Top 200 Prospects: The Process and Introduction

Tomorrow, we’ll be officially revealing our own version of the Top 100 prospects list that has become a staple of the baseball community. However, with more than 100 prospects receiving Future Value grades of 50 or higher, we decided to not arbitrarily cut off the list at 100 names, and ordered every prospect who achieved that FV score: 142 players in all. Because the Top 142 prospects sounds a little strange, however, I also included a secondary tier of unranked-but-still-listed prospects whose FVs fall on the higher side of 45; these are guys who weren’t too far off the list themselves, and in many cases, will be strong candidates for next year’s list.

So, tomorrow, we’ll unveil the FanGraphs Top 200 Prospect list. Today, though, I wanted to give you a little bit of background on how I arrived at these grades and rankings, as well as preemptively answering some questions that may arise about certain types of players.

Team Prospect Lists:
PadresMarlinsNationalsRed SoxWhite Sox

Scouting Explained: Introduction, Hitting Pt 1 Pt 2 Pt 3 Pt 4 Pt 5 Pt 6

Cuban Coverage: Latest on Yoan Moncada and Latest on Four Notable Cubans

What The Tool Grades Mean

If you’re dropping into my minor league prospects rankings for the first time, thanks for coming, but there’s also a few things I should probably explain so that the list doesn’t look like gibberish to you. I use the 20-80 scouting scale, the same grading scale that pro scouts use to grade players at every level of baseball. It grades a player’s traditional tools — hit, hit for power, speed, fielding, throwing, each of a pitcher’s pitches, and his command — against major league average for each tool. Average is 50, above average is 55, below average is 45, plus is 60, plus-plus is 70 and 80 is just called 80 because it’s so rare and special that it doesn’t need another name; think Giancarlo Stanton‘s power, Billy Hamilton‘s speed, or Randy Johnson’s fastball. A 60 or better off-speed pitch is the standard for being called a “swing and miss” pitch; you need two 60 pitches and at least an average third pitch and command to be a #3 starter, for example.

If you want to go into further depth, then I’d suggest checking out the Scouting Explained links above, where I go into more detail about how scouts do what they do. These tool grades aren’t directly applicable to stats in every case — speed is just speed, not the ability to steal bases — but I go into much more detail on each player and project his potential big league numbers, his ETA to reach that level, a risk grade and more on the team prospect lists, linked to above and in each player’s capsule on the list. Since there are so many players that have tools that are 45 or 50, I use a + to denote 47.5 (fringe-average or fringy) and 52.5 (solid-average), or the half-grades between these most common grades, 45, 50 and 55.

Using the 20-80 Scouting Scale

To convert these all-encompassing Future Value (FV) grades into something you can wrap your arms around, take a look at these scales, taken from the introduction to the Scouting Explained series

Hitter Starting Pitcher Relief Pitcher WAR
80 Top 1-2 #1 Starter —- 7.0
75 Top 2-3 #1 —- 6.0
70 Top 5 #1/2 —- 5.0
65 All-Star #2/3 —- 4.0
60 Plus #3 High Closer 3.0
55 Above Avg #3/4 Mid Closer 2.5
50 Avg Regular #4 Low CL/High SU 2.0
45 Platoon/Util #5 Low Setup 1.5
40 Bench Swing/Spot SP Middle RP 1.0
35 Emergency Call-Up Emergency Call-Up Emergency Call-Up 0.0
30 *Organizational *Organizational *Organizational -1.0

* “Organizational” is the term scouts use to describe a player that has no major league value; he’s just there to fill out a minor league roster and be a good influence on the prospects, though sometimes org players can outplay that projection.

** I didn’t continue down to 20 on either scale since it’s almost never relevant for players that I’ll be writing about or any of their tools, other than speed for big fat sluggers or selected Molina brothers.

The FV grade primarily takes into account upside, likelihood to reach that potential, and distance to the big leagues. So, for a big league ready player with relatively little risk that I peg as a 55 FV — Rays RF Steven Souza, for example — this means I think his most likely peak season(s) in the big leagues will be +2.5 to + 2.9 wins, with a relatively equal chance of his peak being a notch higher or lower than that. Because of injuries and general attrition, I tend to knock pitchers down one notch FV-wise from where their report would suggest, which scouts also do.

