How Often Do MLB Prospects Pan Out?

As we advance toward the end of May, the Tigers 2022 season is looking much like the 2021 season: sad and unwatchable.

Is this Groundhog Day?

But while the Tigers are showing that the rebuild is still very much in progress, there are a few young players worth keeping an eye on. Notably, the Tigers have fresh pitching prospects with bright futures. Or do they?

How often do young players drafted and developed by an organization pan out? Which ones are gold and which are fool’s gold?

Here’s a look at the Tigers first round picks the last twenty years.

Detroit Tigers 1st Round Draft Picks, 2000-2009

Matt WheatlandP20001st00.0
Kenny BaughP20011st00.0
Michael Woods2B20011st00.0
Scott MooreSS20021st152-0.8
Kyle SleethP20031st00.0
Justin VerlanderP20041st46173.5
Cameron MaybinOF20051st116213.5
Andrew MillerP20061st6127.7
Rick PorcelloP20071st35518.8
Brandon HamiltonP20071st00.0
Ryan PerryP20081st1560.2
Jacob TurnerP20091st102-2.6

Among this group, only Verlander and Porcello contributed to the Tigers at the big league level, and both were of value. Miller and Maybin were packaged to acquire Miguel Cabrera, so that worked out.

The success of this group over a decade, is not unusual: many MLB teams go ten years with only one or two first round picks ending up as contributors at the big league level. The fact that general manager Dave Dombrowski was able to wrap two of these picks together and fleece the Marlins to get Miggy was pretty damn special, actually. The Miggy deal is arguably the best trade in Detroit sports history.

Detroit Tigers 1st Round Draft Picks, 2010-2020

Chance RuffinP20101st24-0.5
Nick Castellanos3B20101st112012.9
Corey KnebelP20131st2815.1
Jonathon CrawfordP20131st00.0
Derek HillOF20141st81-0.7
Christin StewartOF20151st157-1.2
Beau BurrowsP20151st11-0.7
Matt ManningP20161st20-0.1
Alex FaedoP20171st40.5
Casey MizeP20181st392.7
Riley GreeneOF20191st00.0
Spencer Torkelson1B20201st32-0.5

The jury is still out on the group from 2016 on, but the first half of the last decade was a severe disappointment. Castellanos is now a star somewhere else, and the Tigers only have Alex Lange to show for trading him.

Recent injuries to Manning, Mize, and Greene call into question how much Detroit will get from the recent first rounders. Torkelson seems to be a lock for at least a long, useful career, and could be a star.

Detroit Tigers 2nd Round Draft Picks, 2000-2020

Chad PettyP20002nd00.0
Matt CoenenP20012nd00.0
Preston LarrisonP20012nd00.0
Brent ClevlenOF20022nd59-0.1
Jay SborzP20032nd1-0.3
Eric BeattieP20042nd00.0
Ron Bourquin3B20062nd00.0
Danny WorthSS20072nd149-0.5
Cody SatterwhiteP20082nd00.0
Andy OliverP20092nd7-0.8
Drew SmylyP20102nd22310.7
James McCannC20112nd7437.6
Jake ThompsonP20122nd300.2
Kevin ZiomekP20132nd00.0
Spencer TurnbullP20142nd544.8
Tyler AlexanderP20152nd722.8
Rey RiveraOF20172nd00.0
Parker MeadowsOF20182nd00.0
Nick Quintana3B20192nd00.0
Daniel CabreraOF20202nd00.0
Dillon DinglerC20202nd00.0

This group includes many players who were near the top of the annual “Top Ranked Prospects” lists that fans love. But even if we just judge the 2000-2015 players, we only see two (McCann and Smyly) who contributed much at the big league level. Both are elsewhere now, but regardless, they were both just warm bodies holding down jobs at the MLB level in Motown. Hardly “top prospects” to get excited about.

I checked second round picks for all MLB teams from 2009 to 2018, and here’s a sobering fact: 22 percent of those players never played in the major leagues. A disappointing 38 percent of players picked in the MLB Draft in the second round from 2009 to 2018 have contributed zero or negative Wins Above Replacement at the major league level.

First Round Draft Picks Are Far From A Sure Thing

Maybe you think it’s just the Tigers who are terrible at picking players. But the trend is true across Major League Baseball.

From 2009 to 2018, a span of ten drafts, 47 percent of the position players selected by all MLB teams in the June draft ended up with a negative Wins Above Replacement (at best) in the majors. One in five position players picked in the first round (2009-18) have played fewer than 50 games in the big leagues.

Selecting pitchers has been almost as much of a crapshoot: in the ten June MLB Drafts from 2009 to 2018, 39 percent of pitching prospects either did not pitch in the big leagues or have produced negative WAR in the majors. A stunning 26 percent of pitchers picked in the first round have never pitched in the majors.

These players picked in the first round of the MLB Draft are the ones who end up at the top of the Top Prospect Rankings lists that are so popular all over the internet.

But what value are those lists if the players only have about a 50 percent chance of having a career that lasts as long as two or three years?

In the 20 drafts from 2000 to 2018, when the Tigers picked 40 players total in the first two rounds of the draft, only three went on to become All-Stars (Justin Verlander, Andrew Miller, and Nicholas Castellanos).

What Are Prospects Good For?

Prospects are a crapshoot. Even those taken in the first and second round. A few teams are a little better at drafting players, but that doesn’t last long. All MLB teams have about a 50/50 chance to see their first or second round picks become regular contributors at the MLB level.

So, what are prospects good for?

One might argue that the best thing you can do with prospects is flip them for established MLB players. That’s a strategy a few general managers like to use: prop up their “top ranked prospects” and trade them for players who’ve already shown they can play at the MLB level. There seems to always be a team that’s dazzled by the promise of the future, and willing to give up MLB talent to get it.

Does this mean I think the Tigers should trade Matt Manning, Spencer Torkelson, and Riley Greene? No, not at all. But the numbers show that probably only one of them will pan out, and if two of them do, we should all be thrilled.

One reply on “How Often Do MLB Prospects Pan Out?

  • J.D. Danielewicz

    The “eye test” tells me Riley Greene will be a 5 tool star. He reminds me of Fred Lynn. Hopefully Torkelson will start hitting SOON. He already seems to be an excellent fielder at first base with a great glove hand. Barring any arm problems, Skubel looks like a 1 or 2 starter for years to come. I also have high hopes for Kriedler. We really could use a left handed hitting catcher with some “pop” in his bat. I also expect big things from Victor Reyes.

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