Are Teams Overvaluing Prospects?
By John Verburg
There are a lot of things that change over a lifetime; expanding waists, thinning hair, a calm that develops when you realize that life has ups and downs. It’s one of the great things about the human species, as you mature, you evolve or adapt to the environment around you. Decisions that we would have made 5 years ago, we make differently now. It’s the benefit of experience.
My philosophy on baseball is changing as we speak.
I have long believed that in baseball, a team’s core philosophy should be rooted in drafting and developing its own players, and bringing them up to the big leagues. I still believe that. But I’m evolving, and I am starting to see the benefits of using those draft pieces and prospects as a means to secure current big leaguers.
I’m a prospect guy. I spend a lot of time researching, watching, and talking prospects with anyone who will listen. I have had my favorites over the years, and when they get traded, it’s a sad day for me sometimes. Fellow prospect followers know that feeling. The feeling you have when there is a guy that you have watched for a couple of years, becoming convinced they will contribute to your favorite team, only to see it vanish in an instant when they are dealt away in a trade. It’s especially hurtful when the guy the organization traded for doesn’t help the team you root for. Jarrod Washurn anyone?
Yes, Mauricio Robles was a favorite of mine.
Beyond the sentimental value of prospects, they hold real value to the teams that draft them as well. There is much more value in getting a productive player through the draft than getting one through free agency. Prospects are younger, cheaper, and are under more fiscal controls than their veteran counterparts. The main issue with prospects is, they are just that…..prospective big league ball players. There are no guarantees that guys in the minor leagues will take their skills and be able to turn them into major league success. If scouting and development are done right though, teams can reap an enormous benefit. Just look at the Tampa Rays ability to field competitive teams on a less than robust budget.
The real benefit of the best prospects is financial control. Good young players (and even bad ones) don’t hit free agency for 6 years, so teams have some control on how much they spend. With veterans and free agents, they still have control over who they sign, but the market affects how much you can sign a player for. There is competition there. The potential value of prospects like Tampa’s Matt Moore give their current teams, are causing organizations to get stingy with their prospects and making it more difficult for teams to deal their more veteran players. Even if they are good.
Right now, there is some good pitching available on the trade market, and it seems the trend for teams right now is to hold onto their valuable prospects, instead of pulling the trigger on deal to bring in major league pitching. Gio Gonzalez, John Danks, Jon Niese, and Wandy Rodriguez are a few of the names that have been floated around recently. All may have differing values, but all have had some quality major league success, and the first 3 mentioned are still young and relatively cheap themselves. So why are these guys still on the market?
Teams are making the mistake of over-valuing their prospects. With the exception of the Arizona Diamondbacks giving up the promising Jarrod Parker for Oakland’s Trevor Cahill, most of what we are hearing is teams’ reluctance to give up their best young players. I for one, am a little bit baffled by it. Guys like Gio Gonzalez and John Danks should obtain a good haul of young players. These are at least #2 starters we are talking about here, and have the potential to win 15 games consistently at the major league level. We have had heard the Yankees balking at the asking price of 2 of their top 3 prospects for Gonzalez. Doesn’t New York realize they really need the starter, and the two pitchers they are hanging on to with all their might could both end up in the bullpen?
Traveling around the internet, and heck even on this site, Tigers fans have repeated their reluctance to include Jacob Turner in a trade for Gonzalez. I understand the attachment. After all, the Tigers don’t have much in the way of a farm system. It’s much tougher to part with a talented guy when there isn’t depth in the system. But getting a starter that could help them now in a drive to a World Series, easily outweighs the concern over losing a potential #2 starter. Gio Gonzalez is already that and more.
Let me give you a real example of the value of prospects (considered good ones), versus the value of a quality major league pitcher. I am going to list for you the guys that have been traded for Cliff Lee. Here we go: Jason Knapp, Carlos Carrasco, Lou Marson, Jason Donald, Phillip Aumont, J.C. Ramirez, Tyson Gilles, Blake Beavan, Matt Lawson, Josh Lueke, and Justin Smoak. Do you think those teams would rather have Cliff Lee than the guys they got instead?
I do realize that Lee’s value may have been driven down by his contract in those deals, but the point still remains. The prospects that the teams valued in obtaining have yet to make any sort of impact in the majors.
How about C.C. Sabathia‘s trade to Milwaukee? Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley, Rob Bryson, and Zach Jackson. LaPorta was a can’t miss right? Brantley has been the best player in that deal thus far for Cleveland. I don’t think the Brewers would say that they regretted that one, even though they couldn’t re-sign Sabathia.
Yes, there are trades where the prospects turn out to be more than the major leaguer. Randy Johnson was once traded to Seattle for Mark Langston. Langston was a good pitcher in his own right, but no Randy Johnson. Cliff Lee was part of a deal that included Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips for Bartolo Colon. So it happens. A trade with multiple prospects can come back to bite the team that trades them in the behind. I think there are far more deals in which getting the good major leaguer works out though. Tigers fans need only to look at getting Miguel Cabrera to realize this.
Maybe the financial climate is making teams leery of getting rid of their best prospects, but given the attrition and low success rates, it’s surprising that a team like the Yankees is reluctant to depart with prospects, especially considering pitchers like Danks and Gonzalez aren’t expensive and young. I’m okay with the Tigers parting with guys like Nick Castellanos and Jacob Turner for the right guy. Given the volatility and unpredictability of their futures, I don’t see why not.
I’m still a prospect guy. I enjoy watching these guys play the game. That’s not going to change. After all, most of the best players in the game were top prospects at one point in their careers. The trick for clubs is to be able to identify which players those guys are, even if they are on another team.
I guess I am just more open to the idea that guys like Jacob Turner have more value to the Tigers as a trade piece now, than as a pitcher for the Tigers down the road.
I suspect that we will see some of these guys traded soon…..it only makes sense.