First Pitch: Hoarding Prospects or Just a Good Grasp of Reality?

This is one of my favorite times of the year. For the past four years, it has been the same thing over and over. The Pirates have been at various stages of contending, and the trade rumors begin. The Pirates are mentioned as buyers. Inevitably, there’s a rumor that would have the Pirates potentially dealing a top prospect to get a rental for anywhere from two months to 14 months. And that always leads to the same debates about whether the Pirates should go for it and trade part of their future.

These debates usually involve the saying that the Pirates might not get back to winning for a long time, which obviously hasn’t been the case. They’ve only become stronger contenders each year, and going forward they project to remain contenders, and possibly get stronger. The debates usually revolve around the issue of the short-term impact a trade can have, and the long-term impact the Pirates could be missing out on by making such a deal.

I’m usually on the side that says “don’t trade top prospects.” That’s not because I run a prospect site. I run a prospect site because six years ago I saw a demand for prospect information, and the possibility to fill a niche for Pirates coverage. That was a time when the Pirates system was horrendously thin, and yet there was still demand. No matter who they trade, and no matter the quality of the system, there has always been a demand for information from the farm system.

I’m not on the side that says “don’t trade top prospects” because I have some silly made up disease that is used to justify a trade by creating a fictitious group of people, countering arguments that no one really makes, then attacking that fake group of people in justification of your views on the specific trade. The “prospect hoarders” or “prospect separation anxiety” articles come out every year. They’re always written by someone who has no clue what they’re talking about when it comes to the prospects in the system, leading to a group of strawman arguments about the people who favor prospects and the hackneyed lines about how prospects aren’t sure things. Somehow this always leads to just dismissing prospects as a group without considering their individual circumstances, while ignoring the fact that MLB players aren’t sure things either.

So why is this one of my favorite times of the year, when it’s just filled with ridiculous arguments, name calling, and horrible analysis on the value of prospects? Maybe it’s because it provides an opportunity to look back to all of the times over the past few years where these same arguments were made, only to see the outcome prove those arguments wrong.

In 2011, all of the talk surrounded Carlos Beltran and Hunter Pence. Beltran ended up getting traded for Zack Wheeler. All summer, I said that the Pirates needed to take on salary, rather than giving up any prospects, noting that the Pirates didn’t look like they’d be one and done. Obviously we now know that their success wasn’t limited to the first four months of the 2011 season. And rather than trading someone like Jameson Taillon or Starling Marte for a rental like Beltran, they kept those prospects, and they’re better for it in the long run.

In 2012, the big name was Chase Headley, who was having a career year. There was also Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino, who would have cost Starling Marte. To get Headley, you were talking a deal that would have probably had to include Gregory Polanco. I wrote at the time about how the Pirates didn’t need these guys, and were better off keeping the prospects. Pence and Victorino wouldn’t have prevented the huge collapse in 2012, and the Pirates would be kicking themselves right now for dealing Marte for those rentals. As for Headley, after his downfall after that season, the Pirates would deeply regret anything they gave up to get him.

In 2013, the Pirates started getting in a different situation with their farm system. They started developing depth at certain positions, creating a situation where some prospects were expendable due to the talent in the majors, plus the other prospects in the minor league system. When they traded Dilson Herrera and Vic Black for Marlon Byrd, I said they lost the trade based on talent given up. But they were contenders, and they needed Byrd after Starling Marte went down with an injury. And even though Herrera was a top ten prospect at the time, the Pirates could afford to give him up because of the strength of their system.

As it stands, Herrera is a great prospect, but the Pirates have better options.Before the trade, I projected a future middle infield of Alen Hanson and Jordy Mercer. The Pirates also have other options like Jarek Cunningham, Gift Ngoepe, Chase d’Arnaud, Dan Gamache, JaCoby Jones, and Ulises Montilla. None of those guys are strong bets to be a starting second baseman. Herrera ranked ahead of all of them, and I still have Hanson/Mercer as the future middle infield. But all you need is one of those guys to have an Andrew Lambo turnaround, or one of the lower level guys to work out and you’ve got one more strong option to add to the mix. Herrera is a great prospect, but the Pirates won’t miss him.

