While messing around on the internet late at night, I decided to compare the Pirates farm system in its current state to the state it was in several years ago. I looked back as far as 2007, the last calender year in which Dave Littlefield was GM of the Pirates for at least a day. That same year, Neal Huntington replaced him, taking over as GM.
Since the Baseball America top 10 list for the Pirates had recently come out, I decided that would be the best medium for comparison. Looking back at the 2007 list, I noticed a name that had not crossed my mind in some time: Brian Bixler.
Now, I really started following the Pirates, especially at a depth that includes "prospecting" in the summer of 2008. Even at that time, Brian Bixler had already became the brunt of jokes. I remember when the Pirates traded him, Charlie's fanpost read "Pirates Trade Brian Bixler ... for a Prospect?" Now Jesus Brito hasn't amounted to much (he's actually be converted to the mound now), but the general point still comes across. Bixler isn't a very good basball player. In fact, according to his fangraphs page, he's been worse than replacement level.
Because of this, when I saw BIxler 7th on the 2007 Baseball America top 10 prospect list, and then 8th once again in 2008, I cringed. Still, I figured Bixler must have done something to get on that list. I seemed to remember he was at least decent in the field, capable of handling shortstop, which always counts for something. Fangraphs confirmed that to a point, as Bixler's UZR in about 360 innings (small sample size alert) at SS was a tick below average.
A minor-leaguer with a chance to stick at short simply needs to show some promise with the bat to be considered a decent prospect. Bixler did seem to do that, as in 2006, the year before making his way onto the top 10 list Bixler put up a tripleslash of .302/.384/.422 for an OPS just north of .800 (.806) across two levels, A+ and AA ball. There we no real red flags either, as Bixler showed both decent plate discipline and power, to go along with good contact (although he did get somewhat lucky with BABIP), an acceptable skillset for a shortstop.
I thought to myself, "This guy doesn't look like he was that bad of a prospect." That mindset lasted long enough for me to look at his age. Bixler had started the season at age 23, meaning he wasn't even really age appropriate to play at A+ ball. Had he been 20 and put up that season, you might have seen a top 100 prospect in all of baseball. However, instead he was a guy playing against younger competition and still only putting up mediocre numbers.
The question that is now probably being asked by most of you concerns how six paragraphs about Bixler relates to today. At this point in my ability to gauge and evaluate prospects, the thing I'm able to do fairly well that really helps me is think of comparisons, specifically comparisons about skillset and production. As I looked at Bixler's numbers, a player currently in the farm system came to mind: Brock Holt.
Here is Brock Holt's fangraph page. Now, before we compare numbers, I would remiss if I didn't admit/point out that Holt probably doesn't have Bixler's ability in the field, but it's not that far off. Holt should be capable at 2B if he ever makes it, and if he's even slightly above-average, it might mean Bixler has a .5 WAR advantage over him during the course of a full season.
That being said, Holt has put up very similar numbers to Bixler. A .288/.356/.387 tripleslash gives Holt a .743 OPS and a 106 WRC+. So when straight comparing numbers, Bixler has an advantage. But again, look at age. Holt started the year at 22, so he was about 8 months younger than Bixler at similar times in development. Plus, Holt started at AA, while Bixler started at A+. In fact, comparing just the AA numbers, Bixler's OPS was only .774 and WRC+ of 124. So while Bixler gets the nod on numbers and a defensive counting reports, it's slight enough I'd comfortable calling it virtually even because of Holt's age advantage.
Bottom line, and the entire point of this fanpost; Brock Holt of last year was the Brian Bixler of 2006. The difference is, in 2007 Bixler got a C+ prospect rating from John Sickels, and was 5th on his list, in addition to being 7th on the Baseball America list, while Brock Holt didn't make the top 10 on the Baseball America list, is very doubtful to make the pending top 20 list from John Sickels, and if you want a longer, fairly recent list, didn't even make Charlie's top 30 from this past August.
My how far we've come.