Way back when, when this blog first started up, I wrote a piece about the timetable for prospects, and how to look at a player and properly assess his “prospect status” and things like that. I wanted to write a followup, go over some of those ideas again, and expound on them a bit, because I’ve been getting a bunch of questions via e-mail, and here in the comments section, asking about guys like Landon Jacobsen and Greg Jacobs. So, I felt like I’d try and answer them in a broad manner and give sort of guide for you to make things easier.
First off, we have to start where the player starts, his draft. As an amateur player, unless you are living in a foreign country and outside of the rules of major league baseball, you are subject to the MLB draft. As a draft eligible 17 or 18 year old, if you are drafted, you can either sign, go to junior college, or commit to a 4 year university. Once at a 4 year school, you are not eligible for the draft until after your junior season, or 3 years on the baseball team to account for red shirting and injuries. So, with these three paths, we can try to figure out where a prospect should be in a given season. Before we get to that, though, there is an important qualifier. Not all players will move at the same pace, and that doesn’t necessarily diminish their value, but the general guidelines I’ll lay out apply to many prospects.
High School Draftees
Age 18: Rookie ball (GCL, AZL, APPY, PIO), possible late season promotion to short season league.
Basically, out of the draft, you’re going to start in rookie ball with a lot of other kids coming from your same draft class, as well as the kids from the previous season who are battling an injury or an awful start. The cream of the crop, if dominant in rookie ball, can be jumped to the short season league or possibly even Low A for one start. Your best prospects are going to follow this route.
Age 19: Short season (Northwest League, New York Penn League) or Low A.
The year after being drafted, you should be out of the rookie league you started in and spending all of your time at either a short season league or Low A. The best prospects normally jump to Low A, while the more raw kids will be held back in extended spring training, could repeat rookie ball, or could be sent to short season league in June. In the Phillies case, Cardenas and Drabek got the jump to Low A, Myers is being held back in extended ST. Because of this, you bump the stock of Cardenas and Drabek up a notch and drop the stock of Myers down a notch.
Age 20: Low A or High A
This is where you begin to see some variance. If a HS draftee spends his entire 2nd season at Low A and experiences success, it’s logical for him to move up to High A. This is normally reserved for the cream of the crop prospects, true blue chip guys. A lot good prospects will repeat Low A for part of their third season before moving to High A. A prospect in High A in his 2nd full season is moving at the perfect pace. A prospect starting back in Low A isn’t necessarily behind, as long as he moves up to High A at some point midway through the season or so.
Age 21: High A or AA
Same philosophy as above. The advanced prospects will move to AA in their 3rd full season, while the lower rated guys will start back in High A and be promoted after a solid start.
Age 22: AA or AAA
Same pattern as above. You’ll see the absolute best prospects make it to AA by age 20, but they are the exception to the prospect guide, not the rule. Guys like Philip Hughes and Homer Bailey don’t grow on trees.
Age 23: AAA or MLB
The normal progression sees a great prospect start his age 23 season in AAA and eventually make his way to the majors at some point in that season. Again, some guys get there earlier, but they are the exception, not the rule.
High A through AAA management tends to vary by organizations. Some clubs want their guys to get at least a half year in before moving a guy, some organizations like to go one level at a time, and others will move a guy as soon as they see him string together a solid 6 weeks of performances. There is no universal method, but the above is a decent guide. If a guy is 21 and playing well at AAA, he’s obviously a very advanced prospect. On the same side, if he’s 21 and still in Low A, chances are, he’s not going to be considered a high end prospect.
Junior College draftees.
