The Trade Deadline: The Value of Prospects (Part III)

Part I: The Data on Prospects
Part II: Breaking Down the Data

The trade deadline is less than 36 hours away, and a lot of trades are going to happen in that window. Teams like Philadelphia, Chicago (the north side), and Miami are looking for the best return while teams like St. Louis, Chicago (the south side), and Los Angeles are trying to keep their best prospects while improving their team. The big question surrounding the deadline is how much is too much or too little?

Fans obviously want their team to get the most for what they have, but often lack an understanding of what a sort of trade is realistic and what is fantasy. Zach Lee for Ryan Dempster: fantasy. Zach Lee for Hunter Pence: realistic. In the world of the new CBA, control means everything. Teams are no longer able to get draft picks for rental players, so the price for an expiring contract, as it is better known in basketball, has gone down.

Complicating matters is the extra wild card spot. More teams are getting into the playoffs, so obviously more teams will be buyers at the deadline. Extra demand plus lower supply minus draft pick compensation for rental players creates a new marketplace for MLB teams, so re-evaluation is more important now than in previous years.

Prospects are treasured more now than ever before, possibly (in part) because they are more visible than ever by fans. People can follow prospects’ stat lines on Baseball Reference or, and can even watch live feeds of minor league games on Fans know about players like Anthony Rizzo and own their jerseys before they make their debuts.

But how valuable are these prospects, really? Should teams be so stingy about trading their best minor league players and simply go for it with an impact rental instead? Jeff Passan wrote for Yahoo Sports about the deadline and the questions that surround it, which included the following:

Certainly a Hamels or Greinke won’t bring what a top-notch player did in the past. Earlier this week, St. Louis Cardinals GM John Mozeliak, when comparing past and present, offered the team’s 2009 deadline acquisition of Matt Holliday for then-top prospect Brett Wallace and a couple lesser prospects, pitcher Clayton Mortensen and outfielder Shane Peterson.

“I don’t think we make that trade today,” Mozeliak said. “We had no certainty we’d be able to sign Matt Holliday in the offseason. I don’t know how many teams are going to value giving up two or three premium players when they have no certainty of getting draft picks in the end.”

It should be pointed out that buyers at the trade deadline (like Mozeliak) are probably going to try and drive the price down by saying things like this, but the point still stands. Mozeliak’s statement sounds odd because of how the players the Cardinals gave away are doing now. Brett Wallace is probably a bench bat and the other two aren’t much of anything. I understand that Mozeliak is trying to look back at what he would do at that time if the new compensation rules were in effect, but it only goes to prove a point: prospects are often overrated.

So how accurate are prospect rankings? Let’s look at the data from part one of the article.







Top 25






Top 50






Top 110






Top 26-50






Top 51-110






What we found out from part II of this series is that top 25 prospects are extremely valuable, as they turn into above average regulars at a nearly 50% clip. But after that tier, the pool of players begins to fall apart. Only about 25% of the next 25 players become above average regulars, and the bottom portion of the list sits at about 10%.

Complicating matters is the time it takes for these players to reach their ceilings and how long their peaks last. Players like Tim Lincecum, Alex Gordon, Chris Young, and Colby Rasmus show how things can change from season to season. Lincecum won two Cy Youngs before this dud of a season. Gordon took years before breaking out last season. Young will never hit for a decent average. Rasmus didn’t follow up his breakout season successfully. Any of these players could fall of the map next year or fail to get back to their peaks. It’s the nature of the beast.

The bottom line is this: prospects are risky. For every Ryan Braun, there are hundreds of Drew Stubbs and Luke Hochevars out there. So while it seems crazy to trade Jacob Turner for Anibel Sanchez and Omar Infante, it is probably the right move. Teams should be weary when it comes to trading their best prospects, but if they have an opportunity to win, they should take it.

I’m not saying Texas should trade Jurickson Profar or the Orioles should trade Dylan Bundy, but when it comes to guys like Turner or Mike Olt, they should be open to it. For the right deal that is. It’s hard to say if the Cardinals, at the time of the Holliday trade, knew they were giving up damaged goods or if they took a risk and traded a prospect they liked. Looking back, it was clearly the right move for the Cardinals, and it probably made the Holliday signing possible since he was familiar with the team.

Teams have to trust their scouts to evaluate prospects and then take risks with players who aren’t the top prospects in the game. And even then, teams should still pause and think. When the Rangers traded for Cliff Lee and gave up Justin Smoak, a guy who was seen as a future star, it got them to the World Series. They would say it was worth it.


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