If you read it, you know that I advocated for the Phillies to stop asking the Red Sox about outfielder Mookie Betts and catcher Blake Swihart and target the team’s next level of prospects in trade talks for left-hander Cole Hamels.
As the Red Sox prepare to host the Orioles this weekend (MLB on FOX Sports 1, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET), I still believe the Sox will be not only the Phillies’ most willing trade partner, but also the one with the deepest pool of young players.
But there is another side to this argument, and that side is worth telling, too.
As anyone in baseball can attest, many prospects fail to reach their potential. If the Phillies trade Hamels — a genuine ace who is guaranteed a relatively reasonable $96 million over the next four years — they want to be as certain as possible that their return will be strong.
The Red Sox cannot offer that degree of certainty without including Betts or even the less proven Swihart. Frankly, no team can make the Phillies such a guarantee, which is why, if Philadelphia general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is indeed serious about trading Hamels, he eventually will need to stop dithering and take his best shot.
Never mind that Hamels, 31, has struggled in two of his first three starts this season; his track record suggests that he will snap out of it, and he also has been one of baseball’s most durable pitchers, ranking fifth in the majors in innings from 2007 to ’14.
On second thought, it’s easy to understand why Amaro might be reluctant to jump, particularly if the Red Sox will not part with Betts, who looks like he could be a superstar, or Swihart, who also has All-Star ability.
The Red Sox, from 2010 to ’14, had a farm system that ranked an average of eighth in the majors according to Baseball America, including sixth and second the past two years. Yet, when examining the publication’s annual lists of top 10 Red Sox prospects, the risk in developing youngsters becomes rather clear.
Keep in mind that the following breakdown is fluid, with the futures of a number of prospects still to be determined. But here is a rough snapshot of the 29 players who appeared on the Red Sox’s top 10 lists over the past five years. Some players made multiple lists, and some, of course, did not remain with the Red Sox.
All-Stars: One (Anthony Rizzo).
Regular major-league contributors: Six (Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jose Iglesias, Will Middlebrooks, Josh Reddick, Junichi Tazawa).
Fringe major leaguers: Three (Ryan Lavarnway, Stolmy Pimentel, Anthony Ranaudo).
Past contributors: One (Felix Doubront).
Slowed or ruined by injuries: Four (Ryan Kalish, Casey Kelly, Ryan Westmoreland, Brandon Workman).
Still on the bubble: Two (Jackie Bradley Jr., Allen Webster).
Still prospects: Five (Trey Ball, Garin Cecchini, Deven Marrero, Henry Owens, Swihart).
That group does not include players such as Christian Vazquez and Tim Federowicz, who failed to make top 10 list. It also does not include pre-2010 prospects such as Nick Hagadone, who has been up and down, and Daniel Bard, who has been a disappointment.
The point is, you just don’t know.
In 2010, Baseball America ranked Anderson fourth and Rizzo eighth on its Red Sox list and said that both were competing to be the team’s first baseman of the future. Rizzo, the publication said, had less power than Anderson, but a more fluid swing, a more consistent approach and better defensive ability.
In 2012, BA named Middlebrooks the team’s No. 1 prospect, envisioning him as the long-term replacement for Kevin Youkilis. “If scouts drew up a blueprint for a third baseman, it would like Middlebrooks,” the publication said, and perhaps that still will prove to be the case.
I’m not trying to pick on BA, which does yeoman’s work; prospect evaluation vexes everyone in the sport, from scouts to GMs, reporters to statistical analysts. I’m also not trying to pick on the Red Sox; all teams can point to successes and failures in development, and the Sox actually are better that most.
It’s just that if you’re looking for sure things, this is the wrong game.
Of course, keeping Hamels also is not a sure thing, and if he suffers an injury or continues to slump, the Phillies will have squandered their best asset. Still, the Phils do not consider Hamels a financial burden. They know that his remaining guarantee will be tens of millions less than the top free-agent pitchers will command next off-season. They know, as the rest of the sport knows, that the Red Sox need a No. 1 starter.
I’m not backing off — I still say the Phillies need to make the best deal they can with the Red Sox. But prospects are often not what they seem, and baseball rarely can be viewed in black and white.