Buster Olney had an interesting article up this morning on ESPN, talking about how teams are less willing to trade prospects. The article quotes a few executives on the trade deadline this year, noting at how teams are more reluctant these days to deal prospects, as opposed to an example the article gave of 1997, when Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe were traded for Heathcliff Slocumb. One executive referenced trade talks where a team wouldn’t give up any prospects at all in a deal, even guys who are marginal prospects at best.
The big knock against prospects is that they aren’t guaranteed. There’s no denying this. As many times as we envision a future rotation consisting of Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and Luis Heredia, with Stetson Allie as the star closer, the odds are that not all of those players will reach their projected ceilings.
There’s also some guys in the system who don’t even seem like prospects at all, and who would profile as throw-in type players in a deal, or guys traded in a “player to be named later” fashion in a minor deal. On the surface, any team protecting these guys would seem like they were being unreasonable about their prospects.
The article by Olney was an interesting look, but it failed to look at just how valuable prospects are, especially to small market teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1997, teams didn’t have to be as conservative with prospects. The biggest payroll in the league belonged to the New York Yankees. However, the Yankees were only spending $59 M. Number two in the league was Baltimore, with a $54 M payroll. It was a time when teams like Florida, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Cincinnati could all afford to be in the top 10 in payroll, while the Red Sox, Dodgers, and Cubs sat outside of the top 10, only about $15-20 M away from the top spending team in the league.
Fast forward to 2011. The Yankees are spending over $200 M. Teams like Boston, the Cubs, and the Phillies are spending anywhere between $125-175 M. And teams like the Reds and Orioles have a ceiling of $70-80 M. If there is a star player on the free agent market, he’s ending up in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, or Chicago. It’s not like in the 90s, when teams like Baltimore could give out some of the top contracts in the game to people like Cal Ripken Jr. and Albert Belle. Now when you see a “small market” team make a big signing, it’s usually an over-payment, and a deal they end up regretting, like the situation we’re seeing this year in Washington with Jayson Werth.
It’s important for all teams to develop their own prospects. Where would Philadelphia be right now if they hadn’t developed Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and even all of the prospects they traded to get guys like Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt? It’s especially important for teams like the Pirates to develop their own prospects, as they can’t go out and sign a Cliff Lee like the Phillies can. If they want a rotation with big names like Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, and Cole Hamels, they need to develop that rotation themselves.
Prospects are a tricky situation when a team is a contender. You have to give up something to get value on the trade market. The problem is, who do you give up? As I mentioned above, it’s unlikely that Taillon, Heredia, Cole, and Allie all reach their potential. As of right now, who can say for sure which one of those players will make the majors, and which one will wash out? Then there’s the marginal prospects to consider. Should teams be as stingy when dealing with those types? Let’s just run a hypothetical scenario.
Say the Pirates are talking with the Oakland Athletics about Conor Jackson. Jackson has struggled at the plate the last few years, with a .231/.318/.315 line i 540 at-bats since 2009, although he is putting up a .257/.326/.342 line this year. He has strong defense at first base, he plays the corner outfield spots, and he’s played eight games in the majors at third base. Overall, he’s a bench player, but his versatility could provide some value.
Now let’s say Oakland is asking for very little in return, outside of salary relief. All they want is a 23 year old outfielder in high-A ball who has hit for a .257/.313/.379 line with a home run every 70 at-bats. Anyone who disregards the value of prospects would just cast that outfielder away. In fact, some might even say he’s not even a prospect at all.
That outfielder happens to be Alex Presley. In 2008-2009, Presley put up those numbers in high-A ball. He was too old for the level, and his performance wasn’t encouraging at all. However, Presley made the proper adjustments in 2010, and ever since then he’s been on fire, to the point where a deal straight up for a guy like Conor Jackson would be extremely lopsided in Oakland’s favor.
Again, the above is hypothetical, since it obviously talks about Conor Jackson 2011 and Alex Presley 2008-2009. But it’s meant to prove a point. People wouldn’t have thought twice about trading Presley in 2009. The Pirates saw something in him that not only caused them to keep him around, but caused them to give him a promotion to AA in 2010, which seemed unwarranted before the season.
If we remove all outside factors, a trade for Conor Jackson has to involve some sort of prospect. In a vacuum, a team that was interested in Jackson would be crazy to want him for nothing in return. I’m not saying this is the situation the Pirates are in, but let’s consider their situation. What would a guy like Jackson give the Pirates that a guy like Steve Pearce wouldn’t? The Pirates have their own Conor Jackson in Steve Pearce. So why would they give up anything for Jackson, when they could go with Pearce for free, and keep a low level, marginal prospect, who might become the exception to the rule, just like Alex Presley did?
We don’t know any of the details of the individual discussions, but we’ve heard that the Pirates are being protective of their prospects. That’s the right move to take. The trade deadline is full of too many “grass is greener” views. There are some moves that might seriously upgrade the team, but there are also moves that don’t really provide a big enough upgrade to warrant giving up prospects. The Pirates could afford to give up prospects for a first base upgrade, but why give up anything significant for bullpen help when the bullpen has been great all year, and currently has no room for guys like Chris Leroux, Daniel Moskos, or guys like Ross Ohlendorf and Brad Lincoln, who could each be a help to the pen in August/September?
People who don’t appreciate the value of prospects might say that teams on the trade market this year are over-valuing their prospects, and shouldn’t be so over-protective of guys who aren’t guarantees. People who understand the value of prospects understand that teams like the Pirates need to rely on prospects now, more than any other time in baseball’s history, and that while prospects aren’t guaranteed, they aren’t an asset that you can just cast away without a thought for a marginal upgrade. Unless the Pirates are seriously upgrading their team, they need to be “over-protective” of their prospects.