There's a moment in one of the direct-to-video sequels of Aladdin where the palace guard bursts into the dungeon where our stalwart prince is awaiting his execution*, takes a deep breath, and says, with pleasure, "Mmmm. Aaaahhh. Dawn."
While I am not as sadistic as a villainous guard in a Disney movie, I do have that reaction to a lot of things:
Mmmm. Aaaaah. Pizza.
Mmmm. Aaaaah. Towels straight from the dryer.
Mmmm. Aaaaah. Prospect season.
Yeah, that's right. Among the many things the month of February means to baseball fans, it is also the time of year when publications like Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus come out with their top prospect lists, causing fantasy owners and memorabilia collectors to stake out their favorites (NB: as my Matt LaPorta-signed bat will attest, it can be quite easy to jump the gun). Still, the thing about prospects—with apologies to Jason Parks, why they will break your heart—is that, even for the top guys, there is so much that can happen between the minors and the majors; the difference between double-A and the majors isn't like the difference between freshman and senior year; it's more like the difference between freshman year and the last year of med school.
How hard is it to make it as a prospect? Let's take a look at Baseball America's top five prospects for the Yankees over the last four seasons, and see how they've fared.
First, the top five prospects for each season:
2008: Joba Chamberlain, Austin Jackson, Jose Tabata, Ian Kennedy, Alan Horne
2009: Austin Jackson, Jesus Montero, Andrew Brackman, Austin Romine, Dellin Betances
2010: Jesus Montero, Austin Romine, Arodys Vizcaino, Slade Heathcott, Zach McCallister
2011: Jesus Montero, Gary Sanchez, Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos, Andrew Brackman
Some, like Jackson and Montero, have made multiple appearances. Of the 14 names mentioned, four have earned significant playing time in the majors, while a fifth (Montero) is expected to do so this year, though not for the Yankees. Let's take a closer look (Part II will follow on Friday)
Banuelos still remains a prospect for the Yankees; as I wrote here Banuelos has now risen to being the top prospect for the team. Because of his age, it's unlikely that he will earn significant playing time with the Yankees this season barring a catastrophe, so Banuelos' run in the Prospect Handbook might live on to see another year. Banuelos didn't sign until 2008; he debuted at #14 in the 2009 Handbook, and remarked on his poise and feel for pitches. By the time 2011 came around, Banuelos had progressed so much that Baseball America called him the best left-hander in the system "by a mile". It is, of course, far too soon to call him a success story—he has yet to make his first major league appearance, but if there's an example of an ideal prospect track, Banuelos is on it.
Another of the Killer B's still on top prospects lists, Betances was at 13 in BA's rankings in 2008. The size and the ceiling has followed Betances throughout his minor league career; his health has not. Fluke injuries can be overlooked, but Betances has a history of arm injuries that cannot. Betances is now widely projected to be a reliever long-term, although not everyone agrees. His major league career is still ahead of him, but he is entering his age-24 season, and a poor season could be disastrous.
The last of the "Killer B's", the 2007 first-rounder was everywhere from #10 in BA's rankings to #3 between 2008 and 2011, but his 2011 season was a disaster and now, at 26 years old, he's not really a prospect any more, either (the Yankees declined his option this winter; he has since signed with the Reds). The former basketball player was a high-risk pick when the Yankees drafted him, and for while it seemed the Yankees could have gotten something useful from him, but high risks are high risks for a reason.
Although he made his major-league debut in 2007, Chamberlain's innings were few enough for him to still be considered a prospect in 2008. Chamberlain's career has been beset by injury problems; while the intention to switch Chamberlain from a reliever to a starter in 2008 was well-intentioned, the method of doing so in-season was criticized and probably did not help his shoulder. He has officially been a reliever since the 2010 season, though most of 2011 was lost after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Chamberlain should return to the Yankees at some point in 2012, but questions of what might have been will remain.
Heathcott was the Yankees' first round pick in 2009; his on-field career has been derailed by on-field injuries and brawls, while off-field issues remain. While the 2011 edition of the Prospect Handbook noted that Heathcott profiled as a Brett Gardner type with more power, that he has needed two shoulder surgeries in two years does not augur well. Shoulder issues might not be as damning for a position player as they are for a pitcher, but Heathcott has yet to put together a whole, healthy season in the minors, and it's much harder to judge prospects on parts and halves than the whole.
Sometimes, when we're busy referring to prospects as "disappointments", we can forget that we're dealing with actual human beings. Horne might not be looking for our sympathy, but as far as baseball careers go, he bore the burden of never being able to stay healthy. That injuries happen remains a fact of life in any professional sports universe, but when they are responsible for destroying a career before it even has a chance to begin, is as much of an on-field tragedy as the world of sports can muster.
Jackson rose through the Yankees system, but was traded to Detroit before ever having an at bat with the bombers. He's been useful in his two seasons with the Tigers, coming in second in Rookie of the Year voting in 2010. Jackson's strikeout rate is far too high for him to sustain good batting averages, but he has stayed healthy, and his status as a major leaguer is not in doubt.
*I won't spoil it, but c'mon, it's a Disney movie.