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.
I don’t have to tell you what Lee has been up to. Carrasco has always had top-of-the-rotation stuff but had the most glaring on-mound makeup issues I’ve ever seen. As soon as something went wrong, he’d unravel. While Carrasco has gotten things together enough that he’s not a basket case, he’s no world beater, either. He might yet put it together and yield above-average results, but it’s hard to believe he was once the crown jewel of the Phillies system. Knapp was the other piece in this deal with any real upside. A plus-plus fastball and a workhorse build meant Knapp had top-of-the-rotation potential as long he could be kept healthy and develop secondary stuff. That hasn’t happened. Knapp threw just 28 innings in 2010 and didn’t pitch in 2011. There’s still time for Knapp, he’s only 21, but it’s now much more likely he’s just a reliever. Marson has become a fine defensive catcher but profiles as a backup. Donald can’t play shortstop well enough to play every day and doesn’t hit enough for anywhere else. He’s bench fodder.
The Phillies found out in 2010 what the Mariners had known since 2008 had ended: Phillippe Aumont’s control issues relegate him to the bullpen. The control issues, which stem primarily from Aumont’s size and lack of athleticism to overcome it, are still there and rear their ugly head in frustrating spurts. The stuff, however, is nasty. Mid-90s heater with sink and a plus curveball mean Aumont will be a fine late-inning arm. He’ll arrive in Philly sometime this year. Gillies is still a work in progress after chronic injury issues derailed 2010 and 2011 for him. His slappy swing could mean he’ll have on-base issues in the future. He looks like a nice extra outfielder but if the approach somehow holds up and the defense is either elite in a corner or average in center, he’d be a decent regular. JC Ramirez has regressed to a point where it’s tough to consider him a prospect at all right now. His strikeout rate has plummeted. On a side note, I find it amusing that Seattle now employs both Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero, the prospects they were essentially deciding between when they ultimately chose to send Lee to the Rangers in 2010.
Taylor was immediately spun to Oakland for Brett Wallace and has been a disappointment. He’s never had the kind of raw power you’d expect from someone built like an NFL tight end (thanks again, Stanford) but had average-or-above tools across the board. Billy Beane re-signed Coco Crisp and acquired Josh Reddick and Seth Smith this winter. Those aren’t exactly endorsements of Taylor’s future. Drabek, his plus fastball and power curveball in tow, looked like a future #2 starter. The Phillies certainly thought so, they deemed Drabek untouchable for quite a while before begrudgingly parting with him in order to land Doc. Drabek reached Toronto last year but couldn’t find the strike zone. He had some embarrassing walk rates before being sent back down to the minors. He’ll need to be rebuilt. Travis d’Arnaud is going to end up being the best player in this trade. The young catcher won Eastern League MVP this past year and looks like he might contend for big boy MVPs one day. In an online environment where we probably talk about prospects too much, we don’t talk about d’Arnaud enough.
Oswalt was miscast as an “ace” when he got to Philly. He’s now a mid-rotation guy whose fastball velocity has dipped enough that it can no longer make up for what he lacks in downhill plane. Teams seem hesitant to give him even a one-year deal thanks to natural decline and his balky back. Happ was always a back-end starter at best. Thanks to some great luck on balls in play, good run support and Ed Wade’s ineptitude as a GM, the Phillies sold way high on Happ after a nice rookie year. Shortstop Villar was just 19 years old at the time of the trade. He remains a bit of a project at the plate but strides are being made. Villar posted a .767 OPS at high-A Lancaster last year before being moved up to double-A as a 20-year-old. The defense will stick at shortstop, so if he can hit even a little bit, Villar will be a fine big leaguer. He’s still a work in progress, perhaps the least polished member of this entire piece. Upon acquiring the uber-toolsy Gose, Ed Wade immediately flipped him to Toronto for … Brett Wallace, again. Toronto made some mechanical alterations to Gose’s swing to improve his performance at the plate, lengthening his stride a bit. I’m relatively bearish on Gose, I just don’t believe in the bat, but he’s one of the toolsiest athletes I’ve ever seen. Gose’s defense in center field is good enough that he’d likely be a nice player no matter how anemic his offensive output might be. Just something to keep in the back of your mind should Gose crap out completely: The lefty touched 97mph on the mound in high school.
Jonathan Singleton is just 20 years old, but all indications are he’s going to be a monster. The physicality, the swing, the approach, it’s all there. After struggling a bit at the beginning of last year (the Phillies were tinkering with his swing a bit), Singleton dominated high-A. He hit .333/.405/.512 after this trade. Polished for a hitter his age, Singleton could see a cup of coffee with the Astros at the end of 2013. Cosart has a nasty three-pitch mix, a mid- to upper-90s heater with arm side run, and a curve and change that flash above average. It’s top-of-the-rotation material. Enthusiasm for Cosart is curbed by his violent delivery, which some see as a harbinger of doom as it pertains to his health. He has had arm issues in the past. Zeid is a nice middle-relief prospect.
I spent three intro paragraphs alluding to the importance of objectivity and patience when it comes to talking about these young kids. Then, I revealed my unbridled zeal for Singleton and d’Arnaud. Does this make me a hypocrite? Yes. Yes, it does. I can’t help it, we’re talking about prospects. But look at what we have here: almost a trade a year for five years. Players of almost every career arc imaginable. Established big leaguers (Bourn), relative disappointments (Taylor, Aumont), future studs (d’Arnaud, Singleton), guys teetering between disappointment and stud (Drabek, Gose), change-of-scenery guys who worked out (Mayberry) and didn’t (Golson), and young kids about whom we still have plenty to learn. The ripples from this series of trades will be felt for the next decade or so. I hope this has shown you how volatile even the most highly regarded prospects can be and changes, for the better, the way you perceive them.