There was a little furor kicked up here at OTM yesterday when possibly unbeknownst to me, I linked to a piece by Mike Newman of Fan Graphs. The meat of the piece was about Red Sox third base prospect Garin Cecchini and how he's not all that spectacular. I don't think it's a view that many share, though I'm sure some, but Mr. Newman, who has seen Cecchini play in person, was giving his opinion and as a writer for Fan Graphs, that's his job.
The part of the piece that I think maybe raised ire was this.
For [Cecchini] to rank in the Red Sox top-5 means the organization’s prospect pool is down considerably from a few years ago. Beyond Xander Bogaerts and maybe Matt Barnes, the minor league system is void of true impact talent. The depth is there to produce a number of average regulars and second division starters, but the trade value of that type of prospect is less than the gaudy rankings would indicate.
There are two things here.
1. What was the Red Sox system like "a few years ago?"
2. What is "impact talent?"
The first two are easier to answer. A few years ago, on September 17th 2010 to be exact, the Red Sox top 10 looked like this according to Sox Prospects (and thanks to them for keeping this information around):
- Casey Kelly
- Ryan Kalish
- Anthony Rizzo
- Lars Anderson
- Jose Iglesias
- Felix Doubront
- Anthony Ranaudo
- Josh Reddick
- Stolmy Pimentel
- Drake Britton
There's always the question of who was considered impact talent at the time, but I think we can safely say that now, Anthony Rizzo looks like possibly the only All Star among them*. Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein published a Red Sox Top 11 in mid-November of 2009 that ranked both Kelly and Ryan Westmoreland as five-star prospects, his highest ranking. The following season Westmoreland was recovering from brain surgery and the Red Sox had traded Kelly to San Diego as part of the (first) Adrian Gonzalez deal and according to Mr. Goldstein, nobody had stepped up to fill that void. Looking at those two seasons, one with two five star guys and one with none, it's tough to look at today's Sox system and say it's dropped off the table. In fact, I'm guessing when BP's Red Sox list is published later this year I'm guessing (and it's only a guess, I have no inside information) that Xander Bogaerts will be the only five star guy on there. If so that would place it in between the other two lists, at least in terms of top tier talent.
I'm aware Josh Reddick made the All Star game last year, but he hit .215/.256/.391 in the second half so there's at least some doubt that he's an All Star going forward.[Edit: Josh Reddick finished 16th in the MVP voting, but did not make the All Star team. The author regrets the error.]
So, what is "impact talent?" Mr. Newman said the Red Sox system is devoid of it after Bogaerts, but he doesn't define the term. I think you could infer that he's talking about perennial All Stars. He's entitled to his definition, of course, but at least for me, the term casts a wider net. 'Impact talent' encompasses players that make significant positive contributions. A consistent three win player does that. So does a four win guy. Last year Asdrubal Cabrera was, by Fan Graphs estimation, a three win player. So were Coco Crisp, Brett Lawrie, and Jason Kipnis. I'm not sure any of those guys would be considered good bets to make next year's All Star game, but they all made highly positive contributions to their teams last season.
For me, that's where Mr. Newman's assessment of Boston's system falls apart. Everyone knows Xander Bogaerts is a top talent. But after that the system isn't barren. There are numerous guys who could end up with careers not unlike Kipnis or Crisp or Cabrera, or something less, but also something more. If they do though, that's impact talent. To me, Mr. Newman is missing the depth of talent in the Sox system, but also the value of an above average regular to a major league team. Star power is integral to winning, but so is filling out the roster with average to above-average players.
I was listening to Fan Graphs Audio yesterday and Carson Cistulli was talking with Dave Cameron about the Marlins deal. Cameron remarked that the Marlins had a decent core of talent in Reyes, Johnson, Buehrle and Stanton last season. Their problem was the rest of the roster was lousy, they had some injuries, and presto, they lost 93 games. If they'd had more of that average to above-average talent their season might have gone differently.
Mr. Newman's piece also brings up a couple other points for me. I think we, as Red Sox fans, likely over-value Red Sox prospects. Maybe it's a lot, maybe it's only a little bit, maybe it's only on the margins, but I think it's there. This is one reason Mike Newman is worth listening to, even if you don't necessarily agree with what he's saying.
I think back to when the Red Sox acquired Jason Bay. The Red Sox got Bay for Manny Ramirez and Craig Hansen and Brandon Moss. At the time I was thinking, wait a minute, we traded Manny AND two prospects to get Bay? That's a Hall of Famer, a starting right fielder, and an All Star closer for a good-hitting left fielder. We wuz robbed! In reality it ended up being Manny, who was being an utter pain and sadly had to go, and two nothings in Hansen and Moss. Somehow, years later, Moss showed up hitting in Oakland. But whatever, that wasn't happening in Boston. The point is, it looked like the Red Sox vastly over-paid because I over-valued Hansen and Moss.
To his credit, Mike Newman isn't susceptible to this bias. Or at least he isn't susceptible to it when it comes to the Red Sox. Because he has different biases and information than I do, it makes his opinion worth listening to.
So in the end, we're all talking about opinions here, educated guesses. I don't happen to agree with Mike Newman's assessment of the Red Sox system. I think it's better than it was two years ago, I think that the system has numerous impact players, and I think that he's under-valuing the contributions that can be made by merely above average talent, which the Sox system has in abundance. But none of that means I shouldn't read his work. For one, he's been highly accountable and that goes a long way with me, but most importantly, it's another data point in the search for the truth.