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Today's prospects rising faster than ever before

MLB.com @castrovince

Bradley Zimmer is a great example of how fast it can happen for a top prospect in today's game.

Bradley Zimmer is a great example of how fast it can happen for a top prospect in today's game.

:: Complete 2018 Top Prospects coverage ::

The other day, Indians manager Terry Francona was talking about Zimmer's injury-shortened stint with the big league ballclub in 2017. Zimmer joined the Tribe in mid-May and made an instant impact with his legs and with his center-field glove. By the time he broke his hand on a September dive to first base, he was no longer the No. 22-ranked prospect in all of baseball, as MLB Pipeline had deemed him to be at the start of the year. Zimmer was a major figure on a team very much built to win now. And so his absence loomed large when the Indians were beaten by the Yankees in the American League Division Series in October.

"We really did miss him," Francona said.

That's how fast it can happen. Prospect piece one day, pivotal piece the next.

Video: DeRosa talks about Zimmer's importance to Indians

It will be a lesson to keep in mind when you peruse MLB Pipeline's ranking of the top 100 prospects in baseball, the 2018 edition of which will be unveiled Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET on MLB Network and MLB.com. The percentages tell us not all of these guys will pan out as planned. But the game's increasing reliance on young talent tells us the vast majority of them are going to get their opportunity soon enough. There are a number of reasons why this offseason's free-agent market has moved slowly. But there is little doubt about the data and the dollars that have compelled clubs to go with the younger guy whenever and wherever possible, with a particular emphasis on pre-arbitration players.

Evidence of this exists in the realm of rookie impact. Here's a chart, based on data available at FanGraphs, showing the percentage of total Wins Above Replacement that rookies (both position players and pitchers) have been responsible for over the last 30 seasons:

As you can see, 2017 had one of the lowest percentages of rookie impact (7 percent of all WAR across MLB) of any season in the past 10 years -- yet that was still higher than the highest percentage from any season from 1988-2004.

"Basically," wrote an AL executive in an e-mail, "the gap between Major League veterans being a 'known commodity' and Minor League players being 'unknowns' may be shrinking due to a greater ability to study and analyze the Minor League game."

Another executive, who also preferred to speak anonymously, said the costs of arbitration and free agency are a driving factor.

Video: Prospects arriving to Majors quicker than ever before

"The current volume of productivity among rookies or young players in general is a result of a significant uptick in real opportunity, stemming from mostly financially-driven strategies by front offices that are getting smarter and smarter," the exec said. "The fact that these players have generally proven quite capable at an early stage in their careers is likely to be a large contributing factor to the current market malaise."

Time was, an unfinished product like Zimmer wouldn't have been given such ample playing opportunity on a postseason-bound ballclub. The Indians were extremely patient as Zimmer, in the throes of the final playoff push, endured a six-week stretch in which he went 13-for-91. It wasn't the slump that ultimately cost him his regular at-bats against right-handed pitching; it was the broken hand.

Video: KC@CLE: Zimmer leaps to make an outstanding grab

You see this patience with younger, less-experienced and more cost-effective players more and more across the Major League landscape.

Of course, playing time without a lick of big league readiness does neither player nor team any good, and that's why some credit for the surge in rookie results goes to the feeder systems that processed these players.

In recent decades, teams have invested heavily in their Latin American academies, and put more emphasis on training, conditioning and proper developmental plans in the Minor Leagues. In an e-mail, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said he believes teams have become more thoughtful and strategic in terms of usage and growth -- particularly in the management of pitcher innings -- so that players are prepared to make meaningful contributions upon their arrival.

"I cannot speak for every club," Mozeliak wrote, "but I can say we specifically focus on opportunity as incentive to advance. Play well, then advance."

We can see from Zimmer's experience how the present-day pipeline prepares players to arrive at the Major League level and perhaps not feel overwhelmed by their surroundings. He parlayed his University of San Francisco experience into a starring stint in the Cape Cod League and with the Team USA collegiate national team. Like all first-round Draft picks by the Indians, Zimmer got to participate in big league Spring Training camp at the start of his first full professional season. And his time in the Arizona Fall League, which for the past 26 years has pitted top prospects against each other in a competitive and highly scouted environment, further supplemented his Minor League career.

"The more you challenge yourself, and put yourself in an atmosphere where you're playing with good players, and there's people watching you, and you get that feeling that you belong, the better," Zimmer said. "Experience is everything."

No doubt, quite a few of MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects will be getting experience at the big league level very soon. It's not hard to imagine prospects like Yankees infielder Gleyber Torres, Nationals outfielder Victor Robles, Astros outfielder Kyle Tucker and Dodgers right-hander Walker Buehler, to name just a few, having an immediate impact on the pennant races.

Video: Top Prospects: Gleyber Torres, SS, Yankees

It's also not hard to envision a bright future for clubs like the White Sox and Braves -- rebuilding ballclubs that will have multiples in the Top 100. The past three World Series winners -- the Royals, Cubs and Astros -- had farm systems generally regarded among the best in MLB within the three or four years that preceded their championship. An MLB.com study of past prospect lists found a strong correlation between proliferations of ranked players from a given team in a given year and the winning percentage for that team over the next five years.

Homegrown talent is the backbone of success at the Major League level. And aggressively promoting and granting opportunity to that talent has become the Major League modus operandi.

All of this has made the unveiling of the MLB Pipeline rankings less a hazy gaze into baseball's distant future and more a peek at the fast-approaching present.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcasts and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

Cleveland Indians, Bradley Zimmer