Editor's note: This is a piece I originally posted three years ago around this time which I have updated and re-posted this year. I am reposting it today because it serves as a good way for many fans and families of minor leaguers to get a true feel for how players are evaluated and how value is determined.
I get this question every year at this time:
“So where do you think so and so will start this season? He really did well last year at…”
Or I get this one:
“Why is so and so starting there? He should be playing at a higher level. And why is so and so not on a full season roster?”
There is so much that goes into determining where a player goes to open a season and how/when he is moved during the season. Obviously, a player’s talent, readiness, and upside are the three biggest components to determining who goes where at any time of the year, but a fourth component – value – is also something to consider.
A lot of times questions like the one above are asked about a player that may be a fringe prospect or is a guy that may just be “inventory” in the Indians’ minor league system. For as mean as calling a guy inventory or filler may sound, the reality is that over 50% of the players in the system are not considered legitimate Major League prospects and are just in the organization to help fill out rosters.
The reason for this is quite simple: spots are limited as a player moves up the minor league ladder. The Indians have close to 150 or so minor league players in spring training every year, and only 100 of them can break spring training at the end of March on an active roster for a full season affiliate. That leaves around 50-some players that will have to stay behind for extended spring training to get ready for short season leagues that start up in June at Single-A Mahoning Valley or rookie level Arizona. Also, over the course of the month of minor league spring training about 20 to 30 or so of those players are released.
The spring is a tough time of the year as a lot of players are disappointed either with being assigned to a level lower than they thought they would start, staying behind in extended spring training, or being released. The truth of the matter is that most of the opening day rosters for Triple-A Columbus, Double-A Akron, High-A Carolina, and Low-A Lake County were already mostly known going into spring training, so in most cases what players did in spring training had little effect on who went where.
Vice President of Player Development Ross Atkins said so himself back in an interview with me over eight years ago:
“We have a very good idea before spring training starts where guys will be heading. The offseason can change that, and certainly games or strides they make in the offseason can change that. But spring training typically does not change that, other than injury. So performance in spring training does not change those things as far as prospects are concerned.”
Like Atkins said, injuries are often what mostly leads to some reshuffling of rosters to start the season and is what opens up an opportunity for a player that may not have otherwise gotten the opportunity. This does not mean players do not have great springs and get themselves on rosters, as this definitely happens. It is just not as often as some would think.
An example of this – and I am not saying this is what happened – could be outfielder Anthony Gallas in the spring of 2011. He was an undrafted free agent signing in 2010 and was a long shot to make the Low-A Lake County roster to open the season, but he had an awesome spring training that year and really changed some minds which helped get him onto the Lake County roster to start that season.
But Gallas probably would not have gotten the opportunity had outfielders LeVon Washington and Jordan Casas not gotten hurt during spring training that year. While Gallas played great in spring training, it is those two injuries that opened the door for him to get an opportunity. He responded with a great showing in Lake County hitting .314 with 6 HR, 21 RBI and .910 OPS in 57 games, which is about as good as one can do when making good on an opportunity.
That opportunity that Gallas got in 2011 is really how it happens for a lot of players. Not just in spring training, but during the season. We saw it last season with D.J. Brown getting a shot in the rotation after Dylan Baker went down with an injury. Or James Roberts who got to play third base in Carolina because Yandy Diaz got hurt. This year the likes of Ronny Rodriguez and Steven Patterson got hurt in spring training which opened the door for others to step in and make the Akron and Lake County rosters.
A lot of players are crushed when they find out they have to open the season in extended spring training and have to stay in Arizona for much longer while so many players depart for their full season destinations. But each of those players in extended spring training are essentially on call as they are but an injury away from getting a call and told they are being activated. Opportunity then knocks.
That is an important aspect often overlooked, is that the Indians need depth and replacements when injuries come up. They can’t simply rely only on 100 players to fill out the 100 spots on their four full season teams. Injuries are bound to happen and with promotions and such there needs to be a layer of depth from which to pull from in order to fill areas of need. Hence the need for extras in extended spring training at this time of the year.
This is not to say that all players that start the season in extended spring training have little value. That’s not true. Some players may be rehabbing from injuries. Others may be too young for a full season team and need more time to develop and will play later in the year in the 56-game rookie league in Arizona or the 75-game short-season league in Mahoning Valley. Some of the Indians better prospects such as Francisco Mejia, Yu-Cheng Chang, Thomas Pannone and others opened last season in extended spring training. Some players in extended spring training were quickly assigned to teams as injuries surfaced early in the season while others made good once short seasons leagues kicked up in June.
But if you pay close enough attention you can often get a good feel for the players that are more valuable and will be given more opportunities.
Obviously the first two indicators are their draft slot and the bonus they were paid. If a player was a top 10 round pick or got a large six figure bonus, that player is going to get priority and be given several opportunities early on in their career to give the organization a good return on their investment. However, the further away from their draft year these players get, the less their draft slot and bonus have an impact on their value to the organization. A player from the 2012 Draft that was a top ten pick or got $100,000 or more is going to still get a lot of priority over say a player taken in the 2010 Draft that was a big money signing for $100,000 or more and has stalled as a prospect.
This means for the players that were signed for little as a late round pick, a senior sign, or an undrafted free agent, they have to really make some strides and prove themselves early in their career. When given an opportunity they have to jump on it and not squander it since they may only get one shot. They are long shots, but there are players that were in their place in the past that made themselves into prospects. Two such former Indians’ prospects are outfielder Brian Barton and right-handed pitcher Frank Herrmann, both of whom were undrafted players that came in and made good on the limited opportunities given to them initially. They turned themselves into prospects and eventually made it to the Major Leagues. Some have even been released and made it to the big leagues through another organization, such as Drew Rucinski and Vidal Nuno.
Another indicator is which players skip levels. Most players go through a standard level to level progression, but when a player flat out skips a level to start a season and sticks there as an everyday player, that is a sign that the player has a higher value as a prospect. An example of this is the college players from the previous year’s draft that often flat out skip Low-A Lake County the next season and go right to High-A Carolina. Recent examples of this were third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall, second baseman Cord Phelps, and outfielder Tim Fedroff in 2009, right-hander Alex White, second baseman Jason Kipnis, and outfielder Jordan Henry in 2010, left-hander Drew Pomeranz and outfielder Tyler Holt in 2011, infielder Tony Wolters in 2012, and outfielder Tyler Naquin in 2013.
Another indicator is which players are aggressively pushed up the system at a young age. For example, right-handed pitchers Hector Rondon and Jeanmar Gomez were pitching at age 19 in Lake County back in 2007, and more recently the Indians pushed the likes of Nellie Rodriguez, Dorssys Paulino and Mitch Brown to Lake County in 2013, Clint Frazier up last year and Bobby Bradley and Yu-Cheng Chang up this year. Often times, but not all the time, this is a good indicator of who has higher prospect value in the organization.
Yet another indicator is which college juniors or seniors do not make it to Low-A Lake County at the start of their first full season after being taken in the draft the previous year. If one of these players do not make the opening day High-A or Low-A roster, then they must have either gotten hurt or they are inventory in the system. If you take it a step further, it is also interesting to see which of those college juniors and seniors end up returning to short season Single-A Mahoning Valley for a second straight season and do not get to Lake County at all the year after their draft.
Another good indicator is which players get short callups to another level. Over the course of a season you will see players be pushed up from Low-A or High-A and make a spot start or fill in as a bullpen arm or bench player for Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus. This is exciting for the player - as it should be - but also shows lower value to the organization. The Indians are not going to take a legit prospect and force him up a level as a fill in. They are going to make sure they are ready for that next level before promoting them full time. There are some cases when a legit prospect does make a spot appearance at a higher level, but there are extremely rare as often times they prefer to fill in with less priority players who they don’t have to worry about ruining their development path.
