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May 8, 2009

Future Shock

Beefing Up

by Kevin Goldstein

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Trading away young talent is always a risky business, and most prospect-for-big leaguer deals have the same dynamic. The exchange boils down to this: here's some certainty now, maybe something to help you with that playoff push, but if these young players work out for us, man are you going to be sorry. Looking over the deals of the last two years, some teams are busier than others, and here are two teams doing it the right way-and not surprisingly the two best minor league systems in baseball.

1. Oakland Athletics
Notable Trade-Aways: C John Baker; RHP Joe Blanton; OF Milton Bradley; RHP Chad Gaudin; RHP Dan Haren; RHP Rich Harden; C Jason Kendall; OF Mark Kotsay; OF Richie Robnett; RHP Connor Robertson; INF Marco Scutaro; SS Justin Sellers; 1B/OF Nick Swisher; RHP Huston Street
Notable Acquisitions: LHP Brett Anderson; LHP Jerry Blevins; RHP Andrew Brown; 2B/SS Adrian Cardenas; 1B Chris Carter; OF Aaron Cunningham; DH Jack Cust; RHP Faustino de los Santos; RHP Joey Devine; C Josh Donaldson; LHP Dana Eveland; RHP Sean Gallagher; LHP Gio Gonzalez; OF Matt Holliday; LHP Josh Outman; 2B/OF Eric Patterson; OF Ryan Sweeney; 2B Corey Wimberly; RHP Michael Wuertz

That's a busy two years, and not everyone is listed there, as I balanced out players who were acquired and later dealt away themselves, like Greg Smith and Carlos Gonzalez. The A's rebuilding process began with the massive trade of Dan Haren, who is a stud to be sure, but in return, the A's received a pair of big-league starting pitchers, five players overall who have already reached the majors, and one of the better power prospects in the game. They've also shown a knack for bolstering their relief corps for practically nothing, acquiring the now-injured Joey Devine for what little was left of Mark Kotsay, and pulling of a lesser worthwhile deal this year to add decent righty Michael Wuertz from the Cubs for a pair of non-prospects. And don't forget that Jack Cust, who has hit 62 home runs and drawn 234 walks since his pick-up shortly into the 2007 season, was acquired merely for cash considerations.

The A's have taken advantage of players at their maximum value as well, especially in the Matt Holliday deal, where the two players after the always-risky Carlos Gonzalez were Huston Street, a set-up man in closer's clothing, and Greg Smith, who by any rational statistical evaluation was pitching completely and utterly over his head in 2008.

The A's do have some deals that aren't pure successes, or are at least hard to evaluate. The most difficult might be the Nick Swisher deal. Swisher had a bad year in 2008, and though he looks fantastic this season, the A's return has had mixed results so far. Power arm Fautino de los Santos had Tommy John surgery last year, Gio Gonzalez has been consistently inconsistent, and while Ryan Sweeney is the big-league club's everyday center fielder, does he deserve to be with a career batting line of .278/.342/.372 in an Oakland uniform? The other deal that is hard to evaluate is last year's trade of Rich Harden to the Cubs. Oakland didn't get much from Chicago, but Harden's injury history played a major role in the low return, and it's the rare big leaguer-for-prospects deal where both sides assumed upside risk. The one mistake was very hard, if not impossible to foresee at the time, as John Baker was a semi-organizational player when he was dealt to Florida for minor league slugger Jason Stokes. Now he's the Marlins' starting catcher in the big leagues, while the oft-injured Stokes played just 18 games at Triple-A for Oakland before his constant back problems ended his career.

2. Texas Rangers
Notable Trade-Aways: RHP Eric Gagne; RHP Armando Gallarraga; LHP Danny Harrera; C Gerald Laird; OF Kenny Lofton; OF John Mayberry, Jr.; 1B Mark Teixeira; RHP Edinson Volquez
Notable Acquisitions: SS Elvis Andrus; OF Engel Beltre; RHP Neftali Feliz; OF Greg Golson; LHP Matt Harrison; OF Josh Hamilton; LHP Beau Jones; RHP Guillermo Moscoso; OF David Murphy; C Max Ramirez; C Jarrod Saltalamacchia

The Mark Teixeira trade gets all of the attention, and with good reason, because for a first baseman they had no way of keeping, the Rangers got two starting up-the-middle players, a solid back-end starter, and one of the best pitching prospects in the game in Neftali Feliz. Beyond that, however, the Rangers have done an excellent job of leveraging teams at the deadline. Eric Gagne has done nothing since leaving Texas, while they got underrated outfielder David Murphy and tools-laden prospect Engel Beltre in return. The Josh Hamilton deal is one they receive a lot of credit for, but don't forget that the Rangers gave up Edinson Volquez to get him, so it's quite possible that deal is no more than a push in the end.

The last two years have brought some much-needed talent to the system, but moves have not been made without mistakes. For an organization constantly desperate for pitching, they made a huge error in dealing a then-struggling Armando Galarraga to the Tigers for nothing catcher Michel Hernandez. The team also benefits from my arbitrary cut-off point of January 2007, because in the previous year they made some of the worst deals in baseball, dealing away two more excellent starting pitchers in John Danks and Chris Young as well as All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez for what basically amounts to back-of-the-rotation starter Brandon McCarthy.

Special Award: Best Bevy of Talent Received in a Trade of the Last Two Years
February 8, 2008: The Orioles trade LHP Erik Bedard to the Mariners for LHP Tony Butler, RHP Kam Mickolio, OF Adam Jones, LHP George Sherrill, and RHP Chris Tillman

This one wouldn't be so bad if Bedard didn't get injured, but now it's just a nightmare. Adam Jones, despite only a so-so 2008 season, entered the year as a PECOTA favorite (with his four top comps being Andre Dawson, Ellis Burks, Dwight Evans, and Garry Maddox), and he's already turned a major corner this season. His scouting reports have always been stellar as far as his tools, skills, and makeup, but now it looks like he's going to be a pure superstar. Tillman was a lot like Jones coming into Baltimore, because in his final year with the Mariners' system he had a 5.26 ERA at High-A High Desert, but many scouts thought he was the best arm in the California League. He's exceeded expectations this year, doing excellent work while starting at Triple-A as a 21-year-old; he is the best of many outstanding arms in an Orioles farm system that should have them competitive by 2011, even in the loaded American League East.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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