If you've been a baseball fan for any significant amount of time, chances are that you've had your heart broken by a prospect a time or three. There they sit, all nice and shiny, presenting everyone around with lots of hope for the future. Then they reach the majors and struggle. Then they keep struggling. Then they struggle some more. Then they stop being prospects and become busts. Maybe they stay a little interesting or halfway useful for awhile, but the shine has worn off, and that hope has turned into dismay and regret.
And yet, the following year, some shiny new prospect comes along and starts the cycle all over again.
This year, as with all years prior and all years coming, there's a new crop of prospects that fans are falling in love with. The main problem that people run into is they see only the good in a prospect, and ignore or downplay the bad. Down that path is heartache and pain. Time for a dose of realism.
Here's the deal: no prospect is perfect. They all have flaws. Some are less visible than others, but they're there on every single guy. If you want to avoid being crushed, you have to be able to see the flaws.
Take Michael Pineda, one of the top prospects in the Seattle Mariners' system. A large, imposing right-handed pitcher with a fastball that touches the upper 90s and plus command. Three good secondary offerings, including two that might wind up as plus pitches. One of those, a slider, has a wicked break that keeps right handers stumbling when they face him. Another, a changeup, is commanded nearly as well as his fastball, and has been an effective weapon against lefties.
Sounds good right? Like a possible star in waiting? Well, you might want to hold on before you prepare his plaque in Cooperstown.
Pineda is just 22, but he already has an injury history. He missed almost all of the 2009 season after an elbow injury shut him down early in the season, and several setbacks in his rehab kept him from returning until August. The changeup, while effective at times, doesn't consistently come from the same arm speed as his fastball, which reduces its deceptiveness to left-handed hitters. Its movement is also inconsistent; sometimes it sinks, sometimes it fades, sometimes it cuts and other times it has very little movement at all. If he can't make that changeup more consistent, he will struggle with left-handed hitters which will limit his effectiveness as a starter.
He's far from alone among top prospects when it comes to having weaknesses. Can Dee Gordon ever hit for anything resembling power? Or hit effectively against more advanced pitching? Will Mike Moustakas' pitch selection issues hurt him as he faces more advanced pitching? Can Kyle Drabek get his changeup and overall command consistent enough to be effective against lefties? All these questions and more float around every prospect in the game.
So what's the lesson here? Don't get attached to prospects, because they're guaranteed to crash and burn? Well, no. In reality, a lot of prospects do crash and burn. Recent research done at Royals Review on guys that appear in major top 100 prospect lists showed that more than 50 percent of all major prospects fail. But hey, in a game where a guy who gets a hit a third of the time he steps to the plate is doing really well, that's not bad.
No, the lesson is to be cautious. It's OK to fall in love with prospects, just so long as you keep yourself aware that not one of them is any kind of guarantee. If you can keep things in perspective and acknowledge that these players do have flaws, it can make it easier to accept it if they fail. On the plus side, if you accept that a given player can fail, it makes it all the sweeter if he succeeds. Prospects, like much of life, are all about balance.