Nobody takes the brunt of trade deadline season like the fungible minor-leaguer.
As of the moment I’m writing this article, the hot stove is still largely simmering. Outside of the Cubs’ trade for Aroldis Chapman—which, let’s be clear, is fraught and distressing and weird and better handled by a bunch of women online than by me—the trade deadline has approached with more anticipation than action. Yes, Melvin Upton went to the Jays, and yes, we’ve seen the annual Struggling Reliever Swap happen as Drew Storen and Joaquin Benoit switched places, but so far none of the prospects that we cherish—pace, Gleyber Torres—have moved away, and most of the stars remain in place. And so we’re set to receive approximately 8,000 articles debating the relative merits of trading or keeping prospects, about the nature of team development, and about whether veteran rentals are overrated or not.
Thankfully, this is not one of those articles, though I’m sure that if you find any of those debates that break new ground, they’ll be here at Baseball Prospectus. What I’m mostly interested in here is breaking down what makes prospects such valuable chips, why elite prospects and non-elite prospects alike are treated like poker chips at this time of year. As far as I can tell, there are three reasons for why prospects are treated as fungible value: 1) They are largely forgotten by the players’ union; 2) They are out of sight and out of mind for a major-league club; and 3) They have no real say in where or when they are employed. All of these factors combine to make minor leaguers what Karl Marx might call the surplus labor army of Major League Baseball, the collection of underpaid, talented workers that help maintain management’s profitability. So, yes, before you ask, this is a bit of a polemic.
The polemic quality of this article was probably predicted by the first point in my list above, the critique of the Players Association. I actually think that the MLBPA is one of, if not the best player unions in the big four sports, if only for two provisos that make baseball its own unique animal when it comes to player salaries: the lack of a salary cap and guaranteed contracts. That’s huge, and only the NHL really comes close to getting as good a deal for its players. But the dark secret of the MLBPA is that it is a veterans-first organization. Minor leaguers have long lobbied for better working conditions and more competitive salaries, and in response MLB has scuttled their class action lawsuits and defined them as seasonal interns as opposed to employees (largely in contradiction to their own press on MiLB websites, but that’s another issue). And the union has stayed silent. The union that has successfully defended 5-and-10 rights, that has embedded the DH so fully as to be all-but-eventually translated to the NL, and the union that has spit in the face of reports of reduced team profit has refused to speak up for its most roundly trampled members. And, so, minor leaguers are paid relatively nothing past their bonuses, and are set to make relatively nothing for their first six minor-league years.
And let’s be clear, major-league baseball teams can afford to pay their high priced vets and their minor leaguers fairly; I find claims to the contrary laughable. But minor leaguers are just not considered a priority for the union, and, fittingly perhaps, they are not considered a priority for the big-league club either. Recall the then-panned James Shields for Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi trade: the veterans in the Royals clubhouse didn’t know Wil Myers from Adam, and they knew James Shields was an (at that time) ace. Maybe Eric Hosmer or some of the very young players who remembered him from the minors shed a tear for their friend leaving, but by and large, any major-league clubhouse will trade any number of minor leaguers for a shot at a pennant or a World Series. The larger issues of abuse aside, I expect that no one in the Cubs’ clubhouse is mourning even the deeply talented Gleyber Torres now that they have a stronger bullpen. And this is natural, of course—minor leaguers are developing while you’re playing a game a day and trying desperately to keep up with the grind of the season. You’re of course not going to relate easily with them.
This leads to the third point, that both the union’s disinterest in and the players’ distance from minor-leaguers plays to management in general, and ownership in particular. Because for the team itself, minor leaguers represent a unique win-win scenario: keep them, and you have cheap talent even if they just fill a spot on your bench or even if they fill a spot on your Triple-A team; trade them and you can add to a playoff run without really losing anything that will impact you until a year or more down the pike. And no minor-league player has the ability to say no to a trade; you won’t hear about Yoan Moncada or Julio Urias holding up trade talks because they need to be convinced to drop their no-trade clause. And even if a prospect is traded into a worse situation—a hitter traded to San Diego, or a pitcher traded to Colorado—they simply have to suck it up and try to succeed in a worse spot. Prospects are truly fungible, from a financial standpoint and from a personnel standpoint.
Ownership depends on this flexibility of labor to maintain its profit margins. While I still maintain that ownership could pay minor leaguers what they deserve and still pull a profit, it’s undeniable that whatever profit they would pull would be less than it is now. And as MLB is run to be profitable first and foremost—though the exceptions to that would make for an interesting article themselves—there’s no real incentive for ownership to make things more comfortable for minor leaguers. Even management has little incentive, as flexibility in the labor pool allows them to make moves to win now and win later. And even major-league players are conditioned into thinking of the minor-league group of players as other than them, non-veterans, or even as unwanted competition. And so minor leaguers remain as the remainder in the system that helps grease the wheels of MLB; spare a thought for them this trade deadline. As fans, we probably owe them that much at least.
