"All a bunch of crap." That is what Philadelphia Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro says when asked about recent prospect rankings that are devoid of Philllies prospects. Of course he wouldn't say that if he had a bunch of prospects on those lists. But is he right anyway?
Of course for sportswriters and fans who follow a teams prospects, these lists aren't crap at all. We are thrilled for our team's future when it has a bunch of young players recognized as among the best in baseball by whoever makes the list. Fans spend hours arguing over who is the better prospect and ranking their own teams prospects.
The problem is we often can't even agree after the fact on who the better player was 20 years after their careers end. Yet here we are arguing over whether some teenager who just finished high school will have a better career than a guy who is 25 already trying to earn a spot in the big leagues. In that sense, these lists clearly are "all a bunch of crap."
There is another level, however, where these lists lead us to seriously misunderstanding of the game. To the players and to the team, it doesn't matter at all - they can all be successful or all unsuccessful. They aren't really in competition with one another. They are only "competing" with themselves to be as good as possible. Of course, once they get to the major leagues they will compete for jobs based on how good they are. But if they are good enough, they will have a job.
You can see the result of the idea prospects are in competition in this otherwise perceptive profile of Eddie Rosario. The author briefly mentions that, since the "the Twins outfield is packed fill of high end prospects", Rosario's future is at second base. But that competition is really irrelevant. He points out the real problem for Rosario, which is that "he does not have the requisite power to compete with a typical corner outfielder." Its Rosario's bat, not the presence of guys like Hicks, Arcia and Buxton, that is keeping him from continuing in the outfield.
Perhaps the largest problem with lists that rank players is that there is actually a very wide range of possibilities for how a player will develop. The result is that the actual potential of players overlaps a lot. There are players who never show up on top 100 lists who end up being mainstays of major league teams. And there are highly ranked players who end up never being able to put together a major league career.
Its not that the list makers got it wrong. Its that there just isn't nearly enough precision in predicting a prospect's future to be able to say this guy is slightly better than the next guy. Like the major league draft, the first ten players or so may have things that make them stand out from the rest. But the difference between the 20th prospect and the 100th on a list is just not very significant. Nor is the difference between the 100th player and the next 50-100 on someone's rankings, no matter how well informed.
In short, Amaro is right. In real terms top 100 lists are "all a bunch of crap." They are still fun and interesting. And its more fun when your favorite team has six players on the lists, like the Twins this year, rather than none.