My old friend John Sickels has just published the latest edition of his annual (and indispensable) prospect book, and I thought I'd ask him a few questions about prospecting ...
Rob: I probably say this every spring, but this year's book is your best ever. I know it's an immense amount of work -- what, more than a thousand prospect comments? -- but I particularly imagined you agonizing over the letter grades. Is there any obvious difference between a Grade C prospect and a C+? (That's a rhetorical question that you're free to ignore.) Anyway, what struck me about the grades this year is that there are many, many more B+'s than A-'s ... and that there are more A hitters than A- hitters. My question is this ... Have you ever given, or been tempted to give, an A+ grade to a hitting prospect?
John: There were 1170 comments in the book this year, and I wrote about 50 more that got cut for space. Yes, I do agonize over grades frequently. One of the hardest "breaks" is the one between a C+ and a B- ... Sometimes I'll think about those grades for days. It may seem like a small thing, but I take it very seriously.The only player I can think of that I was tempted to give an A+ to was Joe Mauer, but I decided not to do it because I'm a Twins fan and wasn't sure I was being objective about him.
To me, an A+ would be an absolutely perfect prospect ... someone with no flaws at all. And I've never seen a prospect who didn't have a flaw of some kind or some question they still needed to answer. Jason Heyward, for example, is a pure Grade A prospect but I can't give him an A+ because he looks like he might be injury-prone, plus I'm not sure if he's going to be a 20-homer guy or a 40-homer guy. Strasburg would be close to an A+ pitcher ... except some scouts think he might have some injury risk.
Rob: Leaving aside the draft, have you come across any organizations that are particularly skilled or particularly non-skilled when it comes to developing young players once they've got them? And I do understand that it's hard to know such things, considering the frequent turnover in front offices...
John: Yeah, there's a lot of churning. My basic opinion is that there is a small number of teams that are very good at player development, and a small number of teams that are very bad, and the vast majority are somewhere in the middle. I would say that I like the way the Rays are currently developing their pitching prospects, for the most part one level at a time and very conservatively. I didn't like the way the Mets would rush their Latin American prospects in particular so quickly up the system, though it sounds like that policy is being changed with the departure of Tony Bernazard.
Rob: You've been writing your prospect book since ... well, since before I came to work for ESPN.com. In fact, I believe that you and I worked on your first book together, way back in 1996. How has your approached changed in 14 years? What have you learned about young baseball players, and about writing about them?
John: Yeah, the first one was the STATS book back in '96. I started self-publishing in '03. Back then I concentrated on statistical analysis more than I do now. I still lean to the stats side, but I've grown more comfortable with traditional scouting methods, especially about projection of players at the lower levels. I'm also a lot less arrogant in my middle age than I was when I was in my late 20s. Back then I would make a lot more snarky or sarcastic comments about particular players or front-office mistakes, but as I've grown older I don't do that as much. I've come to realize that there is still an awful lot we don't know about prospect development. I've become more comfortable saying "I'm not sure." Sometimes that irritates people (especially people in their 20s!) but truth is an absolute defense, and if I'm not sure about something I'm not going to pretend that I am sure. I'm better at it than I used to be, but by its nature prospect analysis makes you humble.
Rob: I think we're about the same age, and I think I've gone through the same metamorphosis you have: more humility, less snark. I don't know if that's what the readers prefer, but (like you, I think) I have to write what I feel. Anyway, thanks a million for doing this and best of luck with the book.