Simply put, you almost never see the high end prospects make quick jumps up in the system to make short appearances in the upper levels before they go back to their original level. This is because the organization wants their higher end prospects to continue to work on their development and not leave the current level they are at until they are considered to be ready to leave for good. The second level prospects or organizational players are the ones that are often used to fill those temporary roles in the upper levels until the organization finds a suitable longer term solution from outside the organization, someone gets healthy, or an aforementioned higher end prospect is deemed ready to move up. Getting bounced around and playing at a higher level for a few games or late in a season as a fill in does not mean much, in fact, it may mean more bad than good.
And another indicator is how a guy is used. If a pitcher is in a starting rotation there is a good chance he is a higher valued arm that the organization wants to see if they can develop. A minor league reliever, especially in the lower levels of an organization, has significantly longer odds of making it to the big leagues let alone Double-A because they are already viewed to be limited. When starting pitching prospects fail they are slid to the bullpen which often times pushes out a reliever who has had that role his entire time in the organization. The same applies to role players on the bench. Bench players in the minors are not developed in that right to be a bench player in the majors as the bench players in the majors are in almost every case former everyday players in the minors.
Yet another determination of value is who is given a non-roster invite to Major League spring training. This mostly applies to the veterans that have been in the system and who may be at Double-A or Triple-A in the coming season. If you have been around awhile and pitched in Triple-A for a few seasons, yet do not get an invite to Major League spring training, that's a sign of lower priority and value. A great example of this was lefty Eric Berger and righty Paolo Espino, two guys who up until their final year in the organization had been at Triple-A at various points for several seasons, yet were not given an invite to Major League spring training. Both are now out of the organization.
There are several other indicators to determine prospect value, but these are a few of the most noticeable.
Some may be surprised that stats are not necessarily a very good way to determine value in the minor leagues. Stats are the be-all-end-all when it comes to evaluating performance at the Major League level, but at the minor league level they are not. I think part of the problem is that people spend too much time looking at stats when evaluating minor leaguers, when in fact it is one of the last components viewed when teams evaluate minor leaguers on their Major League potential. Sure, they want the player to perform, but ultimately the only thing a team cares about is how their tools and abilities translate to the big league game. The minor league stats often do not translate, it is the talent that does. The value of the stats is in helping reaffirm those subjective beliefs. With so many players at different ages and at different points in their development path, it is hard determine the value in a lot of the stats. The teams do have ways to compare the stats to similar players at such an age or level, but it is not an exact science.
This is why so many people have a hard time understanding why so and so player that does well with their stats in the minors never gets a Major League shot or washes out at the Double-A or High-A level. Just because a player hits around .300 in the minors one season does not make him a prospect with value. What makes that player have value is how their tools and talent translates to the Major Leagues and if they have the talent to have success. Do they have significant upside? Are they maxed out as a player? Are they still maturing and expected to get much bigger and stronger? And so on.
The brutal reality of it all is that at any given time only about 30-40 players in any organization are truly viewed as legit Major League "prospects". The rest are mostly just guys on the periphery or to fill out minor league rosters so they can have teams so they can develop their prospects. Some of those "non-prospects" can jump onto the scene and become a prospect - and likewise prospects can fall into the non-prospect category - but everything is typically based on their development as a player and not because of statistical success.
Bottom line, all of the players that are in the minor leagues are talented and very good players. They would have never had so much success as amateurs and been signed to a professional contract if they were not. But the reality is that there is a separation in talent among the 180-200 players within an organization’s farm system, so determining their value is a key component to making an assessment on a player and their future in an organization.
Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.
Angels sign Aviators' Ace Drew Rucinski
By: Devon Teeple
Drew Rucinski is back in affiliated ball.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have signed Rucinski to a minor-league deal, according to the Frontier League. The Angels, who have been searching high and low for solutions to correct their once mighty bullpen, have once again signed an Independent league pitcher with the hopes that he can help them in the future.
