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December 11, 2012 at 1:00 PM

We’ve officially entered a baseball age of prospect overdose

This week’s Royals-Rays trade has sparked comparisons with the ill-fated Erik Bedard swap of 2008 by the Mariners. But judging all prospects-for-proven-players trades by the Bedard deal standards — and some of the overstated conclusions about it — not the best way to gauge. Photo Credit: AP

I’ve sat back the past two days and watched with detached amusement as Royals GM Dayton Moore gets crucified over his decision to try to win more games at the major league level by dealing some of his top prospects. I mean, there have been many things to crucify Moore over since he took on the reins of the Royals, but I suppose I’m in the minority in saying that I don’t think this should be the thing that pushes him over the edge.

But I’ve long suspected that in baseball, we were entering an age in which the acquisition and development of minor league prospects of all types was — in some cases — taking on a higher priority for some people than the act of actually winning something at the major league level. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Winning a World Series does matter and so does getting to the playoffs. And yes, as everybody and their manicurist knows, you need a mixture of cheap, talented young players to go with the older, experienced, pricier ones to get to the playoffs year after year.

Still, as any baseball executive will tell you, there is a firm line between prospects and proven MLB players. And not every prospect is going to turn into the next Mike Trout.

Yet, I sense this distinction becoming lost on more and more people. I sense that, with the proliferation of websites and so-called “analysts” — some real and many self-imagined — purporting to specialize in the cottage industry that’s become the prospects game (a guessing game if ever there was one), we have reached a point where the myth and the hype far exceeds the rational expectations we should have about any given minor leaguer. And where the act of trying to win something at the big league level is frowned upon more than ever unless your team happens to be one of the chosen few (i.e. not the Royals) deemed ahead of time to have the odds stacked tremendously in their favor.

This is just me talking, so I can call this phenomenon whatever I want. Feel free to criticize, since I don’t have a monopoly over how everyone feels or should feel about things. But I’m going to call this “prospect overdose.”

We are at the stage, I believe, where a significant number of opinion-makers feel there are teams better off spending year after year of developing young prospects and players in order to achieve some ever-distant, vaguely-defined goal, than they are actually trying to speed up that process by acquiring the types of players who can help them try to win something a lot sooner.

The Royals are the latest case study. Their crimes against baseball, as defined by some of Moore’s harshest crtitics, aren’t merely the fact that they traded away prospects Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi and peripherals for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis. No, their biggest crime seems to be that they’ve declared that it’s more important to eventually try to win something at the big league level than it is to wait three or four more years on top of the years they’ve already made their fans sit through in compiling their version of a young core.

More important to acquire guys who have done something in the majors than to see whether Myers becomes the next Trout, or the next Domonic Brown.

That’s right. Maybe I’m being too harsh on Brown, still young enough to turn it around. Maybe the next Lastings Milledge? Yeah, you remember him? I do, because I sat next to and chatted with his very-pleasant girlfriend in Tokyo last March and watched him play for the Tokyo Swallows. Not quite what the prospect hype machine once envisioned for him.

Myers is the latest incarnation of the Next Great Thing in baseball. And maybe he will be. Or, maybe he won’t. But every time one of them comes around, the supposedly rational among us — those who insist they know the obvious difference between prospects and proven players — tend to forget everything they’ve learned and act as if the success of Myers is a foregone conclusion.

That’s former big-time Mets prospect Lastings Milledge (left) preparing to play 2012 season opener for the Tokyo Swallows last March.

If I told you today that you could trade Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley for five years of Justin Upton, I’m pretty sure I’d find some takers — as well as plenty of screamers in Arizona. But how many Mariners fans would have made that deal two years ago, when we first started talking about it on this blog? Thus, the power of prospects hype. It’s the dream of believing, untainted by any reality.

Back to the Royals. I’ve read some people who say that this trade — if everything pans out — at-best makes the Royals about an 80-82 win team. In other words, a team not good enough to win anything, so why bother trying?