Alex Rodriguez was doing so well last year, and then last year ended. His career might be next.
Alex Rodriguez celebrated his 41st birthday yesterday by sitting on the Yankees’ bench for the fifth consecutive game.
Last year, in his age-39 season and after missing the entire previous campaign while suspended, the three-time MVP hit .250/.356/.486 with his highest TAv (.292) since 2009, most homers (33) since 2008, and most walks (84) since 2007. This year, in his age-40 season, he’s been a mess. Rodriguez has hit .206/.256/.364 in 58 games, failing to top a .260 TAv (he's at .220) for the first time since he was a 19-year-old midseason Mariners call-up in 1995. He’s batted below .200 in three out of four months, with his “big” month being a .629 OPS in June.
Rodriguez’s strikeout rate is a career-high 26 percent and his walk rate, which was 14 percent in 2015 and at least 10 percent every season from 2000-2015, is a career-low 6 percent. His batting average on balls in play is a career-low .238, nearly 40 points below his second-worst mark. He’s swung at 36 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, compared to 25 percent from 2007-2015. His swinging strike rate is a career-high 13 percent. His isolated power is a career-low .158. Even his Win Probability Added is negative for the first time. Rodriguez is shedding hitting ability.
On May 25th Ryan Garton got the call that he’d waited his whole life to get. The Tampa Bay Rays needed his help. The 26-year-old reliever had started the season with Triple-A Durham, pitching in 15 games before The Call. The responsibility of finally reaching the majors can weigh heavily on some players, who want so badly not to get sent back down that it becomes a distraction. Demotion is failure, and there is a great challenge to living in the moment.
“Whatever they decide to do, that’s their job,” said Garton. “When my name gets called, I need to get three outs. That’s all I worry about. I keep the same work ethic.”
Taylor Motter had arrived for his own big-league debut just a few days earlier, and the utility-infielder quickly gained popularity with Rays’ fans for his long hair and fun-loving personality. He spent the second half of May, and then all of June, as a big leaguer. But by the end of the month a batting average south of the Mendoza Line had worn out its welcome, and he found himself headed back to the Bulls again. Garton, meanwhile, shuffled from Tampa to Durham, then back up to Tampa a couple days later, before yet another return trip to Carolina barely three weeks later.
Welcome to life on the taxi squad.
The life of a Triple-A player is not stable; at a moment’s notice any player can get The Call to perform his craft in front of tens of thousands, knowing all the while that another moment can just as easily rob him of the big-league lights and send him hurtling back to the purgatory of the high minors. Rosters are a curious mix of veterans playing out the string—some have worn major-league uniforms, others have been so close for so long that it just feels like they never will—alongside the up-and-coming future of the game. It’s a motley crew, really. And the patience of the players is routinely tested.
Though neither Garton nor Motter rank high on any prospect lists—neither received a mention on our pre-season Tampa list—they both have their value. Motter fills a role as a utility guy that can add some power and speed off the bench. Garton provides always-needed bullpen help, with some situational versatility to boot. I asked him if he has a preferred role, to which he emphatically replied that he does not. He wants to do whatever the Rays ask of him. It’s the answer every club wants to hear, and it’s the only answer a guy like Garton can give.
Notes on prospects who stood out yesterday, including Jorge Alfaro, Anthony Alford, Francis Martes, and Jake Woodford.
Prospect of the Day:Jorge Alfaro, C, Philadelphia Phillies (Double-A Reading): 4-for-5, 3 RBI
I included the RBI because it’s just weird to have the prospect of the day without any other stats, but the fact that Alfaro didn’t have any doubles or homers is kinda the point. This was once a player who was all-power, no-hit-tool, and he has hit .287 in Double-A while still showing the plus power. Is he going to hit for that high of average at the big-league level? Probably not, but he no longer has to hit for power to become a regular; the defense and hit tool have reached a level where above-average power will suffice. I’d bet on it at this point.
Voting your conscience is awfully difficult as a baseball fan.
There’s a freedom in helplessness. Sometimes, the act of choosing gets in the way of life. Imagine the burden of infinite possibilities: the information cost of picking a new breakfast cereal each morning, scrolling through a Netflix queue that never folds back on itself. The burden of deciding which people you help (and which you don’t) with your charity foundation, the way you allocate your infinite resources during your still-finite time on this earth.
A poor reliever's poor heart broken; Lindor's a hero; Sabathia makes it easier AND harder to trade him; and Arenado does defense.
The Tuesday Takeaway Vinko Bogataj was forever immortalized as the face of “the agony of defeat” on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. His incredible crash on a ski jump slope in 1970 became forever associated with agony and defeat. It was his misfortune that an entire generation learned to cringe and giggle at.