John McGrath

What we know about baseball prospects: Few make it, but a few will catch our attention

Spring training is a time for little-known players to shine. And while all have hope of making it to the majors, only about 10 percent will appear in a big-league game.
Spring training is a time for little-known players to shine. And while all have hope of making it to the majors, only about 10 percent will appear in a big-league game. AP

Matt Festa is a right-handed relief pitcher who has become my favorite prospect in a Mariners minor-league system that Baseball America has ranked No. 30. Considering there are 30 teams in the big leagues, this could indicate the farm crop is a bit thin.

But with pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to spring camp Wednesday, I am choosing high hopes over the alternative, which is to read Baseball America’s assessment and weep.

“There is little truly strong in baseball’s worst farm system,” the publication opined in January. “But there are some outfielders with promise.”

Some outfielders with promise? On Feb. 14, every prospect with a dream has promise. Although not all of them are bound to achieve their dream – in fact, only about 10 percent will appear in a big-league game – I believe one day a year should be devoted to blind optimism.

Blind optimism pretty much describes my rooting interest in Festa, somebody I knew nothing about until, like, Tuesday. I was scanning the list of top prospects affiliated with baseball’s worst farm system and there, at No. 12, was Matt Festa.

Is that a great name, or what? Great names don’t necessarily translate into great careers, but once in a while a correlation can be made. For instance, during the 1936 NFL draft, Bears owner George Halas chose Colgate center Danny Fortman in the ninth and final round because – yep, you guessed it – Halas liked the sound of his name.

Fortmann was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978.

There is more about Festa than his name. There is his apparent habit of wearing his baseball uniform the way God intended a uniform to be worn, with high socks showing stirrups. About 30 years ago, high socks showing stirrups went out of style, replaced by baggy pants draping the shoes.

A handful of players have shunned the baggy-pant look over the decades, but there’s no evidence a resistance movement is afoot. It will require guys like Matt Festa to convince kids in Little League that high socks and stirrups are infinitely superior to baggy pants.

More salient to the Mariners, of course, is whether Festa pitches as well as he dresses. A seventh-round selection out of East Stroudsburg State, Festa went 6-2 as a combination starter-reliever for short-season Single-A Everett in 2016, then was assigned a full-time bullpen role last season at Single-A Modesto.

A California League All-Star, Festa finished 4-2 with a 3.23 ERA, striking out 99 batters in 69.2 innings.

“He will turn 25 prior to opening day,” notes, “and figures to spend the bulk of his time at Triple-A Tacoma. A late season call up is possible.”

Should Festa spend the bulk of 2018 with the Rainiers, we’ll get to know more about him than basic information provided in his brief biography in the Mariners media guide. It points out he was born in Brooklyn – no wonder he honors baseball tradition – and attended Dominican College before transferring to East Stroudsburg State, where he became the highest draft pick in school history.

Between Festa’s collegiate career and two seasons at Single-A, I realize the folly of identifying him as a prospect worthy of attention. Then again, the whole prospect-watch game is a folly.

Projecting those destined for major-league stardom, those destined as journeymen and those destined to retire without advancing out of the minors is the most inexact science in sports. Calling any part of this process a “science” even is a stretch, because science, defined by Miriam-Webster, is “the state of knowing: knowledge as distinguished from ignorance of misunderstanding.”

A few months ago, as I was cleaning out a closet, I found the 1981 edition of “The Complete Handbook of Baseball.” Every team was analyzed in categories that concluded with a summary outlook. (The outlook for the ’81 Mariners? “Bleak... A year ago, the Mariners were billed as the best third-year expansion team in history. Now, they’re a mess. They need pitching, hitting, defense, everything. Most of all, they need more money.”)

Poring through the 1981 baseball handbook for hours at a time – I’m addicted, I need help, I get it – I find myself fascinated by the Top Prospects list.

Some of the prospects, such as Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia and Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson – became household names. More typical was the Reds’ Paul Householder, “an outfielder who can hit and field, appears ready for big time after batting .295 with nine homers and 50 RBI at Indianapolis.”

Householder never made it to the big time but he made it, spending parts of eight years in the majors, 466 games total. That’s 466 more major-league games than anybody I know played.

If Matt Festa is awarded a late-season call up to Seattle, I suspect the Mariners marketing department would be thrilled with the idea of a “Matt Fiesta Night.”

First things first. Stay healthy, kid. May your exhibition-season audition be distinguished by a succession of clean innings, and may your big-league career blossom from there.

Future enshrinement in the Hall of Fame is the longest of long shots, but on the day pitchers and catchers report to spring training, there are no walls, no barriers.

Only doors, and none is locked.

John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath