Over valuing prospects - two in the bush vs one in hand
Whenever a trade rumor or deadline comes up - the debate arises again: Are top-tiered prospects more or less valuable than proven major-leaguers? Often one side of the debate points to past Sox prospects abysmal track record of success (more appropriately - the lack of success) as a reason why prospects such as Marte, H. Ramirez, and Anibal Sanchez should be traded for legitimate big league prospects. Are we overvaluing our prospects here? Or have the Sox made remarkable headway in our minor league system? Is it fair to project Brian Rose and Carl Pavano's failure to reach expectations to the careers of Jonathan Papelbon and Jon Lester? How about comparing can't miss prospect, Michael Coleman's, disappearance to the career projections for Jacoby Ellsbury? What about offering Donnie Sadler's failure as a reason for trading Hanley Ramirez or Dustin Pedroia? Is it fair to use the failure of past prospects as a reason to promote trades for MLB-proven players?
I do not think such comparisons are fair to use to project the future failure of our current prospects. Frankly, the minor league systems of the past were weak in years past. While the Sox were trotting out lower-tier prospects for MLB failure (lower tier prospects by MLB standards, but prospects who ranked among our best prospects), teams with strong systems produced impact players on a consistent basis (The Dodgers come to mind). I looked to compare current players versus players from the 90's.
Jonathan Papelbon ® vs. Brian Rose ®
I looked to compare the two based on their minor league stats at specific levels and found one striking thing - it is impossible to do so. While Papelbon was allowed to succeed and build up confidence at the various levels before promotion, Brian Rose simply was promoted after a short amount of success, not allowing enough time to determine if his success was due to chance or some other factor. Rose was customarily promoted and demoted at the slightest sign of difficulty - usually spending very few innings at a level before the next promotion or demotion. It appears he was often promoted with little reason for doing so. While some demotions were because of injury, others were reactionary to poor performance. Such changes probably negatively affected confidence level and encouraged Rose to pitch for results, rather than pitch to improve certain mechanics and mastery of pitches. I have to wonder if Rose would have been such a bust with a less-rushed promotion schedule.
I compared Rose with Papelbon merely because of their handedness - perhaps Jon Lester would be more appropriate because both Lester and Rose were selected as high schoolers. However, even that comparison runs into issues because while Lester has been challenged by the Sox with aggressive promotions, he is also given the benefit of extended time at each assigned level - and even repeated A-ball - something that Rose surely would have benefited from. Lester is currently enduring some growing pains at the AAA level - but it seems part of that is due to the focus on his pitches, rather than the Sox focusing on results (as was expected of Rose). All in all, I do not believe Brian Rose's failure should be used as reasoning for the impending failure of upper-tier Sox pitching prospects, nor should Rose's failure be offered as reasons for trading pitching prospects away from MLB-proven players. It appears the Rose's ascent to the majors was grossly mismanaged - perhaps increasing his injury risk (because he did not appear to spend enough time changing mechanics to decrease injury risk - as the Sox have now spent time doing with several new pitching prospects).
Let's look at another 90's pitching prospect, Carl Pavano, who was more properly handled, and compare his success with that of Jon Lester and Papelbon.
Lester -(19) A: 106.0IP 3.65ERA 8.66H/9 3.74BB/9 6.03K/9 1.61K/BB 1.38WHIP
Pavano (19) A: 141.0IP 3.45ERA 7.53H/9 3.32BB/9 8.81K/9 2.65K/BB 1.21WHIP
Lester (20) A+: 90.1IP 4.28ERA 8.17H/9 3.69BB/9 9.66K/9 2.62K/BB 1.32WHIP
Papel (23) A+: 129.2IP 2.64ERA 6.73H/9 2.98BB/9 10.6K/9 3.56K/BB 1.08WHIP
Lester -(21) AA: 148.1IP 2.61ERA 6.92H/9 3.46BB/9 9.89K/9 2.86K/BB 1.15WHIP
Pavano (20) AA: 184.2IP 2.63ERA 7.51H/9 2.29BB/9 7.12K/9 3.11K/BB 1.09WHIP
Papelbon (24) AA: 87.0IP 2.48ERA 6.10H/9 2.38BB/9 8.59K/9 3.61K/BB 0.94WHIP
AAA - Neither Lester or Papelbon has enough time in AAA to compare . . .
First thing . . . it's clear that Papelbon is in a class of his own of the three pitchers, though he is older and had collegiate experience. However, Pavano and Lester compare quite well. Using Pavano's stats to suggest we are overvaluing Lester certainly seems like a valid argument, as does using Pavano's career track to justify trading Lester for MLB-proven pitching. However, it is important to note that Lester and Pavano are completely different pitchers. Lester is a strikeout pitcher with a hard fastball, while Pavano is far more proficient at pounding the plate. Lester has bouts of wildness. If Lester does not learn to stay in the strike zone more, I wouldn't be surprised to see a pitching career similar to Pavano's. However, because he is still raw in terms of control, there is a possibility that if that is harnessed - Lester will become an upper-tier pitcher. It is that reasoning that prevents many fans from considering trading Lester. His current level is Pavano-esque in terms of success in MLB (minus the injury history), but he still has a ceiling that is quite attainable - resulting in a much higher trade value than Pavano.
Last example: Donnie Sadler Vs. Hanley Ramirez. While Ramirez is no longer with the Sox, he, like Sadler, was a young 'tools' player that spent time in the Sox system. Pedroia, meanwhile, was selected after college primarily because of performance (not tools).
Sadler (19) Rk: 206AB .272AVG .349OBP .3833SLG .732OPS
Ramire (18) Rk: 164AB .341AVG .402OBP .555SLG .957OPS (Also did well at A- as an 18 y.o.)
Sadler (20) A: 438AB .283AVG .396OBP .438SLG .834OPS
Ramir (19) A: 422AB .275AVG .327OBP .403SLG .730OPS
Ramir (20) A+: 239AB .310AVG .364OBP .389SLG .753OPS (Also put up similar stats in AA as a 20 y.o.)
Sadler (21) AA: 454AB .267AVG .328OBP .385SLG .713OPS
Ramir (21) AA: 465AB .271AVG .335OBP .385SLG .720OPS
While Ramirez had quite an advantage younger - it appears that while it doesn't seem like Sadler should be compared to Ramirez - statistically they appear to be quite comparable. It should be noted that the two are not similar in frame. Also, Ramirez, played in a pitcher-friendly league, though I admittedly have no idea about Sadler. It appears, based on minor league stats, that there is a possibility that Ramirez could turn out to be similar to Sadler in the long term (which would make the Beckett trade more favorable), though Hanley has already had some success at the MLB level.
I must say I'm minorly surprised to see the statistic similarities between some of the Sox's highly touted prospects of today vs. days past. While Papelbon clearly holds his own, John Lester has experienced similar results as Pavano - who is a solid (but not great) MLB starter when healthy. Lester pitches differently (power pitcher), which could bode well for future projections, but there is also reason to be hesitant and consider trading him for a proven MLB player.
Ramirez is no longer with the Sox, instead off to a hot start with the Marlins (though he has faced some pitching-weak teams). However, while I originally expected him to compare quite favorably to fellow-tools prospect Sadler, Ramirez has put up similar numbers at a similar age as Sadler back in the 90's.
I wonder if the strength of our system isn't so much in that we have higher-caliber prospects, but that we simply have more prospects that could flourish or fizzle. It does appear, however, that I (as well as many others) may be a wee bit overenthusiastic about the improved quality of prospect our system is turning out. In reality, our current class of players should be no less likely to fizzle than past classes - yet our increased depth should increase our chances of success from the farm system.