It’s a little harder to explain with lower minors players, but take Nationals RHP Reynaldo Lopez as an example. If you’re a GM looking to trade Souza — let’s say because he’s blocked at the big league level and is ready for regular for playing time — who might need to clear a roster spot anyway, and you’d like to make a one-for-one trade for a player with more risk/reward, then Lopez might be considered an equivalent. His most likely peak season is also +2.5 to +2.9 wins, but the range of possibilities is much wider, he’s still years from making the big leagues, and he could end up being nothing of big league value or he could turn into a +5 WAR frontline starter. Lopez may have more upside, but FV incorporates risk as well.

This chart is a little less useful for the list, but people always want to know how many home runs a power grade converts to, so here’s the scale scouts use to determine various individual tool grades, taken from the same article.

Tool Is Called Fastball Velo Batting Avg Homers RHH to 1B LHH to 1B 60 Yd Run
80 80 97 .320 40+ 4.00 3.90 6.3
75 96 .310 35-40 4.05 3.95 6.4
70 Plus Plus 95 .300 30-35 4.10 4.00 6.5
65 94 .290 27-30 4.15 4.05 6.6
60 Plus 93 .280 23-27 4.20 4.10 6.7
55 Above Avg 92 .270 19-22 4.25 4.15 6.8
50 Avg 90-91 .260 15-18 4.30 4.20 6.9-7.0
45 Below Avg 89 .250 12-15 4.35 4.25 7.1
40 88 .240 8-12 4.40 4.30 7.2
35 87 .230 5-8 4.45 4.35 7.3
30 86 .220 3-5 4.50 4.40 7.4

The last three are for speed, running from home to first, or a showcase-style timed-run in the outfield. Notice that the hitting tool grade only refers to batting average, so some prospects with strong plate discipline — Jesse Winker and Michael Conforto, for example — are rated higher than you’d expect given their pure hit tool grade. The hit tool is just meant to grade the ability to make contact and the raw tools (bat speed, eye-hand coordination, etc). I go into much more detail about how scouts do this and what it means in the six-part hit tool series linked to at the top of the article.

The Limitations of Prospect Lists

People like reading these lists and this is roughly the time of year these lists are normally made; that’s why this thing exists. Much like mock drafts, there are limitations to what I can tell you via a list and there’s also a false sense of precision this creates, but it’s a popular and easy format to dispense information. Try not to get too bent out of shape if you think some guy that’s 23rd should be 45th; that is so much closer to being the exact same thing than many people realize.

You might notice that there are runs where there’s five or more pitchers or hitters in a row. I could split them all up and never have more than one or two of the same type of player in a row, but players do tend to get grouped together, and when they’re almost exactly the same, it makes sense to rank them next to each other. You might point to the glut of similar shortstops in the 60-90 range and I’ll admit you could rank those guys in whatever order you want. There is a run of pitchers with injury or command questions in the 54-76 range and potential mid-rotation starters in the 17-37 range that I had a lot of trouble separating, shuffling the order a number of times. If there is some “correct” way to rank these players, it would likely include more runs from a certain position like this than you’d expect.

Another limit of this list is exactly what it’s measuring. Players with 150 plate appearances or 50 innings pitched or more are not eligible, and players are ranked with the team that currently has them, with no notation to which team originally signed/drafted them. So, a team like the Rays that doesn’t trade away prospects and only trades for them will naturally be rewarded by this process, while the Tigers — who have been much more successful than Tampa at drafting and signing players — often trade their prospects once they have enough trade value to acquire a good big leaguer, so Detroit is inherently penalized by this process.

Young big league teams with lots of controllable talent will usually be darlings of these lists for years, then when the players get to the big leagues, it leaves a hole; we aren’t measuring young talent with this list, just rookie-eligible young talent. I’ll seek to remedy this in a number of ways over the next few weeks by adjusting this list for original signing organization and doing this same process for every big league player so we can have a more complete view of the talent at all levels of an organization.

How I Made the List

A couple weeks ago I went into detail about the process for making the list. The short version is the order prospects are put on the team lists might be different in this list because I talked to a wider group of people and collected more varied opinions. In general, if you see a tool-grade change in one place that disagrees with another place on the site, that means I likely got newer and better information and adjusted my rankings accordingly. As of today, this reflects everything I know in the best way I know how to consider it.