Well, the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics are the easy answer. But that’s too easy and a little too high on the fluke scale.

What if I told you that becoming a .500 team one year isn’t a bad stepping stone to becoming a contending team the next? That not every contender has to assemble its pieces the season before they win something? For some of them, they acquire the best pieces they can one year in hopes of acquiring more the year after. The Washington Nationals tried to do that by signing Jayson Werth in 2010. Not because anyone expected them to win in 2011. But because Werth was available in 2010 and wasn’t going to be on the market in 2011. Got it? Turns out, the Nats picked up even more depth a year later and wound up winning the division in 2012 with Werth sidelined by injury for much of it. For the Mariners, how much better shape would they be in today had they acquired at least one decent, experienced bat a year ago (doesn’t have to be Prince Fielder)? Was it better to wait a year more and try to pick up multiple bats in what everyone now says is a poor free agent class?

Why not get some of the pieces when they are there and play .500 ball? And in the interim, maybe while you’re looking for the other pieces, you get a bit lucky?

That’s pretty much the story of the 2012 Athletics. Billy Beane raised plenty of quizzical eyebrows when he spent a bunch of dough on free agent Yoenis Cespedes a year ago as a four-year piece for a team expected by most (mainsteam media and bloggers alike) to finish in last place. But then, real life happened and to the astonishment of all — Beane included — the A’s actually won something. The bigger point here is, Cespedes was a building block for a distant future. If you plan to contend in 2015, you don’t have to pick up all your pieces in December 2014. You can start earlier and be surprised.

Now, I don’t believe at all that the Royals will overtake the Tigers for the AL Central next year. But I do believe that a .500 baseball team has a better shot at winning something than that junk squad the Royals rolled out against the Mariners right after the 2012 All-Star Break. Seattle took seven of eight games from Kansas City because the Royals had no starting pitching outside of Bruce Chen. Today, that is no longer the case.

As for direct criticism of the deal, that the Royals only got two years worth of Shields plus whatever Davis delivers as opposed to six years worth of Myers and Odorizzi, that again is not an entirely accurate description of what can happen from here. Nothing is stopping the Royals and Shields from embarking on a contract extension right now. In fact, Shields wasn’t going to get such an extension from the pitching-rich, money-tight Rays. Now, if I’m him, I’m looking to lock-in long-term.

There have been many comparisons made between this trade and the ill-fated Bill Bavasi deal in 2008 in which the Mariners shipped Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, George Sherrill, Tony Butler and Kam Mickolio to Baltimore for Erik Bedard. As you recall, Bedard had only two years of club control left.

Yes, on the negative side, there are obvious comps there.

But I haven’t seen too many make the comparison between the Myers-Shields deal and what the formerly third-place Milwaukee Brewers did prior to 2011 in dealing for two years of Zack Greinke control plus Yuniesky Betancourt in exchange for sending shortstop Alcides Escobar (already in the majors at that point), the aforementioned Odorizzi, outfield prospect Lorenzo Cain, relief prospect¬†Jeremy Jeffress to the Royals. That worked out rather well for Milwaukee, which saw Greinke go 16-6 in helping the Brewers come within two games of the 2011 World Series.

The next year, when they fell out of contention, the Brewers flipped Greinke to the Angels for prospects.

So, no, anyone predicting doom and gloom for GM Moore and the Royals wouldn’t want to cite that example.

Nor the example of the Red Sox dealing shortstop prospect Hanley Ramirez and pitcher Anibal Sanchez¬†to the Marlins for two years of control over pitcher Josh Beckett and also veteran third baseman Mike Lowell (and peripherals on both sides) in November 2005. Less than a year later, the Red Sox signed Beckett to a three-year, $30-million extension and won a World Series one year later largely behind the strength of his arm and Lowell’s bat.

So, yeah, that worked out, too. It doesn’t all have to go the way of the Bedard trade.

