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December 14, 2012

Overthinking It

The Prospects Who Get Traded

by Ben Lindbergh

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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:

Year Ranked

Rank

Name

Control WARP

2004

3

Delmon Young

1.2

2002

5

Carlos Pena

10.6

2001

1

Josh Hamilton

23.2

2001

4

Jon Rauch

6.6

1999

5

Brad Penny

10.1

1999

8

Pablo Ozuna*

-0.3

1998

2

Paul Konerko

4.2

1998

9

Carl Pavano*

7.2

1996

7

Karim Garcia

-1

1995

2

Ruben Rivera

6.3

1994

10

Jose Silva

3.2

1992

9

Frankie Rodriguez

3.7

1992

10

Pedro Martinez

22.8

1991

5

Roger Salkeld

1.2

1990

5

Sandy Alomar Jr.*

6.8

 

 

Avg. w/Hamilton

7.1

 

 

Avg. w/o Hamilton

5.9

 

*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.

Ryan Lind, Dan Turkenkopf, and Colin Wyers provided research assistance for this article.

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

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

17 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

marctacoma

How many WARP did the returns for these prospects produce for their new teams?

Dec 13, 2012 14:19 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

In their careers? That's not something I checked. Only looked at what happened early on.

Dec 14, 2012 04:53 AM
 
jtwalsh

Ben,

Great article but it is hard to believe that Konerko only 4.2 WARP over his 1st 6 years. It seems like the fielding numbers are a little harsh. Come on, Ruben Rivera has 6.3 WARP. I believe there is a little GIGO going on here (perhaps they were using Frank Thomas's fielding numbers)

Dec 13, 2012 17:56 PM
rating: 0
 
tbwhite
(361)

According to Baseball Reference Konerko had 8.5 offensive WAR in his 1st 4 seasons in Chicago. They were bookended by two -1 offensive WAR seasons. So, by that he was a 1 win offensive player for his 1st 6 years.

Dec 13, 2012 19:57 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Bad fielder, bad baserunner (career-wise, roughly 50 runs below average or worse in both departments), and peaked pretty late offensively.

Dec 14, 2012 05:00 AM
 
jtwalsh

Hi Ben,

My point is that the fielding system is taking too much value away. He is not that bad. I am only looking at his fist 6 full seasons. If they numbers are telling you that Ruben Rivera was more valuable than Paul Konerko in their 1st 6 years, my point is that you should step back and review the data, because it does not pass the smell test.

Dec 14, 2012 09:49 AM
rating: 1
 
tbwhite
(361)

the Baseball Reference numbers were offensive WAR, they ignore defense, and on offense alone he was worth just 1 win per year. Rivera was worth less than .5 WAR per year on offense. So, on offense alone Konerko > Rivera. On defense, Rivera had positive WAR, Konerko negative, and it was enough to essentially even out their value according to B-REF.

Dec 14, 2012 11:06 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Yeah, I don't know. The other advanced fielding systems out there rate him pretty poorly for those years, too. I wasn't watching him regularly at the time, so I don't have an opinion on whether FRAA is being too hard on him.

Dec 14, 2012 11:12 AM
 
tbwhite
(361)

This confirms what I felt in the aftermath of the KC-TB trade that people(fans) are too confident in projection systems, causing them to underestimate risk, and overvalue prospects. If you look at the top 10 offensive players by WAR last year, probably only Cano and Zobrist weren't ever considered really top prospects. But just because the top players were almost all top prospects, doesn't mean that all top prospects become top players. But you don't see Ruben Rivera and Karim Garcia failing every day so it's easy to forget about them. Even guys who do ultimately succeed may take longer than expected to get there. If Wil Myers follows the Alex Gordon career path, then he'll have 3 good seasons out his 6 cost controlled seasons. Maybe Dayton Moore is exploiting a new market inefficiency, taking advantage of teams that are placing too much faith their ability to predict how prospects will turn out. If there is a prospect 'bubble' so to speak caused by analytic hubris, then DM is doing exactly the right thing by cashing some of his chips in now.

Dec 13, 2012 20:21 PM
rating: 3
 
DarinRuf18

thats not really why people are panning the trade for the Royals. it comes down to the fact that even with Shields and Davis(whose not a good SP), the Royals are still not contenders. i think people would respect the move more if they went out and made a few more "win now" moves. however, if they dont, im sorry, but no team is winning anything with Jeremy Guthrie as their #2 starter, and Jeff Franceour in RF every game. given that they arent good enough to do anything this year, Shields makes little sense. i would be willing to bet a large sum of money that by July of 2014, Shields will again be traded before he hits FA....for a decent haul of prospects, but not one that approaches Wil Myers. plus the Royals could have just tried to sign Edwin Jackson. better off overpaying him when his numbers are very close to Shields, and let Myers play RF. they likely would have added more WAR that way. the move reaks of desperation. no one is saying that Myers is a guarenteed stud. however, at the end of the day, he doesnt have to be, and its still an awful trade for the Royals.

Dec 14, 2012 11:14 AM
rating: 4
 
tbwhite
(361)

Here's what I find funny about the criticism of DM on this, and I don't mean to single you out, I just happened to think of this after reading your comment.

It feels like on the one hand people say it was bad trade because of the tremendous value of Myers and the other prospects that the Royals gave up. They cite the accuracy of projection systems, etc to back up their belief that the Royals gave up too much. On the other hand those same people turn around and say it was also a dumb trade because the Royals aren't ready to win now. They only won 72 games last year, and Frenchy sucks and Guthrie sucks and so the whole thing is hopeless.

But, what about those projections that those same people cite when talking about Myers ? If those projections are worth anything then there has to be a pretty good chance of substantial improvement from Hosmer and Moose this year. Frenchy as craptastic as he is probably won't post -3 WARP again(if he's playing that badly and the Royals are in contention he wouldn't get the chance). The rotation is definitely bolstered by Shields, Davis and Santana. Why is 16 games such an impossible mountain to climb for a team that clearly has improved it's rotation and has a line-up full of young stars and top prospects ?

It seems like people expect some sort of nice orderly progression from bad to good, and since the Royals were bad last year, they must first be mediocre before we can even think about them being good. This seems unrealistic. Teams don't improve linearly, it happens in leaps and bounds. Arizona improved by 29 games in 2011, Milwaukee by 19 in 2011, the Reds and Nationals improved by 18 games last year,Baltimore improved by 24 last year and Oakland by 20. In 2011, Detroit improved by 14 games. It's just not that unusual.

Dec 14, 2012 13:33 PM
rating: 4
 
onegameref

Jeremy Reed must have just missed this group. He was traded in 2004 after being #1 for the Sox in 2003. He never seemed to be able to sustain his high BA to make him valuable enough to overlook the lack of power. He will always have 2003 and .409 though.

Dec 13, 2012 22:00 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

His highest rating by BA was 25th, before the 2004 season.

Dec 14, 2012 04:57 AM
 
champaigncaviar

Certainly a lesson to be learned here. However, I get the sense that, even though we recognize informational asymmetry in organizations as a general phenomenon, we aren't really wiling to give that benefit to Dayton Moore. I know my own analysis has had an element of, "I don't trust Dayton Moore to make the necessary additional moves to make the trade worthwhile."

On one hand, I probably should be deferential to a guy that is still a major league GM. On the other hand, when that same GM is really bad at evaluating the MLB talent that the rest of us can evaluate relatively easily, it's hard to then give him any credit for internal minor league evaluation.

Dec 14, 2012 01:15 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Except that he has seemed to do a heck of a job of drafting young and assembling a strong farm system. Maybe he somehow has the ability to tell which minor leaguers will be good major leaguers, but not which major leaguers already are good major leaguers? It sounds sort of far-fetched when you put it that way.

Dec 14, 2012 04:56 AM
 
cjrhgarmon

Or maybe DM has the ability to figure out which amateurs will turn into highly ranked prospects, but is mediocre at figuring out which prospects make good major leaguers. If he is self-aware enough to figure this out, then it's optimal to trade your prospects when their value is highest. For instance, I don't think DM could have gotten the same return if it was Hosmer or Moose in the package instead of Myers.

Dec 14, 2012 10:11 AM
rating: 1
 
champaigncaviar

I'm suggesting he's a terrific amateur scout but a poor evaluator of MLB talent. I think they're completely different skills; the ability to see someone's innate talent, versus seeing the skills and polish required to succeed in the majors. If he lacks the latter insight, the former insight doesn't do him much good handling MLB talent, where everyone has great innate talent.

Dec 14, 2012 16:02 PM
rating: 0
 
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