Been following New York Post columnist Joel Sherman, who has been covering the New York baseball scene for years, and his thoughts on the pending Cliff Lee trade. One of his more interesting columns of the past week discussed the pricetag for Lee and how teams and fans tend to value their own prospects.
Make that, tend to “overvalue” their own prospects. The money quote:
“I understand why prospects have become more valued than ever in the game. A strong feeder system is the best way to have cost containment. Also, with sterner drug testing older players have become a more risky proposition. Still, I think prospects have become over-valued. Teams are unwilling to discuss too many players in their system. They are still prospects, not sure things, while Lee is as sure as sure things get.”
I could not agree more and am glad somebody finally said this.
The trend towards prospects becoming the new currency in baseball began earlier last decade, right around the time of the publication of Moneyball by Michael Lewis in 2003. No, this one isn’t on Lewis. The trend was beginning before his book hit the shelves, but certainly, the early success of Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane had a lot to do with it.
On the positive side, when prospects become good major league players, it saves teams a ton of cash over having to sign free agents to fill vacancies. That’s because teams control the players and, to a large degree, the costs of those players for six full years. Instead of paying $50 million over six years to a big bat free agent or howitzer-armed pitcher, you pay them the minimum $400,000 or so for three years, then no more than a few million averaged over each of the next three in most cases.
Also, instead of an aging free agent, you get a young guy often, once he gets over the rookie learning curve, entering the prime of his career.
So, what’s wrong with that? Sounds like win-win, right?
Yeah, sure. As long as you get the prospect who is destined to become a good major leaguer. Good luck with that.
Because all you have to do is scroll up and down the list of Baseball America’s top-100 from the past several seasons and you’ll realize the prospects game is a dice-roll. And that’s even when you’re dealing with a No. 1 draft pick. Move backwards into the latter rounds and you’ll often have no idea what you’re getting.
Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik has often told me that he makes a very clear distinction between prospects and proven major league players. And he ought to know, because he’s been around them up close for the last 30 years.
This, of course, flies contrary to what’s happened around baseball, especially with fans who don’t get an up-close view of players. Here’s what Sherman writes, in response to hypothetical Yankees and Mets fans who state “I would never trade that prospect for Lee.”
“There is so much wrong with statements like this, including that most of the people who make that statement have never even seen the minor leaguer play. There are many wonderful elements about the statistical revolution and what is available on the internet. But among the bad things is that it has made too many people feel that they know prospects who they do not really know at all. There are too many folks who would not trade a Jesus Montero or a Wilmer Flores based on, at best, anecdotal or secondhand information.”
Again, I have to agree with him. And even those fans fortunate enough to see said prospect play live often have no idea what they are looking for in an evaluation of whether or not said player will make it in the majors. Count me in among that group. I am not a paid baseball talent evaluator and have no idea what truly makes a good major leaguer, so I won’t pretend otherwise to try to impress you.
That’s because a lot of it has nothing to do with what’s happening on the field of play. Zduriencik told me last spring that much of his evaluation of any player has to do with what’s inside his head. How he handles certain situations, or listens to coaches.
I think the statistical revolution has been a godsend for baseball, because it has gotten thousands, if not millions, of people in their teens, twenties and thirties interested in the game again. Baseball spent decades trying to figure out how to recapture the interest of younger generations and then unwittingly stumbled on to it via computers and sabermetrics.
But in the prospects game, the desire of fans everywhere to play armchair GM and build up future rosters has taken on a life of its own. All of a sudden, prospects who represent a future crapshoot at best are now viewed with the same respect once reserved for major league all-stars.
It’s to the point where when you throw out a name like Angel Pagan as a possible secondary component to a Lee deal, it gets shot down. “He’s already 28! That’s not a prospect!” is what I’ve been hearing and reading for days. Now, let’s be clear. You don’t have to agree with me that Pagan would be a good addition. Argue with it on baseball grounds if you wish, though, I have to say, the Mariners don’t have very many players who combine an .800 OPS with a UZR of at least 10. They have Ichiro in that regard and that’s it. So, a big part of the baseball argument if you’re anti-Pagan goes out the window.
