First Pitch: The Downside of Being a Top Prospect at a Young Age

Last week, during our top 20 prospect countdown, we profiled Andrew Lambo and Stolmy Pimentel as part of the 11-15 ranked prospects. Both guys share a lot in common in that they:

**Were once top prospects at a young age.

**Have both struggled at the Double-A level.

**Were both traded to the Pirates at a low value.

**Both had big bounce back seasons in 2013, finally dominating Double-A, carrying that over to Triple-A, and even making an appearance in the majors.

There’s one other thing they both have in common: they’re both still young. Lambo had his big season at the age of 24. He turned 25 in August. By comparison, Jordy Mercer finally broke into the majors as a starter in 2013. He turned 27 in August. Lambo is about two years younger than Mercer, and has more of a history of being considered a top prospect.

Stolmy Pimentel is a bit younger than Lambo. He was 23 last year, and turns 24 in about two weeks on February 1st. That means he’s only seven months older than Gerrit Cole. I’m just putting that out there for a reference, and I’ll stop the comparison here, because Pimentel’s upside is not on Gerrit Cole’s level. But what about Brandon Cumpton? He pitched 30 innings in the majors in 2013, and he is almost two years older than Pimentel.

In both cases you have a guy who was a top prospect at a very young age, struggled a bit in his career while he was on the radar, and as a result, was docked heavily. Lambo was promoted to Double-A at a very young age, and spent parts of six seasons at the level. He was derailed by poor performance, a drug suspension, and a hand injury. He was considered a top prospect after his age 18 season, and the top prospect in the Dodgers’ system after his age 19 season.

Pimentel was signed at the age of 16, and was just outside of the Red Sox top ten prospect lists after his age 18 season. He was one of the top pitching prospects for the Red Sox following his age 20 season, and reached Double-A at the age of 21.

Meanwhile, look at the counter parts. Andrew Lambo fell out of favor with the Dodgers by age 21. Jordy Mercer didn’t enter pro ball until his age 21 season. Lambo never really showed his power potential until his age 24 season at the Double-A level. Mercer didn’t show much power until his age 24 season at the Double-A level, which was his second run through Double-A. While both saw their power increase at the age of 24, Lambo’s production was far superior to the production Mercer put up. Unlike Lambo, Mercer struggled in his jump to Triple-A that year, improved the following season, and really tore the cover off the ball in 2013 before his promotion to the majors.

Then there’s Pimentel and Cumpton. Pimentel fell from being the number six prospect in Baseball America’s rankings of the Red Sox system to the number 23 prospect after his age 21 season. Cumpton entered pro ball in his age 21 season. Pimentel struggled in Double-A at the age of 22, and fell out of favor with the Red Sox, to the point where they traded him the following year. Cumpton was hammered early in low-A ball at the age of 22, before learning fastball command and the importance of pitching inside. He didn’t make it to Double-A until the age of 23. Pimentel’s age 23 numbers at Double-A were better than Cumpton’s, although it was the first run through the level for Cumpton, and a repeat year for Pimentel.

So what can we take from this? There’s a saying about how it’s better to have loved and lost than to never love at all. When it comes to prospects, it’s better to have never been a prospect at all, than to be a prospect and struggle. Jordy Mercer had the same struggles as Andrew Lambo, at the same levels, and at the same ages. They both had a big breakout season in Double-A at the age of 24. The key difference was that Lambo was originally promoted to Double-A at the age of 19. Mercer was just starting off in college ball at the age of 19.

Cumpton and Pimentel also had similar success at the Double-A level during their age 23 seasons. Both had struggled with their game in pro ball before that season. Pimentel struggled at the ages of 20 and 21, while Cumpton spent most of those years with Georgia Tech. Cumpton broke into the majors at the age of 24, and had success in limited playing time. Pimentel broke into the majors at the age of 23, and also had success in limited playing time.

Very few prospects will make it to the majors with no growing pains. Every prospect goes through adjustments where they take their raw skills and turn them into production on the field. Most prospects never actually achieve the latter part. When it comes to prospects, it seems that there’s a “one strike and you’re out” policy as far as the future values. Lambo and Pimentel aren’t seen as young guys who have a bright future in the majors after big seasons in the upper levels. They’re seen as former top prospects, with skepticism about their upper level success because they have failed in the spotlight before. Meanwhile, Mercer and Cumpton had upper level success, but have also had growing pains in the past. The difference is that the growing pains from those two didn’t come in the “top prospect” spotlight.

In short, all four players had breakout seasons in the minors at age 23-24, but Lambo and Pimentel get penalized because they were on the prospect radar at ages 18-21, while Mercer and Cumpton weren’t even in pro ball during that time.

As someone who covers prospects, one of the most frustrating things is constantly seeing prospects evaluated based on how long they’ve been considered a “prospect”, and not based on their age. Probably the next example of this trend would be Luis Heredia. Pirates fans have been following Heredia since he was 15 years old, before he was even with the Pirates. Last year he struggled at the age of 18, in full-season A-ball. Meanwhile, the Pirates drafted a bunch of pitchers in 2013 who are 18 or older, and have only played in short-season ball. The guys who are the same age will play in Bristol or Jamestown next year, while Heredia could play in West Virginia or Bradenton. Yet Heredia’s 2014 season will be seen as a “bounce back” attempt, while the new guys come in with a clean slate, and an easier assignment in 2014.

In all of these cases, it feels like the player has been around forever. That allows you to lose track of the fact that Lambo is 25, Pimentel will soon turn 24, and Heredia is 19. It leads to a focus on their prospect status, rather than how they compare to players at a similar age and at similar levels. It’s a bad way to evaluate prospects, but it’s pretty wide-spread. Even major league teams do it. That’s how the Pirates got Lambo and Pimentel in the first place, and it’s also how they’ve gotten other players (Jeff Locke is the first example that comes to mind).

“Prospect status” is something that can be very fragile. One half season of struggles leads to a decline in status, and doubt in the future when a player starts putting up strong results at an acceptable age. If you look past the former prospect status, and just evaluate the player based on present day, you’ll see that guys like Lambo and Pimentel are very interesting options. Fortunately the Pirates have been a team that is willing to look past struggles of prospects at a young age. It is already paying off with Jeff Locke. I think it could pay off in 2014 with one or both of Lambo and Pimentel.

Links and Notes

**The 2014 Prospect Guide is now available. You can purchase your copy here, and read about every prospect in the Pirates’ system. The book includes our top 50 prospects, as well as future potential ratings for every player.

**We have been releasing our top 20 prospects for the 2014 season, and this week we started the top 10. Today the countdown resumed with #10 – Harold Ramirez.

**Taking a Look at the Current Market For Ike Davis

**Winter Leagues: Starling Marte Done With Winter Ball

**Winter Leagues: Ramirez Homers in Colombian League Finals

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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