The Value of Prospects

Rob Neyer nailed something I have been struggling with for awhile- the value of prospects. Neyer makes two really great points.

1- It’s not that prospects in general are overrated, it’s that it is very hard to identify the ones that will succeed. His example of the 2011 evaluation of the Royals’ system by Baseball America is perfect.

2- There is no real system for checking or evaluating the ratings. Nobody goes back and grades the prospect reports. (Take a look back at NFL draft evaluations from year’s past sometime if you want a good laugh. They are generally terrible.)

Again, I am not arguing that prospects are overrated as a group. But teams are increasingly treating prospect development as a scientific fact when it is much more like a lottery. More prospects will end up as fringe guys, get hurt, or wash out, than truly develop into stars. For another example, take a look at the 2009 top-10 prospects for Tampa.

David Price is the top guy. No shock as he was coming off a great postseason and he certainly is one of the best pitchers in the game so I can’t really credit a lot of insight in this ranking, but then work down the list.

Tim Beckham is still young, but he hasn’t hit in years and he looks like a fringe guy at best.

Wade Davis became a very good bullpen arm in KC, but he was projected to be a top starter.

Reid Brignac is a fringe player at best.

Demond Jennings looks to be an average ML-er. Nothing more, but probably nothing less. Certainly not the replacement for Carl Crawford they thought he was.

Matt Moore was very good, but got hurt and had TJ surgery.

Nick Barense never made the majors and was in independent ball last year.

Hellickson started really well in the bigs, but he has regressed the past two years to below-average.

McGee was a very good closer for the Rays this past year.

Niemann’s career was derailed by injuries.

So we have one bonafide All-Star,  three fringe All-Stars (Davis, Moore and McGee) two possibly useful ML’er in Jennings and Hellickson, two guys who are fringy at best, and two guys essentially out of the game. That’s not bad, but remember this was essentially the best system in the game when this was published.

If you had gone to Tampa as Cleveland in 2008 and asked for the #2,#3,#4 and #7 guys in the system for CC Sabathia, you would have been laughed out of the room. Yet, that trade might have won the World Series for Tampa at almost zero future cost. In fact, if you look back at the Sabathia trade that was made, Cleveland came very close to missing out entirely without the benefit of some luck.

What this underlines to me is that prospects are fun to dream about, but you have to be very smart in how you use them. If your team is a clear contender, trading prospects for surer things is a smart move. If you are in sell mode, by all means trade for prospects, but remember that there is a lottery aspect to this. Teams seem to be hoarding them more than ever before, the smart GM’s will use that to their advantage.