Nationals Arm Race

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Thoughts on Keith Law’s organization and prospect rankings

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Giolito is rising the ranks of prospects baseball-wide.  Photo unk via federalbaseball.com

Giolito is rising the ranks of prospects baseball-wide. Photo unk via federalbaseball.com

I’ll admit it; I’m a sucker for prospect lists.

Every time I see an organizational ranking published (whether it be from BA/John Callis, BP/Jason Parks, ESPN/Keith Law, MLB/Jonathan Mayo, John Sickels or whoever, I put the rankings into a big spreadsheet and do comparison analysis (I’d publish on Google Docs it except that Law’s stuff is ESPN insider only and I wouldn’t want to get into trouble).   Every time any of these guys puts out organizational top 10s, I capture that too into one big file too.

So, this week is an exciting time because one of the leading prospect voices out there has published his annual rankings lists.  Keith Law published his System rankings 1-30 on 1/28/14 and published his Top 100 prospects list on 1/29/14.  The links themselves are ESPN-insider, which I believe is well worth the pittance of a cost per year just to get access to Law and Buster Olney‘s stuff (among others).

Law has our system ranked 18th this time around, a slight increase from last year’s ranking of 21.   In the five years that I’ve been capturing Law’s organizational rankings, this is as high as he’s had the system ranked believe it or not; his 2012 rankings (where Baseball America famously had us ranked #1) came out after the big Gio Gonzalez trade and thus we didn’t get the high ranking we would have expected (Law said he dropped the system from a top 5 ranking b/c of that trade).

So, how do we explain how the system went from #21 to #18 given all that has happened in the last year?   Borrowing from the comment I made at NationalsProspects.com when Luke Erickson noted the same Law publishing, lets analyze where we were in January 2013 versus now as a system:

In Law’s 2013 writeup for the team, he noted that he liked Washington’s top 5 prospects but that there was a significant gap afterwards.  Going back and looking at my notes, Law’s top 5 guys went:

  1. Anthony Rendon
  2. Brian Goodwin
  3. Lucas Giolito
  4. A.J. Cole
  5. Nathan Karns

Then the gap, then Law ranks 6-10 as went Matt Skole, Christian Garcia, Carlos Rivero, Matthew Purke and Michael Taylor. So, no mention of Taylor Jordan or Ian Krol, both of whom graduated and performed more than ably in the majors in 2013.  There was no mention of Robbie Ray, who Law never liked and never gave much credit to even when in 2011 he was out performing Cole in the low minors despite being the same age and same draft class, but who was regarded enough in Detroit to basically fetch a 4-win established MLB pitcher in Doug Fister.  There was no mention of Jeff Kobernus, who did get some MLB innings but isn’t considered a real prospect.  No mention of Nats minor league batter of the year Billy Burns (again, not really a prospect in lots of evaluator’s eyes).  No mention of Eury Perez as a top 10 candidate, and obviously no mention of Tanner Roark (who in January 2013 pretty much everyone saw as an organizational arm playing out the string to minor league free agency).  Law did say at the time that if Sammy Solis got healthy again he’d be back in the running for his top 100.  Amazingly Rivero, a waiver claim who ended the year demoted to AA, was his 8th best prospect for the system, quite an indictment.  Well, either that or a blind spot for Law, who is more impressed by tools in lower-minors kids than capabilities in prospects in the upper minors.

So, given that our top 10 last year in Law’s minds (in order):

  1. Rendon graduated to a starting job in the majors
  2. Goodwin struggled in a 2-level jump
  3. Giolito ably recovered from injury
  4. Cole impressed at AA after a promotion
  5. Karns made the leap to the majors but struggled
  6. Skole missed the entire season due to a freak injury
  7. Garcia missed basically the entire season with yet another injury
  8. Rivero was demoted to AA and is now a MLFA
  9. Purke pitched mostly a full season but did not dominate as expected
  10. Taylor impressed in high-A and was added to the 40-man

… and considering the litany of graduations/trades/exoduses out of the system (Rendon, Jordan, Krol, Ray, Rivero, Burns and Roark all ineligible for a 2014 analysis), how do you explain the fact that he thinks the system is basically treading water?

You have to think Law’s top 5 for the system now starts Giolito/Cole/Goodwin but then who knows where it goes from there.  I know from chat responses that Law is down on Purke now and that he didn’t ever really rate Jake Johansen or Drew Ward as 2013 draft picks.  Does Karns still qualify as a prospect?  Yes I believe so.   Solis came back and performed post injury but was he that impressive in 2013?

Perhaps Law’s thinking goes like this: he likes our top 3 prospects (clearly; Giolito, Cole and Goodwin all made Law’s minor league-wide top 100 list with Giolito at #21).  Law rates these top 3 guys as strong enough to make up for the graduations from last year.  Then there likely is a gap, then perhaps a small grouping of Karns and Solis, both of whom Law likes and both of whom he probably believes would make either #5 starters or good bullpen guys.  Then after that a grab bag to include Skole, Taylor, Perez and perhaps a couple guys from our 2013 draft class (Austin Voth?).  The problem with the back side of this theoretical top 10 list is that it includes a slew of players who were hurt or who treaded water in 2013.

What do you think?  And if your answer is some variation of, “Todd you spend too much time over-analyzing prospect lists and you just proved your own point by showing that a guy like Taylor Jordan can go from high-A to a MLB-average ERA+ and never appear on anyone’s prospect lists therefore prospect lists are useless” …. well I’m not going to argue against you that vociferously :-)  I’d probably respond by saying something to the effect of, “Its frigging january, what else are we going to talk about?”