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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

December 13, 2012 at 10:12 AM

Dealing prospects is a timing issue for Mariners

(As I was finishing this post, the news came down that the Angels have signed Josh Hamilton for five years, $125 million. A real stunner. I’ll deal with that on the blog later. Right now, I have Seahawks coverage duties, so I wanted to get this post up).

I had a chance yesterday to listen to Jack Zduriencik’s appearance on the ESPN 710 “Hot Stove League” Show. You can find the podcast here, along with a summary from Shannon Drayer. Zduriencik is pretty clearly trying to lower expectations of a blockbuster trade involving the Mariners’ top prospects. Taken in tandem with the removal of Josh Hamilton as an option, the opportunities for the Mariners to do something dramatic appear to be shrinking down to Nick Swisher or Michael Bourn (or, if you want to be really bold, to Swisher and Michael Bourn).

But then there’s this, also from Buster Olney, in his Wednesday ESPN column that is blocked by a paywall: “It’s apparent that Seattle is not the top choice of the best free-agent hitters, and while the Mariners are pressing to land someone of note, they’re probably going to wind up with a leftover — somebody who grudgingly takes a deal in the Northwest in order to get paid. The fact that the Diamondbacks are now unlikely to trade Upton could effectively eliminate an option for the Mariners, because if Upton had been traded to the Rangers, then Hamilton or Bourn or Nick Swisher might have been naturally nudged in the Mariners’ direction. Many top free agents are hesitant to play for Seattle, a team that doesn’t look particularly close to winning.”

In other words, trading prospects might be the only avenue for the Mariners to do something big. But Zduriencik is reluctant to send away prospects with six years of club control for veterans with just one or two. I can understand that, but for that philosophy to work, those young players you have been nurturing had better pan out. That’s why there is so much pressure this year on Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero and Justin Smoak — upon whom so much of the Mariners’ master plan is predicated — to break through.

I was particularly struck by some comments on the broadcast by Zduriencik, a continuation of a theme he first broached at the winter meetings: Namely, that this is not the most opportune time to maximize the value of their highest-rated minor-league prospects, such as Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Nick Franklin, because none of them have yet cracked the major leagues. And you can throw Brandon Maurer, whose stock is rising fast, onto that list.

Here’s his extended quote, as I transcribed it from the broadcast:

“Here’s the key to all of these things: When a player gets to the big league level, his value increases that much more. So as much as we like all of our kids, and we all think they’re very talented, if you’re a club, hypothetically, like the Kansas City Royals, and they’re looking for impact immediately today, they’re going to look at us differently. So to move Wil Myers let’s say to us, to get back two Wil Myers pitching prospects is different than getting back what they got in James Shields, a 200-inning pitcher right now at the big league level. A year from now, when we’re sitting here with all these kids having gotten their big league time now, their value goes through the roof.

“I’ve never had anybody, prior to (Kyle) Seager coming to the big leagues, ask me about Seager. No one ever asked me about him. Now he’s a big leaguer. Now it’s completely different. I think that’s the value that we saw and was so evident to us leaving our rooms.

(On moving the prospects): “We’d be happy to do that to get the right piece back. It may be a little concerning; fans out there say, ‘I hear so much about these young kids in the minor leagues, and I’m tired of that. I want the big league club to win now.’ Well, you know what, so do I. Nobody watns that to happen more than I do. … But you’ve got to be disciplined…We know what we have. We hear it from a lot of other people. We’re evaluating what we have, and other clubs are as well. We will trade pieces, because you have to.

“My point is, their value goes through the roof next year, because they’re in the big leagues, and the other club says, he can go right in my rotation, or he can be my starting right fielder, whereas right now, they can’t say that, nor can we. They may not make our club right out of spring training, these young kids. They may spend a month or two or three in Tacoma.”

I agree with that analysis, to a certain extent. But here’s the trouble: Making it to the big leagues can have the exact opposite effect. It can expose the big-time prospects as not all they were cracked up to be. And then their value might actually go down rather than up. Sometimes the allure of a prospect is better than the reality. Just look at Jeff Clement, who tore up the minor leagues but then, once he got extended time in the majors, was shown to be much less than the hype. Another fairly recent Mariners example is Ryan Anderson, who was as hyped as any prospect in the majors as he shot up the minor-league ranks, blowing away hitters. By all accounts, the Mariners turned down many a good offer for Anderson, only to have him develop arm troubles that wiped out his career before he even made it to the majors for a cup of coffee. Now he’s a chef, and the Mariners have nothing to show for a guy who would have netted them a haul. Or look at Jesus Montero, whose stock was arguably much higher as a top 5 MLB prospect in the Yankees system than it would be now after one so-so year in the majors.

I looked back at the Baseball America Top 100 rankings for the first 10 years of 2000s. Here are some of the top 10 prospects:

2000

1, Rick Ankiel

3, Corey Patterson

6, Ruben Mateo

7, Sean Burroughs

9, Ryan Anderson

10, John Patterson

2001

2, Corey Patterson

4, Jon Rauch

8, Ryan Anderson

10, Nick Johnson

2002

4, Sean Burroughs

6, Juan Cruz

8, Wilson Betemit

9, Drew Henson

2003

2, Rocco Baldelli

5, Jesse Foppert

2004

8, Greg Miller

2005

4, Ian Stewart

5, Joel Guzman

6, Casey Kotchman

7, Scott Kazmir

9, Andy Marte

2006

3, Brandon Wood

4, Jeremy Hermida

9, Lastings Milledge

2007

6, Cameron Maybin

8, Brandon Wood

10, Andrew Miller

2008

5, Colby Rasmus

6, Cameron Maybin

8, Franklin Morales

2009

3, Colby Rasmus

6, Travis Snider

8, Cameron Maybin

All were players highly coveted by their teams and regarded as can’t-miss prospects. And yet none of them became the level of star that was projected (though the jury is still out on some of them, like Travis Snider). I think you could make the case that all would have netted more value to their original teams by trading them when they were hugely touted prospects, rather than flawed major leaguers

But here’s the other side of the coin: Adam Jones. Shin-Soo Choo. Asdrubal Cabrera. Sometimes, of course, it does pay to hold onto your prospects. Nothing hurts a team, and its fan base, more than watching their players blossom into stardom with another team — particularly when the player you got in return fizzles out.

In the end, it’s less a timing issue than it is a talent evaluation issue. It’s OK to trade your prospects, even the good ones, if you get the right player(s) back. And it’s OK to keep your prospects, if they blossom into quality players. The Mariners don’t have the greatest track record on either front. Zduriencik needs to be right this time around.

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