Prospect rankings are completely useless. This is not to say that they are bad, because they aren’t. They do frequently whiff, of course, because predicting individual baseball success is really, really hard. (Recent top overall prospects have included mediocrities like Andrew Benintendi, Jurickson Profar, and Delmon Young, while Baseball Prospectus’s top farm system of 2012 belonged to the San Diego Padres, who proceeded to finish each of the next 10 seasons under .500.) But generally speaking, the very top prospects turn into good-to-great ballplayers, and the top farm systems subsequently lead to Major League success.
So when I say that prospect rankings are useless, what I mean is that they don’t actually serve any real world baseball purpose. They have no bearing on who becomes a star, on who reaches their potential and who falls short, or on how teams construct their rosters (rest assured: every front office has their own proprietary evaluation systems, and doesn’t need to pay for a Baseball America subscription.) Prospect rankings, when it comes down to it, are purely entertainment. They are content.
That said, they are fun content, and I look forward to them every year. It’s fun learning about the new players who haven’t popped up on my radar yet. It’s fun tracking the Sox system. And, of course, it’s never not hilarious to see how overhyped the Yankee farm system consistently is, year after year.
And it’s also fun disagreeing with the rankings, even though that’s the most useless exercise of all. Even the most plugged-in fans have only barely seen any of these guys play and, when we do, we don’t have any actual skills as scouts and judges of talent. But like I said, it’s fun.
This brings us to Keith Law of The Athletic. Law released his top 100 prospects this week, and four Red Sox players made the list. If you pay any attention at all to the Red Sox farm system, then you can probably guess the names: Marcelo Mayer, Triston Casas, Ceddanne Rafaela, and Miguel Bleis. These are the same four names who have appeared on both of the top 100 lists produced by MLB Pipeline and Baseball America (though it should be noted that, because they operate with a different definition of “prospect,” Baseball America also included Masataka Yoshida.).
Baseball America ranked Mayer the 10th best prospect in all of baseball, followed by Casas at 29, Rafaela at 71, and Bleis at 88. MLB Pipeline’s rankings were extremely similar, with Mayer at number 9, followed by Casas at 23, Rafaela at 86, and Bleis at 93. ESPN actually left Rafaela off the list, saying he just missed, but they matched most major lists with the other three: Mayer at 7, Casas at 37, Bleis at 95.
So why is Law’s list noteworthy? Not only did Law have Rafaela on his list, he had all him the way down at number 37 — three spots ahead of Triston Casas, who has already debuted in the Majors, where he put up a 120 wRC+ in 27 games. Law thinks quite highly of Casas, calling him someone who should “[hit] for some average with a ton of walks and either 40-odd doubles or 25-plus homers.” What Law is describing there, is a a fringe All-Star at the very least. And yet it seems he thinks Rafaela is even better than that.
Rafaela is an elite athlete with excellent contact skills, wiry strength, and a glove that is already MLB-caliber at either center field or short stop. But Law’s ranking is a massive outlier, owing to the fact that Rafaela remains a free-swinger with an undisciplined approach at the plate. He doesn’t walk much, and expands the zone in a way that leads to a lot of weak contact. Soxprospects.com still summarizes him as a “potential bench utility player, [with the] ceiling of an everyday regular who adds considerable value on defense and also contributes some at the plate.”
Law recognizes the flaws, but sees much higher upside:
His defense is elite and he’s a 70 runner as well, so he doesn’t have to hit that much to be a solid big leaguer, and he could be an above-average regular as a low-OBP, 20+ homer guy. The hope is that he improves the choices he’s making as a hitter and that he recognizes pitch types sooner with experience and reduces some of that chase to give himself a chance to be a high-average hitter and potential star on both sides of the ball.
What Law is describing there — a Gold Glove defender who hits over 20 homers with a high average and OBP — isn’t just a fringe All-Star but a STAR, one of the best 20-30 players in the game.
Does Rafaela have it in him to make the shifts in his approach necessary to reach this potential? I have absolutely no idea and neither do you. As I said at the top, we don’t have the skills required to make that call. But watching Rafaela try to make this leap at the plate is going to be one of the most interesting things about the 2023 season for Red Sox fans. If he does improve his approach and show that that he might be able to reach the potential Law sees in him, then some of the murkiness surrounding the core of the next great Red Sox team will clear up considerably.