Esteemed Baseball Prospectus author Kevin Goldstein, widely regarded as one of the foremost experts in the field of prospect evaluation, was generous enough to devote some of his valuable time to answering reader-submitted questions pertaining to the Texas Rangers' electric minor league system late last week.
Read on for Goldstein's takes on Engel Beltre and Michael Main, as well as his sleeper breakout candidate for '09. His answer is going to surprise you.
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Q: Hey Kevin, thanks for taking our questions.
I'm wondering about Wilfredo Boscan. With all the excitement around Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland, Martin Perez, and now Michael Main, Boscan seems to be flying under the radar. Looking at his strikeout-to-walk and ground ball rates I can't help but drool. From everything I've read on him he seems to have a phenomenal work ethic, which should allow him to maximize his talent. Is this guy legit? Is it too soon to tell?
Goldstein: I like Wilfredo Boscan, but you have to remember that every organization has a few Wilfredo Boscans in it. On that [short-season] Spokane roster, which by the way was absolutely loaded, I would prefer both Martin Perez and Neil Ramirez to Boscan. Boscan is definitely a legit prospect, but he's just a guy with the ability to become something, and that's all he really has right now: the ability to become something. It's not something yet. Every team has two or three of those guys, and it's hard to figure out which ones are going to get there, but one leg up that Boscan has is that he has control beyond his years and that is a really good sign.
Q: Kevin, in regard to the Rangers being unable to produce good Major League pitchers, do you think that it would be a good idea for the organization to start teaching a featured pitch (such as the White Sox do with the cutter, thus making John Danks the pitcher he is today)? It would seem that if we told all of our young pitchers that they were going to develop a reliable change-up, it would improve their chances of reaching the majors and being successful. Not to mention that throwing the change-up instead of the slider would put a lot less strain on their arms. Do you know if the Rangers are currently doing this or have any plans to?
Goldstein: You can't have a feature pitch because there is no one pitch that every player can throw. When you get a young kid, you get them to focus on a single breaking ball; you have them throw a curveball or a slider instead of throwing both. That way, they can focus on one and make it a really good pitch. They don't make that decision by flipping a coin. You look at the kid and you look at his mechanics and his arm action and where his release point is, and based on those factors you can say that he would be better throwing a curveball, or he would be better off throwing a slider. If you make your organizational pitch a slider, well, there are plenty of kids that shouldn't be throwing a slider because they just can't throw a slider. This goes back to the cookie-cutter mentality. I think that is one thing that the Rangers don't do. Every player they have is treated differently based on that player -- based on ability and make-up.
Q: During the World Series, Jim Callis opined, "The Rangers have the best farm system in baseball." Not too long after, you commented that the Rangers' system is "loaded," and that the Rangers are more likely to be "a slow burn as opposed to a sudden Rays-like leap forward" in the AL West -- predicting that Texas could possibly contend in 2010.
Goldstein: Yes. I think they will improve this year ['09] to the point where teams actually worry about going to Texas to play them. I think 2010 is a far more realistic goal for them to get into position to challenge for a pennant.
Q: It's impossible to ignore the fact that the Rangers have a ton of prospects down on the farm -- but it's also impossible to deny that Texas's fatal flaw is and has *always* been a lack of elite starting pitching. And with observers in the know projecting Neftali Feliz as an elite closer, Derek Holland as a number-two starter, and Michael Main as something of a question mark, it doesn't seem as if there's a clear-cut ace ready to emerge from the Rangers' minor-league ranks in the next few years.
Goldstein: I think Feliz is a starter, first of all. I think elite starting pitchers come once in a generation. How many #1 starters are there in baseball right now? Ten? That means 20 teams don't have one. That's the problem. "We don't have one" -- well, you are like most teams. I don't think you really need an "ace." Teams lose way more playoff spots (and the ability to contend, because they don't have a good #4 or #5 starter) than teams win because they have an "ace." If you look at the Rangers farm system right now, there is very good reason to believe that down the road, you are going to have rotational depth. That's going to mean more to you than having a single "ace." There are so many teams where you can look at what their #5 starter did and that is the reason they didn't make the playoffs. If you can go 1-to-5 and they are all good, you don't need an "ace." There just aren't that many out there, so don't sit around and wait for one.
