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The MLB Prospect Bubble

Once a upon a time, teams got great value by trading for minor league studs. Not anymore.

Twenty-one years ago, the Red Sox traded Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen. I know this because you can’t write about lopsided MLB trades without writing the words “Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen.” Andersen threw 22 innings of middle relief for Boston before leaving as a free agent. (In his defense, they were 22 really good innings.) Bagwell, once the voting members of the BBWAA realize that Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography does not work for pinpointing steroid users, will be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Bagwell was a 22-year-old in Double-A at the time of the trade, which is to say no one but the most hardcore prospect fiends knew his name. He was in the minors during the era just before the Internet and 24-hour sports saturation elevated baseball prospects into the national consciousness; it was a time when teams could trade potential stars without fear of immediate revolt from their fan base.

And they did. Eight months before the Sox traded Bagwell, the Baltimore Orioles traded three young players to Houston for 30-year-old slugging first baseman Glenn Davis. (Davis was often injured and rarely effective in his three years with the O’s, playing in 185 games and hitting .247/.312/.400.) In return, the Astros received Steve Finley (who spent 19 years in the majors and finished with more than 2,500 hits) and Pete Harnisch (who made the All-Star team in his first year with Houston, pitched for 14 years, and won 111 games in his career.) The trade would have been even more lopsided had the Astros not turned around a year later and traded the third player in the deal to Philadelphia for middle reliever Jason Grimsley. Only after three teams had given up on him1 did Curt Schilling become a star.

Teams much preferred the bird in the hand to the bird in the bush leagues, and a savvy GM could obtain a top prospect for less than top-shelf talent. In 1988, the Yankees gave up Jay Buhner, who had 307 home runs left in his bat, for DH Ken Phelps, who had 18 homers left in his. The trade gave Larry David plenty of material to work with on Seinfeld; it gave other Yankee fans heartburn.

In 1993, the Royals gave up prospect Jon Lieber (131 career wins) for Stan Belinda (76 innings and a 4.83 ERA in Kansas City). And in 1997, the Mariners were so desperate for a reliever at the trade deadline that to acquire Heathcliff Slocumb — who had a 5.79 ERA at the time of the trade! — they gave Boston both Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe.

This ignores those trades in which a team gave up a future Hall of Famer but at least acquired an impact player, like the Tigers’ surrendering John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander, or the Expos’ trading Randy Johnson for Mark Langston. Bagwell, Buhner, and the others were traded for established players who were either washed up or never that good in the first place.

Front offices in baseball today are far more savvy than they were a generation ago, making it much more difficult to plunder a team of top talent. It still happens every now and then, but there are usually extenuating circumstances. The Expos gave up Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee, and Grady Sizemore for Bartolo Colon in 2002, but GM Omar Minaya was (quite reasonably) concerned that the Expos might not exist for much longer, and he decided to go all in.

And besides, Colon wasn’t exactly chopped liver. In 21st-century baseball, when teams do overpay in prospects, it’s usually for stars. Most famously, in 2007 the Braves gave up Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (who started to find himself this season after a trade to Boston) — but at least they traded for Mark Teixeira, an acknowledged superstar.

The blowback from the Teixeira trade seems to have made teams even more conservative about trading prospects, even for elite major league talent. As a result, for perhaps the first time in baseball history, minor league prospects seem to be overvalued by MLB front offices.

Consider two trades that were made earlier this month. Start with the Toronto Blue Jays, who sent pitching prospect Nestor Molina to the Chicago White Sox for closer Sergio Santos.

Molina is a well-regarded player, although not as good as his numbers would have you believe. Molina, who turns 23 next month, has a career 2.21 ERA in the minors, and has six times as many strikeouts as walks in his career. His success is the result of exceptional command of average stuff; most scouts see him as a no. 3 starter in the majors if everything works out for him. (A year ago, Baseball America didn’t even list him in their Prospect Handbook, which includes 30 prospects for every organization.) Even after a terrific 2011 season in the minors, Molina is a borderline candidate, at best, to be ranked as one of the top 100 prospects in baseball.

Yet White Sox GM Kenny Williams accepted Molina as sole compensation for Santos. Santos has a fascinating background; he was a first-round draft pick by the Diamondbacks out of high school in 2002, and struggled at shortstop for seven seasons to reach Triple-A. In 2009, he finally abandoned the batter’s box for the mound, signing with the White Sox as a reliever. He threw 29 innings and had an ERA over eight in the minors that year, but he had such electric stuff — a fastball that touches the upper 90s and a terrific slider — that the White Sox added him to their 40-man roster that winter rather than risk losing him in the Rule 5 draft.

Their faith in Santos was justified when he surprised everyone by making the team in spring training — and then started his career by allowing just one run in the first two months of the season. Santos finished 2010 with a 2.96 ERA and more than a strikeout an inning. This season, Santos took over the closer’s job on the South Side and finished with 30 saves. While his ERA increased to 3.55, his peripheral numbers all improved. Most notably, he struck out 92 batters in just 63 innings. Given his lack of experience on the mound, Santos’ performance has been remarkable.

At the end of the season, Santos signed a contract with the Sox that guaranteed him $8.25 million over the next three years and gave the Sox three club options at favorable salaries for 2015, 2016, and 2017. It’s not hard to understand why Santos would sign the deal — less than three years ago his baseball career appeared to be over, and now he has financial security for life. But it gave the White Sox the best of both worlds: They had their closer under contract for six seasons, and they were on the hook for only $8.25 million in guaranteed salary.

Barely two months later, Williams decided it was finally time for the White Sox to rebuild, and so he traded Santos, an excellent reliever who (owing to his inexperience) still had growth potential, and who was signed to a club-friendly contract, for a single prospect. And not even a can’t-miss prospect — a guy whose best-case scenario is to be a league-average starting pitcher.

Prospects are tremendously valuable commodities. But there is nothing more valuable in baseball than a star player who is signed to a long-term contract before he reaches arbitration eligibility. The White Sox traded the latter for the former. The Blue Jays, who were desperate for a closer, acquired a good one for a pitcher whose absence they’ll hardly miss.

Three days later, the Oakland A’s, who are in a holding pattern while they wait for major league baseball to allow the franchise to move to San Jose, continued their rebuilding process by trading starter Trevor Cahill to Arizona for three prospects.

Two of the prospects are fringe players. Collin Cowgill hit .354/.430/.554 in Triple-A this season, but he played in the thin air of Reno. He has never hit remotely that well before, and he turns 26 in May. Out of 20 guys like this, one might turn into Andre Ethier; the other 19 are lucky if they stick in the majors for a few years as a fourth outfielder. Ryan Cook, the third player in the deal, is a failed minor league starter who adapted well to the bullpen this season and might make it as a middle reliever. Neither has significant value on the trade market. The A’s also threw in Craig Breslow; in six major league seasons as a left-handed reliever, Breslow has a 3.06 ERA. Breslow by himself was worth Cowgill and Cook — we’ll call this part of the deal a wash.

That leaves the meat of the trade: Cahill for Jarrod Parker, the Diamondbacks’ first-round pick in 2007 and their no. 1 prospect coming into this season.

Parker, unlike Molina, has top-of-the-rotation stuff — his upside is so high that he ranked as the Diamondbacks’ top prospect even after he had Tommy John surgery and sat out the entire 2010 season. His fastball sits in the mid-90s, and it’s not as good as his slider. His changeup has the makings of a third quality pitch. In 2011, he returned to Double-A and recorded as many strikeouts as hits allowed. The Diamondbacks brought him up to make his major league debut in the next-to-last game of the season, and were so impressed by his performance — he went six innings without allowing a run — that they added him to their playoff roster.

That said, the notion that he’s as valuable as Trevor Cahill is nuts.

Cahill made the A’s rotation on Opening Day in 2009, when he was 21 years old, and has missed only four starts in the past three seasons. He doesn’t throw nearly as hard as Parker, but his fastball has tremendous sink, allowing him to get ground balls on roughly 56 percent of the balls in play against him. Cahill ranked among the six most extreme ground-ball starters in the majors each of the past two years.

Thanks to some good luck on balls in play, in 2010 Cahill finished with a 2.97 ERA and made the All-Star team. So, superficially, his 2011 performance looks like a step back — his ERA jumped to 4.16, which is slightly below league average when you factor in that Oakland plays in a pitchers’ park. But in reality, Cahill took a step forward — for the second straight season, his strikeout rate jumped a full point, from 4.5 K’s per 9 innings as a rookie to 5.4 K’s in his second season, to 6.4 K’s this season. The combination of an escalating strikeout rate from an established ground-ball pitcher is highly unusual, and it suggests that Cahill’s best seasons are ahead of him.

And, like Santos, Cahill has already signed a long-term contract. His deal guarantees him $29 million over the next four seasons, which is good for a starter who can give you 200 innings a season. His contract includes a pair of club options for a fifth and sixth season, both at $13 million a year — if Cahill continues to improve and becomes a dependable no. 2 starter, by 2016 that price should be a bargain.

The A’s had Cahill under club control for as many seasons (six) as they’ll have Parker. Cahill has already established himself as an above-average starter in the majors; Parker hasn’t. Cahill has been durable throughout his career; Parker has already had Tommy John surgery. While Cahill has proven capable of throwing 200 innings a year, some scouts are worried that Parker might be relegated to the bullpen if he can’t master a third pitch. Parker can’t even claim to have youth on his side — both pitchers are 23.

Parker will probably rank somewhere around no. 30 when the Top Prospect lists are unveiled next spring. It will mark the fifth straight season that Parker ranked in the top 50 on Baseball America‘s list, which is itself a dubious distinction. But here’s the thing — in 2009, Cahill ranked no. 11. Cahill was judged to be a better prospect in his time than Parker is now, and Cahill has spent the last three seasons living up to expectations. How is it, then, that the A’s were willing to trade six years of Trevor Cahill for six years of Jarrod Parker?

