I learned to love baseball as a kid, but growing up on a farm in rural Colorado my exposure was understandably limited. I voraciously consumed every source of information that I could find, Cardinals and Royals games picked up at night on AM radio, the back of baseball cards, box scores from the Times Call or Rocky Mountain News, library books and finally when I was 11, we got a television. It was nothing special, just a 19" Zenith with rabbit ear antennas and it could pick up about 7 stations, but it was the fall of 1991 and the playoffs loomed.
That 1991 Playoffs were an all-time great experience with future HOF Kirby Puckett hitting .429/.435/.762 to in the ALCS pull the Twins into the World Series in 5 games, while the NLCS stretched to 7 games. The NLCS featured the Atlanta Braves team that had been a joke for nearly a decade, against the 98 win Pirates who were in the middle of a run of three consecutive 95+ win seasons. That series included the amazing Pittsburgh Pirate OF Bonds, Van Slyke and Bonilla that amassed nearly 50 rWAR in that three year stretch (more than half was Bonds).
The 1991 WS ended with Jack Morris and John Smoltz in a 10 inning one run affair for the ages, but for all the titans and future HOF that postseason featured it was the fact that both Atlanta(65-97) and Minnesota(74-88) had finished at the bottom of their division the year before that forever colored my view. Minnesota had a 22yo Chuck Knoblauch and a 22yo Denny Neagle contribute to their successful run, but it was Atlanta’s roster strewn with supremely talented youngsters that started my love for prospects.
That Atlanta team featured a ton of 26 and under talent who would dominate my MLB experience for years to come. 26yo Ron Gant had been a very good player on some rotten teams(5.9 rWAR on the 97 loss 1990 team) on his way to a 30+ rWAR career. Future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine anchored the pitching staff alongside hopefully future HOF John Smoltz. Here is a Table of the 26 and under with the addition of the a few more players who arrived in the 10 year window between 86-96 if I had expanded it to 1997 it would have included Kevin Millwood’s 30+ career rWAR
Looking at that list this group produced 322.3rWAR and realizing that the minors still held 20yo’s Ryan Klesko (26.9rWAR) and Javier Lopez (29.6rWAR) 19yo Chipper Jones (85rWAR) and 18yo Jason Schmidt (31.7rWAR) and you realize that my idea of what prospects do is forever flawed
I know that it is said that prospects will break your heart. They have to - there are so many of them and so few that ever turn out. With that said sometimes they come together in a wave of talent that forever changes the image and reputation of a franchise. Looking at a team that drafted, signed and graduated (with the exception of Smoltz who was acquired for a FA signing Doyle Alexander) nearly 600 career rWAR over an 11 year span you realize the insane potential of prospects.
The Rockies front office is working on a 4th consecutive year of futility and fans are righteously concerned that they don’t have the answers. It is easy to feel like things will never get better to look at the Rockies system and see more questions than answers, to me the wonderful thing about this time of year is the possibilities. There are almost no Mike Trout type players in MLB history, almost every incredibly successful MLB player has a hiccup in their development at some point.
The three best players the Rockies have developed are Todd Helton, Troy Tulowitzki, Matt Holliday and they all had their questions. Imagine what you would have thought of the #8 pick of the draft hitting .254/.339/.333 as a 1B in Asheville, would you see a guy hitting .372/.463/.698 in MLB 5 years later? A 20yo glove first SS has a .800 OPS in the Cal that looks good until you realize Culberson posted a.797OPS there, of course two years later that guy is in MLB with an .838 OPS How about a 23yo LF hitting .253/.313/..395 in his second crack at AA, that guy is going to hit .340/.405/.607 one year and post a 143OPS+ over an 8 year stretch right?
The point is that the best reason to love this current crop of high ceiling low minors prospects is that big talent turns into big time players even when there are stumbling blocks along the way. Here is to the start of the best part of the prospect year, and to the next franchise great player whoever he is. We will be watching.