We often talk about prospect value in an absolute sense: Joey Outfielder is the 23rd-best prospect in baseball with an OFP 70, likely 60, moderate risk, and the second-best prospect in his system [ed. Note: That OFP/Likely would make him better than the 23rd-best prospect]. But just as an injury replacement player in any given situation isn’t necessarily “replacement-level” in the sabermetric context, prospects can have different relative values to different teams, even if the teams value the prospect and his skills similarly. These kinds of relative value disparities can often spur on interesting trades.
The most obvious situation in which a player’s relative value is lower to one team than another is when he is totally blocked by the incumbent team. Jeimer Candelario is a nice prospect, but for the last little while he’d been a third baseman ready for the bigs in the Cubs system (hello, Kris Bryant) whose only plausible secondary position is first base (hello, Anthony Rizzo). Joe Maddon does a nice job using the positional versatility of players like Bryant, Javier Baez, and Ben Zobrist to get everyone in, but a pure corner infielder just wasn’t going to rate to get more than a couple hundred at-bats a year for the Cubs. Therefore, the Cubs were able to “overpay” a bit for Justin Wilson, because what they were trading had so much less relative value to their own team than to Detroit’s, where Candelario can develop into a role suitable to his skills. In fact, this is the second straight trade deadline where they’ve done the same thing for largely the same reasons, having picked up Mike Montgomery in 2016 for the even more hopelessly blocked Dan Vogelbach.
Sometimes, there’s no out-and-out immovable objects, but teams just have so much talent stocked at a position that it becomes easier to trade the lesser hands out of the deck. The Yankees have a young talent situation that is so enviable that it’s starting to cause them 40-man roster problems. At the core, they’re specifically loaded in outfielders and middle infielders. Aaron Judge is an instant superstar, and Clint Frazier isn’t far behind. Jacoby Ellsbury remains a solid contributor and is signed through 2020. Aaron Hicks might’ve finally broken out. Tyler Wade merges the medium-term outfield and middle infield muddlement with his ability to play both. Didi Gregorius is entrenched at short, and Starlin Castro and Gleyber Torres should combine to lock in second and third for awhile.
This let them make two trades for mid-term pitching assets: in one deal they got high-end starting pitcher Sonny Gray, and in the other high-end relievers Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson, along with third base rental Todd Frazier. What role was Dustin Fowler going to play in 2018 or 2019, fourth outfielder if he was lucky? Where does Jorge Mateo, already losing his grasp on the shortstop position and likely headed for center himself, fit into the plans? Even if the Yankees really do think Blake Rutherford might be a star, he isn’t without warts. In addition to all the aforementioned outfielders, even fellow outfield prospect Estevan Florial has arguably surpassed Rutherford at the same level. None of this is a knock on Rutherford, who himself remains a perfectly good prospect, but why not move him when he still retains a ton of value from his draft position and early pro looks?
If you go back to last offseason, Yoan Moncada as the centerpiece of the Chris Sale trade pops out. Don’t get me wrong: with prospects of Moncada’s caliber, you find somewhere to play them. The Dodgers “didn’t have room” for Cody Bellinger in April, and in August we’re talking about whether he might hit 50 dingers or not. Well, unless a unicorn like Chris Sale comes along in the trade market, at least…
Nevertheless, it was probably a little easier for Boston to trade Moncada than it should’ve been. Moncada’s natural position is second base, where the Red Sox have longtime superstar Dustin Pedroia signed through 2021. Perhaps in a few years, Pedroia might be ready to move somewhere else to make way for Moncada, but not quite yet. Center field might’ve been a nice fit for Moncada’s skills, but defensive superstar Jackie Bradley has that position locked down just as long as Pedroia has his locked down, with emerging star Andrew Benintendi right there to slide from left if needed. The Red Sox tried third base, but Moncada showed little immediate aptitude for the position, and while it might’ve been a short-term fit for 2017, Moncada would’ve been squeezed by fellow uber-prospect and better third baseman Rafael Devers within a few years anyway. Benintendi and Mookie Betts make up the corner outfield situation for now, leaving Moncada’s future home very much up in the air.
It made some sense, then, for Moncada to be the featured chip in the Chris Sale deal, even though Boston clearly loved this player given how much they paid for him in real money and penalties. For the White Sox, Moncada was simply The Second Baseman whenever ready, without complication. He hasn’t played any other position since entering the organization, and has already easily cast aside Yolmer Sanchez and Tyler Saladino for the job in the majors. It should be his gig for quite some time. The road would’ve been tougher in Boston—maybe he supplants one of the above players, maybe he turns into the new Ben Zobrist, maybe he settles at third for a little bit and then moves elsewhere—but Sale was right there for the taking.