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What's the point of prospect lists?

No, wait, I don't mean it like a high school dropout, I mean it the other way

Bill Phickford is a pretty fun spoonerism
Bill Phickford is a pretty fun spoonerism
Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

It's extremely unlikely that Sam Coonrod will ever be an All-Star.

This isn't a slam on Coonrod, who had an excellent year in Augusta last year, finished the year with a couple of solid appearances for San Jose in the Cal League playoffs (maybe those stats aren't listed on Fangraphs or Baseball Reference, but THEY'RE REAL TO ME, DAMMIT), and was ranked in the top 10 on every prospect list Grant compiled yesterday. But he has such a long way to go that when we talk about the promise he showed last year – he really was great in Augusta! – it's a tough, tough thing to account for the odds he never makes it.

There's a ton of uncertainty involved in projecting what minor leaguers are going to do several years down the line against tougher competition than they've ever faced, and that's before you factor in the unpredictability of injuries, personal crises, coaching staffs, diet, and myriad other factors.  But even putting that aside, what's the right way to evaluate prospects? When you put Guy A over Guy B, what are you saying Guy A provides better? Let's investigate.

Win provided for the team

The easy answer! Buster Posey was a top tier prospect, Buster Posey is a top tier baseball player. The same could be said for Madison Bumgarner and, in happier days, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. Clean, simple, and easy, like washing your windshield by blasting it with a fire hose. But how is a Prospect Maven (the highest ranking in prospect circles) supposed to know where a player's value will come? 14 years ago, some Braves junkie who had always had Jason Schmidt at the top of some prospect list no one else cared about would still have been pointing at him saying "See? SEE? I was right?" even after his second trade. So maybe the best way is...

Wins provided overall

Hypothetical Braves Fan finally gets her due! And she's a lady, YOU SEXIST. Scouting is scouting, and you can't take the needs of the organization into account when you're determining a player's potential and likelihood of reaching it. Just as a We're Stupid casefile, the 2013 community prospect list had Conor Gillaspie at number 37, more than 10 spots behind guys like Shawn Payne, Jacob Dunnington, and Brett Bochy. From a strictly Giants point of view, this is correct; with the Giants, Gillaspie was worth (depending on which WAR you use) -0.1 or -0.3 wins, while Bochy was worth 0.2 wins more.

Realistically, while Gillaspie's not a world beater and never will be one, he had a couple nice seasons with the White Sox (and one bad one last year, admittedly) and has been a better player than Bochy (and obviously the other two, who never made the majors). But even though Gillaspie was much, much more likely than many of the guys above him to make the majors (he had been in the majors the previous year, even), he was bringing up the rear. Why? Because he had the worst arm we've ever seen from a third baseman, probably. But also, because there's a large crowd for whom this isn't really the answer either. No, they go with...

Present value

You see, Gillaspie in 2013 was pretty much worthless to the Giants, who didn't have room for him on the roster (not if they wanted Nick Noonan there, anyway) and couldn't send him down to the minors without exposing him to waivers. He was just kinda stuck. His value was low at the time, so he was ranked accordingly. Tim Alderson in 2009 rated fairly highly by this measure, and was traded for Freddy Sanchez. Tommy Joseph in 2012 was ranked aggressively on prospect lists, and was the main part of the Hunter Pence deal. Their value was high (okay, Alderson's was starting to fade, but he hadn't cratered yet), and maybe they should be credited for that.

The downside here is obvious: in the future, it will make you look very stupid. If you were to revise a 2011 prospect list based on this measure, you'd keep Joseph around where he was, even though he's never made the majors. Your stupidity is absolutely guaranteed, even more than the other methods, because present value means taking chances on low-probability, high-upside players. These are the Wendells Fairley of the world, and a lot more of them disappear than Clayton Blackburn-types. Just because it is how teams evaluate guys at the time doesn't mean it's how we should, because we as fans are allowed to balance upside and risk however we'd like. It's worth a ton to have a star, but it's also worth a lot to have a much better shot at a decent major leaguer, and that's an easy thing to disregard.

So what team are you on? Vote in the poll and then tweet your decision with the hashtag #OhComeOnNoOneActuallyDoesThisRight