The Junior College program is the popular choice for draft and follow guys, but that will change after this year with the new draft rules. Guys will still elect to go to junior college to avoid a three year commitment to a 4 year university. To evaluate these guys, you basically tack a year onto the expected time table. Many of these guys will be playing their age 19 season at a junior college, which means their first year of pro ball will be their age 20 season. In most cases, they’ll start directly in Low A, some even in High A, so they just bypass the short season clubs. This isn’t always the case, but it happens quite a bit. So, you’d look like this
Age 20: Low A/High A
Age 21: High A/AA
Age 22: AA/AAA
Age 23: AAA/MLB
Age 24: MLB
Time tables on these types of players are tougher to discern, as some guys are still too raw to move that quickly, and of course, a lot has to do with organizational philosophy.
4 Year College Juniors
This is where it starts to get tricky in terms of figuring out where a guy should be. Generally, college guys will skip over the short season leagues in their first full season, and many are assigned to Low A straight out of the draft, some even straight to High A depending on their experience level and perceived prospect status. We have to assume that their first full season will come at age 22, sometimes they’ll play part of the season at age 21, depending on their birthday. Typically, the best prospects should be in High A to start their age 22 season, meaning they’d play at Low A after being drafted, then skip the level in their first season. So, it should look like this
Age 22: High A/AA
Age 23: AA/AAA/MLB
Age 24: AAA/MLB
This tends to follow the same pattern as the previous paths, but it should be noted that playing at a 3 year program is generally a replacement for the rookie/short season/Low A leagues. If a player is coming from a 3 year program and playing in Low A for a significant amount of time, his prospect status has to be knocked down a bit.
4 Year College Seniors
Same method applies here, but the time table needs to be expedited even more, but their starting age is normally 22, and 23 in their first full season
Age 23: A/A+/AA
Age 24: AA/AAA/MLB
Age 25: AAA/MLB
Most four year seniors, who are going to be legitimate prospects, need to dominate in A ball and AA early on, and make it to the bigs by the time they are 25. If they lag behind in this timetable, it hurts their prospect status.
Ok, so now we have the general timetable blueprint. But there are qualifiers, like most everything prospect related. If a guy misses a season due to a major injury, such as Tommy John Surgery, you have to bump his timetable back a year and a half, realistically. So, let’s take a practical example and look at Zach Segovia. He was drafted out of high school at age 19. He finished his first full year at Lakewood at age 20. However, he was forced to have Tommy John Surgery and missed all of 2004, which would have been his age 21 season. He came back in 2005, his age 22 season, and was in High A. Looking at the above chart, he should have been in AA in his age 22 season, but because of the injury, High A was the appropriate level for him, given his individual profile. Adjustments like this are easy to figure out, but need to be taken into consideration. Given the successful nature of TJ surgery, there is good reason to think he can still be a good pitcher, but he’s knocked a bit on health, not on his age/level correlation.
The other area to consider is a change of position/role. Some guys are drafted as hitters, and after three seasons of struggles, are converted to pitchers. These guys have to be looked at in a different context and adjusted appropriately. Also, a player may make a radical adjustment, like starting to throw side arm, or moving from 3B to C, or something along those lines, and again a slight adjustment may be necessary.
By the fall, my projection/evaluation formula and system will be built and ready to go, and I’ll be discussing these principles again in detail when doing next year’s prospect grades. I just wanted to try and clear this up and help give people an idea of how to look at a guy’s resume and figure out if he’s where he needs to be. Because a player is much older than his level doesn’t mean he’s worthless, but it does mean that he needs to produce at a much higher level than your typical age/level correct prospect. A guy like Landon Jacobsen, 28 in a few days, isn’t a prospect. He’s 5 years too old for AA, and despite his early success, there is a reason he hasn’t made it to the majors. While I sometimes bristle at the traditional scouting measures and how they are used to determine a player’s overall value, there normally is a good reason why a 28 year old pitching in AA is not pitching in the majors, or hasn’t pitched in the majors. Every once in a while you get a Chris Coste story, where the guy is finally given a shot and pays off, but you also get the story of the guy who has sparkling numbers for 2 months in AA, gets his shot, and gets rocked all the way back to AA.
If you have questions or feedback, please share them here in the comments section or via e-mail.