In my Arizona Fall League recap for Baseball Prospectus on Wednesday, an interesting conversation took place in the comments section. The link is above, but it went like this:
Commenter 1: "Baez, Soler, Bryant, Almora, Arysmdy(?), Vogelbauch, Rizzo, Castro...holy cow. Will we see Vogelbauch possibly take over for Rizzo if Rizzo cannot solve his massive issues with LHP? Castro to 2B? Cubs definitely have the best fantasy farm considering P is so deep. I'm also intrigued to see all these guys on the field in '15 and beyond. They'll definitely be in the Jose Fernandez market in 4yrs. Lol"
Commenter 2 (in reply): "Calm down, half those guys are in the low minors and they're all still at least 2 years away. They need to trade some of their hitting prospects for pitching."
To a certain extent, they're both right.
The comments section of pretty much anything on the web is a dangerous place to look for deep thoughts, but in this case, these two readers brought to light a few important things to know when it comes to following prospects. Given that this site gets readers from all ends of the spectrum of baseball fandom - from the die hard prospector to the player looking for fantasy help to the fan who stumbled on it though a Google search when looking up an unknown player - I thought it would be good to review some important aspects of following prospects.
The initial comment in this brief conversation is regarding the impressive nature of the Chicago Cubs farm system, and it is impressive. The Cubs have an enviable amount of high-end talent right now, and all of the prospects above, whether spelled correctly or not, have some type of role in the Cubs future.
Of course, from the sounds of things, you'd think the Cubs were on the verge of contention, which is likely where the second commenter felt the need to put the first commenter in his place. And he's correct too.
The thing with prospects is that we don't know as much as we do know. Any team would take Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Arismendy Alcantara and Dan Vogelbach in their farm system, among many others. But the kind of depth the Cubs can offer doesn't necessarily translate into instant success. I wrote recently about the Royals and their ridiculous depth from a few years back. They have become a competitive team as that talent has reached the majors, but their strength was in their offensive talent yet their offense is still sub-par, and they were forced to trade their best hitting prospect for a pitcher. The point is, we just don't know how these things are going to play out.
The Cubs high-end talent is fantastic, but each has their question marks and none are in the Mike Trout/Byron Buxton mold of true top-of-the-charts impact talent across the board. Almora is a great example.
Almora is a fantastic prospect. As a 19-year-old in full-season ball, Almora hit .329/.376/.466 in a season shortened due to a fluke hand injury. His tools grade out as average to above-average across the board, with the ability to stay in center field for the foreseeable future and hit near .300 with 20-25 home runs. That's a great prospect.
It's also not a superstar. Nick Farelis of Basbeall Prospectus said Almora "projects as a number two hitter on a first-division team." That's a great prospect, but not Trout or Buxton, and that's IF everything goes right. Almora is still just 19 and is quite far from the majors.
If Almora doesn't become one of those players, he will not have failed. There's also the real possibility that much of this could change as a teenager grows into his body and develops within the game. He could get bigger and hit for more power and be forced to play a corner spot. His power could not develop at all putting a greater emphasis on his plate discipline (not a strength at the moment). This is where commenter two from above was correct in his "calm down" mentality, tact aside.
The rest of his comment, however - the part about trading hitting prospects for pitching - is absurd. This is a common request from fans, to make these trades immediately to solve issues that will come into play well down the road. What are the Cubs going to do with pitching now? As was just pointed out, most of these players are still far from being major leaguers. The Cubs window to compete is not in 2014, but more like 2015 at the earliest. If the thought here was to trade hitting prospects for pitching prospects, it's important to remember the difference between the real world and fantasy baseball. Prospect-for-prospect trades simply don't happen. If they did, Jurickson Profar would be the Cardinals starting shortstop right now.
We don't know how the Cubs collection of hitting prospects will develop and what this will mean for their 2015-2018 contention hopes, and right now, we shouldn't care. It doesn't matter that half of their best prospects project to play third base. That will work itself out, and to make trades to open up windows that have no business being open for two more years would be nearsighted at best and foolish at worst.
If nothing else, take away from this that the most important lesson we can learn from following prospects is patience. Building a farm system isn't necessarily about finding particular pieces. It's about collecting talent, and collecting as much of it as possible. Some of these prospects will end up playing at Wrigley. Others will be used as trade bait. Still others of them won't pan out at all and will never end up being productive. We have no idea which will be which at this point.
The fun part is watching to find out.