On the tragedy of prospects

Everybody loves prospects. Each one is shrouded in mystery and optimism, and unlike most established veterans, there’s a chance that any given prospect could develop into your team’s next home-grown superstar. Sure, many prospects never pan out, but its still fun to fantasize about what they might become, even if you might be setting yourself up for disappointment. When thinking about the trajectories of prospects, I’m often reminded of a quote from Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage:

“A lover exists only in fragments, a dozen or so if the romance is new, a thousand if we’re married to him, and out of those fragments our heart constructs an entire person. What we each create, since whatever is missing is filled by our imagination, is the person we wish him to be. The less we know him, of course, the more we love him. And that’s why we always remember that first rapturous night when he was a stranger, and why this rapture returns only when he’s dead.”

In many cases, a prospect is a lot like the lover described in this passage. The less we know about him, the more we like him, since we can extrapolate forward based on a glowing scouting report or a dominant season in the low-minors. But then reality sets in: Injuries happen, the command never comes around, the power doesn’t translate to the upper-levels of the minors. One way or another, prospects never seem to meet the expectations we create for them based on fragments of success early on.

Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Kennedy were prominent examples of this phenomenon. In their nascent years in the organization, those three could do no wrong. They were completely unhittable in the minors, and carried that dominance over to big leagues in 2007. They seemed like sure bets to hold down the Yankees’ rotation for years to come. Yet as we all know, it didn’t turn out that way. All told, the trio pitched a combined 17 seasons for the Yankees, combining for just 18 fWAR. With each passing season, they seemed to find new ways to disappoint us. For Hughes and Joba, this culminated at the end of 2013, when both looked completely useless, and we wished the Yankees would just cut bait already. Last year’s iterations were far cries from what we anticipated they’d become on that “first rapturous night” back in 2006 and 2007.

Many of the Yankees’ current prospects have also disappointed. Tyler Austin, Manny Banuelos, Slade Heathcott, and Mason Williams each looked like future stars early on, only to see their stocks plummet as they climbed the minor league ladder, and the flaws in their game became more glaring.

With some prospects, we’re still in those early stages of the relationship. Guys like Aaron Judge, Rob Refsnyder, and Luis Severino are relatively new to the organization, and have yet to face much adversity in their baseball lives. This makes it easy to speculate on what they might become: Severino could be the Yankees’ next ace, Judge a perennial 40-home run threat, and Refsnyder the next Robinson Cano. Odds are, none of these players will ever be stars, but its still fun to dream. And even though we’ve been burned countless times in the past, we keep dreaming. Because there’s always a chance that one of these prospects will grow into a Hall of Famer.

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