First Pitch: Would You Rather Have Polanco/Hanson or Chase Headley?
Jim Bowden had an article at ESPN talking about how the San Diego Padres should trade Chase Headley right now. In the article he listed the Pittsburgh Pirates as one of two teams with a moderate chance of landing Headley, noting that a package of Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson could get the deal done.
Bowden does a lot of these types of articles. He takes a player who isn’t necessarily on the market, then takes a group of teams who don’t necessarily have interest in the player, and creates a trade scenario for each team. The basis for the Headley article isn’t that San Diego is trading him, but that it would make sense to trade him. It’s not about what the Padres think they should do, but what one person thinks they should do. Really this isn’t any different from the type of trade suggestions you see on Twitter, comment sections, or message boards. It’s good for discussions, but don’t read it as an actual trade rumor.
What that disclaimer aside, the article did get me thinking about the value of prospects versus the value of short-term help in the majors. I’ve written in the past that I always ask “What would the Rays do?” for any type of move. Trading prospects for two years of an established player who is coming off a career year (Headley is under control through 2014 and had a 7.5 WAR in 2012) is not what the Rays would do. In fact, they’d be on the opposite end of that scenario. Still, it’s hard to just totally dismiss someone like Headley, especially when you’re talking about two prospects in A-ball. As highly touted as Polanco and Hanson are, they haven’t faced the challenges of upper level competition. They also each have unanswered questions (can Hanson stick at short, will Polanco’s swing be an issue in the upper levels).
Normally there are two extreme sides to this argument.
One way to look at it is by pointing out the fact that prospects aren’t guaranteed. You then jump from that fact to assuming that Polanco and Hanson are guaranteed to bust. Since prospects aren’t guaranteed, that only guarantees that they won’t work out, right? Then you assume that all major league players are guaranteed, and that no player has ever experienced a down year, suffered a serious injury, or just proved to be not as good as the career year he just put up. In this approach, adding a proven major leaguer who provides no risk at all is a no brainer when compared to two prospects who are destined to fail.
The other side of the coin is to look at the prospect reports for Hanson and Polanco, and forget that prospects aren’t guaranteed. Keith Law recently said that Hanson could be a star if he sticks at shortstop, and that Polanco could have 25-plus home run potential if everything clicks. You look at those reports, then you look at every other report ranking those two as top 100 prospects and saying pretty much the same thing. Since the rule that prospects aren’t guaranteed has been forgotten, that means both of these players are guaranteed. We’re only 2-3 years away from seeing a star shortstop in the majors and a 25-plus homer outfielder — both under control for six years. Who in their right mind would trade that for two years of an expensive Chase Headley?
As someone who writes prospect reports, I often see comments that I’m hyping up prospects for a variety of reasons, all while ignoring that not every prospect will pan out. The reasons are always entertaining, with my favorite one being that I’m trying to fool the readers with good news, all to keep interest in my site. That ignores a few key facts. One is that more people read negative reports than positive reports. Second, I didn’t start this site to create a market and then provide reports for that market. I started this site because there was already an existing market for prospect news. I read Sox Prospects, thought “I wish someone did this for the Pirates”, and then several months later I decided to try it out (also borrowing a few ideas from Rays Index). And of course, third is the fact that every year in the Prospect Guide, before any of the reports, I add the disclaimer that every single prospect comes with the risk of busting.
So where do I fall in the above argument about prospects vs major league production? I would say both of the above approaches. It’s not an earth-shattering idea, but I look at this in a way that anything could happen. Hanson and Polanco might each realize their potential, at which point a trade for Headley would be horrible. They could both fail, which would make a trade for Headley a great move. Or maybe one of them realizes their potential, and the other one washes out.
There are plenty of other possibilities of course, all of which involve Hanson and/or Polanco reaching the majors but falling somewhere short of their ceilings. To keep things simple, we’ll stick with the three basic scenarios above. The Pirates could clearly win the deal, they could clearly lose the deal, or the deal could wind up fair and down the middle for both teams (going back to the other possibilities, they would just shift the deal left or right from this mid-point). That “down the middle” approach is very subjective though.