Last week they signed Jason Urquidez and Dontrelle Willis, this week it's the Rockford Avaitors' workhorse.
Rucinski went to The Ohio State University from 2008-2011. He went 22-13 and posted a 4.69 ERA in 257 innings. He became their No.1 starter his senior season going 5-3. He left Ohio State ranked 16th all-time in wins.
Undrafted, Rucinski signed a free agent contract with the Cleveland Indians after a brief stint with the Independent Rockford RiverHawks, and began his career in Single A Mahoney. After spending time with the Arizona Rookie League Indians, Mahoning Valley Scrappers (Short-Season A) and the Lake County Captains (Full-Season A), he was released after one season.
2012 saw Rucinski come in to his own starting 15 games, tied for the team lead in wins with seven, struck out a team high 91, and lead all starters with a 3.13 ERA. This year has been much of the same.
Despite a losing record (4-6)-playing for a last place team will do that to you, he still leads all starters in innings pitched, strikeouts and ERA.
Now a member of the Inland Empire 66ers, the Advanced A affiliate of the Angels, Rucinski made his debut last Friday.
According to a 66ers press release, Rucinski showed quality, Major League calibre stuff in his first appearance. He was saddled with the loss, but struck out six, and gave up one run in six innings.
*Statistics courtesy Baseball Reference & The Baseball Cube*
Juan, your comments are definitely on point, and after watching last nights WBC game between the USA and DR, what a great idea.
How many on 25 man rosters are career "cream of the craap" .235 hitters or low velocity junkballers relying on scuffing the baseball or whatever means Harris used in Major League, the movie.
Then again, love the ones who fight back and use every ounce of baseball ability to try and prove them wrong.
Pro baseball is a business, a brutal one, and the reality is this. There are more MLB caliber players in the minors than the MLB rosters can handle, its a numbers game.
Maybe crazy Selig is right. Let's make it a real global game, MLB for US born Americans and every other country have their teams and expand the entire thing.
How much individual instruction do players in EST get? There is so much downtime for players on a full season squad, I know it would be disappointing for young guys to stay in Arizona but there should be so many more opportunities to improve with full time training than there would riding the bench in Lake County.
How odd is it for a player to get released in ST and his daily coaches and instructors didn't even find out about it until the player told them himself?
Getting released while doing everything right with solid results makes absolutely no sense regardless of draft slot. It goes against the game of baseball, meaning score runs, but not against the business and politics of it.
No expert ever wants to admit they are wrong.
Also, while some of these guys only get 250 ABs or whatever and are let go, it should be noted that the organization already views them as filler when they sign. They are there to fill in for 1-2 years and not much is expected....a very select few surprise and become more....but typically the evaluation process prior to the draft by the scouts has already projected what kind of value they have to the organization, and that mostly sticks when they sign. For example, a guy like Matt Curtis who was just released. He signed as an UDFA last summer.....but was never viewed as a prospect or to stick long. They don't need 100+ innings to evaluate him and determine if he can be more as they pretty much already have a good idea when they signed him. He was signed simply to fill innings for an affiliate....something that is done every year by every team. Close to half of the guys from every draft are viewed that way where they are more just filler and non-prospects (though as I said, some break through and make themselves a prospect).
I would find it difficult to evaluate a player in a limited sample size, say around 250 plate appearances in short-season or A ball especially after the college player just came off 60 games using a metal bat, but as stated in the article by Tony, unless their is a measureable financial investment in the player, the leash can be short, and often unfair.
Giving a college player a full season regardless of draft slot/bonus is usually the norm, especially when the player makes the adjustment and closes out his draft year strongly, and when the affiliate doesn't, I can tell you the nighmare feels like you woke up in an alternate universe.
Still hoping and praying for a great kid
He is currently playing independent league baseball, trying to work his way back to an affiliated organization.