I've noticed more and more lately the hype machine working in overdrive on top prospects. Exhibits A-D are the likes of Trout, Harper, Matt Moore and Jesus Montero. All extraordinary prospects, however fans need to temper their extraordinary expectations for them.
The blogosphere and twittersphere have already anointed them stars, especially Trout and Harper. While I'm not here to say they won't or can't be All-Stars, a quick look at our collective track record of announcing those who will inherit the game suggests that even 3 out of the 5 becoming becoming good regulars would be a solid projection of minor league talent. For example, I present you Baseball America's top 5 from 1991:
1. Todd Van Poppel, rhp, Athletics
2. Andujar Cedeno, ss, Astros
3. Ryan Klesko, 1b, Braves
4. Jose Offerman, ss, Dodgers
5. Roger Salkeld, rhp, Mariners
I am cherry picking poor seasons here, and I will continue to do so, 1999:
1. J.D. Drew, of, Cardinals
2. Rick Ankiel, lhp, Cardinals
3. Eric Chavez, 3b, Athletics
4. Bruce Chen, lhp, Braves
5. Brad Penny, rhp, Diamondbacks
and 2000 (Top 10!):
1. Rick Ankiel, lhp, Cardinals
2. Pat Burrell, 1b/of, Phillies
3. Corey Patterson, of, Cubs
4. Vernon Wells, of, Blue Jays
5. Nick Johnson, 1b, Yankees
6. Ruben Mateo, of, Rangers
7. Sean Burroughs, 3b, Padres
8. Rafael Furcal, ss, Braves
9. Ryan Anderson, lhp, Mariners
10. John Patterson, rhp, Diamondbacks
1. Joe Mauer, c, Twins
2. Felix Hernandez, rhp, Mariners
3. Delmon Young, of, Devil Rays
4. Ian Stewart, 3b, Rockies
5. Joel Guzman, ss, Dodgers
1. Daisuke Matsuzaka, rhp, Red Sox
2. Alex Gordon, 3b, Royals
3. Delmon Young, of, Devil
4. Philip Hughes, rhp, Yankees
5. Homer Bailey, rhp, Reds
There are plenty of examples of "failed" prospects in these lists, many of them were can't miss (Corey Patterson, Van Poppel, JD Drew) others had all the upside in the world (Joel Guzman, Delmon Young, Phil Hughes). Even looking at the best top 5's in the past couple decades, there are many examples of expectations not met;
1. Ben Grieve, of, Athletics
2. Paul Konerko, 1b/3b, Dodgers
3. Adrian Beltre, 3b, Dodgers
4. Kerry Wood, rhp, Cubs
5. Aramis Ramirez, 3b, Pirates
1. Mark Teixeira, 3b, Rangers
2. Rocco Baldelli, of, Devil Rays
3. Jose Reyes, ss, Mets
4. Joe Mauer, c, Twins
5. Jesse Foppert, rhp, Giants
*I only include this lists because it's probably the only time you will see Joe Mauer's name right next to Jesse Foppert's.
The point of all this is that even though it's hard to imagine any of this year's crop of 'future stars' not even sticking as regulars, it's not only possible; but likely.
This fact does not bode well for prospects in the lower half of the top 100 lists, given there future prospects are even lower. For example, I'll use a specific team (the Twins, whom I'm most familiar with), to illustrate the point. I spend a good amount of time on the TwinsDaily and TwinkieTown sites (both are great), and given some time there, you'd be convinced that Minnesota was in possession of a future Juan Pierre (Ben Revere), Brad Radke (Liam Hendriks and Kyle Gibson) and Jose Bautista (Miguel Sano). In reality, the fans will probably need to settle for a 4th outfielder, a couple "Twins pitchers" somewhere between Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn, given health, and it's probably too early to put any realistic projection on Sano as he has a looooong way to go. Other prospects like Joe Benson, Alex Wimmers, Levi Michael and could Eddie Rosario could contribute in the future as well. Any significant postive contribution should be treated as a success, not as the expectation.
Listing a fraction of the reasons players don't fulfill their potential (real or not) is pointless, however, one should appreciate that there are many causes for prospect 'failure'. Taking this as a fact, I hope fans will begin to take prospect rankings, minor league performance and projection of tools for what they are, and not as the certain fate for any prospect. The most difficult thing in baseball is not reaching the major leagues, but sticking there.
-Another note just from looking back at these lists; The difference between a #5 prospect and #20 prospect does not seem to be a large gap. However, once you look past the top #50, there are at least 5 "busts" for every major league regular.
*I realize using BA's top prospect lists is not perfect, but this isn't scientific, merely a subjective survey of the collective thought of the baseball outsiders, which I feel BA represents well enough.