Desperate for pitching to go with a young lineup that already possesses significant potential, the Royals are reportedly dangling top prospect Wil Myers in the hope of landing an ace for their makeshift rotation. The leading recent rumor had Kansas City talking to the Red Sox about a trade that would send Myers to Boston for Jon Lester; the Rays' James Shields has also been mentioned as a potential return in a Myers trade.
This has led to a lot of debate about the actual value of a blue-chip prospect such as Myers who has yet to have significant or, in his case, any exposure in the major leagues. In 2012, the soon-to-be-22-year-old catcher-turned-center-fielder hit .314/.387/.600 with 37 home runs in Double- and Triple-A. Myers was ranked the game's 10th-best prospect by Baseball America prior to the 2011 season and, despite falling in the rankings after a poor, injury-plagued season that year, is sure to find himself safely ensconced in the top 10 when the new prospect lists come out in February.
To get an idea of how significant that ranking might be in terms of predicting Myers' future success, I looked at the careers of every player who made Baseball America's top 10 from 2000 to 2005.
A couple of quick notes on my method: I stopped at 2005 because that is the most recent prospect class in which every player has reached his prime. The youngest member of that class, Felix Hernandez, will be 27 in 2013 and already has a Cy Young award and 98 career wins. The 2006 list includes Justin Upton, who turned 25 in late August and could still emerge as either a superstar or a disappointment. Also, what follows is not intended as an audit of Baseball America. In general, most top 100 prospect lists have far more names in common than not, and that's especially true in the top 10, just as you'll find more agreement about the identity of the best player in baseball than about the 97th-best player.
In the six years from 2000 to 2005, 48 players appeared in the top 10 of Baseball America's annual prospects rankings, 31 of them hitters, 17 of them pitchers. Of those 48, 25 have thus far made an All-Star team, 11 have won a Silver Slugger, seven have won a Gold Glove, three won the Rookie of the Year, three have won their league's Most Valuable Player award, two have won the Cy Young award and one has won the Rolaids Relief Man Award twice. (To see the full list of 48 players to make BA's top 10 prospects lists in those six seasons, click here.)
The average career bWAR (Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement) of those 48 players is 15.9. The two players from that group whose career bWAR totals fall closest to that average are retired Phillies slugger Pat Burrell (16.4) and former Rays ace Scott Kazmir (15.2), who is still just 28 but whose career was derailed by shoulder and back injuries in 2011.
Using that average career bWAR as the cutoff, 28 of those 48 players, 58 percent, fell below that standard, making them something between a disappointment and an outright bust. The latter category includes five players who failed to post a positive bWAR in the majors and two more who never made it to the Show. Here are the 13 players from that group who have compiled a career bWAR of less than 5.0:
These are the 10 prospects who went on to accumulate the highest bWAR:
If prospect projections were a precise science, one could expect to see a large amount of overlap between the 48 top-10 prospects from 2000 to 2005 and a list of the top 48 major leaguers who lost their rookie (and thus prospect) status during those same seasons. To find out just how much overlap there actually has been, I made a list of the top 48 players, as ranked by career bWAR, who lost their rookie status between 2000 and '05.
Of that second group of 48, just 16 were among the top-10 prospects from those years. Add in Josh Hamilton, who didn't make his major league debut until 2007 but has a career bWAR that would sneak onto the bottom of that list, and the 48 top-10 prospects from 2000 to 2005 make up just 35 percent (17) of those top 48 major leaguers.
As mentioned above, 58 percent of those top-10 prospects can be classified as disappointments or worse, meaning 42 percent were better than that. Thus, we're starting to zero in on the chance of a top-10 prospect fulfilling his promise in the major leagues as somewhere between the 35 percent above and that 42 percent. The players who can be found in the gray area in between are men such as former top-10 prospects Burrell, Alex Rios, Carlos Peña and Vernon Wells, players who have vacillated between boom and bust over the course of their careers. That 35 percent chance of stardom is actually very good, but it's far from a sure thing, and the chances of that top 10 prospect building a Hall of Fame case, which is often the fear when trading blue chip talent, is far lower.
Using an admittedly subjective standard, there are six former top-10 prospects from 2000-05 who seem likely to engender a lively Hall of Fame debate: CC Sabathia, Joe Mauer, Felix Hernandez, Ichiro Suzuki, Mark Teixeira and Prince Fielder. As of now, chances are that only the first four, comprising eight percent of the original group of 48, will actually wind up with a plaque in Cooperstown.
Meanwhile, a look at that list of the top 48 players by career bWAR to lose their prospect status between 2000 and 2005, reveals that some of the game's best players were never considered sure-thing prospects. Albert Pujols, who leads that group by a mile with 88.5 career wins above replacement (Suzuki is second at 54.6), never broke Baseball America's top 40. Third-place Chase Utley never made the top 80. Ian Kinsler topped out at number 98. Johan Santana and Mark Buehrle, both of whom are in the top 10 of that list, never cracked BA's top 100. Nor did Robinson Cano, Matt Holliday, Kevin Youkilis, Dan Haren or Brandon Webb, the last of whom finished in the top two in the National League Cy Young voting three years in a row before a shoulder injury effectively ended his career.
So what does all that mean for Myers? It means he has a very good chance of becoming a very good major league player, but a significantly greater chance of being a disappointment, and a better chance of being a total bust than of putting together a Hall of Fame career. It also means that all of those possibilities remain on the table. Myers' performance this past season gave every indication that he should open the 2013 season in a major league lineup, but it could be years before we know which path his career will take.
If the Royals flip Myers for an ace this winter, that pitcher may depart via free agency before Myers even hits his stride in the major leagues. On the other hand, Myers' trade value might never be higher and the Royals' talented young lineup and bullpen and questionable rotation just might coalesce behind that ace to make the Royals a surprise playoff team in 2013. The former seems more likely, but Myers' major league success is no more of a safe bet than the latter.