One year later, we can see the results. Herrera is breaking out with the Mets, and looks to be their second baseman of the future. If he was with the Pirates, he’d probably be talked about as the second baseman of the future here. The top two middle infielders are still Mercer and Hanson. From the group of other players, JaCoby Jones is breaking out, and Dan Gamache has been impressive in a very limited amount of playing time with Altoona, although I wouldn’t put him down as a guy who is breaking out just yet. Overall, my feelings remain the same. It’s tough to give up so much for a rental, but the Pirates have a good situation with their middle infield prospects, so they’re really not going to be hurt by this move.

And that’s where we are in 2014. The debate about Josh Bell, for me, really revolves around giving up something that the Pirates lack — a potential All-Star first baseman. The Ike Davis/Gaby Sanchez platoon isn’t the long-term answer. There isn’t a long-term answer in the upper levels of the minors. The closest is Stetson Allie, who has some major strikeout issues to work through. There isn’t even really a long-term answer in the lower levels, unless you start dreaming on potential. Even then, that’s not going to help the Pirates in the next year or two.

When I talk about not trading Josh Bell, it’s not because I think every single prospect is going to make it. It’s not because I don’t want to part with any prospects at all. It’s because I’m specifically looking at Bell, and I love his upside. I saw him for half a season this year in Bradenton. I watched as he looked flawed from the right side of the plate, struggling against lefties earlier in the year. I watched as he steadily fixed those issues, and started to hit lefties. He then started hitting everyone, and you could see why he was so highly regarded after the draft.

I’ve talked to him plenty of times over the last few years, and he’s a very smart kid. That’s something that I incorporate into my prospect rankings, as I think it makes it more likely that the player will make the adjustments needed to maximize his talent. He looked like a Major League player on the field, with his build clearly standing out above everyone else. You don’t see many players in A-ball who have the build that Bell has. From strictly a physical standpoint, Bell reminds me of watching Jason Heyward a lot back in 2009. Heyward is a few inches taller than Bell, but they both have huge athletic frames with a lot of muscle and power potential.

There are prospects that I’d part with in a deal to get Jon Lester. I wrote about those guys last night. But in the case of Josh Bell, I think this is a similar situation to Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, and Gerrit Cole — all of whom the Pirates saved from 2011-13 and who are now in the majors. In 1-2 years, I think Bell is going to be in the majors, starting to look like a guy who could make an impact with his bat. If that’s happening for another team, I think the Pirates would really regret trading him for a two month rental. And unlike the situation with Herrera, they won’t have the consolation of knowing Bell was expendable because they had other options available to take his place.

This isn’t a blanket approach about not trading top prospects. This is a case-by-case basis, evaluating the short and long-term needs of the Pirates, combined with the individual circumstances surrounding each player. And let’s not act like this is something that is limited to the Pirates. All we have to do is look around the league to see rumors about how other teams in baseball aren’t open to trading their best prospects for rentals. We can start with the Dodgers, a team with a massive amount of resources that doesn’t ever have to worry about prospects.

You could chalk this up to the Dodgers having very little need to deal for a rental, based on their team and their position in the standings. But what about the Cardinals, who are fighting in one of the closest races in baseball?

They ended up trading for Justin Masterson today, and didn’t give up an impact prospect. They’re still connected to Lester, and it’s always possible they could reverse course on this one. Or maybe they’re just staying in it, and hoping the price goes way down from the ridiculous demands we’ve seen so far. They could still make a big move, but this is a team that didn’t make a big splash last year at the deadline, and hasn’t made one yet this year.

