Cards, Rangers, and an Embarrassment of Riches

The St. Louis Cardinals have a problem, one that nearly any other team would envy. They start an above-average center fielder, one of the best right-handed sluggers in the league at first base, and a pair of corner outfielders who’ve combined for 13 All-Star appearances. They have a 24-year-old first baseman who pummeled his way through the minor leagues and is smashing pitches in the big leagues every chance he gets, which is to say not that often. They also have a 20-year-old phenom center fielder sitting in the minors, a potential offensive superstar just waiting for his chance to reach the Show and set the league ablaze … only he has nowhere to play.

The Texas Rangers also have a problem nearly any other team would envy. They have a three-time All-Star playing a position that’s become perhaps baseball’s weakest. Their 24-year-old shortstop is a defensive wizard, armed with speed and a good batting eye, the kind of skill set that portends stardom. They also have a 20-year-old phenom shortstop who’s a defensive standout in his own right, with enough speed, patience, and burgeoning power to make him arguably the best prospect on the planet … only he has nowhere to play.

As luck would have it, both of these phenoms play the exact position that the other team most needs to upgrade. Two players, same age, same exalted prospect status, both playing positions at which their team is loaded, both able to fill a big hole on the other team’s roster. A straight swap of Oscar Taveras and Jurickson Profar makes sense in just every way imaginable. But if history is any guide, the chances of such a deal happening lie somewhere between slim and none.

Let’s start with this: A Profar-for-Taveras trade is just a rumor that’s kicked around for a bit, one of those perfect-on-paper deals that’s never actually been proposed by either team. It’s a perfect fantasy trade, but one that’s nearly impossible to pull off in real life. Baseball America ranked Profar as the top prospect in baseball this year, with Taveras at no. 3. So with the help of ESPN Stats & Info, we searched for instances of top-rated prospects traded for each other in straight-up challenge trades. For starters, no team has ever traded the Baseball America–rated top prospect in baseball the same year he earned that rating. The closest we’ve seen to that happening was the Rays’ trade of Delmon Young after the 2007 season, a year after getting BA’s no. 1 stamp. By the time Young got swapped as part of a six-player deal that netted Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett in return, all the principals involved had already established themselves in the majors.

Some of the other deals involving highly rated prospects since 1990:

• On Nov. 11, 1998, the Reds traded Paul Konerko to the White Sox for Mike Cameron. Both players had racked up big league experience then, though, with Cameron playing two full years in the majors and Konerko actually dealt for the second time in four months. Likewise, when Texas dealt Edinson Volquez (and Danny Herrera) to Cincinnati for Josh Hamilton after the 2007 season, Volquez had already pitched in parts of three major league seasons. The Reds were involved in yet another vaguely similar deal, sending Drew Henson and Michael Coleman to the Yankees for Wily Mo Pena in March 2001; none of the players involved had a profile that stacked up to Profar’s or Taveras’s, though, with Pena not even making BA’s top 100 that year.

• The Yankees dealt Mike Lowell to the Marlins after granting Lowell just 15 major league plate appearances. But the trade brought back three players rather than being a straight-up move. And while Lowell (no. 58) and lefty starting pitcher Ed Yarnall (no. 60) were both ranked prospects, neither came with anywhere near the hype that Profar and Taveras now bring.

• Four trades of more recent vintage come closer, but still don’t fully compare:

The Yankees dealt Jesus Montero straight up to Seattle for Michael Pineda after the 2011 season. BA had ranked Montero no. 3 overall and Pineda no. 16 entering that season, though Pineda pitched a full year in the majors before getting dealt. The A’s dealt Brett Wallace to the Jays for Michael Taylor, a couple of months before the two earned no. 27 and no. 29 rankings, respectively. Seven months later, the Jays flipped Wallace to Houston for another highly ranked prospect, outfielder Anthony Gose. Most recently, Trevor Bauer and Didi Gregorius got swapped shortly before earning the no. 14 and no. 80 spots on BA’s list — but that was part of a three-team, nine-player deal that included several other key elements.

That lack of precedent is one reason to doubt the likelihood of the Profar-Taveras rumor. There’s also the familiarity factor. When you sign a player, then spend several years bringing him up through your system, you come to know all his strengths and weaknesses. You also get attached. Unless both the Rangers and Cardinals were guarding some big defect known only to them about their top prospect, it’d be tough to shake that attachment and cut the cord on a homegrown success story, right before he finally gets his big break.

So how might the two teams handle their talent surplus at one spot, and their talent shortage at another?

For the Cardinals, the decision on how to handle Taveras is easier. Carlos Beltran signed a two-year, $26 million contract after the 2011 season, meaning he’s eligible for free agency at the end of this year. Taveras is considered a usable but not elite defensive center fielder, and the Cards have Jon Jay at that position now, so Taveras could simply slide into Beltran’s vacated right-field spot for 2014. If Matt Adams keeps mashing the way he has, the Cardinals could conceivably hand him the first-base job at some point, move Allen Craig to right field, and look to trade Jay for shortstop help. St. Louis also figures to have a second-base surplus on the horizon, with superutilityman Matt Carpenter manning the position now, and prospect Kolten Wong expected to seize the job sometime soon, maybe even by this summer. That could open up trade possibilities for Carpenter or David Freese.

