The Bastardization of the Prospect

That title used to mean something. The population of players between Rookie Ball and AAA were all collectively known as “minor leaguers.” But if you were a prospect, you were different. There were expectations of you. Greater things were imagined. People knew your name. From the moment you were drafted, your future was determined. The barrier between AAA and big leagues would be broken by you. At least that was the hope. There was always the chance, a significant chance in fact, that you would become a statistic – a tale of what could have been. 

Now, anyone with spikes and a bat is a prospect. Really. The truth is this. Tons of guys get drafted by organizations who know full well that they’re never getting to the bigs. But hey, mop up middle relievers are needed in blowouts at the AA level too, right? Why have some kid with a future risk his precious elbow when you could have some cheap labor handle it. But in the new world of baseball journalism, that guy is a prospect too. 

By very definition, prospect means that there’s a probability, likelihood, or at the very least, chance for future success. Here’s a couple of headlines and intros from this week’s baseball news. 

Kemp to Padres for C Prospect Grandal

Dodgers Acquire Prized Catching Prospect for Kemp

Gordon to Marlins for Three Prospects 

Yasmani Grandal is 26 years old. He’s been in the big leagues since 2012. That’s long enough for him to have raised expectations with solid rookie campaign, albeit in a tiny sample size, get suspended 50 games for PED use, return and blow out a knee, return from that and forget how to hit, as evidenced by his absurd 115 strikeouts in only 445 plate appearances in 2014. But he’s a prospect. Now, Grandal’s supporters will point to his 15 home runs, not a bad power display in Petco Park from a switch hitting catcher, as well as his proficiency in the ridiculously overblown metric of pitch framing. His detractors will point to his ludicrously bad contact rate, inability to even remotely control the running game, and the tricky nature of knee injuries for catchers. The fact that he possesses the ability to hit the occasional long ball will make him useful on a big league roster, but is that enough, irrespective of whether you believe he was enough of a return for Matt Kemp, to be given the label of prospect? At age 26!? 

Chris Hatcher, referred to by multiple media outlets as a pitching prospect acquired in the Dee Gordon trade, is 29 years old with an ERA of nearly 5 over 81 career games. He was originally drafted as a catcher, but couldn’t hit enough. Shifted to the mound, he stuck for the majority of a big league season for the first time in 2014. He’s a sort of success story who is easy to cheer for, and probably deserves a job pitching in a major league bullpen if his 5 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio last season isn’t a fluke. But even the most fervent of optimist would have to admit that age 29, it’s likely he’ll never progress very far past where he is now, a potentially somewhat useful middle reliever. Is that a prospect? Can a 29-year-old even be a prospect? 

I don’t know if it’s the English language I’m grieving for, or if it’s the slow and painful death of insightful baseball writing. I’m appealing to you, Buster Olney, and you, Jonah Keri, and Bill Plaschke, and…and…hell, anyone with a keyboard. If you’re going to write about baseball, or any sport for that matter, can we start calling things what they are again?

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