I’d like to think that we’ll eventually get to the point where we get past these ridiculous claims about prospects and the people who place a proper value on them. There will be more people who realize that this isn’t just a small portion of the people who follow the Pirates, but a line of thinking that exists largely throughout the game of baseball. We won’t hear ridiculous strawman arguments, and instead will hear well thought out arguments on EACH side of the debate, rather than just arguing for the MLB upgrade while making non-specific claims about the prospect in question with blanket analysis about how prospects aren’t guarantees.

In reality? I think I’ll be writing the same articles next year, talking about a new prospect that shouldn’t be traded for a rental, pointing to another guy in the majors who the Pirates didn’t trade the previous few years, and dismissing the notion that the Pirates will never have a team as strong as this one, and that they have to take their shot now at any cost. I’d say it’s some imaginary disease that will lead to this argument from myself, and other people who follow prospects closely. The truth is that it’s not a disease, but just a grasp of the reality of how valuable prospects can be, along with knowledge about the actual prospects that people are suggesting should be moved.

Jon Lester Rumors

**How Jon Lester Could Impact a Very Close NL Playoff Race

**Latest Jon Lester Rumors: Pirates and Cardinals Pushing the Hardest

**Orioles Pursuing Jon Lester

**Dodgers Out on Jon Lester, David Price, and Cole Hamels

Other Rumors

**Pirates in on Ian Kennedy, Who Might Not Be Moved

**Cardinals Trade For Justin Masterson

Prospects

**Prospect Watch: Andrew Lambo Homers, Nick Kingham Has Another Rough Start

**Jameson Taillon Completes His First Day of Catch

**Prospect Highlights: Jordan Luplow Homer, Edwin Espinal Can Hit

**Minor League Schedule: Can Zack Dodson Repeat Last Week’s Success?

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/andy.prough.3 Andy Prough

    David Schoenfield at ESPN has an article up right now claiming that Billy Beane is tired of building for the future and wants to win a World Series now, and might trade for Lester with a first baseman named Matt Olson who has 30 HR’s in A ball, and with the A’s top prospect Daniel Robertson. I don’t see how or why the Pirates would come close to that type of offer.

    • emjayinTN

      Andy: Billy Beane made some excellent trades through the years selling high on strong veterans to get Prospects – many of whom have turned out to be the strength of this team. If he gives that much, he is trading for David Price to get a 3 man Playoff Rotation of Samardzia, Gray, and Price for at least 2 seasons. Why only win one WS?

  • johnj618

    I don’t like the idea of trading away guys who would interfere with maximizing the window of contention. I think the odds of a world series are higher to keep rotating prospects into the lineup when veterans leave, because lets face it, we aren’t re signing all these guys. Therefore harold ramirez and adrian sampson is my proposal. If that doesn’t work maybe downgrade one of those a bit and then add a player to be named later as one of the 3 best prep arms from this years draft. Thoughts?

    • Alex Henry

      Can’t do that if they wanted to. A player must be in an organization for a year before he can be traded and a PTBNL must be named within 6 months of trade

  • Mike C.

    I asked th question: what is the long term value of losing a top prospect vs the long term gain in revenue + fan interest? Even for a team that won a WS, The answer i found was the gain was minimal and lasted at most, 2 years.
    Just an interesting fact from an interesting study.

  • Mike C.

    A question for you Tim : lets for a moment assume Hanson fixes his mental lapses, who plays SS, Hanson or Mercer?
    Comparing the two, who has the better range, arm, reflexes etc?
    If you could project the bat, who has the better offense?
    Thank you

    • rickster

      I would love to see this as well

    • jaygray007

      My understanding is that Hanson has all the skills except for the arm.

      I’ve pegged him as the future 2b with walker moving to 3b.

      Mercer will be fine for a few more years, but i can’t imagine there are a ton of 30+ yr old, 200+lb, 6’3″ ss running around.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/ Tim Williams

      This would probably be an entire article. It also involves a lot of “what ifs”, mostly focused around whether Hanson fixes his lapses completely, or just enough to be passable at the position. You’d also have to focus on whether Mercer continued his improvements.

