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Major league regulars were not always top prospects

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Just because Rob Refsnyder isn't in the Baseball America Top 100 prospect list, for example, doesn't mean he can't become a useful contributor for the Yankees. Though you probably already knew that.

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Earlier this week Baseball America released their annual Top 100 Prospects list, and two Yankees made the cut; Luis Severino at #35 and Aaron Judge at #53. It's always interesting to see how many of the top prospects actually do pan out of course, and there is significant research on this subject. Depending on your definition of 'bust' you could easily argue that over two-thirds of players on these Top 100 lists don't end up panning out.

A couple of interesting pieces from Jeff Sullivan over the last couple of days considered the flip side to failure rate of ranked players. Looking at a breakdown of useful regular players who weren't ranked in the Top 100 might provide a bit of perspective to how we can view prospect rankings. Of course, as Yankee fans we've seen firsthand how first Robinson Cano then Brett Gardner rose from outside the Top 100 to become incredibly valuable contributors, and in the case of Cano, possibly a Hall of Fame trajectory. More recently, Shane Greene showed how it is possible for a pitcher to outperform prospect projections, to a sufficient degree where Brian Cashman could trade him for a young, cost-controlled shortstop in Didi Gregorius.

These are of course isolated cases, and may not be all that useful in terms of setting expectations for any future breakouts within the Yankee system. Which is where we we head back to Sullivan's piece, where he's broken down, by highest Baseball America prospect ranking, players who post 'quality' seasons (3+ WAR). This tended to be 110-135 players in a given year. The piece is certainly worth a read, especially because the key information is pretty much completely conveyed through three simple pie charts. What we end up seeing though, is that half the players with 3+ WAR had a peak prospect rating in the top-50. However, a third of those quality players were never ranked. Last season, the proportion of players from outside the top-100 to post quality years was nearly 40%.

What I personally found surprising was when Sullivan followed this up on Just a Bit Outside by expanding the sample size and comparing hitters and pitcher prospects. Again, it's worth checking out the article, as it's all neatly summed up in pie chart form, this time only two needed. As it turns out, very little difference between the two groups, about 40% of both hitting and pitching regulars at the MLB level between 2012 and 2014 were never ranked in Baseball America's Top 100.

There are a couple of things worth noting, one of which is that this data has been benchmarked against a single ranking source. There are other sources for prospect ratings of course, including Sullivan's colleague at Fangraphs, Kiley McDaniel, whose own excellent Top 200 list was also released this week. It featured Severino again as the top Yankee prospect, higher up at #26, Judge as the second Yankee prospect a few spots lower at #58, and Jacob Lindgren as the only other Yankee placing in the top 100 - Lindgren was right at #100. Baseball America is a particularly good reference for tracking the prospect status of current major league players though, because their 25-year track record as a leader in the field of prospect ratings makes the organization a unique historical reference for the prospect status of all current major league players. Sullivan alluded to this in the comments of his article, and this was the same reason first Victor Wang then Creagh/DiMicelli used Baseball America to guide their calculations of surplus values for prospects.

As mentioned earlier, this is based off peak ranking. For Top 10 Yankee prospects like Jorge Mateo and perhaps Greg Bird, should they continue on their present development path, they might break the overall Top 100 rankings by this time next year. (Bird did, in fact, crack Keith Law's Top 100 at ESPN.) Where I find it interesting is in considering someone comfortably outside the Top 100, yet close to the big leagues, like Rob Refsnyder. This isn't to suggest that being unranked is ever a preferable alternative to being a highly rated prospect. When prospect experts, who regularly speak to scouts and insider evaluators, rate a player's ceiling, they certainly carry a lot of weight. This is the best possible assessment of a prospect we have at this point, a representation of the current expected value he might provide. Additionally, there is always a good chance that a prospects never deliver on their potential, uncertainty for which I think fans are getting very good at mentally adjusting.

Sometimes though it might be worth remembering that a minor league player's uncertainty doesn't just involve the low floor, even if admittedly prospect-heartbreak is far more common than overachievement.  I'm rooting for Refsnyder to have dislodged Stephen Drew by the end of this season as the starting second baseman, on his way to an All-Star performance in 2016 in beyond. Prospects exceeding expectations does happen, and now that we're at the start of spring training, with the 2015 baseball season about to begin, it is as good a time as any for a little, or perhaps a lot of optimism.