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The definitive primer on prospects and the minor leagues

Now that the Royals are bad, here’s how we can evaluate the next Royals stars

Eric Hosmer circa 2011 as a member of the Omaha Storm Chasers
Photo Credit | Minda Haas Kuhlmann

The Kansas City Royals are a bad team. They aren’t going to be this bad going forward because no MLB team wins as few as 42 games (which is what the Royals are currently pacing). But they are definitely going to be bad, and a 100-loss season is in play.

So what do we do with our time? With our passion? WE WANT TO ROOT FOR SOMETHING, DARN IT.

Enter the minor leagues. It is that time in a rebuilding season where eyes collectively turn to the minor leagues, where hope is on the horizon and where the losing in Kansas City can’t touch.

But what are the minor leagues? How do prospects work? Who should we be excited about? Why should we be excited? What about the draft?

Well, dear friend, this is your primer on prospects and the minor leagues. Read, edumacate yourself, and emerge yourself in the wonderful and weird world of prospects.

What are the minor leagues?

Minor League Baseball, stylized as MiLB, is a collection of independently owned baseball teams in a multi-level hierarchy that are affiliated with Major League Baseball teams. A MLB team’s partnership with their MiLB teams comprise what is colloquially referred to as their ‘farm system.’

Unlike some other sports leagues like the NBA or NHL, high school and college players do not funnel into the big leagues directly, as the standard of play is significantly higher. Therefore, the minor leagues exist to help prospects hone their talent and develop their skills. With the exception of certain foreign talents like Japanese players Ichiro Suzuki and Shohei Ohtani and Cubans Jose Abreu and Yoenis Cespedes, the vast majority of baseball players must ascend through the minors before making the show.

The minor leagues are also used to let MLB players rehab from injuries before they are ready for a complete return to their main club.

How many levels of minor leagues are there, and what are they?

If you accept a broad, holistic view that any professional league with a skill level below Major League Baseball is in a sense a part of the minor leagues, there are dozens of meaningful levels. This includes foreign leagues such as Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (the most advanced baseball league outside North America), Korea’s KBO League, and the Cuban National Series.

But in terms of domestic leagues with direct affiliation with MLB teams, there are five primary levels. In order from furthest away to the big leagues to the closest, they are A- (also known as Low-A, A Short Season), A, A+ (also known as High-A, A-Advanced), AA, and AAA. Below those five levels are a few other leagues that are termed Rookie level. These levels are meant primarily for newly drafted players and young international signings and, alongside A-, are short season leagues that last from June to July.

Not every MLB team is required to have a MiLB team at every level—the Royals, for instance, lack an A- team—but every team has at least five levels of minor league affiliates. These are the Royals’ affiliates for their respective levels:

What are prospects and why do people care?

Ah, prospects. Any player in the minor leagues can technically be termed a prospect, though it is only the younger and more talented ones that are seriously deemed prospects.

People care about prospects because, as was stated earlier, almost every baseball player, well, ever spent at least some time in the minor leagues, from Stephen Strasburg to Alex Gordon to Whit Merrifield to Ben Zobrist to Eric Hosmer to Salvador Perez to Aaron Judge and on and on and on.

Put succinctly, prospects are a team’s future. The more and better prospects you have, the brighter your team’s future.

How do people evaluate prospects? How should we evaluate prospects?

The ugly truth is that most prospects fail. Royals relief pitcher Brad Keller made his big league debut on March 29, 2018. He was the 19,176th player in MLB history. On May 6, 2011, Eric Hosmer debuted as the 17,538th player in MLB history. There were 1,638 players who debuted in the intervening seven years between those two.

In the 2017 draft alone, 1,215 players were selected. Add to that hundreds more who were signed as international amateur free agents. The numbers simply work against even the best incoming players. To make the big leagues, you have to be the best of the best incoming players. And to succeed in the big leagues, you have to be the best of the best of the best.

But not every prospect is the same. The best prospects are the ones that merely have the best chance to make it to and succeed in the big leagues, and it’s not uncommon for lower to picks to succeed. Whit Merrifield, 269th overall pick in the 2010 draft, has more career wins above replacement than Johnny Giavotella, 49th overall pick in the 2008 draft, for instance. Still, that 49th pick is more likely to make the big leagues than the 269th pick, even though sometimes the reverse happens. That’s how chance works.

