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

  • CalipariFan506
    January 22, 2014 10:50 pm

    I think a slight disclaimer should be made here. Guys like Locke, Lambo, Pimentel have something in common. They were HS or young international signings. These are the types of young guys who you can wait on, they are still maturing, they should probably come up when they are 23 orr 24 years old after extensive development and a good season at each level (which IMO is Lambo’s problem).

    I disagree with this in regards to college players. If you get a kid from a big school in the top few rounds he shouldn’t even waste his time anywhere until high A against age appropriate competition.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    January 21, 2014 2:10 pm

    Good article – and clearly outlines that these guys are not robots, but humans – and each one develops and matures differently. Some, also get derailed along the way by having bouts of alcohol/drug abuse, etc. If you read Josh Hamilton’s autobiography, you really get a feel for what it was like for a 18-19 year old kid who finds himself suddenly on his own and living and playing with guys much older.

    It also further illustrates how mazing it was for guys like Robin Yount, Bucky Dent, ARod, Griffey Jr Trout, Harper, etc. to be in the majors prior to their 20th birthday – and playing at pretty high levels.

  • Mike Easler never broke through till his age 29 season and he retired with an OPS+ of 118 so Lambo is definitely not too old to be an impact player.

  • This reminds me of Jason Parks’ tweet about the Dodgers’ Zach Lee…

    “Jason Parks ‏@ProfessorParks ·20h
    #Dodgers pitcher Zach Lee has gone from unattainable to overrated to really overrated to underrated since being drafted in 2010.”

    this description works for a lot of our pirates as well. Definitely Heredia.

  • This is why I am hoping Lambo gets a shot as our lefty first baseman.

    I also wish Stolmy had an option left. I guess he is going to the pen?

  • I have to say that the patience of the NH administration is definitely admirable. I think that there is more of a tendency of Pirates fans to criticize the execs. for moving prospects through the system slowly than, perhaps, other teams. This falls in line with NH’s trades for “former top prospects.” All in all, it shows the commitment of the team to analyze and plan to stay ahead of other teams, especially at the development level. I think there is much less of a chance for another Jose Batista incident, and actually more of a chance for it to happen in reverse. Just more signs of the team’s commitment to sustained competitiveness.

    • I think this approach is better for the individual player as well. The crush of potential and “prospect status” can be negative. A weight in its own rite.

      I believe I read somewhere that the Pirates develop a specific plan for each player in the system. So the attention to the individual is a good way of nurturing raw talent.


  • TW

    Nice read and thanks. Good baseball reading on a snowy morning in the Mountains nestled between Penn State and Altoona.

    Even on these boards I’ve read plenty of negative comments directed at the Pirate front office that goes something like, “Oh, there goes Huntington dumpster diving for other teams’ former top prospects again.”

    Huntington is probably just trusting the scouting that has preceded his own. Obviously, a “former prospect” or “former first rounder,” may never figure it out, (See Billy Bean) but here’s to Huntington, charged with rebuilding and sustaining the franchise, for offering every last chance possible to these guys, because, hey, the TOOLS are THERE.

    This prejudice you talk about even sneaks into conversations that go something like, “He’s too old for this level.”

    I really liked the anecdote you provide, that Lambo spent parts of six seasons in AA before his maturity caught up with his tools.

    All that said, is there an age where even Tim Williams throws in the towel on a “prospect?”

    Keep up the good work, soldier. You’ve got a top baseball site.


    • Shawn, I think the Tim Williams prospect age cutoff is 40. It may dip to 39, but it will be a cold day in Bradenton when it does.

    • It’s different for every player. A rough approach would be to take the average age for each level. If a guy is at that age, or older, and he’s not looking like he could move up, then I don’t consider him a prospect. For example, the average age in the Eastern League was 24.5 years old. So if you’ve got a 25 year old still struggling to make the jump to Triple-A, I wouldn’t rule him a prospect. That’s not to say that I’d rule every 23 and 24 year old in Double-A a prospect. If they don’t have the tools to be considered a top prospect in the first place, then I’d start ruling them out at a younger age.

      For pitchers, and especially relief pitchers, there is more leeway. In the case of relief pitchers, all you need is a guy with a good fastball and a good secondary pitch. Take Duke Welker, as an example. He was 24 and in low-A and I was considering him a prospect. The same for age 25 at A+/AA, 26 at AA/AAA, and 27 at AAA/MLB. He turns 28 in a few weeks, and I still consider him one of the top 50 prospects in the organization. That’s because he’s got an upper 90s fastball and a good slider. That combo is good at any age.

      Of course, I also cheat in my analysis. I talk with scouts all the time, and if they don’t consider a guy a prospect, I start to re-think my position. In Welker’s case, I thought he was too old to be a prospect in A-ball, until I talked with a long time NL scout who raved about him and said he had a major league arm.

  • All of which is further proof that the ultimate performance of baseball “prospects” is uncertain and that “labelling” a player as a “busted prospect” can often be premature. Patience is required and it is the truly rare player (a Bryce Harper or a Mike Trout) who is really ready for the majors in their early 20s. It does seem that a few of the players that the Pirates picked up over the last several years who were considered “top prospects” never lived up to the billing – Jeff Clement was an overall #3 and did not play well for the Pirates, Lastings Milledge was a former Mets top prospect who never played up to the hype, and Albert Pujols was something like the 402nd player taken in the draft (how many teams would like to have picks 1 – 401 back?). All of which is to say that smart teams have to have a lot of options so they’re not in trouble of they only have Option A and that player doesn’t work out and they have a black hole of nothing in terms of depth. Also players need to be judged on how they perform, not on when they were picked in the draft (Tyler Glasnow anyone?)