All of this assumes that the Cards would be dissatisfied with Pete Kozma at short. The former first-round pick hit an ugly .236/.308/.344 in 2,752 minor league plate appearances. That, along with a so-so defensive reputation, would seem to bode ill for his future. But Kozma earned some rope with his .291/.342/.478 start to his major league career, which includes some big numbers and timely hits last September and in the playoffs, even if he owes most of his success to an unsustainably high .353 batting average on balls in play. If Kozma’s deemed adequate anyway, we could see the Cardinals shop for pitching help, especially if Lance Lynn continues to struggle with inconsistent results and Jake Westbrook starts to show his age … though even then, the Cardinals have Carlos Martinez on the way up as another big league starting pitching prospect. In any of these iterations, there’d be room for Taveras to play by no later than next Opening Day, with enough talent on the major league roster and advancing in the minors to limit any overwhelming need for a blockbuster. Taveras might not be any better than the Cardinals’ incumbents this year, which speaks volumes about the vast collection of talent they have.

You would think that the Rangers’ decision would be just as easy: Wait until next Opening Day at the latest, then hand Profar the starting shortstop job and watch him grow into a star. Elvis Andrus came into this season with just two years to go before free agency, so it stood to reason that Texas would shop him for either a top starting pitcher or a slugging outfielder, with the outfield hole in particular about to get worse as Nelson Cruz and David Murphy play out their final year before free agency. The eight-year, $120 million deal Andrus inked two weeks ago changed all that. At this point, Andrus isn’t going anywhere.

That leaves the Rangers with three workable scenarios:

1. Trade Ian Kinsler. With the second-base pool so shallow around the league, Kinsler would seem an attractive option to a bunch of teams, the extremely rare second baseman with power, speed, and on-base skills who also fields the position well. Trading him would push either Andrus or Profar to second, setting up what would likely be one of the top double-play combinations in baseball dating back years. There’s the question of price tag, given he turns 31 in June and still has four years and $62 million left on his contract. But Brandon Phillips signed a six-year, $72.5 million extension of his own on the same day that Kinsler did; given the two are comparable in value and signed at pretty much exactly the same age (Kinsler is a year minus six days younger than Phillips), you have a strong comp out there that suggests Kinsler’s contract isn’t excessive. Throw in the salary inflation that baseball has seen in the past year alone, and it’d make little sense for the Rangers to trade Kinsler unless they got a big return for him. Sniff around the league and you’d be hard-pressed to find a fit, though — a team in dire need of a second-base upgrade that’s also willing to part with the top starting pitcher or outfielder that the Rangers need and want.

2. Stand pat. Andrus and Profar don’t (yet) have the power you’d want from a corner infielder or outfielder, so Kinsler would seem the player most likely to switch positions if the Rangers called up Profar and decided not to trade any of the three. But Texas went through a similar position switch with Michael Young, one that annoyed Young and caused more headaches than the team needed. Kinsler has expressed similar reservations about switching positions, creating a potential déjà-vu situation if the Rangers were to go through with the move. Bruised egos aside, it’s much easier to find a player who can handle first base (Mitch Moreland probably isn’t a great long-term answer there) or left field than it is to find one who can field second base well. Moving Kinsler to a corner could then qualify as a bit of a waste of resources.

3. Trade Profar, but not for someone like Taveras. The two best players who’d seem to have a real chance of getting dealt sometime in the next year are Giancarlo Stanton and David Price. The Marlins have denied interest in trading Stanton, but the team’s fire sale pissed off the team’s lone remaining star, and the Fish could elect to trade him if a long-term deal isn’t in the cards. With Price, the Rays will need to decide whether they’re willing to keep their ace all the way till free agency (the way they did with Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton), or cash him in earlier as part of a blockbuster deal for young talent (the way they did with Garza and James Shields). If it’s the latter, we could see Price get moved next winter … or maybe even this summer, if the Rays were to fall out of the race. You can debate how much Stanton (a free agent after 2016) or Price (free agent after 2015) is worth compared to a player with six years of available service time but no track record of success in the big leagues. But if you were building a trade for either Stanton or Price, you might not find any player who’d pique the interest of the Marlins and Rays more than Profar would.

In any case, what both teams have right now are options. Though neither Oscar Taveras nor Jurickson Profar fits on the major league roster, injuries, performance changes, or trades of incumbent players could hasten call-ups for both. We could even see one or both teams try to trade their top prospect, with Profar seemingly a more likely candidate. Just don’t expect to see the two players get dealt for each other, no matter how logical it might be.

Filed Under: MLB, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First, is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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