With the closure of the 2014 MLB Winter Meetings it is likely that old school baseball fans have exhaled a gusty sigh of relief. While a number of deals did go down, they were mainly headlined by proven commodities such as Matt Kemp, Mat Latos, Howie Kendrick, Jimmy Rollins, and Yoenis Cespedes.
Luckily, while many minor leaguers were moved around the MLB chess board, the terms “prospect” and “potential” were pushed aside for the much more interesting, near-term, and pertinent dialogues surrounding players who will impact now, next year, and the year after.
Those two words, “prospect” and “potential,” are the most nauseatingly overused (and tediously parroted) words in much of today’s baseball climate, and it was refreshing and a welcomed change of pace to not have to hear about some 19-year-old in rookie ball who is still trying to read pitchers while taking his leads off of first base, but whose bat is “big league ready.”
Baseball fans are a fervent assembly of individuals with hardcore allegiance to their teams, cities and players. Unfortunately, the past decade or so has seen the behind the scenes, front office goings-on become a big business for discussion, as has the anticipation, hype and palaver surrounding not-ready-for-prime-time players. In a sense it is a sad commentary on the game; many fans are watching reports of kids in tertiary, minor league towns with “high upside,” and waiting for them to come to their team and take to the game like a duck to water. All of this as ratings and social media barometers have shown interest in the current on-field product dwindling; sacrificing the present for a future that is by no means guaranteed.
Too often, in the past decade, we have witnessed baseball welcome in some new, fresh-faced messiah in the prospective talents of Bobby Crosby, Joba Chamberlain, Dallas McPherson, and Dontrelle Willis. These were young men who were lauded and praised while they made their way through the maze of minor league tiers to arrive in the big leagues. Some had more success than others, but they, and more like them, have been relegated to the dustbin of baseball history. It is worth asking whether or not the hype machine that endeavors to find baseball superstars of five years in the future actually hindered the development—both mental as well as physical—of so many players rather than nurturing them at their own pace. Joba Chamberlain was lighting it up in the minors, but the fans’ anticipation and the tag of “unlimited potential,” essentially forced the Yankees to promote him and treat him with kid gloves because he wasn’t ready. The New York Yankees knew he wasn’t ready, but the momentum of the prospect and potential hype machine was too strong for them to push back.
John Hart, the current GM of the Atlanta Braves, was an on-air contributor of the MLB Network for many years before taking the position in Atlanta’s front office. There were times, admittedly, when one had to roll their eyes as he spoke of what he looked for in a player at each position. In essence, he would have liked Ernie Banks at shortstop, Johnny Bench behind the plate, Ken Griffey Jr. in center field, etc… it was laughable to have such a point of view when players of that stature and caliber are the rarest of the rare, hence the reason they all are, or will be, enshrined in the Hall of Fame. The same could be said of the venerable Peter Gammons when he speaks of a prospect in Double-A being a “star in the making.” Powerful and well-respected media members only fuel the engine of the hype machine with such bombast, and it leaves the fan bases craving, and expecting, much more than is reasonable.
Who are the voices that perpetuate these rumblings of player quality, of future stardom and messianic arrivals? It is the media, it is the fanbases, and it is the organizations themselves that propagate these grandiloquent assessments that are akin to blockbuster movie previews; the fans can’t wait for a superstar, the media can’t wait for a story, and the organizations can hardly wait for a savior. Lost amongst the din and cacophony of the raging hoards is the real loser in all of this: the players themselves. For the most part, they do not carry themselves arrogantly, they do not publicize themselves shamelessly, and they do not set expectations at a ridiculous level for themselves. The majority of these players are young men in their early twenties doing what they love, playing a game for money and hoping to catch a break and to fulfill their dreams.
Unfortunately, the hype machine that most people feel benefits them is in actuality patently unfair and does nothing but harm their nascent careers.