In this case, the Padres have a player who is making a lot of money, and who is only under control for two years. They’re probably not winning with him in those two years, which leads to suggestions like Bowden brought up that they’d be better off trading him to a team who has a better chance of winning now. Normally those teams are big spenders who don’t really need prospects. If this was the Dodgers, there would be no question about whether to do the deal. Trade Polanco and Hanson, and if they both realize their potential, just reacquire them when they’re each making $20 M a year, and settle for other star players in the mean time. But the Pirates are different. They don’t have the luxury of focusing on either the short term or the long term. They have to focus on both. They might be able to make one deal like Headley, but the timing and the circumstances have to be right.
For example, if the Pirates were to deal Hanson and Polanco, then they’re seriously jeopardizing their long term offense all for a two year boost in the short term. That’s not really an issue of depth, even though it’s true that they’ve got more depth on the pitching side than they do on the hitting side. It’s more an issue of what they have in the majors. Right now their established major league players are Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez. McCutchen is really the only guy you can be comfortable with, as Alvarez is one year removed from a disaster of a season, and Walker has dealt with injury issues. You could probably add Clint Barmes and Russell Martin here if you’re talking short-term, but I’m looking long-term (beyond 2014).
Aside from those three, the Pirates have a lot of questions. Will Garrett Jones be the 2009/2012 version or the 2010/2011 version? Will Gaby Sanchez bounce back to his 2010/2011 hitting? Can Starling Marte realize his potential in the majors? Will one of Travis Snider, Jerry Sands, Jose Tabata, or Alex Presley step up as a regular contributor? Keep in mind that the only reason Marte isn’t in that group is because those other guys have been given the chance to put up bad numbers during their brief times in the majors. We’ve always been higher on Marte than most, but he comes with the same prospect disclaimer as everyone else.
All of those question marks make it harder to deal prospects for a team like the Pirates, who have to rely on prospects for their impact players. It would be different if Marte was established, and one of the other outfielders stepped up. Then someone like Polanco would be easier to deal, because you’re not counting on him for the long-term, and because you’ve also got Josh Bell in A-ball. It’s just like Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and Luis Heredia. Sure, you’ve got three guys with the potential for number one upside. But right now you’ve got no number one starters. It would be foolish to deal any of them until you do have a number one starter, all because no individual pitcher from that group is guaranteed.
Again, don’t take Bowden’s article as a rumor that the Pirates are looking at Headley, or even that the Padres are shopping Headley. It’s all meant for discussion and entertainment. If that were a real possibility, and the offer on the table was Headley for Hanson and Polanco, I’d have to decline. Headley would most likely give you a strong bat for the next two years, but what then? If you add Headley, you’re removing one of the outfield spots, which means you don’t give the foursome of outfielders a chance to prove themselves. You’re also trading your top two hitting prospects — your top outfield prospect, and a potential star shortstop.
Why would you make such a deal? Obviously because you’ve got question marks on this team, and Headley can serve as the answer to one of those questions. But what do you have after that? When Headley leaves, you’ve got the same question marks. You didn’t give Snider, Sands, Tabata, or Presley a chance, so you don’t know if they could bounce back (and by then it would be too late). You’re probably looking for another Clint Barmes type free agent at short, sacrificing offense for strong defense. You lost one of the top outfield prospects in the system. So after Headley would leave you’d have the same question marks as now, only with fewer options in the system.
Eventually the Pirates are going to have to build from within and answer their question marks with solutions from the farm system. Once the majority of those question marks are filled in, that’s when it would make sense to deal the occasional prospect. You don’t want to go overboard on that approach, otherwise you end up like the Brewers — selling the farm with no guarantee that the approach produces a winner, then watching everyone leave and being left with a depleted farm system. You don’t necessarily have to do things exactly like the Rays, who never trade prospects for guys like Headley. But you do have to be smart about when you deal prospects, and how many prospects you deal.
On the surface, a Polanco/Hanson for Headley deal would look like an immediate upgrade. But really all you’re doing is delaying the current positional question marks for two years, only with fewer possible internal solutions when that time comes.
Links and Notes
**The 2013 Prospect Guide is now available. The 2013 Annual is also available for pre-sales. Go to the products page of the site and order your 2013 books today!