There's a good amount of subjectivity regarding baseball prospects. With the evaluation of talent being in the eye of the beholder, finding consensus is often difficult. Even Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo of MLBPipeline.com don't always see eye to eye. They discuss their viewpoints regularly in a feature called Pipeline Perspectives. Submit a topic for them to debate.
The Major League season has begun and the Minor League season gets underway on Thursday. With the start of new action should come a slew of content possibilities for Pipeline Perspectives. This week, we have the next in our "Who will lead the Minors?" statistical series.
We're looking at speed this week, with a debate over who we believe will win the stolen-base crown. This will likely end this stats-driven group of Perspectives (Jim, who do you have as the Minor League balk leader in 2014?), so let's get to it.
Quite often, the Minor League leader in stolen bases isn't a top-flight prospect. It's frequently been a player with blinding speed in the lower levels of a system who uses that one tool to wreak havoc on the basepaths. Such players haven't always had the hitting ability or the strength to excel at the upper levels.
While some believe the jury is out on whether Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton will hit in the Major Leagues, he definitely changed the landscape, not only with his obscene stolen-base totals -- 103 in 2011, 155 in 2012 -- but with his prospect status. He's been a Top 100 guy for a while and is currently ranked No. 37. The Astros' Delino DeShields, who swiped 101 bases in 2012 and 51 last season, is ranked No. 66.
Both Jim and I are going back to the lesser-known prospects for our 2014 picks, and both come from the Padres' Minor League system. My pick to win the crown, outfielder Travis Jankowski, is No. 17 on the Padres' Top 20 list. Jim's choice, Mallex Smith, isn't among San Diego's Top 20.
Only three players finished ahead of Jankowski and his 71 steals during the 2013 Minor League season. White Sox second-base prospect Micah Johnson might provide the biggest threat to the title. He topped the list a year ago with 84 steals and will be in the the Double-A Southern League.
No. 2 was Hamilton. He's leading off for Cincinnati these days, his reign as a Minor League speedster over. Third on the list was outfielder Billy Burns, who was with the Nationals in 2013. He's now with the A's and will be starting the year in the same league, the Double-A Texas League, as Jankowski. Burns could give Jankowski a run for his money, having gone 74-for-81 a year ago.
Jim's choice finished seventh in the Minors last year, with 64 steals in 80 attempts. But Smith also hit just .262 and is back repeating the Midwest League. I'm not sure what that means in terms of his ability to move up the ladder and continue having success.
Those questions surround Jankowski as well. The Stony Brook product kind of came out of nowhere during his junior year of college, performing his way up to the supplemental first round of the 2012 Draft. The Padres thought enough of Jankowski's skills to send him straight to the Class A Advanced California League, and he performed very well there. Yes, offensive numbers in that league need to be taken with a grain of salt, but he hit for average, showed improved on-base skills and let his 70-grade speed do the talking on the bases.
To me, Jankowski's ability to produce while being assigned somewhat aggressively is a good sign of things to come. He's much more physical than Smith -- 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, against Smith's 5-foot-9, 170-pound frame -- giving me more confidence in his ability to keep doing what he did in 2013 over the course of another long season.
Both of our candidates not only piled up the steals last year, but they were fairly efficient in doing so. Smith was successful on 80 percent of his attempts. Jankowski bested his organization-mate with an 83.5-percent success rate, and he did that against a higher level of pitching. It might not sound like an overwhelming statistical verdict, but I think it's enough to give Jankowski the leg up (get it?) in this argument.