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As front offices have evolved, there’s been a growing perception that they are valuing prospects more and more. Research has shown, for instance, that front offices are bolstering their scouting departments to find top prospects and make sure they don’t miss on the next big star. But a number of people have also asked whether teams are overvaluing these prospects.

Rany Jazayerli has argued that in the past teams were able to “plunder” prospects away for far less than they can today. Jazayerli credits teams for being savvier nowadays, making it harder to swipe a top-ranked prospect in a trade. Jazayerli, however, suggests that the blowback on some of these trades has made teams overvalue their prospects, especially after the Mark Teixeira deal in 2007. “The blowback from the Teixeira trade seems to have made teams even more conservative about trading prospects, even for elite major league talent. As a result, for perhaps the first time in baseball history, minor league prospects seem to be overvalued by MLB front offices.”

In case you've forgotten:

The trade allowed the Rangers to rebuild their farm system and made them a perennial contender. Saltalamacchia, Andrus, Harrison, and Feliz all became quality big leaguers, while Teixeira spent only one season with Atlanta before he was dealt to the Angels for Casey Kotchman and Ron Mahay.

Jazayerli wrote his piece in 2012. In the years since, more writers have made similar claims. For instance, in 2013, Ken Rosenthal wrote that the Red Sox should trade Xander Bogaerts for Cliff Lee, but that this would never happen because teams were valuing prospects “like never before, hoarding them more and more each year.”

Back in the good old days, it was easy to recall, the Sox wouldn’t prioritize some unproven kid over a proven major-league star. “Pedro Martinez was acquired from the Montreal Expos for top prospects Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr. Theo Epstein loved Anthony Rizzo and Casey Kelly, but he bit the bullet and traded both for Adrian Gonzalez,” wrote Dan Shaughnessy in a piece titled, “Red Sox almost always overvalue their prospects.” Shaughnessy later went on CBS Boston radio and said, “I worry that it’s becoming an epidemic… The overvaluing of their prospects. And that is something that bears watching.”

I’ll get to the Red Sox shortly, but first I will acknowledge that chatter probably peaked a year ago, and has quieted a bit after a trade deadline in which multiple top prospects were traded for relievers. “It wasn’t long ago that teams overvalued their prospects, probably because the growth in the cottage industry of covering prospects gave them inflated public value. But in recent years, the pendulum has swung back,” wrote Tom Verducci in a 2016 article for Sports Illustrated.

That said, did the narrative have much merit in the first place?

To answer this question, I looked at Baseball America’s Top-100 prospect lists. The reason I used Baseball America’s rankings, as opposed to our own, is because they go all the way back to 1990. Then I looked at whether the prospect was traded the same year he was on the list using the Pro Sports Transactions database. This isn’t a perfect methodology, but it will give us a basic framework to work with. (The Expos and Nationals transactions are grouped together.)

Narratives in baseball are like the crazy things you hear at a family dinner table, always vulnerable to bad assumptions. The idea that teams aren’t trading their prospects is derived from assumptions. The assumption that teams cling to what they hold, the assumption that teams aren’t able to recognize when it is beneficial to trade their prospect, the assumption that teams believe that all of their prospects will become stars. These assumptions are wrong. Teams are showing a greater willingness to part with their prospects than ever before. In fact, the trend has been going up for years.

Last year saw the highest number of top prospects dealt in one season in the Top-100 Era, tied with 2012 and 2007. While 2013 was certainly a down year—fueling analysis of that dip—it was just an outlier, not a sign of any larger trend. Plus, comparing it to the “old days” is the ultimate fool’s errand, as the early 1990s showed similar results to 2013. Instead of complaining that current general managers aren’t trading their prospects, people should give a call to the general managers of the 90s, who almost never traded their top prospects.

So more prospects are being traded. But the prospects that are traded aren’t as highly ranked as they used to be?

Another whiff.

Now let’s get back to those “infamous” Red Sox and their unwillingness to trade their prospects.

As noted, the Red Sox have been criticized by a number of people for overvaluing their prospects and not having a go-for-it attitude, yet on this list, they rank 10th in baseball since 1990. In total, they’ve traded eight Top 100 prospects, which may not sound like a lot but barely trails the list-leading Diamondbacks, at 12. In more recent years, from 2005-2015, the Red Sox are tied for eighth, and from 2010-2015, they are tied with three other teams in seventh.