The general approach to the list is to try to reflect industry-wide trade value, via valuing upside, likelihood to reach it and distance to the big leagues, along with a few more, less-important factors. I’ve scouted for teams in the past and have seen the vast majority of these players before, often over multiple years, so my opinion is also folded in.

You can look at making this list like college admissions: there’s a cold, objective approach where you just line up qualifications and score everything. There’s a more subjective “Which player do you want?, Which player do you believe in?” that I try to balance. A couple players are ranked using the objective approach, where they would be if they had a huge 2015 season. Very few people would rank them that high right now, but I have conviction they’ll have a huge season, so I basically took a leap of faith six months in advance.

The Best Prospects Not on the List

Since I know you guys will ask and I’m prepared to answer, I’ll run down the top Cuban and domestic amateurs players and where they’d land in the top 200. Second baseman Hector Olivera turns 30 in a few months, so he isn’t eligible for the list since he’s so different than the guys here. This is also why I didn’t include Red Sox center fielder Rusney Castillo, who was on the Red Sox List, since I’d then also have to include Diamondbacks left fielder Yasmany Tomas and Pirates shortstop Jung-Ho Kang, and they don’t really fit on this list.

I won’t rank the best young Japanese professional talents or players still in Cuba since there’s still a lot of time or effort before they become threats to land on this list. Still, the best of that group is 20-year-old 6-foot-4 righty Shohei Otani with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in Japan’s NPB. I recently talked to a scout who said Otani is a more physical Yu Darvish who throws even harder. Otani has hit 101 mph, has the stuff and command to be a frontline starter and would be comfortably in this top 10. Still, he won’t be available to major league teams for years due to the posting process, and his timeline is similar to Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Nineteen-year-old Cuban free agent 2B/3B/CF Yoan Moncada would be eighth, just behind Lucas Giolito and 18-year-old Florida high school shortstop Brendan Rodgers is the current favorite to go No. 1 overall in the draft. He’d fit in the 32nd range. Eighteen-year-old LHP Brady Aiken went No. 1 overall last year to the Houston Astros but didn’t sign and will be in this year’s draft, though he hasn’t picked a school yet (rumors are he’ll end up at IMG Post-Grad with Jacob Nix). Aiken would fit 46th overall. 21-year-old Duke University RHP Michael Matuella is a wild card who has No. 1 ability but has a very short track record of elite stuff and performance. He would be at No. 51, while a comparable talent, 18 year-old Cuban defector RHP Yadier Alvarez, would fit at No. 58.

Twenty-one-year-old Cuban free agent second baseman Andy Ibanez would be in the 143 to 200 group as a 45+ FV. I could place a couple more draft prospects but they’d likely fit in that last group with Ibanez now, with a chance a few emerge this spring, along with the obvious possibility that one of the top three prospects regress.

A Couple Last Notes

I link to many of the videos below, but the FanGraphs YouTube page has over 600 videos of players from every level of baseball, taken from the traditional scouting angles. I also do a podcast each week; here’s last week’s episode where I talked mostly about my recent trip to the Dominican Republic.

Once I finish all 30 teams’ lists, we’ll have a handy sortable database with all the rankings and tool grades you find on the site. Until then, I’ve also added the tool grades you see below on each player’s page. That’s a good landing spot for information on each player, with links to recent articles with more information than you’ll find here — like ETA and risk. Also, once I post all 30 lists, we’ll do final organizational rankings.

Alright, that seems like a long enough introduction. As one final tease before the list goes up tomorrow, new FanGraphs writer Sean Dolinar created some visual breakdowns of the of the demographics of the list, which we’ve included below. Check back tomorrow morning for all 200 names, and I’ll be hosting a Tuesday edition of my Prospect chat to answer questions about the list. Hopefully this tides you over until then.




Kiley McDaniel has worked as an executive and scout, most recently for the Atlanta Braves, also for the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. He's written for ESPN, Fox Sports and Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on twitter.

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7 years ago

Where would Cuban pitcher, Vladimir Gutierrez be ranked? top-125?