It’s true that Parker’s ceiling is higher than Cahill’s, but if Parker were guaranteed to reach his ceiling, he wouldn’t be a prospect — he’d be a major league pitcher, probably an All-Star. Increasingly, teams have decided that they’d rather bet on that ceiling than take the guaranteed return.

To put this in terms that Billy Beane can understand: We’ve reached a point where trading away prospects is the new market inefficiency.

These two trades are hardly an isolated trend. Consider:

February 2, 2008: The Minnesota Twins trade Johan Santana, perhaps the best pitcher in baseball, to the New York Mets. As part of the deal, the Mets are allowed to work out a six-year contract extension with Santana. In return, the Twins receive Carlos Gomez, Philip Humber, Kevin Mulvey, and Deolis Guerra. None of them were regarded as can’t-miss prospects, and none of them ever made much of a contribution with the Twins.

December 16, 2009: The Philadelphia Phillies, who had traded for Cliff Lee during the previous season and were rewarded with five fantastic starts during that year’s playoffs, were nonetheless so worried about losing Lee to free agency the following year that they traded him to Seattle for J.C. Ramirez, Phillippe Aumont, and Tyson Gillies. It looked like a laughably light haul for Lee, and time has done nothing to change that perception. Aumont is a future setup man, and the other two may never reach the major leagues.

A year later, the Phillies were so desperate to get Lee back that they signed him to a five-year, $120 million contract.

July 25, 2010: Dan Haren had made the All-Star team in 2007, 2008, and 2009, and he was known as one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. But he was having an off year in 2010 (although his Fielding Independent Pitching stats were as good as ever, including a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly five), so the rebuilding Diamondbacks decided to sell him off. Haren was under contract through 2012 with a club option for 2013; he should have commanded a mighty haul on the trade market.

Instead, the Diamondbacks traded Haren to the Los Angeles Angels for an inferior replacement in Joe Saunders, a pair of minor pitching prospects in Pat Corbin and Rafael Rodriguez, and one blue-chip talent in Tyler Skaggs. While Skaggs had a fantastic season in the minors and is now one of the best lefty pitching prospects around, he’s really all the Diamondbacks got. Saunders finessed his way to a 3.69 ERA for Arizona this year, and the D-backs were so unimpressed that they declined his option for 2012. Meanwhile, Haren returned to form the minute he got off the plane in California. He had a 2.87 ERA for the Angels in 2010, and this season he finished seventh in the AL Cy Young vote while leading his league in strikeout-to-walk ratio for the third time in four years.

These are not trades that have been cherry-picked to find the ones in which the prospects didn’t pan out. In each of these examples, it appeared at the time of the deal that the prospects involved were not worthy of the stars they were traded for.

Certainly, not every trade of veterans for prospects is lopsided. On Saturday, the San Diego Padres traded Mat Latos to the Reds for Edinson Volquez, Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal, and Brad Boxberger. Volquez was once traded for Josh Hamilton — which only serves as a reminder of how bad that trade was — but has been mostly hurt and ineffective over the past three years. Boxberger is a future middle reliever. But Alonso is a decent prospect, a major league first baseman who might be a decent hitter for the position. And Grandal is the prize — a switch-hitter who might be one of the best hitting catchers in baseball in three years if he can improve his defense enough to stay behind the plate.

That’s a lot of talent to give up, but frankly, Latos is worth it. Latos has ranked in the top 20 in the majors in both ERA and strikeouts over the past two years, and he just turned 24. The Reds have him under control for the next four years. Potential no. 1 starters don’t hit the trade market very often, and when they do, this is the kind of return they ought to bring.

In recent years, however, they usually haven’t. For that reason, an ambitious team with a deep farm system — the Royals, for instance, or the Nationals — should take advantage of MLB general managers’ prospect fetish to cash in some of their lottery tickets for established players who might help them win in 2012.

It’s no coincidence that the Blue Jays, who possess a ton of minor league talent and realistic playoff hopes for next season, turned Nestor Molina into Sergio Santos. No GM in baseball has done a better job over the past 18 months than the Blue Jays’ Alex Anthopoulos, and it appears he has once again read the market correctly. Prospects have never been trendier than they are right now. Which means that now is the perfect time to cash out.

Rany Jazayerli runs the Rany on the Royals website and co-hosts The Baseball Show with Rany and Joe podcast. He is one of the original founders of Baseball Prospectus, and works as a dermatologist in suburban Chicago.


Previously from Rany Jazayerli:
Can the Texas Rangers Bounce Back and Win the World Series? History Says No.
Why the Cardinals will win in 7

Can Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder carry the Brewers to the World Series?

NLDS Preview
The Astros hit rock bottom
Philadelphia Phillies: The End is Nigh
On the Arizona Diamondbacks’ 2011 turnaround

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Filed Under: MLB, Sports, Teams

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Rany Jazayerli runs the Rany on the Royals website. He is one of the founders of Baseball Prospectus, and works as a dermatologist in suburban Chicago.

Archive @ jazayerli

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