Scouts use a scale of 20-80 to judge players. They use it for both individual tools (hitting, fielding, speed, power, defense) and for overall value, which is called ‘future value’ or ‘FV.’ A quick explanation from Fangraphs:

The invention of the scale is credited to Branch Rickey and whether he intended it or not, it mirrors various scientific scales. 50 is major league average, then each 10 point increment represents a standard deviation better or worse than average. In a normal distribution, three standard deviations in either direction should include 99.7% of your sample, so that’s why the scale is 20 to 80 rather than 0 and 100. That said, the distribution of tools isn’t a normal curve for every tool, but is somewhere close to that for most.

How do teams get prospects?

There are two ways to acquire prospects. The first is through the MLB Amateur Draft, held every June. The draft covers all American high schools and colleges. Players can declare for the draft as soon as they graduate from high school, but can choose to play college ball and declare later as well. Because there are so many slots in the draft, and because there is not one best way to acquire prospects, you’ll find every team selecting both college and high school hitting and pitching.

The Kansas City Royals draft in 2018 is a big one. They own four of the top 40 picks in the draft, and with some good selections have a great chance to give their farm system a jump start.

The other way to acquire prospects is by signing international free agents. Yordano Ventura, Salvador Perez, and Kelvin Herrera are examples of international free agents signed by the Royals who then made the big league club. International free agents almost always sign as young teenagers, usually around 16 or so.

Every baseball team has a limited amount of monetary resources to devote to both the draft and international free agents for signing bonuses. In 2018, the Royals have the most money to use in the draft and the second-most money to use overall towards amateur signing bonuses.

How good is the Royals farm system?

I knew you would ask that. I’m sorry there’s not a better answer, but the Royals currently have one of the worst farm systems in all of baseball. It is this way for multiple reasons, but primarily because the Royals have drafted extremely poorly for a long time.

That being said, the Royals can turn around their system very quickly. Again, their four picks among the top 40 selections in the 2018 draft represents a nice opportunity. But the Royals also have a collection of nice assets that they can flip at either the 2018 trade deadline. This probably means that one or more of Danny Duffy, Mike Moustakas, Kelvin Herrera, Whit Merrifield, or Salvador Perez could be gone in July. Sorry. It is what it is.

Uh, that’s depressing. Are there are any minor league names to pay attention to?

There are! The Royals have a relatively strong collection of guys performing well in the low minors who could help make up a 2011-esque wave should things break right.

Here are four names to get familiar with, two in the low minors and two in the upper minors:

Seuly Matias | Age-19 | A Lexington

Matias is having a bit of a breakout season so far. The 6’3” Dominican has crushed seven home runs in only 19 games played, and his isolated power (ISO) is a Barry Bonds-ian .371.

Nick Pratto | Age-19 | A Lexington

As long as he’s in the Royals system, he will be compared to Eric Hosmer, for good or ill. Both are lefty first baseman drafted out of high school in the first round, both drafted at age-19, and both starting in Lexington in their first pro season. The good news is that—so far—Pratto is outhitting Hosmer at the same age and level.

Hunter Dozier | Age-26 | AAA Omaha

Dozier was a first round pick in 2013, and actually has already made his MLB debut in 2016, but only played a handful of September games. Dozier’s natural position is third base, but he has played at first base and in the corner outfield, too, and is probably first bat in line should someone get injured or traded at the big league level.

Bubba Starling | Age-25 | AAA Omaha

It’s been a long road for Starling, fifth overall pick in the 2011 draft out of Gardner High School, right here in the Kansas City metro. Poor hitting in the minor leagues has hurt his stock, but he is a fantastic and gifted athlete and polished defender. This year is make-or-break time for Starling, but the Royals still want the local kid to succeed and will reward him with an opportunity if he earns it.

So when will the Royals next be competitive?

That’s anybody’s guess, which is why the minor leagues will continue to be fascinating for a long time. But I’d guess that 2021 will be extremely exciting, as prospects from the 2018 and 2019 drafts and prospect haul from trading current MLB assets begin making their debuts.

Until then? Flags fly forever.