But his age? Since when is being 28 or 29 a bad thing in baseball? That’s when guys enter their prime for the next three or four years. If you’re planning to contend during that window, as the M’s hopefully are, then that’s the perfect age. You’ve worked out all the rookie jitters and mistakes and hopefully know what you’re doing on a baseball field.
Well, I’ll tell you when 28 became too old.
When 18-year-old prospects still three or four years from ever having to prove themselves on a major league field became the new gold standard.
And seriously, that’s a little insane.
Wilmer Flores of the Mets might be tearing the cover off the ball in Class A, but he’s still 18 and folks have no idea whether or not he’ll make it in the big leagues. Doesn’t matter how high on anyone’s prospect list he is. He’s yet to play an inning in Class AA, where pitchers start throwing big-time curveballs. You can either hit the breaking ball, or you can’t. Many a career has begun and ended with that premise. Until Flores starts to do anything at upper levels of the minor leagues — and Class A, even high Class A, is not the upper levels — then you won’t have any idea what his MLB future looks like.
Flores would be a good secondary component to a Lee deal. But the best consensus is that he is three or four years away from the majors. After that, he’ll likely need another year or two to get acclimated. Not everyone comes up and is Dustin Pedroia. Most players aren’t.
This is the second year Michael Saunders has had an extended taste of big league ball and he’s still got a sub-.300 OBP. Jeff Clement, a former No. 1 draft pick, got his first extended big league stint in 2008. He’s still struggling with the Pirates.
Both those guys ranked up there on Baseball America’s Top-100. Saunders is still rated higher than some of the guys I keep seeing mentioned as possible returns in a Lee deal.
Remember, prospects are prospects. Proven players are proven players. Just ask former No. 1 draft picks Phillippe Aumont, and Josh Fields. By the way, the guy in the photo is indeed former draftee Fields, the day he took his physical before signing with the Mariners in the spring of 2009.
In the end, this isn’t about me and who I think should be in the deal. Whoever the Mariners take will wind up being the “right” answer on that. And believe me, I understand the whole love affair fans have with the future and building from within. When I play Madden 2010, which I do a lot, my favorite part of each season is the off-season, when I get to draft and trade away my old guys for some shiny young ones. Like it more than actually playing the games themselves. There’s an addictive quality to team building. But that’s a video game. This is real life.
And we can never lose sight of the fact that the goal in MLB is to win. It’s to win games now to appease fans who have bought tickets and TV partners who ponied up for a product that is supposed to be interesting. And it’s to eventually win a championship. And nobody really cares how that championship is won. You get no style points for the “process” and doing things the “right” way.
There is no true “right” way to do this. Some teams go through complete teardowns and build up entirely through prospects. But those teams tend to be the ones with lower payrolls. Other teams, the ones that get close to $100 million in payroll, can afford to speed the process up by supplementing their prospect gambles with more proven free agent players.
Because when you rely exclusively on prospects, it can take an awful long time to rebuild. It’s a gamble that those prospects will ever pan out. And a bigger gamble than some of the hype would lead you to believe. Scroll through the names of all the young pitchers the A’s have gone through since their last division title in 2006. Besides Brett Anderson and, now, to a lesser extent, Dallas Braden (jury still out on him), check out the number of arms that have fallen by the wayside. Being a cheap arm is one thing and the A’s have used plenty of those. But being good is something else entirely. The A’s are not alone. There are a lot of cheap, highly-touted prospects filling out rosters in the name of saving money, who won’t be around when that team is ready to win something.
Wladimir Balentien anyone?
So, when you sit there wondering why Zduriencik is holding out for a “blue chip” prospect, or gets a mid-to-late-20s player as a back-end part of a Lee deal, you’ll know why. When you wonder why he trades instead of taking the two high-end compensation draft picks, you’ll know why as well.
Because prospects are prospects, nothing more. And the closer they are to being proven major league players, the better the odds that a GM won’t get stuck with a lemon tree, like, you know, the last guy who traded Cliff Lee.