Projecting what will happen in the future is never an easy task, and there's no prognostication in baseball more difficult than projecting prospects. Despite long careers and consistent level of play, it's easy to miss on an established major leaguer. When you're talking prospects, the challenge increases immensely, as prospects aren't fully developed players, they play against uneven competition and they possess short professional records. That's why every team, no matter how skilled their scouts or clever their data analysts are, will still frequently be surprised by their young players.
ESPN Insider's Keith Law published his eighth annual top 100 prospects list last week, providing fuel for many lively debates. To that end, for the second year in a row, I'm asking the small cube under my desk that powers the ZiPS projection system to crank out its own top 100 prospects, ranked by their projected mean career WAR.
Computer projections have considerable strengths and weaknesses. No matter how clever the algorithms are, computers don't understand a player's mechanics the way a good scout does, nor do they have a basic understanding of the specifics of an injury, and they also can't take into consideration any additional intangible concerns. There are a number of strengths, however, with computers being excellent at handling the massive amount of raw data available, putting them into historical context and being objective about a player almost to the point of cruelty. The data revolution has rightly not killed off scouting, and the teams that utilize both approaches will fare the best in the long term.
You can see the differences in prospect evaluation between scouting and computers all over the place. For instance, heading into 2014, ZiPS was very high on Joc Pederson (ZiPS No. 11 before 2014 season), Arismendy Alcantara (No. 13), Kolten Wong (No. 19) and Mookie Betts (No. 25), higher than most non-computer predictions, and those turned out well. The natural conservatism of ZiPS for players with limited professional experience, on the other hand, made it late to the show on Julio Urias (No. 63), Tyler Glasnow (No. 92) and Braden Shipley (No. 110), all rankings that Keith nailed.
Overall, however, there's a great deal of agreement between ZiPS and Law. Of the Law Top 100, 76 also ended up in the ZiPS Top 100. The most interesting debates will come down to where ZiPS and Law differ. A few of those notes are below.
Note: Full Top 100 ZiPS prospect rankings are at the bottom of this article.