What pundits overlook in the Bedard fiasco is that the left-hander’s penchant for frequent injury prevented the Mariners from either extending him or dealing him to a contender when they fell out of contention in 2008 and 2009 (as was the follow-up plan case that transpired in both the Greinke and Beckett deals previously mentioned). They also overlook the fact that, for all the hype about Jones, he didn’t become the true star-quality player once envisioned until this past season. By then, the 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons had already passed and the Orioles were piling up money to throw to Jones as an extension.

As this local Seattle blogger wrote in a three-part series today and yesterday as well, you can’t only deduct what not having Jones in center field cost the Mariners. You have to look at the difference between what the Mariners got out of Franklin Gutierrez and Michael Saunders at the center field position and contrast that to Jones. In the end, Jones still comes out ahead, but not by a franchise-killing amount. In 2009, for instance, the advanced metrics like fWAR show Gutierrez was three times more valuable overall than Jones. In 2010, they were pretty close and that’s three seasons after the trade.

Now, many of you know I’m skeptical about the year-to-year reliance on fWAR because of the defensive uncertainty. But many of those now decrying the Myers/Shields deal and citing the Jones/Bedard trade make arguments based off these stats, so I’m throwing it out there for your consideration.

Not to try to justify the Bedard trade as a “win” for the Mariners. It wasn’t. But to describe the thought process of an MLB GM with — as the Seattle blog I referenced mentioned — real accountability for his decisions. The aftermath of the Bedard-Jones deal wasn’t nearly as apocalyptic as revisionist history would have you believe and many of the safeguard exits the Mariners had with it went out the window when Bedard got hurt.

But if you look at every two-year window with a pitcher as an invitation to injury, well, the Mariners might as well trade Felix Hernandez right now with two years left on his deal. After all, he could get hurt this season and wreck things long term.

Look, what the Royals did may blow up in their face and if it does, Moore will be fired. No two ways about it.

But looking at the team realistically, Moore has spent years trying to establish a young core and now faces the prospect of several more years of wheel spinning without some veteran arms to help carry him to the next level.

I find it somewhat interesting that the very future of the Royals might not depend on Shields and Davis as much as it will the ability of once-highly-touted prospects Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustaks and others to carry their games to the levels once hyped. The Royals won’t have to worry so much about whether outfielder Jeff Francoeur can fill the void left by not having Myers around if only Hosmer and Moustakas become the superstars they were touted as not so long ago.

Not too long ago, the prospect hype machine was positively giddy over Hosmer. Today, not so much.

Two years ago, Moustakas was all the rage. Now, after two seasons? Whoops. Hold the Hall of Fame plaque.

You’d have to think that some of this crossed the mind of Royals’ GM Moore when he was being told by the prospects cottage industry just how good Myers was going to be.

Again, Myers could turn out to be all that and more. Or, maybe not.

As Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik mentioned repeatedly at the winter meetings, all 30 teams evaluate prospects differently and no one team — or publication, or website — has it all figured out. Zduriencik also mentioned that teams seemed to be demanding a premium in prospects — i.e., not valuing them as highly as he was in certain cases — via trade, meaning, Moore was going to have to part with more than many fans might stomach if he wanted to get a deal done. The alternative was standing pat, not changing the team dynamic and likely increasing the near-certainty of not contending any time soon.

Again, if Moore figured this one out all wrong, he’ll pay for it with his job. But to crucify him for trying to win something at the major league level? I won’t do that. No matter what we think, we still don’t have a surefire method for determining how close a team actually is to winning. Maybe the WAR stats are off and this really makes the Royals an 85-win team instead of 80 wins. We don’t know.

All I know is, prospects are supposed to be a means to an end. The end result is supposed to be about winning at the major league level, not about piling up prospects for years on end, hoping they pan out while waiting until some statistical formula says it’s safe enough to try winning again.

I won’t crucify the Royals for that. They’ve had enough surefire prospects falter over the years to know just how dangerous a case of prospect overdose can be when you’re waiting for a future that never comes.

0 Comments | Topics: dayotn moore, erik bedard, james shields

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