Cubs Prospects: The 50-Percent Rule

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

An oft-used axiom is that a player who is successful in Double-A has a 50-percent chance of being a successful major leaguer. I examine how this plays into evaluating present Cubs prospects.

When I took on this writing gig for Bleed Cubbie Blue, there were some things I expected. Slings, arrows, compliments. None of those surprise me much. I appreciate most of the feedback, even the feedback that tells me I need to get better at writing. One of the things that still rings a bit odd is seeing a Cubs-related site linking to something I wrote. It happens on occasion, and usually I laugh. I enjoy the exposure, but find it a bit odd that a minor league announcer, for instance, would think my commentary is fit for an audience beyond the blog. The one that I still struggle with is that, since I commiserate on-line with players in the Cubs pipeline, they are reading my stuff as well. And their friends and families. With that as a backdrop, I will talk today about hypothetical percentages for prospect success.

No pressure, dude.

One of the prospect-y (I will continue to use that non-word, even if it isn't popular) axioms is that a player's status isn't "even money" until he is successful at Double-A. If you expect me to try on my Myth Busters garb, you will be mistaken. It's so vague that it's almost perfect. After all, a corner OF who has an OPS over .800 at Double-A looks like a solid break-even bet. But five years later, as he's washed out of three systems, and turns to coaching, know-it-alls can say they feared his contact skills or defense the whole time.

The truth, as far as I can figure it, is like this. Any solid Double-A prospect still has some adjusting to do. And likely, a bunch of maturing. That's life, y'all. Some will adjust, and some won't. And some who are pedestrian in Double-A will surprise everyone and be solid. It happens.

Since I loathe undefined terms, I will define "success" at the major league level as 'where arbitration matters'. This isn't from anyone's manual. It seems apt to me. For instance, if Darwin Barney is making league minimum and providing something to the team, that is wonderful. But to be considered a major league success, I'm slicing that as his salary coming into play.

As the Cubs may, or may not, keep him around despite, or because of, his pay rate, he has had a successful career. Many never make it that far, due to injuries, lack of production, or a combination of those and other factors. For this exercise, if a player will be considered 'successful', arbitration will be of significance.

My other note goes back to my opening paragraph. I'm going to be talking about pro baseball players today. Real flesh-and-blood people. Some of them, I've seen play live. Some of them I've tweeted birthday greetings to. If I come up with a number you (the player reading this article) don't like, it's absolutely nothing personal. If you're sticking to your off-season training regimen, I likely have no qualms with you. As a writer, I sometimes write down numbers and stuff. If you think my math is writing you off, that is by no stretch the intent.

My primary readers are the regulars on the blog. I know some very good communicators, some players, and their posse read my stuff. You have no idea how much of a kick that is. That said, to clarify some of the commentary that gets tossed around here and elsewhere, I sometimes fall back on numbers. On occasion, I will be spot on. Other times, not so much. Don't take offense, and I'm sure most of you won't anyway. These paragraphs are as much for me and my regular readers as anyone else.

***

I will start with my very loose definition of 'Double-A success'. While it might not mean much to you, I will go with league post-season All-Star. This season, five Tennessee Smokies were named post-season Southern League All-Stars. Not bad on a 14-player collection in a ten team league. The average should be one or two. The five were 2B Arismendy Alcantara, 3B Christian Villanueva, OF Matt Szczur, SS Javier Baez, and RHP Kyle Hendricks.

Going by the 50-percent rule, two or three would have careers where arbitration matters.

Sort of.

To start, I'll take a step back. What happens to a guy on another team who juuuuuuust missed displacing Villanueva or Alcantara. That isn't a reason for damnation. If you're almost at the hypothetical coin-flip point, you might be at 47 or 48 percent. Or, the voters could have gotten it wrong, and you're better than the guy who beat you out. Then 51 or 52 percent makes sense.

I would put Szczur and Villanueva at right about 50 percent now. Alcantara probably comes in a bit higher on versatility, maybe 55 percent. In case you haven't guessed, I'm making these up as I go along to encourage discussion. As Baez embarrassed the league, I'll put him around 60. Since pitchers are oh-so-tricky to figure out, I'll leave Hendricks around 50 on basic injury worries, despite his stepping up a level and showing Triple-A success.

