Reading responses to the Cubs' recent draft choice, I was struck by the prospect pessimism so many had. Just because a player is left-handed and plays CF doesn't mean he's the "next Pie or Colvin." Every player is different.
Indeed, if we wanted to be pessimistic, we should be pessimistic about all CF prospects in general, because the major leagues as a whole haven't been too kind recently to top CF prospects.
Over the past two years, there have been a ton of top CF prospects getting their chances to break into the major leagues. Working off of Baseball America's 2007 top prospect list (with references to where they landed in 2008 and 2009's lists when eligible), we've seen:
#6 Cameron Maybin, 2008's #6, 2009's #8
#13 Andrew McCutchen, 2008's #14, 2009's #33
#18 Carlos Gonzalez, 2008's #22
#28 Adam Jones
#29 Colby Rasmus, 2008's #5, 2009's #3
#33 Jacoby Ellsbury, 2008's #13
#48 Dexter Fowler, 2008's #74, 2009's #15
#49 Felix Pie
#55 Ryan Sweeney
#60 Carlos Gomez, 2008's #52
and 2008's #25 Jordan Schafer, 2009s #42
It is astounding how few of these guys have established themselves.
Let's look at where they each have gone.
Cameron Maybin had a miserable first callup at age 20 in Detroit. In 53 PAs, he had 21 Ks and batted just .143/.208/.265. He was traded to FL and had a marvelous September in 2008. Unfortunately, in 2009, at age 22, he was given the starting CF job, but could barely keep his AVG over the Mendoza line and was sent down after 95 PAs. His career OPS+ is 73 after 184 PAs.
Carlos Gonzalez had a rough 2008 with the Oakland A's, coming up at the end of May at age 22. In 316 PAs he hit .242/.273/.361 with 81 Ks. He was traded to COL and has just recently been called up, but has not been hitting well so far. His career OPS+ is 71 after 334 PAs.
Colby Rasmus has been given much playing time for the 2009 Cardinals despite a full OF. At age 22, he had a decent start to the season, but then went cold in May, hitting .212/.256/.447. Tony LaRussa never lost faith, however, and continued to bat Rasmus in key spots in the order. He's started to heat up in June, hitting .462/.462/.808. His career OPS+ is 103 in 189 PAs.
Adam Jones got an early callup at age 20 in Seattle. He struggled in 76 PAs. At age 21, he got another limited chance in 71 PAs and did alright. He was then traded to Baltimore and had a chance to play as a full-time player. At age 22, it was a rough season. The first month, he posted a middling .700 OPS, then struggled in May, hitting .226/.273/.312. The O's didn't give up, however and got to see two strong months from June and just into August, before injuries derailed his season. Of course, this year, most of you know he has exploded, hitting .340/.390/.584. His career OPS+ is 98 in 889 PAs.
Jacoby Ellsbury, at age 23, had a strong late-season callup in 2007. He was given a lot of playing time, then, in 2008, but failed to duplicate his rookie season success. In particular, he went into a deep slump in the summer months of June and July. Boston didn't give up, though, and kept playing him. They were rewarded with a August and September bounce-back. In 2009, Ellsbury has struggled with left-handers. With a career OPS+ of 92 in 988 PAs, Boston fans have to begin to wonder if Ellsbury is much more than a cheaper version of Juan Pierre.
Dexter Fowler has won increasing playing time for himself after just making the team in 2009. At age 23, he started the season strong, but really fell off in May. Colorado stuck with him and is seeing him turn it on in June. His career OPS+ is 83 in 242 PAs.
Felix Pie is known well by Cub fans as a disappointment. The only thing I'd note about his Cubs career (287 PAs total) is that he never had consistent playing time. Finally given that playing time in Baltimore, he struggled immensely, hitting .157/.246/216 over the first month. However, he stepped it up in the second month, hitting .250/.308/.444. His story is not over, although at age 24, he holds a disappointing career OPS+ of 56 in 388 PAs.
Ryan Sweeney was called up for brief stints on the Southside in 2006 and 2007. It wasn't until he was traded to Oakland, however, that he got regular playing time. At age 23, in 433 PAs, he put up a useful line of .286/.350/.383. In 2009, however, he has fallen back such that his career OPS+ stands at 85 after 732 PAs.
Carlos Gomez saw some time at the show in 2007 with the Mets, but did not look ready. The Mets traded him to Minnesota, who gave Gomez an extended shot in 2008, his age 22 season. Gomez responded with a miserable season, that went from bad to worse in the second half. Given more playing time in 2009, he still hasn't gotten his OBP over .300. After 888 PAs, his career OPS+ stands at 73.
Jordan Schafer had a terrific first week in the MLB in 2009. At age 22, he hit the ball all over the place. Since then, he's hit .181/.296/.222 and the Braves sent him down at the end of May. In 195 PAs, he has a career OPS+ of 60.
Andrew McCutchen has just gotten started. So far, so good for him, but 30 PAs doesn't tell us much. We could add the stories of earlier prospects Chris Young (AZ) and Lastings Milledge to stress how difficult it has been for CF prospects, especially of the "toolsy" variety. Adam Jones is the only one with extended, remarkable success. Rasmus and Fowler are looking hopeful, but have had their struggles. Sweeney and Ellsbury have been useful if not spectacular, and also with their own struggles.
One thing that stands out to me, given the similar struggles of these players. Gonzalez was a major piece in the Holliday trade; Gomez in the Johan trade; Maybin in the Miguel Cabrera trade; Jones was in the Bedard trade. Sweeney brought back the then much more respected (not to mention also young and cheap) Nick Swisher. Only Felix Pie was traded for nothing of great value.