John Sickels' website Minor League Ball is one of the must reads for anyone interested in Minor League players. John was kind enough to take time out of his day to answer several questions for us regarding the resurgence in the Astros farm system.
TCB: Let's get the big one out of the way. How improved do you view the Astros farm system? And what range would you rank it today?
John Sickels: I don't think there's any doubt that the system has improved significantly, especially in regards to overall depth. The exact rankings, I don't know yet...I won't have a range for that until I finish writing my book and review every organization. But they would no longer rank at the bottom of the barrel, of that I'm certain.
TCB: In all the years you've been covering the Minor Leagues, where does this overall improvement in the Astros farm system rank for you?
JS: Well, I never ranked farm systems against each other until this year so I don't know how it compares historically. I'll just say that I'm impressed. The trades added depth but I really like what they did with the draft, and not just the obvious picks like Correa and McCullers.
TCB: How much has Delino DeShields stock improved this year? And how much does him repeating a level at A ball hurt his ranking?
By all accounts he made significant progress this year, using his speed more aggressively and efficiently, showing more pop, doing a better job controlling the strike zone. I had him as a "Grade C+ with higher potential" pre-season. I'd make him a straight Grade B now. He still has considerable risk in his profile and needs to improve his glovework, but overall I think he made real progress.
For me it doesn't hurt his ranking since he was one of the youngest players in his draft class anyway. He didn't turn 20 until this past August, so he was still age-appropriate for the South Atlantic League. Many of his contemporaries were in short-season ball or were college sophomores.
TCB: What other Astros prospect has significantly improve their stock with you this year?
Mike Foltynewicz. I'm also glad that Nick Tropeano performed well. I liked him pre-season but it is good to see him get people out in the pros as well as college.
TCB: What Astros prospect outside the top 10 are you keeping your eye on? And why?
I like this guy they drafted in the 17th round this year, from the University of Washington, right-hander Aaron West. Good combination of stuff and command and he performed very well in the New York-Penn League. I expect he'll take people by surprise in 2013.
TCB: What kind of balance do you have between looking at scouting reports and the statistics of a prospect?
I look at everything. My reputation is as a stats guy since I worked for Bill James from 1993 through 1996, but I've been watching minor league baseball since 1977 and have always incorporated scouting information, both what I see myself and what I pick up from others. So my approach is a hybrid between stats and scouting.
TCB: For those wanting to get into the science and art of evaluating prospects, what sort of educational material would you suggest?
Oh, there is so much information out there, even compared to just a couple of years ago. You have to start with Baseball America I'd say, but other important sources would include PerfectGame.org, Fangraphs, and Baseball Prospectus. Of course I would be remiss if I didn't mention my own stuff, The Baseball Prospect Book and MinorLeagueBall.com.
The best thing to do is go watch minor league games yourself.
A big thanks to John Sickels for his time. You can check out more prospect goodness at his site Minor League Ball.