Much of the reaction to my article about Neal Huntington last week has focused on my critique of Huntington's draft, and a lot of the debate has been about when it makes sense to judge a draft class. These debates have been a little frustrating to me, because it seems like this is a question with a fairly obvious answer: you can conclusively judge a draft class when every player drafted is out of the organization, or perhaps out of baseball. Or, you can judge it at any point before that, with the caveat (which I'm sure everyone understands) that you won't have all the information yet.
That's it. There's no clear line of demarcation in between those two points that determines when you can judge a draft. There's just a continuum. You can judge a draft at any time, and the longer you wait, the more information you'll have. The guys at Baseball America judge drafts the day they happen, and it seems like everyone understands that at that point, they don't know exactly what the future holds. The same goes for commenters here. So it has been a little strange to see so much discussion recently about when you can judge a draft. You can judge a draft anytime you want, as long as you know what you're talking about and you understand the value of the available information.
Tim pointed out that few players from the 2008 draft have yet made much of a contribution, and I've recently seen that point mentioned in defense of Pedro Alvarez and the rest of the players drafted by the Pirates that year. Well, it's clearly true that it's way, way too early to conclusively say Alvarez hasn't turned out so well, but the fact that some of us have turned to that argument in defense of the Pirates really isn't a good sign. If Alvarez in particular and Huntington's draft classes in general truly looked as good as they should, people probably wouldn't bother with this argument.
Here's a shocking admission: I can't predict the future. There are many possible outcomes for Alvarez's career. Some are good, some bad. Maybe he'll be the next Mo Vaughn. Maybe he'll flame out completely. I don't know, and nobody really does. We don't need to debate whether or not we know. It's trivially obvious that none of us do.
What we can do at this point is look at the available evidence and make an educated guess. It's true that few players from the 2008 draft have made much of a mark in the majors, but we don't need to wait for players in the 2008 draft class to accumulate 50 WAR to see what's going on.
Alvarez was the second overall pick in 2008, and he was selected out of college. If anyone from that draft should be productive already, it's him. But the fact that he hasn't yet piled up 5 WAR isn't what concerns me. It's that his entire pro career, in the minors and the majors, suggests that this is a player with problems controlling the strike zone. It was easy to overlook these problems when he was in the minors, because his power was phenomenal, but this is still a player who struck out a bunch, and struck out nearly twice as many times as he walked, while he was still in the minor leagues.
And then there's his play in the major leagues. It's not even really the stat line that bothers me. It's that in 2011, Alvarez looked like one of the easiest outs I've ever seen play for the Pirates. (I'm excepting pitchers here. And, um, Akinori Iwamura.)
There are certainly reasons for hope as well. There's the fact that Alvarez held his own in the big leagues in only his second pro season, for example. But it's certainly not too early to say that his career hasn't gone as planned.
The same goes for someone like Tony Sanchez. Could he turn his career around? Yes, absolutely -- maybe the aftereffects of the jaw injuries he suffered in 2010 had a great effect on him in 2011 but won't bother him in 2012, for example. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be honest about what he is right now, and part of that is that he's a 23-year-old catcher who barely cleared .240 in Class AA last year.
There's still time for the Pirates to come up smelling like roses on these picks and many others. There's also the $17 million 2011 draft, about which we know very little so far except that it contains a number of players with extremely high upside. And even if not everything goes according to plan with Huntington's draft classes, the farm system is at least in far better shape than it was a few years ago. But please, let's not act like it's too early to judge. I notice that many of those who replied to my piece by arguing that it's too early to judge the Pirates' draft classes see no problem when they themselves pass judgments on Pirates minor leaguers and Pirates draftees, as long as those judgments are positive.
UPDATE 11:34 AM: And it's just come to my attention that Alvarez turns 25 today. Happy birthday, Pedro. Sorry I picked today to slam you.