Look, your system is loaded. I think it might be the best system in baseball. It's either Texas or Oakland. It's close enough that I don't think I've done enough work to figure out which is #1 yet. But if they aren't #1, then they are #1A. But I think everyone has to be realistic about their prospects. I think that is a huge problem throughout baseball. People are just not realistic about their prospects. People don't properly assess what the attrition rate is. If you look at a snapshot of any system, top to bottom, AAA to the [Arizona Rookie League], at any one point, if you can get one starting pitcher, one really good hitter, and another good Major League regular, that system is above average.
Whatever you want to call the Rangers Top 10, write down your top 10, those guys are not all going to be future stars for the Rangers. It's not going to be close. Half of them aren't going to be future stars. The attrition rate is scary and it's very real and we can all talk about how all of those guys have a lot of potential and a lot of tools and how they are all going to be stars, but most of them don't make it. That's just how it works. There are going to be plenty of these guys who are going to play big roles in the future of the Rangers, but they aren't all going to be there. It's just not going to happen. Never does. Never has.
Q: Perhaps I'm too much of a skeptic, but how possible do you think it is that the Rangers' farm system is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? Is this another case of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow for Texas, such that 2012 will find the Rangers loitering just outside of contention, dealing with a surplus of middle-of-the-rotation pitching, and still searching for that elusive ace -- praying that phenom Martin Perez can finally put all their yesterdays to rest? Do the Rangers need to pull the trigger on a blockbuster deal for a legitimate ace sooner rather than later if they hope to play for a World Series crown in the next five years?
OK, so that's more than one question -- but you get the idea.
Goldstein: I like this guy. The answer is no. The Rangers are better off standing pat right now and seeing how these kids develop. Follow the Rays model. You don't make a blockbuster trade unless it is right for you. If the Rangers take their team going into 2009, and don't trade any current big leaguers, just trade prospects in order to bring in an "ace" for that team, do they have anything left? I don't think so. Then why do you do it?
Q: What was it that you saw in Neftali Feliz that led you to call his breakout year before it happened?
Goldstein: Okay, I'm going to give you my speech. Here's the thing: it's not what I saw because it doesn't matter what I saw. It's not what I do for a living. I'm a journalist and I write about minor league prospects. What I saw was completely irrelevant. What matters is what the people I talk to saw. Those people are the ones who get paid good money to evaluate talent. That's what I base everything I do on.
When I went to see Beltre play, or [Elvis] Andrus, or Feliz, or Beavan, or Main, I had my opinion about it, but I cared far more about what the scout sitting next to me had to say about it. He's a better evaluator than I am. I base it all on talking to people from within the game. The Feliz thing is based on people within the Braves organization, as well as from scouts outside who have seen him come up in the Dominican, who saw him pitch in the Gulf Coast League that year -- it's what they told me. That they thought he was really that good. A special arm. It wasn't really what I saw.
Q: How do Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz compare to Clay Buchholz and Phil Hughes? Do you expect Holland and Feliz to struggle at the MLB level like Buchholz and Hughes?
- Brandon B
Goldstein: Yes, of course they will. Everyone does. Most every player is going to struggle a bit when they first reach the majors. The jump from AAA to the majors is the biggest jump in the world. The difference in talent is just massive. It's ridiculous.
I don't expect them to struggle forever. I think Feliz is going to be a star, perhaps even a superstar, and Holland has the potential to be a star as well. If they call up Feliz next July, he's not going to go 11-1 with a 1.50 ERA. He's going to get hit around. He's going to have to learn to pitch to Major League hitters, and that's something that is really hard to learn without doing.
