The price of parting with prospects -- for deep and thin farm systems

BY foxsports • November 18, 2015

Last week, MLB saw two of its first big trades of the winter, as both the Red Sox and Angels gave up significant pieces of their farm systems to acquire upgrades to their big-league roster. Boston acquired closer Craig Kimbrel, while Anaheim landed shortstop Andrelton Simmons.

In both cases, the acquisitions are not rentals, as Kimbrel is signed for two more years with a team option for a third, and Simmons is under contract through the 2020 season. To get high quality players with multiple years of team control, both teams had to give up significant prospects from their farm system. 

For the Red Sox, that meant parting with a pair of consensus Top 100 prospects in outfielder Manny Margot and shortstop Javier Guerra, along with a couple of lower-tier add-ons. For the Angels, the cost was left-handed pitcher Sean Newcomb, the team's first-round pick in the 2014 draft and the most coveted player they had in the minor leagues. They also parted with a second pitching prospect and shortstop Erick Aybar, who had been their everyday player at the position for the past seven years. 

Both teams surrendered talent they would rather have kept, but they felt strongly enough about the players they were receiving to make the trades anyway. And both teams did get very good players, among the best at their respective positions. But in terms of what these deals did to the remains of their respective farm systems, the situations could not be more different. 

In making the Kimbrel deal, Dombrowski referenced the Red Sox'€™s loaded farm system, which has regularly been considered one of the best in baseball. 

"You don't ever like to give up young talent," Dombrowski said. "We think they're very talented individuals. But I do think that (because of) the good job that the people at player development, scouting, international operations have done, we do have some depth at those positions. And we do have some other quality young players that we were asked about repeatedly."

Those quality young players Dombrowski is referring to? They are almost certainly Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, the team's pair of 23-year-old big-league cornerstones, who happen to play center field and shortstop, respectively -- the same positions that Margot and Guerra are playing in the minor leagues. With those positions locked down at the major-league level for the foreseeable future, Margot and Guerra were seen as somewhat extraneous to the team's long-term plans and were likely going to be traded at some point. The primary justification for paying a very high price for Kimbrel is that the team's depth of prospects allowed the Red Sox to make a trade like this. Even after surrendering good young talent, they have other good young talent to help them keep their future looking bright. 

The Angels are in a very different situation; Newcomb was essentially their only prospect of significance, now that Andrew Heaney has too much time in the majors to qualify as a prospect. Roberto Baldoquin, the team's top-rated prospect after Heaney and Newcomb heading into the 2015 season, just hit a meager .235/.266/.294 in Class A, to give you some idea of the organization's current crop of hitting prospects. With Newcomb, the team's farm system would have been rated as one of the worst in baseball; without him, it unquestionably is so. 

So, relative to their stock of future utility to the organization, the Angels probably gave up a greater percentage of their inventory than the Red Sox did, even though it's pretty clear the package San Diego got for Kimbrel is a better one than the Braves got for Simmons. But even though Newcomb had more utility to his own organization than Margot or Guerra did, I can't agree with the notion that highly talented prospects should be viewed as having significantly diminished value to an organization simply because of the presence of other highly talented players, even other talented players at the same position. 

As I've written in this space before, the historical bust rate of Top 100 prospects is somewhere around 70 percent, and even among elite position players -- the safest type of prospect -- the bust rate is still around 50 percent. Realistically, these kinds of logjams almost always work themselves out through attrition, as today's stud prospect regularly turns into tomorrow's stalled disappointment. While there wasn't currently a clear path to a regular job in Fenway for either Margot or Guerra, things change rapidly in baseball. 

And even when a ready-for-the-majors prospect actually is blocked at his primary position, teams almost always find a way to put their best lineup on the field, even if it requires some creativity. Betts came up as a second baseman blocked by Dustin Pedroia, but moved to center field after Jackie Bradley Jr. struggled. And now Betts is entrenched as one of the best young players in the game. This year's example is Kyle Schwarber, whose bat got him to Chicago even though there wasn't an opening for him at his primary position; the Cubs stuck him in left field and just lived with the defensive deficiencies. 

The scenario in which a team can't find room on its roster for a good player with nothing left to learn in the minors just doesn't exist, in practice. If Margot or Guerra had developed successfully, the Red Sox very likely would have had an open position that they could have filled at that time. It might not have been center field or shortstop, and one could reasonably argue that either player could lose some small portion of his value by moving to a less challenging defensive position. But defense matters everywhere, and their skills wouldn't be totally wasted no matter they ended up on the diamond. 

Trading a player in the present for less than full value because of the chance that he might have to lose 10 percent of his value by moving to another position in several years is the baseball definition of making a mountain out of a molehill. We simply don't know enough about the future to state with any real confidence that a low-minors prospect is less valuable to one organization than another due to the current formation of their rosters. There can be diminishing returns on players who are competing for playing time at the major-league level -- Schwarber might legitimately be less valuable to the Cubs than a team with an opening at first base, for instance -- but the playing time constraint doesn't exist in the minor leagues, where teams have plenty of options for getting everyone enough development time across their various levels of the farm system. 

And, perhaps more importantly, the perspective of the diminished value of a prospect to a team with a strong farm system relies upon the assumption of player value being set by his utility to his current team rather than the aggregate demand of the other 29 clubs to acquire his rights. In most cases where there is more than one interested buyer -- and if a prospect actually has real value, there is always more than one interested buyer -- the acquisition cost is more a function of the buyer's desire to win the bidding than the seller's desire to move the player. Players are made available (or not) often based on their ability to impact their current team's roster, but the price that other teams pay to acquire their rights is a function of how valuable he would be to his new team, not his old one. 

So even if we accept that a team with a loaded farm system won't be able to deploy all its prospects -- assuming it has historically great success at developing them, and the problem isn't solved by normal attrition -- then we still should expect that a team selling high-end talent should get a return commensurate with that talent. The Red Sox's prospects shouldn't be any less valuable to other teams than any other team's equivalent prospects, even if those players were less valuable to the Red Sox themselves. 

There's no perfect balance that needs to be struck between the right amount of talent on the big-league roster versus the farm system. A team with a real chance to win now should be willing to trade future value to upgrade its present roster regardless of the state of its farm system, and I believe Billy Eppler recognized that he was getting more in return with Simmons than he was giving up in Newcomb. So even though he further stripped a barren farm system of talent, the Angels are quite possibly better off long-term for having made that trade. 

And likewise, a team with a strong farm system and a host of prospects should feel no compulsion to convert some of them into current value major leaguers just because it eventually might not be able to use them all. Maybe getting Kimbrel back was really the best return that the Red Sox package of prospects could have landed, or maybe the Red Sox believe that Margot and Guerra were likely to lose value over the next year as flaws got exposed at higher levels. There are arguments in favor of the Red Sox paying a steep price for win-now talent; we just shouldn't readily accept that teams with strong farm systems should have to -- or be willing to -- overpay in trades because it doesn't leave their systems barren after making such a deal. 



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