With the recent trend in stories projecting future Royals rosters in 2012 and beyond, it seemed a good idea to look back on how players rated as the top prospects in baseball from a few seasons ago have developed so far. The following are Baseball America's annual Top 10 Prospects from 2006 to 2008 (which BA published before those seasons started). Thus, for even the prospects on the 2008 list, those players would have two full seasons plus most of 2010 under their belt. It is not too much of a spoiler to suggest that the key word in evaluating the development of even the elite prospects is patience.
2006 Baseball America Top 10 Prospects
1. Delmon Young -- He became a full-time regular in 2007, but was below replacement level in the majors until finally having his breakthrough this year (with both the bat and the glove).
2. Justin Upton -- He became a full-time regular in 2008 and become one of the better young players in baseball by 2009.
3. Brandon Wood -- After years of monster numbers in the minors, Wood has been a disaster in the majors. He debuted in 2007, received his first extended playing time in 2008, and became a regular in 2010. He serves as a warning for power prospects with plate discipline and contact issues, for hitters who put up good numbers in hitters leagues, and for the volatility of minor league walk rates translating to the majors.
4. Jeremy Hermida -- He became a regular in 2006. Outside of one good year in 2007 when he posted 2.7 WAR, Hermida has not hit or played defense well enough to stick as a major league outfielder. Boston just designated him for assignment.
5. Stephen Drew -- He became a regular in 2006 and struggled for his first two years. Since 2008, he has settled in as a league average player.
6. Francisco Liriano -- He became a regular in 2006 and immediately dominated. He then underwent Tommy John surgery and missed all of 2007. He was solid in 2008 but struggled in 2009. In 2010, he regained his fastball and his place as one of the best starters in the league.
7. Chad Billingsley -- He became a regular in 2006 and initially struggled. Since 2007, he has settled in as a well above average starter but not quite an ace.
8. Justin Verlander -- He became a regular in 2006 and initially settled in as an above average starter. He refined his approach in 2009 and has became one of the best starters in the league.
9. Lastings Milledge -- He received a couple stints of regular playing time in 2006 and 2007 before becoming a regular in 2008. He has not hit well enough to be a regular major league outfielder so far, but has shown some improvement this year.
10. Matt Cain -- He became a regular in 2006 and has been an above average starter since then. His home ballpark has helped make his ERA look better than how he has performed, but he is still quite good.
2007 Baseball America Top 10 Prospects
1. Daisuke Matsuzaka -- He is in a different category as Matsuzaka was already 26 and an established star in the NPL when he joined the Red Sox in 2007. Even with the pedigree, Matsuzaka has struggled with injuries and has been merely a little above average when healthy.
2. Alex Gordon -- Gordon debuted as a regular in 2007 and well, all Royals fans should know the rest of the words to this song.
3. Delmon Young -- See above
4. Phil Hughes -- Hughes debuted in 2007 and struggled when given regular playing time in his first two years. After a successful year as a reliever in 2009, Hughes has been a well above average starter in 2010.
5. Homer Bailey -- He became a regular in 2007 and has since struggled to repeat his minor league success. Right now, he is barely a back end starter for an NL team. He is another cautionary tale.
6. Cameron Maybin -- He became a regular in 2009. Problems making contact have caused him to be only moderately above replacement level player in the majors so far.
7. Evan Longoria -- He became a regular in 2008 and immediately played at an elite level.
8. Brandon Wood -- See above
9. Justin Upton -- See above
10. Andrew Miller -- BA called Miller the "consensus top prospect" in the 2006 draft, and he made his debut as a major league reliever shortly thereafter. He became a regular in 2007 and has struggled, to say the least, with injuries and ineffectiveness since then. He is another cautionary tale.
2008 Baseball America Top 10 Prospects
1. Jay Bruce -- He became a regular in 2008 and has been a below average player so far, although he has shown improvement.
2. Evan Longoria -- See above
3. Joba Chamberlain -- After a famous late season debut in 2007, Chamberlin became a regular in 2008 and has bounced between the rotation and the bullpen. His control has not improved much, which has limited his value. Unless it improves, he might top out as just a very good reliever.
4. Clay Buchholz -- Like Joba, Bucholz had a famous debut in 2007 when he threw a no-hitter. In stints as a regular in 2008 and 2009, he struggled. This year, he has developed into an above average starter, but probably not as good as his shiny ERA.
5. Colby Rasmus -- He became a regular in 2009. He struggled initially with the bat, but has become an above average player this year.
6. Cameron Maybin -- See above
7. Clayton Kershaw -- He became a regular in 2008 and performed solidly despite control problems. As his walk rate has improved each year, Kershaw has become a well above average starter but not quite an ace yet.
8. Franklin Morales -- He debuted late in 2007 but has yet to become a major league regular due to injuries and control problems. He is another cautionary tale.
9. Homer Bailey -- See above
10. David Price -- He made a famous late season debut in 2008 as a reliever (mostly in the postseason), but struggled somewhat in his first year as a regular in 2009. He has been good this year, but not quite as good as his ERA suggests thanks to a fluky HR/FB rate.
Reviewing these lists, the thing that jumps out right away is that the prospects who immediately stuck in the majors and performed as above average players are clearly the exceptions. In fact, Longoria and Liriano are really the only ones who immediately contributed on an elite level (and Liriano then got hurt and it took him three years to get back to that level).
The next thing that stands out is that for just about every player that has established himself as a solid or better major leaguer, there is one who has been a disappointment, if not an outright bust (so far anyway). The players are still young, so there is still time for them. For example, a few months ago, Delmon Young might have been the biggest bust on these lists, but he has seemingly turned his career around in 2010.
It is also apparent that it took most of the successful players two or three years to establish themselves as a major leaguers. And early success does not necessarily mean sustained success, at least without some stops and starts along the way.
Another takeaway is that just being young does not necessarily mean that a player will improve. Several of the hitters with contact problems as prospects continued to struggle with the same problem as major leaguers, and some of the pitching prospects with control and command problems have yet to shake them.
Some good news is that of the players who did establish themselves as major leaguers, most developed into above average players, and not uncommonly well above average players.
With the way that even the top prospects have developed, teams with top prospect systems still need substantial existing major league talent -- either previous products of their farm system or players acquired from outside their system -- to compete on a regular basis. For example, if the 2006 Top Ten were on the same team this year, the rotation would be one of the best in baseball, but the offense would need considerable help, with only Upton, Young, and Drew league average or better. The difference between a .500 team and a world series contender would come down to how well management filled out the rest of the lineup, bullpen, and bench. On the other hand, a team composed of the 2008 Top Ten might not be competitive even with a true superstar in Longoria and three above average starters in Buchholz, Kershaw, and Price.
The lessons here certainly apply to the Royals. The Royals top prospects from the same time period have had similar paths. Gordon is still trying to establish himself in the majors, Luke Hochevar scuffled for most of his first three seasons in the majors before getting hurt, and even the success story that is Billy Butler took three major league seasons and a couple detours back to the minors.
The above lists represented at the time the elite of the elite prospects in baseball. Even with those pedigrees, the results are still pretty hit and miss. While the Royals should land multiple players in upcoming Top 25 or even Top 10 lists, it is reasonable to expect that they will have similar development successes and failures as these BA Top 10 prospects.
In other words, patience and perspective are virtues when projecting current Royals prospects as future Royals regulars.