How about Kris Bryant? His whirlwind season owned four different league classifications, though he never stayed anywhere long enough as a pro to truly get into a groove. He outhomered over half the major college teams at San Diego, then helped Boise, Daytona, and Mesa to the playoffs as a pro. He hasn't excelled at Double-A yet, so he is technically an underdog. I'll put Bryant at 40 percent now, but if he treats the Southern League like a good welterweight treats a speed bag, that can jump to over 50 in a hurry, especially after his Arizona Fall League success.

Dan Vogelbach? I'll put him around 30 percent. He did well in High-A, but he has to excel at the next level to hit break-even. Pitchers C.J. Edwards, Pierce Johnson, Corey Black, and Ivan Pineyro all were very solid in High-A last season. Right now, I'd put the first two on the 30 side of 25, with the second pair at 25 or very near it. If they succeed at the next level, fifty awaits.

Albert Almora will be a youngster in High-A Daytona next year. The number I put on him is as close to immaterial as times Miley Cyrus will swing on that blasted wrecking ball. Almora's number will be around 25. He will play well. It will increase.

***

The Cubs have historically under-performed in developing their talent. This leads to many doubting the legitimacy of getting much from internal means. I guess that makes sense. However, other teams have had little problem over the last few decades in producing quality pitching and hitting talent. Hopefully, the Cubs will be better at it now.

As you look at guys down the list, the percentages would appear more unkind. Be it due to question marks in their skill sets, distance from Double-A, potential for injury, or whatever, other prospects will currently be longer-shots at reaching arbitration.

Every step along the way is important. What you figure out in Boise and Kane County, you hone in Daytona and beyond. As much as the fanbase wants every player to be a finished product at 21, that doesn't guarantee it to be so. I'm very happy the Cubs cover all the levels so well in their minor league coverage.

Time to drill down a bit, then. Tayler Scott did fairly well in Low-A Kane County last season. He needs a solid year in High-A Daytona to get a shot as a starting pitcher in 2015 in Tennessee. I'd put him now, today, at around 10 percent to have a major league career where arbitration comes into play. For a pitcher like 2012 draft selections Paul Blackburn or Duane Underwood, the number is closer to five percent. I'm not dismissing their abilities, I'm merely noting the relation between player advancement and likelihood of success.

***

You begin to see in a faux-mathemtical sense why teams are willing to toss off low-level prospects so willingly at times. If you're honest about the process, you see how critical the extraneous factors are as well. How much of success is based on how good the system-wide instruction process in? How about the club physicians and rehab staff? Whether the scouts can tell if a youngster will put in the needed hours to improve during December and January, not just in-season, plays as well.

There are many factors that combine to make prospects solid big league contributors. Or not so successful. It all may appear to be luck or magic if one batch of teams churn out quality big leaguers one on top of another, while other systems don't. That the specifics are dicier and more abstract than "He sucks" or "He's great" is more than a math problem. Or even a language arts exam. It's having an entire front office on the same page of doing what is necessary over 300+ days per year to see that some trophies will get raised, at many levels. Not just the top level.

***

Drilling down a bit further, Kevin Encarnacion was named by Topps Cards to the Short-Season All-Star team. A 22-year-old outfielder in short season ball? I'll put him and a great number of others at five percent or less. Again, I'm not being dismissive. I'm acknowledging the unlikelihood of any one player bucking the odds. The player, his coaches, his workout habits, and so many other factors are at play there.

When during the season, I am noting progress, and lack thereof, by the over 100 young men chasing their dream in the team's pipeline, I am trying to use a virtual abacus on their likelihoods. Bringing in a 16-year-old from some country most of us has never set foot in is, in itself, a longshot. I accept the scorn and derision from most Cubs fans in regards to the inconsequence that has on the day-to-day operation of the team. However, each step (and mis-step) moves the needle in the organization. However slightly.

There are plenty of writers perfectly capable of reviewing a recent pitching outing by a current player on the Cubs. Or any of the other 29 teams. I will generally defer to them on their field of expertise, as compared to my knowledge certainly. Similarly, there are writers and broadcasters more familiar with players at lower levels. My hope is to learn from them as best as possible, and relate those salient points to you. That way, you can more accurately gauge the system's direction.

All the while, my rosetta stone will be trying to determine from a keyboard in the 815 (or points nearby in mainly Midwest League venues), what makes a better coach? Or are the Cubs scouts projecting well? Can Eloy Jimenez and Gleyber Torres make the long haul from three-percent types currently to big-league contributors?

Yeah, I'm about ready for games that matter to resume. Only then, can I properly augment my take on the 50-percent rule.

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