Q: Which is more detrimental to a player's development: staying in AAA too long, or getting only irregular playing time at the Major League level?
Goldstein: That's a great question, but you are going to hate my answer ... it depends on the player. For the most part, if you have a guy that is developing and not really quite ready yet, you are going to want him to get at-bats every day, because that is the only way he is going to get better. At the same time, if you have a guy that just gets stuck in AAA, he's blocked or the few times he's been given a shot he has struggled or whatever, there are guys where it gets to them mentally. If they start struggling or pressing they can end up trying to do things that they just aren't capable of doing. Again, it depends on the guy, but in general I think playing time is better for development than sitting on the bench.
Q: Everyone keeps touting Engel Beltre as a five-tool prospect. However, he has the worst strikeouts-to-walks ratio in the entire organization. Does that spell doomsday for him?
- Rod Carew
Goldstein: Strikeouts to walks are not in the tools. They are not tools. He's a five-tool prospect. [Greg] Golson is a five-tool prospect. The problem is that [Beltre] has such a bad approach. It's a huge red flag. Beltre will swing at anything. There is no question about it. It's going to have to get refined or he's going to turn into Golson. But if he has one thing on his side, it's time. He was just so young in '08, playing in full-season ball, and he clearly belonged on a talent level. He's never going to be Rickey Henderson and draw 100 walks a year, but obviously he needs to become more selective or it's going to be a problem.
Q: Seems as if most of the time, folks ask you which prospect in a system is most likely to succeed, or which of a group of top prospects is the best bet to make a significant impact at the Major League level. So let me throw you a change-up: when you look at the top prospects on the Rangers' farm, which guy do you think is the most likely to flame out spectacularly -- to utterly defy expectations of his success, to fail to make an impact despite having all the talent (or drive, or whatever) in the world? And why?
Goldstein: Another good question. My flameout list: I'll start with Andrus just because I don't think he is going to be a star. He's going to be a big leaguer, but he isn't going to be a star-level player at all. Another flameout is Beltre, but you still have to rank Beltre high because he arguably has more potential than any player in the system. Beltre has the highest ceiling of any position player in the system, hands down. He's also one of the most likely to flame out. That is the type of player he is. Beltre is the player most likely to win an MVP award. He's also the player that is most likely not going to get past AA.
As far as guys exceeding expectations, I would say Main. He has the ability to step up and become an elite-level pitching prospect.
Q: Who do you think will be the most pleasant surprise in our farm system this season (much like Derek Holland last season)?
- Robert Bolyard
Goldstein: Most years you don't get a Derek Holland. You are very, very lucky to get a Derek Holland. I think Main, for sure, is a guy that could take a huge, huge, step forward. If you look at what they did in the draft this year, and you want to pick out a guy who isn't a Justin Smoak or a Robbie Ross kind of bonus player, I really like Matt Thompson -- a local pitcher with a pro body and a really advanced package for his age.
Q: If the Rangers had been successful in their attempt to sign Michel Inoa to a contract this past year, where would he rank among our current pitching prospects? Would it have been considered unfair for us to add yet another pitching prospect for other clubs to be jealous of?
Goldstein: #1 or #2. Easy five-star prospect. You don't even have to think about that one. People that I have spoken with say that they have never seen anything like him.
Jason Parks: As a fellow Clash aficionado, I'm curious to find out which album you think was their best?
Goldstein: Sandinista! A highly underrated masterpiece. I think London Calling represents the beginning of the Clash going from reactionary Brits to people with more of a worldview. I think Sandinista! was the maturity of that.
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A special thanks to all of those who submitted questions for Kevin to answer. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to answer all of them, but he did agree to join us for another one in '09.
Kevin picked Snark's flameout question as his favorite. Snark will receive a Baseball Prospectus 2009 courtesy of Baseball Time in Arlington. Congrats!