Shaughnessy also mentioned the Pedro Martinez for Carl Pavano (who was the 17th overall prospect that year) and Tony Armas Jr. (who was a player to be named later) trade, which happened in 1997. The trade happened in December, and Martinez at the time was still only 25 years old. I gathered every player’s WARP the year they were traded for a Top 100 prospect. Martinez had the largest WARP, by a considerable margin—in 1997, he was worth 10.4 WARP, the second-best season of his illustrious career. The only catch was that Pedro had only one year left before he could become a free agent.

For comparison, let’s look at what the second-best player in WARP got in return. It was David Price who last year was worth 8.2 WARP. This will give us a nice comparison, as it might show how the landscape has changed when it comes to trading prospects. Price was traded for Daniel Norris (the 18th overall prospect in 2015), Matt Boyd, and Jairo Labourt. This is arguably a similar package, though Daniel Norris had already performed in the big leagues by that point while Pavano was still in Triple-A. It also bears noting that Price was only going to be with the team for two months, while Martinez was with the team for an entire season, and Price was four years older when traded. And the Blue Jays acquired Price knowing full well that they weren’t going to re-sign him in the offseason, while the Red Sox knew that they might resign Martinez, and they did, to a six-year, $75 million contract.

The point that I’m trying to make here is that if Pedro, at 25 years old, was traded today by the Nationals to a team like the Red Sox, they would probably receive a much bigger package than what the Expos got.

This brings us to the question of whether the prospect market is rational and how it’s changed.

The Prospect Market Landscape

When teams trade their prospects, they’re usually trading more than just one player.

Measure

Number of players included when teams trade prospects

Number of players included when teams trade for prospects

Mean

2.77

1.56

Median

3

1

There are a few outliers, but for the most part, when a team is trading for a prospect they only have to surrender one piece, while the team trading the prospect will usually have to include a couple of other players to sweeten the pot.

These numbers might not do this justice, as teams acquiring a top prospect included more players in the deal than the team trading for the prospect only 1.2 percent of the time. A bit less than a third of these trades were balanced, and 70.1 percent of the teams trading the prospect included more players than the team acquiring the prospect. These extra players sometimes prove to be more valuable than the original asset. (Just think about the “Wil Myers” slash “James Shields” trade.)

Teams trading prospects rarely include established players. This makes sense: The team trading prospects is trying to load up on “certainty,” while the team trading for prospects is betting on numbers for some more distant, but uncertain, payoff.

Teams Trading Prospect

Avg. WARP Year Traded

Avg. PA Year Traded

Avg. IP Year Traded

Avg. Years in Big Leagues

0.16

130.86

30.2

1.46

Teams Acquiring Prospect

Avg. WARP Year Traded

Avg. PA Year Traded

Avg. IP Year Traded

Avg. Years in Big Leagues

1.98

386.7

123.7

5.8

When Ken Rosenthal was making his argument that the Red Sox should trade Xander Bogaerts for Cliff Lee, he was suggesting that Lee was certainly going to perform better than Bogaerts that season.

That was true of Lee and Bogaerts, who did come up and produce that season. But it might not be as true as we perceive. In a piece entitled, “Veterans Can Be Just as Risky as Prospects,” Dave Cameron found that quality veterans also carry some risk. They don’t always hold their performance and sometimes they fall apart altogether. (Cameron also wrote this piece to try to explain why teams were holding onto their prospects more than before.)

Prospect-for-prospect deals are especially rare. Only 1.9 percent of trades involving prospects were prospect-for-prospect trades, and all of them included additional players in the deal.

This may suggest that teams are fearful of the backlash that could come from missing on one of these deals. Just look at this trade from the Rays and the Twins:

Delmon Young (3) and Matt Garza (21) were the two Top 100 prospects that were traded, though both had exceeded their prospect eligibility by the time the trade was made. This could serve as a cautionary tail of why we don’t often see these deals. The Rays continue to reap star-quality fruit from this deal, collecting somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 or so WARP to date from the deal's trade tree, while Delmon Young produced virtually nothing as a big leaguer.

There probably should be more of these trades. Not every team needs a top SS prospect the same, or a top C prospect the same, and when two teams meet with imperfectly placed prospects there should be a market for swapping. But there isn’t.

This may be signaling that there is, in fact, some irrational risk-aversion when it comes to trading their own prospects, which would therefore signal a kernel of truth to the narrative that teams hold on too tight to their prospects. They don’t, in general. They do, in instances. Everybody was probably wrong about GMs, but not all the way wrong.