many ways. Ranking prospect combines two things - predicting a player's ultimate ceiling and crossing that with a players chances of actually reaching that ceiling. It's really different for every guy and you have to develop a feel for it really.

That description always stuck with me. Secret sauce. It’s a quick and vivid way to describe the art of prospectin’. The problem is that anyone can slap together a secret sauce and call it a secret sauce, but that doesn’t make it a good secret sauce. If my knowledge of the Giants’ best prospects were analogous to a secret sauce, for example, it would be some vinegar and buttermilk in a fondue pot, heated lukewarm before it’s poured over a pile of mushy cauliflower. That’s why this stuff is free. I don’t know what I’m talking about. I was only able to see a few minor league games this year, and I’m certainly not qualified to do anything scouty when I’m there.

That isn’t to say that I’m humble enough to forgo a top-10 list this year like I used to. No, I’ve been getting more and more arrogant as the years have built up, so I’m going to stretch this thing out into a top-30 list over several days. Hold up your plate; I’ve got something I’d like to ladle onto it. Mmmmm.

When I’m pretending to be qualified, here are some of my prospectin' tenets:

  • Ignore references to "TINSTAAPP," that wacky acronym of dogmatic baseball nerds everywhere. It’s only useful for creating false dichotomies. All prospects will break your heart. Pretending that hitters turn out swell in a nice, linear fashion is a good way to do something stupid. Like, oh, ranking Todd Linden over Matt Cain.

    Instead of flipping a coin to decide between two prospects, though, go with the hitter. I’ll give the TINSTAAPP partisans that much.
  • Overrate players who show an above-average ability to hit for power, take a walk, or strike a hitter out while being among the youngest players in their league. Pablo Sandoval wasn’t lighting the prospect world on fire, but 20-year-olds usually don’t have a .189 ISO in High-A. Should have paid more attention.
  • Value high ceilings more than lower ceilings who are more of a sure thing to make a major league roster. Brandon Medders struck out 53 in 41 innings in his pro debut, coasting to an ERA of 1.32. The scouts said, meh, he’s projectable, but he’ll never be a closer. He has a good chance of being a useful middle reliever, they’d say, but nothing more. Some folks believe in cost certainty with their prospect rankings, so they’ll look at a player like this and argue forcefully in his favor.

    And the cost certainty folks had part of it right: Medders provided a major league team with value. But he didn’t do it for the team that drafted him. He did it for a team that picked him up off the scrap heap. Teams share players like Medders like hydrogen atoms share electrons, or like Dylan McKay and Brandon Walsh share girlfriends. So when a player’s ceiling is something akin to what Brandon Medders has proven he can do, I respond with: You want a Medders? I can get you a Medders, believe me. Hell, I can get you a Medders by 3 o’clock this afternoon. I used to be tempted by the Adam Cowarts and Brian Horwitzes of the world. No more.

Nothing especially scientific, mind you, but that’s most of what goes into my secret sauce. That, and a couple teaspoons of dill. Maybe some nutmeg. Over the next week or so, I’ll go over my amateur list of 30. Please, no wagering.

Comment starter: Your secret sauce. Divulge your secrets. Keep the lawyers and their non-disclosure agreements out of this.