      The short version: Right now, Mercer is putting up the defense that you’d hope to see from Hanson. It’s not great, but it’s not a liability. So if Mercer continues to do that, there would be no reason to move him off the shortstop position to give playing time to a guy who, at best, puts up the same defense.

      • Mike C.

        Thank you Tim. I always assumed Mercer’s Defense was slightly above average but below average athletically and Hanson was the much athletically superior player.

    • leowalter

      FWIW Mike, I have watched Hanson play regularly, and while I am no scout, it appears to me that he just doesn’t have the arm strength to be a MLB SS. He is however, definitely an real offensive prospect for a middle infielder.

  • Joe Sweetnich

    I just don’t see NH piling up prospects for this trade. I’d be EXTREMELY surprised if it Lester does happen.

  • Lee Young

    “Herrera is a great prospect, but the Pirates won’t miss him.”

    They will if Hanson continues his disciplinary problems.

    And, right now, Vic Black would look good in our bullpen.

    • https://profiles.google.com/100212786463678215436 Nathan Swartz

      Both true.
      But Marlon Byrd sure looked good rounding the bases after his playoff home run too.

      And that vision will always look better than seeing Vic Black run in from the pen.

  • ClayDog

    Tim, I don’t like straw men arguments either, but calling your own posters doubts about whether Bell is truly a future MLB all-star at 1B, when he doesn’t even play that position and is having some struggles making the modest adjustment from A to AA ball, “hackneyed” seems to resort to the same kind of selective reasoning and myopia which you criticize. No one, you included, can predict the future. Fair is fair.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/ Tim Williams

      It’s not. The criticism I’m referencing with Bell is the same blanket criticism used for every prospect. It has nothing to do with Bell, specifically. It’s just saying he’s not guaranteed because he’s a prospect. You can make that argument about anyone. It was made in the past about Cole, Marte, Polanco, etc.

      Also, there is nothing modest about the jump from A to AA.

      • ClayDog

        Thanks for the clarification, understood and agreed. One more point to consider, however, while Cole, Marte and Polanco tore up the minors at different times and to different degrees, none of them has yet to attain all-star status in the bigs or even played like all-stars for any prolonged stretch of time (though Cole has shown flashes when not hampered by injuries). I appreciate that they are all young and have lots of time (whether with the Bucs or another future team) to get there, but they haven’t yet. So, as good as they are — and I think at least GC and GP are very good — predicting, with nary a doubt, that our AA Bell will be a future MLB all-star at 1B is a big bold bet. Maybe he will, but maybe he won’t, which is why some fans (and, in my case, a former college player, too) apply a present value “discount” to his maximum future potential value (I.e., an MLB all star). A lot can happen between now and his 1st scheduled all star appearance or induction into Cooperstown.

        • http://www.piratesprospects.com/ Tim Williams

          I think we can agree that, while these guys haven’t reached their full ceiling, it’s much better having them in the system right now than having the memory of Carlos Beltran as a rental, or Hunter Pence for a few months.

        • SportOMania

          Why does it matter you played college ball?

    • leowalter

      Every prospect has an adjustment period after promotion. McCutcheon did,Marte did, Walker did, they all do.

  • johndw28

    How bout fixing one of the worst bullpens in NL. 4 out of 7 guys in pen have Xfip well above 4 and Frieri’s is much higher than that with Bucs.

  • https://profiles.google.com/100212786463678215436 Nathan Swartz

    Well said Tim. You just gave the primary reason for keeping Bell. It seems that many who wish to trade him are only taking it from a surplus outfield perspective. I’ve been looking at it like Bell is a potential all star switch hitting power first baseman. Not only do we NOT have another like him, look around the league…how many of those do you see?

