|My friends over at Baseball Prospectus have a saying, "There's no such thing as a pitching prospect." They don't really mean that, of course; they write about pitching prospects all the time. What they mean is that pitching prospects are only about as predictable as the weather six months from now.
Are they right, though? I got to thinking about this question last week while watching Tim Redding mow down the Tacoma Rainiers (in Redding's first, and perhaps last, Triple-A start).
To answer the question, first we have to define "pitching prospect," and I decided to limit our discussion to the best pitching prospects. So I turned to the experts in the field, my old friend John Sickels and the good people at Baseball America (some of them are my friends, too). Every spring, John comes up with a list of baseball's top 50 prospects (published in his book, the "STATS Minor League Scouting Notebook"). Baseball America comes up with its own list of the top 100 prospects. These lists contain significant overlap, but BA tends to emphasize tools slightly more than Sickels does, while Sickels tends to emphasize actual performance slightly more than BA does.
I examined these lists from 1996 through 2000, and typed the names of everyone who made the top 50 on both lists into an Excel file, figuring that if both sources consider them great prospects, then they probably were. Next, I set out to determine which of them eventually justified their status as great prospects. For starters -- and the great majority of them have started in the majors -- I generally considered a pitcher a success if he threw at least 100 innings in one season and posted an ERA better than the league average. This is, of course, arbitrary, but I tried to figure out what I'd like to see from a prospect pitching for my favorite team. And I'd be thrilled to see Kris Wilson finish this season with 120 innings and a 4.50 ERA.
There are great prospects, and there are great prospects. Among the latter group I would include those pitchers who made the Sickels and Baseball America lists twice, and there were 11 who did that from 1996 through 2000.
Career Best Year
Bartolo Colon 56-35, 4.13 1999: 18- 5, 3.95
Carl Pavano 20-21, 4.32 2000: 8- 4, 3.06
Kerry Wood 28-17, 3.96 1998: 13- 6, 3.40
Rick Ankiel 12-10, 3.84 2000: 11- 7, 3.50
Matt Clement 28-34, 4.92 1999: 10-12, 4.48
Bruce Chen 13-10, 4.13 2000: 7- 4, 3.29
Brad Penny 15- 8, 4.15 2001: 7- 1, 3.41
A.J. Burnett 12-13, 3.59 2001: 5- 4, 2.27
Ryan Anderson None
John Patterson No MLB Experience
Matt Riley No MLB Experience
Friends, that's an impressive group. Of the eight pitchers here who have actually pitched more than a few innings in the majors (Riley made three starts), each has shown extended flashes of quality, and some have shown extended flashes of greatness.
That said, only one of the eight -- Bartolo Colon -- might be said to have encountered smooth sailing over an extended period of time.
Carl Pavano and Kerry Wood have both suffered serious elbow troubles, and subsequently been subjected to Tommy John surgery. Matt Clement just barely qualifies as a success, and continues to fight control issues. Bruce Chen got traded last summer for two months of Andy Ashby. Rick Ankiel, you know about. Brad Penny and A.J. Burnett have both pitched well, but of course it's still early.
And look at those three guys at the bottom of the table. Ryan Anderson? Out for 2001 after surgery to repair a torn labrum. John Patterson? Blew out his elbow, will miss most or all of 2001 after Tommy John surgery. Matt Riley? Blew out his elbow, will miss most or all of 2001 after Tommy John surgery.
Speaking of injuries, in the five years I studied, only one other pitcher drew the kind of acclaim that Rick Ankiel did. Prior to the 1996 season, both Baseball America and Sickels rated Mets right-hander Paul Wilson as the No. 2 prospect in the game. However, between pitching for the Mets in 1996 and the Devil Rays in 2000, Wilson didn't throw a single inning in the major leagues. Instead, he spent three years recovering from major surgeries on his elbow and his shoulder. Wilson did spend two months in the majors last season and pitched quite well ... but this year, he's posted a 7.91 ERA in 66 innings.
We've looked at the super-prospects, the guys who were at the top of the lists for two years running. What about the other top pitching prospects?
From 1996, the successes include Jason Schmidt (No. 9 prospect, averaging Sickels' and Baseball America's rankings), Billy Wagner (10), Alan Benes (13), Jeff Suppan (26) and Chan Ho Park (31). The failures (sorry, no offense meant) include Paul Wilson (2), Rocky Coppinger (22), Jimmy Haynes (25) and Matt Drews (26). Haynes is pitching well this year for Milwaukee, and might well join the list of successes. Drews, then a Yankee farmhand, remains the only consensus prospect from 1996, '97 or '98 who hasn't pitched at all in the majors.
