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.
Dodgers have made it clear they're not trading Pederson, Seager or Urias, no longer on Lester, Price or Hamels. Thinking backend SP, bench
— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) July 30, 2014
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?
Some people in MLB are skeptical that #stlcards GM John Mozeliak will dig too deep to add a marquee starter.
— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) July 30, 2014
"From our dealings with Mo, they really like to hang onto their top prospects,'' said one club official. #stlcards
— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) July 30, 2014
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.
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