MLB Prospects: Part 1 - Defining a Prospect

Brandon HeikoopSenior Analyst IFebruary 18, 2008

In the first of a three part series, I take a look at what makes a prospect. Part Two will take a look at the top prospect by organization. Part Three will discuss the top ten prospects in all of baseball.

Spring Training brings together all the minds in baseball that have spent the last three and a half months toiling away at what could be. Everyone and anyone comes out with their own predictions or what their team should do. There is rampant speculation about who is going where for what and, of course, prospect lists.

I always find it difficult to understand exactly how one person can put together a prospect list of every player in the game. This is the same in all sports, but especially true in baseball.

In fact, something you may not know about me, Major League Baseball's Rule IV Draft is one of my favorite days of the baseball season (it's at least in the top 10). On this day I follow the draft and see what kids from the hotbed area of Niagara, and Canada in general, end up being. This year saw Niagara Falls' own Colin Buckborough taken in the 16th round by the Seattle Mariners.

With this comes a debate over the quality of team's draft. In my opinion, this is a difficult grade to hand out as we are talking about kids who, for the most part, are not going to make the show. Even if they do, it most like will not occur for another 3-5 years.

Over at Minor League Balle I had a brief conversation asking the members of a website wide vote what they determined to be the starting line for a prospect. This was sparked because of a vote rating Mike Moustakas, a supposedly very skilled high school player who the Royals took with the No. 2 overall pick in this year's first year player draft.

At the time of the poll, Moustakas had 47 professional plate appearances. (I am uncertain if he played in a Winter League and am currently asking Royals Review to help me out there.) Let it be known that I am not doubting Moustakas as a prospect. In fact, it appears as though fans of the Royals are as excited about him as they were Alex Gordon.

With that in mind, I find it difficult to place a player with such little professional experience so highly on a prospect list. Three separate prospect lists have Moustakas ranking between 19th and 47th. Fact is, many (Sickels, Goldstein, Foster and Law) have already placed Moustakas at the top of the Royals farm system.

Obviously these men have more information and knowledge then I do, however, I question the accuracy of such grades with so little professional information.

What is it that makes a prospect? One must admit that the enhancements in baseball statistics has improved this evaluation, but that is not the be-all, end-all. I will state for the record that I do not have the time nor the will to check through the prospect reports of every individual player, so in parts two and three when I give my prospect lists, I rely on the numbers first and foremost and then the rankings given by experts.

In some cases I am going to disagree. I, for one, am not going to list an 18-year-old with 47 professional plate appearances as the No. 19 prospect. I will accept that he may be the most promising and therefore best prospect in a given system, but a player needs to do some time before he is given a nod from this guy.

What I am looking for includes, in no specific order:

  • Age—Not only must the player be young, but his performance to this point must not be as a result of playing against younger competition.
  • Numbers—This is important as the player must have displayed some sort of extraordinary talent at some point. Again, relative to age. If a 29-year-old corner infielder mashes in Triple A during his third go around, I don't care.
  • Position—I will take a look at scouting reports to an extent. If a shortstop has an iron glove but can hit, he won't be compared to shortstops with slick gloves and lesser bats.
  • Scouting Report/Expert Analysis—I am not in the big leagues because I can't hit a beach ball. Similarly, I do not have the resources or time to scout all of the 4,500+ players who are playing professional baseball in North America. Maybe one day I will, but today I'm more fan than expert.
  • Special Skill Set—If you are a lefty with 'stuff', you are in. If you are a toolsy outfielder with an excellent walk rate, you too are in.
  • Injury History—You are young and in the best shape of your life. If the player can't stay healthy as a minor leaguer in his early 20s, this does not bode well for his future.
  • Contribution to Big League Club—This is two fold. First, that a player has a path to the bigs. It does not have to be direct, but if the player has to go the Ryan Howard route I unfortunately have to punish him. Second, if the player meets a bunch of my other specifications and is on the cusp of the big league club, he will be rewarded.
  • Big League Club—There are organizations that continually pump out top prospects that never pan out. (I'm looking at you Anaheim.) Unfortunately, players in those organizations are punished because I cannot trust what is going on in that system. We have all heard the old adage, "That's a professional program right there." Could the opposite not be true?

These eight qualifications are what I use when grading a prospect. I will not deny that I am not reinventing the wheel here. I promise that my prospect lists are honest and true. I took a great deal of time in selecting each player, as well as giving concrete evidence behind my selections.


Some additional food for thought: BaseballAmerica writes a piece on the implications of the Mitchell Report on prospects. Take a moment to read this article despite the amount of headaches that this Report has already created. When doing so, consider that prospects such as David Wright, who has had testing throughout his minor league career, are even more legit because of this.

Brandon Heikoop writes for Baseball Digest Daily as well as for his own blog, The Outsiders Look. Questions? Comments? Email him at