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Reasonably Evaluating MLB Prospects, Part 1

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In the first of a three-part series, here's a look at what should be a reasonable way of evaluating prospects.

Jake Hannemann playing for the Kane County Cougars last season
Jake Hannemann playing for the Kane County Cougars last season
Al Yellon

To be honest, too often, there are two principle ways of looking at prospects. Over-valuing and under-valuing.  Neither is particularly correct, as neither approach seems to be very accurate. There is a third band of looking at things, but in a sound-byte world, couching comments isn't a very popular thing to do. However, with so much of the Cubs' future tied up in prospects, I'm going to look at the concept of reasonable expectations over the next three articles.

It is rather amusing listening to Cubs fans specifically talking about what (insert prospect here) will do. It almost seems like listening to a person without children spouting off parenting advice. As a minor league announcer said in a game last year, the minor leagues are littered with failed Cubs first-round picks. It stings, but it's true. Whatever had been done before didn't work.

While the Cubs success with pitching has been better than with hitters, it's not like the Cubs have been like the Braves the last thirty years. Yeah, they had Glavine, Smoltz, and Maddux, but they didn't seem to ever have to overextend too much in the years since those men retired. They have had a steady turnover of starting pitching that they developed, and when one guy went to visit Dr. Andrews, someone else as likely as not filled the void. And not at the replacement level, either.

That should be the goal, largely. To be self-dependent. Obviously, you'll need a guy to fill in here or there. As a team with their finances in order, the Cubs should be able to add quality free agents soon. Possibly at below-market levels, if the chance of a title seems legitimate. However, this article is about reasonable expectations of prospects, not free agent strategies.

The day after the Cubs surprised some people by drafting Kris Bryant over Jonathan Gray, they had the second selection in the third round of the 2013 draft. They, again, surprised a bit, going with one-year college football/baseball player, Jake Hannemann. Shortly after, an expert made a comp that completely wrecked the expectations on Hannemann. He was comped to Jacoby Ellsbury.

If a league GM had the option of taking "what's behind door number three" in June, and selecting an Ellsbury clone at any time in the draft, but only one GM could get him, when would Ellsbury go? I'm guessing in the top five, probably the top three. He might well go first, as he has a bb-ref WAR for his career of 24.5, and he's still active and relatively productive.

Nonetheless, with the comp of "Jacoby Ellsbury," for far too many Cubs fans, that meant Ellsbury should be considered the over/under on his career production. That is totally unfair. Hannemann was comped to Ellsbury, as both were center-field types who play generally good defense, and if the hitting comes around, his speed could make him a game changer. When people heard Ellsbury, too many took as a given that the trajectory in the career arc for Hannemann ought to be the same as Ellsbury.

Which is why comps are a dangerous thing.

What I've done is go back in time to look at the generic player sketches and career arcs of college outfielders drafted around Hannemann. This has its own fly in the ointment, as none of the others were two-sport guys at BYU, and both halves matter. As Hannemann went on a two-year mission service, he probably didn't face much quality pitching during those two years. That he is older by the calendar than he is by baseball repetitions is something that happens from going to Brigham Young. They expect their student-athletes to give time to help others, and Hannemann did. This wasn't a secret the day after Bryant was drafted.

Nor was the fact that he was a football player. He was a defensive back on the Cougars football team. That cut further into his time that he missed being on mission. When he was drafted, the Cubs needed to bid against his football career. He cost a bit more than your standard junior player from a four-year school. (Hannemann was technically a freshman.) This is not to hype or over-represent Hannemann. This is merely being honest.

To get Hannemann (obviously, there were discussions in advance), the Cubs knew how much it would take to get him. Having a guess that much of their slot pool was going to Bryant. Hannemann was going to take another slice of it. He did. Now, on to other similarly selected players.

I thought finding a reasonable sample wouldn't require quite the lengthy draft spread that it did. I decided to look for four-year college outfielders drafted just before and just after Hannemann. Oddly, only one was selected in the entire second round, so my assessment will start in the first round.

With the 32nd pick, the Yankees (as compensation for Nick Swisher) took Aaron Judge from Fresno State. A center fielder in college, Judge has largely been a right fielder in the minor leagues. I doubt he sticks there in the majors. He will probably be a DH, and has spent time there already. In Low-A, he was older than his league and OPS'd .958. In High-A, he was younger than his league, and OPS'd .853. It appears offense is his game, and I recently read a rather timely piece that agrees.

If determining if a player looks like a good pro mainly entails looking at a hitter's OPS, Judge looks fine. He was a first-rounder.

In the next round, the Mariners took Austin Wilson with the 49th pick. Wilson is a beast of a player, with developing power, and a legitimate chance of staying in right field. I think Wilson is a better player than Judge, but draft boards vary. The Stanford attendee had a middling stint in the Northwest League in 2013, and had an injury-interrupted 2014 in the Midwest League. In the Midwest League, Wilson was old for his league, and had an OPS of .893.

At pick number 75, Hannemaan was the next outfielder off the board from a four-year school. Hannemann was old for his level in the Midwest League, though by a bit more than the others. He was fractionally older for the Florida State League by about the same amount Judge was under-age in the circuit. Wilson didn't get that far yet. Hannmemann, unlike the other two, is a true center fielder. That this front office values defense shouldn't come as news to you. Hannemann figures to begin in Myrtle Beach in April, and might move to Tennessee when Albert Almora moves to Iowa.

Next up was the Pirates' JaCoby Jones, from Louisiana State. Not a defensive whiz in college (tell me when this gets old), the Pirates tried him nonetheless at shortstop. The 87th selection hit really well, but he had defensive troubles at short. If his bat continues to play, he could be a really nice value pick in the third round. Old for his level, he OPS'd .851.

Four picks later, the White Sox took Jacob May from Coastal Carolina. Another true center fielder, May has been pushed in the ChiSox system, and was below league age in the Carolina League by almost a year. His OPS was .721. The other third-round option was another slugger type in Michigan Wolverine draftee Michael O'Neill to the Yankees. His OPS, as an old-for-the-league center fielder/left fielder in the South Atlantic League was .717.

When assessing expectations on a draft pick, among the first few thoughts ought to be which selection he was. If the Cubs draft a player in later-than-the-first round, and an expert whose opinion you value throws out a comp, don't take that as an over/under on the player's career. If you value the opinion, find out why he thinks the comp works. Maybe even where the comp has failings.

Most of all, remember that the scouting in the major league front offices is very good. In general, I can see why Judge and Wilson were selected before Hannemann. Jones might have been a good choice, but it isn't a type the Cubs would likely go with in the third round, due to defense. Hannemann probably looks better now than May or O'Neill, but both of those sound to be better defensive options than Jones or Judge.

If you want to assess Hannemann, maybe a good way is to compare him to recent 75th selections. When you do that, (I'm typing this before I look), cherry-picking might not be the optimal method, in either direction. After all, deliberately over- or under- expecting from a prospect is what causes problems in the first place.