Monday, December 29, 2014

The Prospect and the Promise

But... I already said goodbye...

Part of the beauty of baseball fandom is the patience. Its kind of like owning a plant. You give it an appropriate amount of attention and watch it grow. Sometimes you are rewarded with a healthy, room commanding, conversation piece. And other times you have a fern that seemed to start dying the day you brought it home.

Either way, you have put a lot thought into that plant, I mean team. As you follow a team year after year, you become more and more involved with the players that are coming through your team's system and how they ultimately fit into the bigger scheme. Sometimes these players become real parts of your team's history. Other times these prospects are shipped out of town to acquire other integral pieces. And sometimes these kids wind up just plain a disappointment.

As much as we as fans invest in these prospects, organizations invest even more. We may look at only the signing bonus or initial salary that is paid to each one of these players, but understanding a teams investment in each player is to dig deep into a team's scouting and player development system of which all those people deserve compensation for their work. I have met a few scouts in my life and their understanding of this game compared to mine is not even close.

So I'm left to compare my emotional/quasi-intellectual understanding of a player's importance to a team to that of a real baseball organization's view of that players value. It makes me wonder if there is a formula of value that these teams are working with of which we are not fully aware. Or is it possible that teams don't give it that much thought.

Consider the approach of two different organizations:

Boston Red Sox

Arguably loaded with both position and pitching prospects. We all know about Xander Bogaerts (a SS because he can play there), Mookie Betts (good enough to create a position where there wasn't one) and Blake Swihart (Buster Posey lite?), but there are also some other depth options there of questionable futures including Deven Marrero, Bryce Brentz, & Manuel Margot, etc. The pitching prospects almost seem deeper, but mostly yield some number 2 ceilings (Henry Owens, Eduardo Rodriguez) with a decent amount of 3,4,5's (Brian Johnson, Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo) and future relievers (Brandon Workman, Heath Hembree, Edwin Escobar)

Despite this depth, the Red Sox have been pretty reluctant to deal any of these players for current impact players. This was not necessarily the case with this organization 10 years ago when Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez where sent to the Florida/Miami Marlins for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. No one would necessarily criticize that deal considering that it netted Boston the 2007 World Series, but it does show an organization willing to part with prospects for sure things.

So why won't the Red Sox part with its high level prospects now for proven commodities? I honestly don't want to see any of the players the Red Sox have spent the last few years developing get traded away, especially when I see the prospective return available. There are plenty of good players that could be acquired, but factoring in contractual obligations and such there really is only so much out there. But at the same time, the recent flops of Will Middlebrooks and Jackie Bradley Jr. (In all fairness, the book has yet to be written) why not flip a few of these player for a proven, win now player?

Fortunately, the Red Sox are in a position where they can allow many of these young players to develop because they are able to fill line-up holes in a lot of different ways. These young player while largely unproven are very affordable and will continue to be for several years to come. Keeping these players allows the Red Sox to sign guys like Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez for a combine $200mil without handcuffing the team going forward. Its likely a similar approach that they are also using in building the 2015 rotation. All projected starting pitchers are under 30, and none of them are under contract for more than 3 years. The Red Sox could make a Max Scherzer type signing, but they don't really need to given the affordable pitching depth about to percolate up to the majors.

And then the other side of the coin...

Philadelphia Phillies

Ruben Amaro Jr. and the Phillies don't want to part with anyone. They locked up a big part of their successful core for a lot of money.and now they just don't have much to show for it. Even though the Phils do have a lot of money coming of the books in the next few years, they don't have anyone to replace the aging vets on their way out. According the the Phillies had the 25th ranked farm system for 2014.

They did trade Jimmy Rollins, which I guess means something. Rollins really wanted be a Philly and put his mark on their books for which he go nothing but flack. Amaro finally moved him at about his lowest perceived value.

Even though he flipped the franchise SS/former MVP, Amaro still has a lot of work to do and might not have very many pieces with which to get the job done. Cliff Lee won't be traded unless he wants to be. Ryan Howard could be moved, but the Phils would need to eat a lot if not all of his contract. Chase Utley may be more valuable as a "face of the organization" than a trade chip. Paplebon may be gone eventually, but no one is giving up top prospects for relievers. So there is really just Cole Hamels as the only piece the Phillies could use to jump start their rebuild. That's why Ruben is holding Cole Hamels hostage like he's trying to get into Taken 4.

I get that he wants a nice return, but if you look at recent offseason moves, you're going to have to settle on something less than a team's 3 best prospects. Kemp, Myers, Samardzija, & Donaldson were not acquired for their teams top prospects and neither will be Hamels. I don't care about the years of somewhat affordable control, he's still 30 and the 2015 offseason will offer equally fertile ground. Its not like 29 other teams care if Hamels wins 20 games on a Phillies team that only wins 70.

Now, I think I understand Amaro's position. He has to rebuild the Phillies, and he's got do it quick. Otherwise, he will need to start looking for a new place to live.

Unfortunately, there is only so long that he can hold out for the best return. At some point Hamels becomes an asset of diminishing returns. Maybe that doesn't happen until winter 2017, but I would bet on it coming a whole lost sooner than that. And I'm pretty sure that the Phil's don't finish above .500 for any of those seasons with Hamels taking the ball every 5th day.

The Phillies got themselves into this position by put entirely too much stock in their own players. With a lot of home grown talent I can understand certain aspects of a reluctance to deal your marquee players. But Philly's future has been clear for a while. Rollins, Utley, & Howard (that contract...) could have all been dealt or moved on for better value by now and the Phillies' record wouldn't be any worse for it. Instead, now we have a Phillies team that everyone knows needs to be rebuilt, but the team's top asset (Hamels) doesn't have a franchise remodeling type of value.

No one would ever accuse the Red Sox of this approach. If anything, once a player develops and is considering moving on, the Red Sox usually open the door and rush them out likes its closing time (see Jacoby Ellsbury). They have been pretty successful turning comp picks received into major league players, but the Sox will also move a player for a more immediate return if available (Jon Lester-Yoenis Cespedes-Rick Porcello). The Red Sox unsentimental approach may infuriate fans, the anger usually subsides when they hang the next banner on Yawkey Way.

The only conclusion I came to throughout this rambling diatribe is that understanding a players value is like trying to hit a moving target. A player probably has the most value when they are helping you win, but no one wins every year. So when is it time to move on or upgrade? The calculus is probably different in each organization, but I'd feel more comfortable moving on a year to early instead of a year or 2 to late.

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