I keep reading that the Cubs-Rays trade had two top prospects (Archer and Lee) plus some middling guys. Well, if you step back to just the very recent past, then it had three top prospects. Who's the third? Garza, who was Baseball America's number 21 prospect heading into 2007, ahead of guys like Clayton Kershaw, Billy Butler, Ryan Braun, Jacoby Ellsbury, Joey Votto, Ubaldo Jiminez and Clay Buchholz.
Those players I named, along with some of the guys ahead of him (Phil Hughes, Evan Longoria, Tim Lincecum, and Carlos Gonzalez) have fulfilled their potential and are legit stars. Others (Dice-K, Homer Bailey, Andrew Miller, Delmon Young) have not, and either aren't as good as projected, or even as good as Garza. So what lesson do I draw from this?
Well, first, that there's an insatiable appetite on this blog for debating these issues principally because people seem to take dogmatic views one way or the other (sabermetrics is the only true way to evaluate worth, versus "your saber magic has no power here"). I think there's a healthy middle ground for skeptics, like me, who see the value that statistical analysis can bring, and yet enough skepticism about the firmness of projections to question whether you can really draw any conclusions from the stats with enough confidence to be worth debating.
Second, my conclusion from this one year's list in 2007 (sample size!) is that the people who rate prospects, particularly those who've been in the minors for a long time, do a pretty good job of spotting elite players when they are still in a developmental stage, separating them from the thousands of anonymous minor leaguers, and ranking them on lists like this one. That the recent MVP and runner up in the NL both appear on this list, along with the recent two time NL Cy Young winner, and other MVP and Cy Young candidates in both leagues (Longoria, Braun, Buchholz, Jiminez) tells you that there's some validity to this list, maybe a lot. Enough, anyway, that you would be foolish to ignore altogether these rankings as an indicator of whether a prospect will be great, even acknowledging that many of their top prospects turned out to be duds.
Third, the way we think about guys who were very recently on this list, and who are still young enough to develop, tells me that our view of these rankings are too transitive to be worth making hard and fast judgments about who won or lost a deal. People talk about Garza as if he's slotted into a mediocre to sort of good role; but four short years ago his ranking would say "elite prospect" - better than Archer even. Has he failed so miserably in the meantime that we now know something about his ceiling that we didn't know in 2007? I doubt it. We certainly know it's unlikely he'll be the superstar ace off this list - Jiminez, Lincecum and Buchholz have all gotten there already. But two of those three first arrived at that level last year and weren't that much better or worse than Garza before then. Is he no longer a prospect in his own right worthy of being considered not just for his proven accomplishments, but for his potential to rise above them in the future?
I know there are no real powerful insights here, but to me, the contrast between how we are talking about Garza and Archer is kind of jarring for all of the above reasons. Both could turn out to be excellent. There may be more reason to hope for Archer since he hasn't yet proven himself, and therefore hasn't proven either his greatness or his limitations on the MLB level. But if prospect rankings are to be the coin of the realm, I would think Garza has (or deserves) a more than little value of his own.