I read two articles yesterday from Baseball Prospectus (subscribe--it's worth $4.95 per month). The first was entitled "How Sure is a 'Sure Thing'"? published on May 9, 2002 and written by Paul Covert. The second, written by Nate Silver, was published yesterday, and it dealt with PECOTA and left-handed pitching prospects, while also somewhat revisiting the first article.
PECOTA and Baseball America both rate and rank prospects. Baseball America has always ranked pitchers very high--often too high given the high rate of injuries that pitchers have. Silver's article points out that PECOTA's rankings and projections may have been too tough on pitching prospects last season. Francisco Liriano came out ranked only #15 on PECOTA's list, despite being #6 on Baseball America's list. Silver offers some explanation for why BA was more successful in 2006 at projecting pitching prospects than it was in the 1990s, when three-quarters of BA's top pitching prospects had careers shortened by injury.
Silver's article builds somewhat on Covert's article from 2002. The point of Covert's article was that pitching prospects are hit-and-miss, to say the least. In general, Covert points out that hitting prospects are much more likely to succeed in the majors. He offers several concluding points, which I found very interesting.
His first conclusion is that a pitching prospect can rarely be the best prospect in baseball:
What now? Should we say, along with Sheehan, that "the phrase 'spectacular pitching prospect' is an oxymoron"?
I, for one, would agree very strongly. The data certainly support it, at least based on eight years of BA rankings. There's just too much that can go wrong with a pitcher, and if that's true for pitchers in general, it's doubly or triply true for pitchers signed out of North American high schools.
This statement relates to the first article: Baseball America appears to have gotten alot better at rating pitching prospects, and Silver speculates that it is because of BA's improved reliance on statistics and pitcher workloads. The point is that pitching prospects are risky. Look at recent prospects. Mark Prior and Kerry Wood come to mind immediately. For the Twins, there is Adam Johnson and possibly (but hopefully not) Francisco Liriano.
So how is the fragility and uncertainty of pitching prospects related to actual development of pitching depth and quality for major league franchises? Covert poses this question:
This raises the question: How can a team build a pitching staff? One way, of course, is to spend for veterans; if you can trade for an impending free agent like Roger Clemens and sign him to an extension, and then go get Mike Mussina when he hits the market, that will take a lot of the uncertainty out of the process.
But what can a more budget-limited franchise do? Build a young-guns rotation through the farm system? That's a risky proposition.
This is where I completely disagree with Covert's proposition. If you can't afford "sure thing" pitchers in free agency, then you have no choice but to develop your own pitching. And in order to give yourself the odds of actually developing a few that become successful major league pitchers, you need to draft and develop hordes of them, in hopes that if you can get 3-4 very good prospects every few years. Of those three or four, hopefully one or two end up working in your rotation. When the Gil Meche's of the world command eight figure salaries, filling 20 to 40 percent of your rotation with players making the league minimum is huge for a small market team. In addition to drafting and developing a bunch of pitchers, you need to avoid trading them before you are pretty sure they don't have a place on your 25 man roster. Trading even one hurts the depth that you will need, given the uncertainty of pitching prospects. Having five guys who may or may not work in your pitching staff is better than having four or three.
To me, this appears to be the Twins latest--and in my opinion, best--strategy. As we stand today, the Twins have--in their system right now--five pitchers age 25 or under that are major league ready, or very close to it: Boof Bonser, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins, and Matt Garza. A sixth--Liriano--should be back next year. Baker appears to have lost favor with the organization, so they have moved on to Bonser. Garza or Perkins could be next. If one or both falter over the next few seasons, Slowey gets his shot. Add in some of the depth the Twins have in the lower levels of the minors, and you have what you need to compete on a lower budget. This stockpiling of pitching makes sense. So does refusing to trade them.
If two or three or--let's hope--four work out, then the Twins are much more likely to be able to afford Johan Santana's extension. I could imagine a rotation in 2010 costing 25 million dollars--23 for Johan, and relative pennies for the rest.
The Twins do need to start developing more hitters. Their three best hitting prospects are all now in the majors--Mauer, Morneau, and Kubel, and the organization is pretty dry for an impact bat until you get to Low A Beloit and Chris Parmalee. However, the development of strong pitching from within the organization is NOT risky. It is what will make this franchise competitive for years to come.