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December 14, 2012
The Prospects Who Get Traded
Winning baseball teams—at least the ones without exorbitant payrolls—are usually powered by young, cost-controlled talent. And in the land of cost-controlled talent, the top prospect is king. Not only do elite prospects stand a good chance to be stars, but they promise to provide that production—which would cost a fortune to obtain from a free agent—for the league-minimum salary or something close to it.
Since top prospects are such valuable commodities, teams are reluctant to trade them without receiving huge hauls in return, so we rarely see them change organizations before they’ve had a chance to sink or swim in the majors. That’s why it was so strange to see two top prospects—Wil Myers and Trevor Bauer, each of whom either is now or has recently been a top-10 prospect in baseball—on the move this week.
When a prized top prospect is made available via trade, it’s natural for potential partners to wonder, “What’s the catch?” Teams have more information on their own players than other organizations do: free agents who re-sign with the same team go on to age better than those who are allowed to leave and sign with a new team, which suggests that front offices are particularly adept at projecting the players they know. That information advantage goes double for prospects, of whom opposing teams haven’t seen as much as they have players already in the Show. So how often do traded top prospects pan out? And should Rays and Indians fans be afraid that Myers and Bauer might turn out to be busts?
In the 15-year span from 1990-2004, 114 distinct prospects were deemed by Baseball America to be among the 10 best in any particular season (36 cracked the top 10 multiple times). BA’s rankings might not have been a perfect proxy for how prospects were perceived within the industry, but for those years, they’re the best we can do. Just 15 of those 114 prospects—roughly 13 percent—were traded before they began a season in which they weren’t rookie eligible, as Myers and Bauer were this week. (Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips were traded before they first appeared in the top 10, in the same 2002 deal.) According to research by R.J. Anderson, prior to the Sunday swap that sent Myers to Tampa, only one top-10 prospect since 1990—Brad Penny—had been traded before making his big-league debut for the team he was with at the time of the ranking.
What matters most to a team with a top prospect is how much that prospect produces in his first six years of major-league service, before he hits free agency. By comparing the pre-free-agency production of past top prospects who were traded early to those who stayed put, we can see whether teams that trade for top prospects get stuck with major-league lemons.
For research purposes, we defined the initial season of service time as the first in which a position player prospect appeared in 100 games or a pitching prospect appeared in 30 or started 20, and the final season of service time as the one five years after the first. (It’s a rough estimate, but it should be a pretty close approximation for most players.) Any WARP accrued in that time counted as WARP produced while under team control, and by cutting the sample off at 2004, we ensured that the book was closed on the first six years of service time for all the prospects involved. The totals for top-10 prospects ranged from Alex Rodriguez’ 42.9 WARP to Karim Garcia’s -1.0 (not to mention the six top-10 prospects—roughly one in 20—who never made it to the majors).
If you’re wondering whether there was any distinction between the performance of a no. 2 prospect and a no. 10 prospect, the answer is “not really”: in general, there are no. 1 prospects, and then there’s everyone else. Remove the no. 1 prospects from the sample, and there was essentially no correlation between prospect rank and WARP produced within the rest of the top 10.
The average under-team-control value of all top-10 prospects who weren’t traded early was 12.2 WARP. Divide that by six, and you get just over two wins per season: roughly the rate produced by an average major-league player. Consider the alternative—paying several million dollars per win from free agents—and you’ll see what sort of surplus value relatively low-paid prospects provide.
But how did the prospects who were traded early go on to do? Here’s the whole list:
*Traded during the same offseason that they received their top-10 ranking
Counting Josh Hamilton, the traded top 10 prospects went on to be worth 7.1 WARP. But Hamilton, who was traded at age 26 following his rookie season for Cincinnati and three seasons out of baseball before that, is such an unusual case that his example probably isn’t instructive. Remove him from the sample, and the average falls to 5.9—less than half the production of the top prospects who weren’t traded. With the notable exception of Pedro Martinez, whom the Dodgers dealt to the Expos in November 1993 for Delino DeShields in one of the most notorious trades of all time, not a single quickly traded top prospect produced as much WARP as the average top prospect who stayed with the same team. (Since 2004, Hanley Ramirez has bolstered the traded-top-10 group, but Joel Guzman, Andy Marte, Andrew Miller, and Colby Rasmus have dragged it down.)
It’s risky to draw a conclusion from such a small sample of players. But in this case, there’s no larger sample to look at, and the results do offer some evidence that trading for young top-10 prospects has been a losing proposition in the past. Maybe the Royals and Diamondbacks didn’t get enough back for the top prospects they traded. But maybe Myers’ and Bauer’s former teams knew something the Rays and Indians didn’t.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .