The importance of prospects’ ages is frequently debated. Comparing one’s age to the age of to his competition adds significant context, but age is just a number. Age alone hardly provides enough context to discern its true relevance to an individual’s performance.
In one instance, a player’s age without further evidence is meaningful — when a player is young for his league, it demonstrates his organization’s confidence in his abilities. Each player development department knows its players best. They monitor their players’ development daily on and off the field. Over time, an organization builds the largest observation sample of its own talent and it is in the best position to evaluate its players. To be clear, a player’s age relative to his league does not make him a prospect. His abilities do. When a prospects is placed in an advanced league it is a confirmation of his abilities by his organization.
Examine the case of Carlos Tocci. At 17, the Philadelphia Phillies’ outfielder is the youngest player in the South Atlantic League. Last season, Tocci earned rave reviews while in the instructional league before he was aggressively advanced to Rookie Ball at 16 years old. In 107 Gulf Coast League plate appearances Tocci hit .278/.330/.299/.629 and his OPS was .027 points below the league average. The league average age? 19 years, 7 months. Tocci’s age does not make him a prospect, his abilities do. He was assigned to the South Atlantic League after the Phillies determined he could handle advanced placement.
Frequently, age is used as a proxy for to physical immaturity. The rationale is if a young player holds his own against stiff competition, his performance will improve as he physically matures. At times this theory holds true, but not always.
Compare Tocci to Cheslor Cuthbert, 20, a Kansas City Royals third base prospect who is seventh youngest position player in the Carolina League. Look at the physical maturation each has left.
It’s easy to envision Tocci’s body developing further as he ages. He is 6-foot-2 and lean and projects to add muscle throughout his frame as he matures. Cuthbert, however, does not. His body is its peak and he could age poorly if he isn’t careful. The purpose of this example is not to compare Tocci to Cuthbert, they are nearly three years apart. Rather, it is to demonstrate that when a player is one of the youngest players in his league, that does not imply he possess physical projection. That is a quality is evaluated by scouts on an individual basis.
Further, when a player is younger than his competition, it should be assumed that he is less experienced. However, inexperience comes in variety of ways other than youth.
A prospect’s background can provide important context. There are stark differences between a collegiate draftee, a high school draftee and international free agents depending on the countries where they were developed.
For an extreme example, once again we turn to Cuthbert. The Royals signed him from Big Corn Island, an island located 43 miles off the coast of Nicaragua with a population of 6,200. To foster his abilities, his father created a local four-team league. It’s safe to assume Cuthbert did not get the same amount of repetitions, nor did he face the same quality of competition that other international free agents did to develop his beautiful swing.
For young and talented players, inexperience can be profound. As experience is gained one would expect talent will turn into production, if it hasn’t already. For other, less conventional talents inexperience cuts in two directions. An obvious point is worth repeating. Every day one spends not developing one’s abilities is detrimental to one’s growth. However, inexperience may also mean a player has not had the same opportunity to develop as others. It is the job of scouts and front office personnel to determine whether a player’s present abilities can grow at an accelerated rate as makes up for lost experience.
There are several instances where a player’s old age may be deceiving.
For some international free agents the legal system has hindered their development. Orioles’ prospect Henry Urrutia, a 26-year-old Cuban defector, is a perfect example. In 2010, Urrutia was suspended in Cuba after a failed defection. An attempt to flee to Haiti in 2011 was successful, but visa issues prevented Urrutia from debuting in the United States. Now, a rusty and inexperienced Urrutia is tearing up Double-A with the Bowie Baysox and scouts are raving about his raw ability.
Will he develop into a quality major leaguer? Most prospects fail, so it’s hard to say, but Urrutia’s tools have earned him praise regardless of his birth date.
Henry Urrutia’s story is far different than the stories of Evan Gattis and Josh Hamilton, but get down to the heart of it and you will find similarities. Three individuals’ promise was overcome by off the field forces and kept them on the sports’ sidelines for years. They collected dust and gained no experience, but scouts believed their aptitude could be unlocked once they returned to the field.
Outside of youth one of the most obvious causes of inexperience is injury. In May of his first full season, Anthony Rizzo was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma which caused him to miss roughly 400 plate appearances during the season, off-season workouts, instructional league ball and forced his return to the South Atlantic League. At 19, Rizzo finally had the opportunity to eclipse 100 games played. Jon Lester has a similar story. The Red Sox’s lefty debuted in the summer of 2006 but was diagnosed with anplastic large cell lymphoma just before the close of the season. Lester spent the remainder of the year and the first half of his age 23 season treating his disease and fighting way back to Boston from Single-A Greenville.
The minor leagues are filled with individuals from an array of backgrounds, with equally diverse skill sets. While age is an important indicator, prospect evaluation requires deep, individual analysis to identify unconventional talents and build stronger projections.
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