So far, so good: A Phillies prospect retrospective
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The trade is perhaps baseball’s most fascinating event. The individuals involved suddenly have their lives uprooted and relocated somewhere entirely new, Twitter explodes, the Majestic factory in Easton, PA, begins minting never-before-seen jerseys and you venture to ESPN.com to berate Keith Law for his opinion on the trade because he invariably hates the team you root for. More often than not, these trades involve one party trading a known, short-term asset for one or more relatively unknown, long-term assets. We call these young players “prospects.”
Thanks to the internet, people know more about prospects than they ever have before. Sometimes this is lovely. Rangers fans know who Jurickson Profar is and have interesting discussions about what GM Jon Daniels will do with Elivs Andrus when Profar is ready for primetime. Roto freaks sit with their finger on the mouse waiting for Desmond Jennings to get called up so they can be the first to snatch him off waives and reap the financial benefits shortly thereafter. We also get to make jokes about Yeonis Cespedes’ core strength. That’s all fantastic. Inevitably, there’s also plenty of bad that comes with the obsession. People overreact, become prisoners of the moment and suddenly think the world of Junior Lake and very little of Domonic Brown. Insufferable blowhards pester Kevin Goldstein, “How is Austin Romine not on this list? He’s a future star! Moron.” Just because you are passionate about something doesn’t necessarily mean you are well informed. Prospects teach us this all the time.
No matter how smart you are when it comes to prospects, you’re not that smart. None of us are. You’re predicting the futures of teenage children, many of who are simultaneously learning baseball and assimilating into an entirely new culture. Mistakes in judgment will be made. To show as much, I have compiled here a nice little case study. Thanks to the aggressive nature of General Manager Ruben Amaro (and his predecessor Pat Gillick) the Phillies have essentially traded away an entire farm system worth of talent over the past four years. This franchise’s sequence of events is prime for analysis. The Phillies went from a franchise suffering from a decade’s worth of mediocrity (Mike Lieberthal! Travis Lee!) and became one of baseball’s juggernauts. They’ve done a lot of this via “the trade.”
How did these trades shake out for each of the franchises involved? Did the prospects pan out the way we thought they would? With the Phillies, we have a large enough sample of deals and, most importantly, enough time has passed to talk about the principles involved with some degree of certainty. Hopefully you’ve been entrenched in prospectdom long enough to recollect your thoughts on these trades at their time of completion. In parentheses after each prospect’s name is their peak ranking in the Phillies system per Baseball America.
Lidge had one magical season that undoubtedly helped the Phillies win a World Series. “Magical” is code for “he was very good but also very lucky.” Lidge has since suffered a drastic decline in stuff and physical health. Bourn became an above-average regular at a premium position, surpassing many a pundit’s expectations that he’d be a fourth outfielder. Astros GM Ed Wade traded him to the Braves this past season for too little. He’s an excellent player. Geary (a middle reliever) and Costanzo (who never saw the majors) are inconsequential. From a sheer regular season baseball value perspective, the Astros won this trade, but the Phils won a title, so we’ll call it a push.
Blanton, his injuries and his conditioning have all been frustrating of late, but he too played a role that led to Philadelphia’s 2008 championship. Outman reached the majors and looked like he’d be a nice back-end starter until Tommy John surgery sucked some life out of his fastball. He was traded to the Rockies this week. His role is up in the air, but it’s safe to say he’s at least an un-embarrassing placeholder while the Rockies develop upgrades. Adrian Cardenas was named High School Player of the Year by Baseball America in 2006. At the time of this trade, he was the centerpiece. A once potential middle infielder with a plus bat, Cardenas isn’t good enough defensively to play anywhere in the infield (other than 1B) and his bat isn’t good enough to profile in left field. He’s only 23, but he looks like an extra guy at best. Spencer was a throw-in and has never made it to the majors.
Your classic change of scenery trade, Mayberry had been a first-round pick of the Mariners during Gillick’s tenure in Seattle but decided not to sign and went to college at Stanford instead. He was redrafted by the Rangers a few years later, again in round one. When you’ve been drafted twice in the first round, you’ve got tools to succeed. Mayberry clearly hasn’t optimized his talent for one reason or another (Stanford is notorious for irreparably altering hitters’ swings) but the change of scenery did him some good. He’s a fine fourth outfielder or platoon bat and showed some chops in center field last year. Mayberry whacks lefties, plays every outfield position pretty well and can moonlight at first base in a pinch. To get that for six years at a very low cost is a bargain. Golson had one of the most impressive tool packages you’ll ever see but could never sort it out at the dish. He’s an extra guy.
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