The scene taking place near the home dugout during batting practice at Nationals Park on Sunday afternoon could have occurred on any given day at any big league stadium. Desperate autograph-seekers leaned over the roof of the dugout, holding magazine covers, baseball cards and glossy 8-by-10 photos of their target in one hand, Sharpie pens in the other. “Bo!” they shouted. “Can you sign?”
But their target was no big leaguer. Bo Bichette is a 20-year-old shortstop for the Class AA New Hampshire Fisher Cats who has never spent a day in the majors. He was at Nationals Park on Sunday, along with 49 other prospects rated among the best in baseball, for the 20th annual Futures Game — on the same field where, two days later, the 89th Major League Baseball All-Star Game will take place.
In terms of media coverage, fan interest and 100-mph-plus fastballs, it’s getting hard to tell the two games apart.
Baseball is in the midst of what can be described only as a Golden Age of the Prospect, with top minor leaguers scouted, rated, prized and celebrated like at no other time in the game’s history — a trend that has much to do with the explosion of media, both social and traditional, but also the shifting market forces within the sport, which these days values youthful talent above all else.
“There’s a lot of autograph-seekers everywhere,” said Bichette, considered the Toronto Blue Jays’ No. 2 prospect behind outfielder Vladimir Guerrero Jr. “They follow you to the hotel. They follow you to the field. They have cards, pictures, homemade stuff. It’s pretty relentless.”
By the time Bichette makes it to the big leagues — probably some time in 2019 — he will already be a household name for most baseball fans and certainly those in Toronto. He is ranked the No. 7 prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline, No. 17 by ESPN, No. 5 by minorleagueball.com, No. 8 by Baseball America, No. 10 by Baseball Prospectus and No. 9 by FanGraphs.
Bichette, an Orlando native, has a better understanding than most players his age how unprecedented the attention is. His father, Dante Bichette, was a four-time all-star over the course of a 14-year big league career and can attest to how little coverage he had as a minor leaguer in the 1980s.
“He always says I have it way worse than he did with the attention,” Bo Bichette said. “He says you had to have a subscription to Baseball America to know who any prospects were back then.”
Matthew LeCroy, the manager of the Washington Nationals’ Class AA affiliate in Harrisburg, Pa., and a coach on the USA team for Sunday’s Futures Game, described the difference in coverage between his era as a minor leaguer in the late 1990s and today as “night and day.”
“You didn’t have all the top-prospects list. You didn’t have the scouting sites. You didn’t have the video,” LeCroy said. “You didn’t know anybody until they got to the majors. You maybe saw a picture in Baseball America, but that’s it.”
Indeed, Baseball America once enjoyed a near-monopoly on the coverage of minor league prospects. But that was in the days before the Internet and before the explosion in media outlets turned prospect coverage into its own industry.
“It’s exploding exponentially,” said Jonathan Mayo, the lead reporter on prospects for MLB.com and MLBPipeline.com. “Every time I think, ‘Well, this is where we’re at,’ all of a sudden there’s more people following. It’s [the result of] the growth of media and social media. It used to be you didn’t even know what these guys looked like until they got to the big leagues. Now you can watch thousands of games online.”
For fans, the infatuation with prospects satisfies the human need for hope and the human craving to recognize the next big thing ahead of time. In this way, it mirrors the rise of college basketball and football recruiting coverage, which over the past decade or two has gone from a fringe pursuit for ultra-hardcore fans to a booming industry that dominates those sports’ offseasons.
“Everyone wants to know who the next big star is going to be,” said Jimmie Lee Solomon, “and I thought they’d want to see them before they became big stars.”
It was Solomon who, as MLB’s senior vice president for baseball operations in the late 1990s, first proposed the idea for the Futures Game, modeling its concept on that of the NBA’s Rookie Challenge (now called the Rising Stars Challenge) held the Friday before the NBA All-Star Game.
“At the time, Old Timers’ Games were huge in baseball,” said Solomon, who left baseball in 2012 and is now a consultant. “I thought, ‘Why are we always looking back in baseball? Why don’t we look forward?’ ”
At the first Futures Game, at Boston’s Fenway Park in 1999, Solomon said, “It was hard to get anybody to write about it. We had to kind of wing it. Fenway was maybe a third full, at best. And the people who were there were scratching their heads more than anything.”
By 2012, the Futures Game drew a sellout crowd at Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium. At Nationals Park on Sunday, the announced attendance of 38,071 was just shy of capacity (41,546).
“It got much easier to get the GMs and player development guys to let their guys play in the game,” Solomon said. “At first, it was like pulling teeth. Now agents are negotiating [for participation]. The players get bonuses for making the Futures Game.”
The rise of prospect coverage in the media has coincided with the skyrocketing value of young players and prospects among teams, who this past offseason turned away from 30-something veterans to an unprecedented degree — upsetting the free agent market and drawing the scrutiny of the MLB Players Association. Almost uniformly, teams seem to have calculated that, performance being equal, it is more efficient to pay the league minimum to a 21-year-old rookie than millions of dollars on a multiyear deal to a 32-year-old veteran.
Many GMs are now gun-shy to trade top prospects — both for fear of being someday known as the guy who dealt away a future Hall of Famer and because the fan base, more informed than ever about the team’s prospects, would roar in protest.
When Bichette is called up to the majors, it will be front-page news in Toronto and a major development in the community of prospect Twitter. It is a part of baseball now, for better or worse, as much as defensive shifts and launch angle.
But all that scrutiny comes at a cost — psychological, physical and existential.
“When we play certain teams now, we have to provide security — there’s so many autograph-seekers and hangers-on,” LeCroy said. “These guys have a following.”
It’s fascinating to wonder how all the attention on prospects might influence personnel decisions in ways that were never considered a generation ago. Were the scrutiny as widespread and intense as it is today, would the New York Yankees, for example, have dared to keep their prized shortstop prospect at that position after he made 56 errors as a 19-year-old at Class A in 1993?
The Yankees did, and two years later Derek Jeter was called up to the majors. It warranted four lines in the New York Times. MLB Pipeline had nothing because it didn’t exist.
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