From 1997, the successes include Jaret Wright and Matt Morris; there have been no failures from that small, five-member class, which also included two-time consensus prospects Wood, Pavano, and Colon.
From 1998, the successes include Kris Benson and Scott Elarton, along with four two-time consensus prospects (the aforementioned three, plus Bruce Chen). The only failure has been Brian Rose, and you could certainly argue the opposite. After all, he did post a 4.87 ERA in 1999 for the Red Sox. However, with 98 innings he just missed my (admittedly arbitrary) 100-innings cutoff, and his ERA was just barely higher than the league average.
From 1999, the successes include Brad Penny, Braden Looper and A.J. Burnett. The failures (to this point, at least) include Ryan Anderson, John Patterson, Matt Riley, Roy Halladay, Ryan Bradley, Octavio Dotel, Odalis Perez and Jason Grilli.
A couple of obvious things about the consensus prospects from 1999 ... First off, all three of the success stories are currently pitching for the Florida Marlins, and obviously they're a big reason that the Marlins themselves are a success story this season (Grilli's a Marlin, too, but has yet to pitch well in the majors). And second, it's apparent that a significantly lower percentage of these guys have been successful than from the prior classes. Of course, that's partly due to time, as some of these pitchers simply haven't had a chance in the majors yet. But it goes beyond that; since making the list, Patterson and Riley and Perez underwent Tommy John surgery on their pitching elbows. Anderson suffered a serious shoulder injury, and won't pitch at all this year.
From 2000, the successes include Ramon Ortiz and Tony Armas, plus two-timers Ankiel, Penny, and Burnett. Failures include Kip Wells (though he's close to becoming a success story), Wilfredo Rodriguez, Francisco Cordero, Eric Gagne, Josh Beckett and Wes Anderson.
Florida's Beckett, of course, is still regarded as one of the game's great pitching prospects, perhaps the game's greatest pitching prospect, and it's simply a matter of time (barring injury, of course). Right now, he's pitching lights-out in Double-A. Anderson is yet another great Marlins prospect, but he pitched poorly for five weeks in Class A before going on the DL, where he remains. Wilfredo Rodriguez, yet another hard-throwing Astros farmhand, struggled badly last year, is again pitching poorly this season for Houston's Double-A franchise in Round Rock. Cordero and Gagne have both spent part of this season back in Triple-A, but still project as solid major leaguers.
Of the six "super-prospects" -- those who appeared on both top-50 lists two straight years -- from 1996 through 1999, all six have enjoyed at least one successful major-league season since.
On the other hand, of the five super-prospects who appeared on both lists in both 1999 and 2000, three have suffered serious arm injuries and will pitch very little or not at all this year. Only Penny and Burnett have been able to avoid major arm surgery (and both have pitched quite well this season).
Of the other 21 prospects who made both top-50 lists just once between 1996 and 1999, 11 have enjoyed at least one good major-league season, and 10 have not.
Again, though -- I don't think I can stress this enough -- there have been some major bumps in the road even for the success stories. Jaret Wright's a success story due to his 1997 regular-season and postseason performance, but since then he's been either ineffective or disabled for the better part of four seasons. Elarton has struggled badly since his good season. Suppan's been inconsistent. And a lot of these pitchers have suffered major injuries after first pitching effectively in the majors. This list includes Billy Wagner, Alan Benes, Matt Morris, Carl Pavano, Kris Benson, and of course, Kerry Wood.
Looking at my list, in fact, among all these great prospects only two names stand out as unqualified successes: Chan Ho Park (in 1996, Baseball America's No. 18 prospect, and John Sickels' No. 44), and Bartolo Colon (twice a consensus top-50 prospect).
Great pitching prospects are actually pretty good bets to make a significant contribution at the major-league level ... but they're far from good bets to do so consistently, year in and year out. Yes, there really is such a thing as a pitching prospect, but you certainly shouldn't count on one of them, not until he's run the brutal injury gauntlet that delays or prevents the ascendancy of so many young hurlers.
The next step is to run a similar study for consensus hitting prospects, to see if they're better bets than the pitchers.
Rob Neyer is a Senior Writer for ESPN.com. His column runs Monday through Thursday. You can e-mail Rob at email@example.com.