With the all-star break now in the rearview mirror, the baseball season has ambled it’s merry way right into everyone’s favorite part of the calendar: trade season. The Chicago Cubs fired the first major shot of the Battle for the Central when they gave up four prospects in exchange for starter Jose Quintana. The Brewers followed with a much smaller move of their own later in the day when they acquired reliever Tyler Webb in exchange for minor league (at the time) first basemen Garrett Cooper.
Of course the Cubs move was mostly greeted with praise by the media. Their decision to “go for it” hailed as righteous eschewing of a modern trend towards placing more value on prospects. Anyone who read more than one or two opinion pieces on the move, especially if they came from more mainstream or traditional sources, was almost certainly treated to some version of the “so many prospects fail it’s best not to get too attached” line of reasoning. Those who spoke up on social media about Eloy Jiminez being a pretty steep price to pay were probably greeted with that most dreaded accusation in modern baseball fandom: “don’t be a prospect hoarder.”
Whether or not the Cubs live to regret making that trade, it serves as a good jumping off point to discuss the importance of prospects in building a team. At the most basic level, acquiring a prospect represents an investment in a player’s future. This is particularly important because the salary structure used by MLB strongly incentivizes teams to do this because players who have not yet completed three full years in the majors are generally paid around the league minimum. Their pay over the next three seasons is then still limited somewhat below open market value by an arcane arbitration process until after six full seasons they are finally free to sell their services on the free market.
What this all adds up to is that young players are generally underpaid. The younger and better they are, the more drastically they end up being underpaid. This ability to under pay for the services of players is incredibly important not only for small markets like Milwaukee, but even in larger markets like Chicago, New York and Boston. The 2016 Cubs were largely built around a young, cost controlled core. Every team currently leading a division has a number of players in their cost controlled years contributing substantially to their efforts, even if they also have some very high dollar players complimenting them.
It’s very important for teams to churn out prospects from their minor leagues, whether or not they’re drafted, singed internationally or traded for, they represent a significant benefit for the future. Frankly, this is so self evident at this point that perhaps it’s understandable that well meaning people lose sight of it a bit too easily from time to time. When a player with about two years of service is worth around five wins, they’ll be making about $500,000. A player who is worth about the same amount annually who hits free agency can generally expect to make at least $20 million a year, or about 40 times as much. Keep this in mind as we go forward.
Let’s return to that old baseball saw from above, “so many prospects fail that it’s best not to get too attached.” Like so many truisms, it’s become so ingrained that it has actually become the enemy of critical analysis. While it is undoubtedly true that many prospects fail, and it is certainly tempting to thus downgrade the importance of any one to the future of a team, what gets lost is how generous the reward is for a prospect who pays off.
Yes, prospects are going to fail. Sometimes a team will jealously guard one against an onslaught of inquiries from other teams offering immediate help only to wind up holding a dud in their hands at the end of the day. They are usually then subjected to scorn and derision, even though the fundamental gamble being made was very likely sound. There is nothing in the game of baseball more valuable than a cheap young superstar and when a team has a guy with a pretty high probability of turning into one and they trust their own internal evaluations of him, they should jealously guard against trading him away.
What of a team with a “surplus” of prospects, though? The Brewers are often accused of having something of a glut of prospects right now in an effort to justify moving a group of players to acquire help as the deadline approaches. Surely it’s alright to deal away some “extra guys” right?
The problem here, of course, is identifying which players to move and for what return. As far as modern analysis has come, baseball prospecting is still a game that relies on subjective judgment, unforeseeable unknown unknowns and so much plain luck of the draw that it’s impossible to know for sure. When a team chooses to keep one guy of approximate value over another, no matter how good their reasons, it will generally take years to figure out if the right call has been made.
So if a team wants to ensure that they get as many good young players under team control as possible, the logical best course of action is to get as many potential stars as possible and give them as long as feasible to see who turns out and who doesn’t. Of course some of them won’t turn out, but instead of viewing those failures as missed opportunities to improve via trade, recognize this as part of the cost of doing business. Ultimately, a team can handle a very large number of busts as long as they turn out a few stars to go with them.
The fact that so many prospects do bust should not be seen as a justification for trading them. If anything, the opposite is even more true. If the bust rate were lower on prospects, there would actually be less incentive to “hoard” them. In this universe, teams would have a better idea what was coming down the pike years in advance and could be more reasonably assured future surpluses would actually materialize and thus feel more freedom to move “excess” players. As it is, teams need to acquire as much quality prospect depth as possible to ensure as many chances as possible at landing those all important cost controlled stars.
The natural extension of the above point would then be to say that no team should ever trade any prospect for any reason, which is taking things too far by several leaps and bounds. It is possible to assign rough probabilities to prospects and to understand them on various levels, such as “ceiling versus floor” and “risk” and good organizations pride themselves on doing just this better than their opponents. The John Schuerholtz-led Braves were very good at making these sorts of calls, even if they were far from always correct.
The point here is that teams should not feel compelled to trade prospects just because they seem to have “excess” at a given moment. If that proves to be true down the line, they are always free to trade away a major leaguer to either fill a big league hole or too replenish their minor league pipeline of potential future stars.
Instead, they should take a deliberate approach and place a high value on creating depth at both the big league and minor league levels so that fewer obvious “needs” arise and more internal options are available to fill those holes over time. Yes, this will mean that sometimes a tempting “win now” upgrade needs to be passed by because a team is simply asking for more future value than that upgrade is really worth.
Obviously there will still be times when it makes sense to fill a hole via a prospect for veteran trade. Then it comes down to internal evaluation skills and haggling ability to minimize the cost and maximize the return. A good GM could probably set few better goals for themselves than to minimize the number of “win now” trades they make by being as thorough as possible in creating depth so that they simply aren’t necessary as often. Fortunately for the Brewers, this seems to be pretty close to the philosophy that David Stearns actually applies to team building. Now only time will tell how well he’s able to hold the line on keeping together as much of his highly valuable farm system as possible while contending.