About the Top 20: Part I

Like an alleged criminal act or a perfect SAT score, ranking prospects always requires an explanation.

I'm certain there are more than a few that have scanned over the back half of this year's Top 20 and wondered why one player was ranked above another.

Well, here goes.

As secretively stated in italics at the bottom of each prospect release, the overall long-term value of the player is the issue at hand. A morphing of the absolute ceiling and how likely a specific talent is to reach it – it's not easy to do, and it can be a pretty drawn out process as the opinions are gathered and weighted.

There are inherent values in a player's skill set, starting with the natural impact his performances leave on the game's ultimate outcome. This value alone can vault one player over another, despite inferior performances and tools.

If there were two offensive talents with equal ability that were the exact same age, and one of them was a superior athlete whose defensive skills strongly suggested he could play catcher, shortstop or center field at the major league level, there wouldn't be much question which was the better prospect.

Same thing goes for the left-handed hitter. All else being equal, the lefty bat wins out. A player with a left-handed power stroke can make up a lot of ground on a right-handed hitter with even slightly better overall skills.

Mariners Specifics

Why George Sherrill over Justin Thomas? Why was Stephen Kahn ranked in the top 20 and Fruto was not?

Sherrill's presence on the 25-man roster, a.k.a. his immediate impact on the parent club, trump the potential of Thomas, Kahn, Ryan Feierabend and other arms that are several years from paydirt.

Not even the fact that Sherrill is already 28 and likely to tally less than 80 innings a year is enough to drop him below the risks of pitchers in Class A ball.

There are three pitchers ranked ahead of Sherrill in the Top 20, two right-handers and a southpaw. Two spots above Sherrill's No. 12 ranking is a right-hander with a low-90s fastball and an uncertain role in his immediate future.

Why is he in graded higher than Sherrill?

His stuff is as projectable at 21, and he still has a shot to be a starting pitcher in the show. Covering 200 innings at a league average performance is intrinsically more valuable than the average workload in relief, unless those 70 or 80 innings are in a dominant closer's role – which is highly unlikely in Sherrill's case.

If someone asked me if I'd trade George Sherrill for Prospect No. 9, I'd probably say no. But that's a subjective decision I'd make due to the current status of the M's pitching staff and their farm system. If I were making the choice as GM of the other 29 clubs, more often than not I'd make the deal. Not by a landslide, but just enough to lean in No. 9's favor.

Pitchers are much more of a risk than hitters, and as stated Here in Rob Neyer's latest at ESPN.com, there were only 27 American League pitchers that posted a league average ERA of 4.35 or better and 51 hitters that ended the season with a .754 mark or better – also the league average.

This means that the monetary value of an average major league pitcher is higher than that of a average major league hitter, because pitching is, of course, at a premium. But it also means that pitchers are significantly more likely to experience major injury before they become entrenched in a starting rotation.

Translation: Hitters are much more likely to stay healthy and produce in the big leagues, making them the better value as prospects.

If prospect rankings were put together without the injury factor, every list ever made in this manner would look quite different. The top prospect in all of baseball last seasonw ould have been Felix Hernandez, instead of consensus No. 1 Delmon Young. Young was tabbed the game's top prospect not because evaluators thought he was a better player with more value than Hernandez, but because he's much less of an injury risk.

This winter, Minnesota Twins' southpaw Francisco Liriano is certain to be ranked in the top 5 of most major league top prospect lists. Personally, I have the 21-year-old ranked second behind the Devil Rays' Young for the upcoming InsideThePark.com MLB Top 100 (with Ian Levin). Ahead of top bats such as Brandon Wood and Jeremy Hermida, even.

But removing the injury risk would probably vault Liriano to No. 1. His electric stuff rivals that of Hernandez and he's a left-hander to boot.

There are only eight pitchers in the M's Top 20, and it easily could have been as few as four. Several young position players sit in the 21-30 range, to be profiled in the 2006 Prospect Handbook, and have a chance to break through next winter.

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