September 10, 2009

The Prospects of Prospects

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Staying together for the kids? How about keeping the kids together for the grown-ups.
Baseball has been doing it since Branch Rickey orchestrated the purchase of minor-league teams in 1920s St. Louis. In the modern game, with revenues skyrocketing, new attendance records every season and profits as high as ever, young talent in the MLB is often as prized as a dominant starter or established power hitter.
In today’s game, a young right-hander in the Bronx can have his own t-shirt and catchphrase, and a third baseman with an all-American smile has made the sports world believe that the bastard child of the AL East can compete with the big boys.
So sure, Joba Rules, and Evan Longoria helped bring a pennant to (smirk) Tampa Bay.
But has the publicity that players such as Chamberlain and Longoria receive perhaps done too much to over-hype the promise of the young talent that fill farm systems across the MLB?
Just ask the Doc.
Having a season that earned him a start in the All-Star Game, and with his team middling in the Wild Card race, Blue Jays pitcher Roy Halladay was all but certain that he would find himself on a contending team by the trade deadline. Toronto general manager J.P. Riccardi’s wish-list? The likes of Austin Jackson, Clay Buchholz or Kyle Drabek — all nice, young, promising players. But in return for the Yankees, Red Sox or Phillies was the promise of immediately becoming the favorite to win a World Series in 2009. Yet not a single team pulled the trigger, unwilling to part with their beloved prospects.
Dan Marino’s career is considered flawed because he never won one. New York Football Giants fans can forgive Plaxico Burress and the hole in his thigh because he brought them one. Yet, three teams in three of the biggest markets felt compelled to turn down the fast track to October and one of the league’s greatest No. 1 starters because of the promise of future greatness. Although the Yankees have gained control over the AL East, the Bombers will have some question marks in their rotation come the postseason. With a slim lead in the Wild Card and the John Smoltz Experiment replaced by the even less-promising Paul Byrd Experiment, Boston seems maybe even desperate for starting pitching.
While Philadelphia general manager Ruben Amaro swung a trade for the second-best available pitcher in Cliff Lee, and has certainly seen dividends, were Brian Cashman and Theo Epstein right to sacrifice the present for the hope of the future?
After the 2007 season, the Mets traded their best young prospects for the most dominant ace in the game. In order to steal away Johan Santana and the filthiest changeup in baseball from Minnesota, the New York Metropolitans shipped west minor-leaguers Carlos Gomez and Phil Humber.
In the two years since, Johan has been every bit the ace as advertized.
The kids? Well, they’re not alright.
After hitting .286 with a .777 OPS for the Mets’ AAA affiliate in 2007, in 2009 Gomez is batting .237 with an anemic .641 OPS in Minneapolis. Phil Humber had a solid 4.27 ERA in the minor leagues for the Mets in ’07, but there must be something in the water in those Twins clubhouses; for the Twins’ AAA team, Humber has an ERA that has inflated to 8.00 to go along with an outrageous 2.89 WHIP.
In 2005, Boston felt the same need for a bona fide No. 1 starter, and took advantage of the Marlins’ post-championship fire sale to secure pitcher Josh Beckett and third baseman Mike Lowell. The cost was steep by most accounts: five-tool shortstop Hanley Ramirez and pitcher Anibal Sanchez, who tossed a no-hitter at the age of 22.
But did Theo really get housed? Let’s review. The Red Sox received the legitimate ace they wanted — no, needed — to win another title and overtake the Yankees as the dominant AL East power. Meanwhile, since heading to Beantown, Mike Lowell has picked-up an All-Star selection, World Series MVP award, and become an established run producer in the middle of the Sox lineup. Back in Florida, Ramirez has been as good as advertized, but has been unable to draw the Fish from obscurity. In his last full season, Sanchez posted a 5.57 ERA, 1.56 WHIP and had about as much control as Chuck Knoblauch, walking almost five batters per nine innings. The nod goes to the Red Sox, their ace and their World Championship ring.
But certainly not all recent trades for aces have benefitted the pitcher’s new home. In 2008, the Orioles sent strikeout king Erik Bedard to Seattle for Adam Jones and George Sherrill. Since? Bedard still gets a ton of strikeouts and has a 2.82 ERA in 2009, but has seen significant time on the disabled list. Meanwhile, Jones and Sherrill are both All-Stars and made some waves in Baltimore.
The difference between the Bedard trade and the swaps for Santana and Beckett? While Santana and Beckett were traded primarily for true prospects — players who had not yet appeared in the majors — Jones had played 41 games in the MLB in 2007, and Sherrill was over 30 when he was traded.
The trend seems to hold true as you dig deeper into the history of recent trades for ace pitchers. In 2004, Mark Mulder went from Oakland to the Cardinals for a Cali boy named Danny Haren. After going 16-8 for St. Louis in 2005, Mulder couldn’t post an ERA south of 7, and is currently out of baseball; Haren has been an ace ever since. It would seem that Billy Beane knew what he was doing; he had seen Haren played in 18 MLB games, including two World Series appearances.
The one foil for the theory might be the trade the Expos swung in 2002 when they foolishly gave up Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore, all true prospects, for Bartolo Colon. However, who you might ask was the Montreal GM who swung that gem of a deal in 2002? Omar Minaya. Talk about a foil; I’ll chalk that one up to simple incompetence.
Are Joba Chamberlain and Evan Longoria worth the hype? Even disregarding the massive amount of money they make for their organizations, absolutely. Young, talented players who have seen their skills translate well in the majors, even over a short period of time, have an extraordinary track record of success. But the Kyle Drabek and Austin Jacksons of the world? While Drabek or Buchholz may become Roy Halladay next year, Roy Halladay is Roy Halladay today. Maybe the kids will be alright after all, but in 2009, you need big boy muscles to lift The Commissioner’s Trophy.
Someone should have seen the Doctor about that.