I’ve always had a certain approach when it came to evaluating prospects out of high school. Too often, you see them evaluated by fans with the same expectations you see given to college players. If a prospect isn’t above the high-A level three years after he’s drafted, it’s seen as a disappointment. If the prospect struggles at all, people want to write him off. In rare cases, such as most first rounders, you’ll see high school players move through the system quickly. However, in most cases, even late round over-slot guys, it can take five years to see a prospect reach the majors, maybe more.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have been no stranger to selecting high school prospects in the draft over the last few years. They’ve also been no stranger to giving out big bonuses to top high school prospects that fall in the draft to them. In 2008 they gave Robbie Grossman, a sixth round pick, a $1 M bonus to sway him from going to Texas. In 2009, they again gave a seven figure bonus to their sixth round pick, this time going with Zack Von Rosenberg, giving him $1.2 M to break his commitment with LSU. In each case, due to the high bonus figures, people expected each player to cruise through the minors, forgetting the fact that these were players drafted out of high school, with a lot to work on in their development.
My approach is to look at the two paths a player can take out of high school. A top prospect can either sign his pro contract, or honor his commitment to an NCAA school. If the player goes to college, he usually doesn’t become draft eligible until three years later (JuCo players are eligible every year, and 21 year olds can be drafted any time, but most top prospects are locked out for three years). Assuming the player goes on to become a first rounder, he’s probably going to play in low-A the year he’s drafted, or he might not even play at all if he waits to the deadline to sign. That player probably won’t see the high-A level until the fourth year after he is drafted.
Then there’s the alternate approach. The player signs his pro contract, and goes right to the pros. He might get an aggressive push to full season ball if he’s a hitter, but most players play partial seasons their first year. Outside of the first rounders, most players also move a level at a time, and can suffer some set backs, causing them to repeat a level. However, players can reach high-A by their second or third year, which is a year or two early than they would if they would have originally gone to college.
Take Robbie Grossman as an example. Grossman was given a $1 M bonus. He wasn’t given that bonus because he was a guy who would move through the minors with ease. If that was the case, he would have been drafted in the first round. He was given that bonus because he was a guy with a lot of talent, who needed some development, and required a big bonus to convince him to work on that development in the Pirates’ system, rather than with Texas. Grossman would have been draft eligible this year, and based on his performance at the high-A level this year, he would have been a strong candidate to be drafted as a first rounder. In that route, he probably wouldn’t have seen high-A until 2012. Instead, he’s currently repeating the high-A level.
Grossman is a prime example of what I’m talking about when I talk about the expectations given to high school players. In his first year, Grossman got an aggressive push to full season ball. He hit for a .266/.373/.355 line in 451 at-bats in West Virginia, but had a horrible 36.4% strikeout ratio, and very little power, with five homers. Despite the numbers, and the struggles with plate patience, Grossman moved up to high-A in 2010. He was even worse there, with a .245/.344/.345 line in 470 at-bats, although he did cut down on his strikeouts, dropping his rate to 25.1%, which was still high for his lack of production.
My feeling going in to the season was that this was the year Grossman needed to step up. On an alternative route, he would have been a college junior this year, and this year would have been huge in establishing his value. Instead, he was repeating the high-A level, a level that he wouldn’t have seen until 2012 if he would have gone to college, and that was seen as a disappointment from Pirates fans.
Grossman has stepped up in a big way. He might not be hitting a ton of homers, but he’s excelling in every other area. He’s hitting for a .292 average. He’s hitting for some power, with a .423 slugging percentage, mostly fueled by extra base hits (22 doubles, 2 triples, 7 homers). The big story has been his high walk rate. He’s walked 88 times this year in 463 at-bats. That’s 22 more than last year, in 100 fewer plate appearances. Grossman not only leads the minor leagues in walks this year, but he also has more walks than anyone in the majors. That’s led to an on-base percentage of .430, which is higher than his slugging percentage.
The best part is that Grossman has cut down on his strikeout numbers again, dropping his ratio to 23.1%. That’s still a little high, but for a guy drawing walks at an enormous rate, hitting for extra bases, playing strong defense, and stealing 20 bases so far this year, the strikeouts become less of a factor. It’s a prime example of why there’s no need to rush judgement on players coming out of high school. Grossman obviously had things to work on in his development (plate patience), and he’s made some big strides in that area. It’s now looking like the $1 M bonus paid off, because with the way Grossman has been playing in high-A this year, I don’t see how he wouldn’t have been a first rounder in the 2011 draft.
That’s not saying that people shouldn’t be concerned about poor performances from high school players. It’s just saying that final judgements should be held for a later date. Take Quinton Miller as another example. Miller was also drafted in 2008, and was given $900 K as a 20th round pick to sign away from his commitment to UNC. So far, Miller has struggled, dealing with injuries the last two years, and getting hit hard when he’s healthy. Coming in to the year, questions existed about both Miller and Grossman. Grossman stepped up, and Miller was hit around and is currently on the disabled list. That’s definitely disappointing for Miller, but it’s still not enough for me to totally write him off. That said, his prospect ranking drops because of the struggles and the inability to stay healthy. If he would have gone to college with this same performance, he’d probably be regarded in the same way as 2011 23rd round pick Jordan Cooper: a good gamble to take on an arm that once had the potential to break out, but not a top prospect until he started showing results.
That’s something to keep in mind with a guy like Zack Von Rosenberg, who I profiled this morning after his second strong outing in a row. If Von Rosenberg would have gone to LSU, he wouldn’t have been eligible until the 2012 draft. If he would have struggled in his sophomore year of college, no one would care. All they’d care about is what he did leading up to the draft, and what he did after the draft. Von Rosenberg, like Grossman, has some things to work on. He leaves the ball up in the zone too often, which is dangerous when you’re throwing in the upper 80s. However, he’s a guy who has potential, and the ability to add velocity in the future, mostly due to his projectable frame and easy throwing motion. He’s been hit hard this year, but just like Grossman last year, it’s too early to write him off, as he’s young, and has a lot of potential.
That’s really the story with all prospects out of high school. It’s almost like planting a garden versus taking players out of college, which is akin to going to the store and grabbing some vegetables from the produce section. Instead of grabbing an established prospect off the shelves, you plant the seeds, watch the vines grow, and eventually you’ll get the same result, and possibly better than the alternative you’d get at the store. No prospect is guaranteed, and there is no guarantee that a high school player will work out. But it needs to be recognized that there’s a different time frame involved in their development, and a different approach to their development.