    Those same people argue that the Bucs can “just pony up for FA 1B, cuz the rest of the lineup will be cheap.” Really?! Have these people seen what a player like that would cost? One of the best things about him (aside from young, affordable, power, hard worker, smart, etc) is that he wouldn’t need a platoon, which would open a spot for someone else.

    • jaygray007

      i’m the only one who was crazy enough to say that, so i’ll address it.

      1, just because he’s a switch hitter doesn’t mean that he’ll be able to hit lefties. Just look at Neil Walker. Switch hitter, but .660 career OPS vs lefties, and not much better this year.

      2… i don’t WANT to get rid of bell. i kind of hope someone like Pimentel or Wilson could pick up a lot of value in the trade so that they only have to give up someone like Meadows or maybe even Ramirez as far as prospects. And i think we all agree that it’d be fine to give up one of the pure OF prospects. I guess we’ll know today what the Sox really want.

      3… 1b doesn’t have to be super expensive or even a long term guy. you don’t have to have the next 6-10 years at every position planned out. If done well, 1b can be found cheaply. If Jones had just done his job last year, the pirates would’ve had incredible short term 1b solution.

      • https://profiles.google.com/100212786463678215436 Nathan Swartz

        Well put. I don’t think anyone WANTS to get rid of Bell.

        Side note: anyone listen to baseball tonight podcast? Buster was talking about how Sox WANT Tabata and made a point to include him because they’ve always liked and wanted him. I laughed out loud (which probably seemed strange because I was on my riding mower at the time).

  • Monsoon Harvard

    Well spoken, Tim.
    I appreciate you pointing out how Josh Bell looks like a man among boys on the teams he has played on.
    It’s important people have the knowledge of how good Bell really is.
    It would be very disappointing to lose such a strong hitting prospect.

    I never will agree with the folks who say the Pirates have a logjam and no room for Josh Bell. That is short-sighted. There is always room for a good hitter and these things always work themselves out, just like they have for Josh Harrison.

  • moose7195

    That 4th paragraph may be my favorite group of words ever written by this site. I wish I could read the link to Muellers article

  • moose7195

    Great article, it should always be a case to case evaluation. And the idiots that want to sell out to get Lester can’t think 2 to 3 years in the future. The Pirates shouldn’t make decisions like a big market team unless they buy into the big market mentality 100%. They’ll never do that, so they should never make a Lester type of deal. To me, the Pirates aren’t prospect hoarding until they run out of playing time for a top prospect that has conquered AAA

    • jaygray007

      come on brah i’m not an idiot just because i think an extra 2 wins in a pennant race is huge and because i think 1b can be solved by other reasonable means.

      • moose7195

        Fair enough. I disagree with your solution but I apologize for your hurt feelings

        • jaygray007

          ;(

  • Nuke Laloosh

    Who wants to be NH today? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  • duckwoes

    And all arguments for or against are now moot, as Lester is now a (temporary) member of the Oakland A’s

  • piraddict

    I’d like to think of Bell as Pedro’s replacement at 3B, allowing room at 1B for Allie if he fixes his swing and miss problems, or Lambo (same issue). I love the power potential that mix would bring to the table.

    • ginbear

      Zero chance of Bell ever playing third. Allie’s swing and miss problems are massive and don’t give me much hope for him. Lambo’s ain’t great either, but its >30% in AA for Aliie vs. ~21% in AAA for Lambo.

  • John Lease

    I think Mercer and Walker are the two top middle infielders in the Pirate system.

  • pilbobuggins

    Trading from a surplus to upgrade the mlb team is never a bad idea. If the pirates did not have a surplus it would be a bad idea to trade any of them. The fact that the pirates did nothing to strengthen the bullpen ecspecially but also the rotation is simply ridiculous. The only good news from all of this is that the cards got weaker,yes weaker. In addition the brewers as predicted did not have the chips to get much of aanything and I still think they will continue to fade. Bottom line is this will come down to did the cards do enough and do the pirates have enough, one of those two teams is going to win the central. I guess we will see which one was right.