Monday, July 31, 2017

Do Trades for Prospects Really Work?

Franklin Barreto - photo

  On November 28th, 2014, then-Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos dealt 3rd Baseman Brett Lawrie and three prospects for Oakland 3B Josh Donaldson.  It was not the first time Anthopoulos had dealt prospects in an attempt to bolster the major league roster, of course, and the November deal did not bring about an end to his prospect dealing.  In 4 separate deadline deals in 2015, Anthopoulos dealt a total of 10 prospects at the July trade deadline.

   At that time, many hard core Blue Jays fans had mixed feelings.  On the one hand, the club was able to pick up key pieces like Troy Tulowitzki and David Price without sacrificing a player from the 25-man roster.  On the other, the club parted with some top prospects like Jeff Hoffman and Daniel Norris, and dealt some of its prospect depth.

   By September, of 2015, however, most of that concern had long since faded away.  The Blue Jays turned their season around, playing scorching baseball down the stretch to break a two decades long playoff drought.   As the 2017 season progresses, the team's aging core is showing signs of wear and tear, and while the farm system is producing talent in abundance,  in the words of President Mark Shaprio, "Most of it is at the lower levels."  The club looks to be at the fringes of a post-season berth, at best.

   Will Shapiro and his front office colleagues be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline?  Will they look to shed some contractual obligations, or will they try to once again upgrade the major league roster by dealing some of that far-off prospect depth?

   History suggests that dealing for prospects doesn't always work.  Here's a look at the deals Anthopoulos made to give us much of the current big league roster, and an analysis of the benefits they brought to the club:

November 28, 2014
   Josh Donaldson for Franklin Barreto, Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin, and Brett Lawrie.

    Donaldson has provided 17.7 WAR (BR's version) of value, an MVP award, and led the team to a pair of post-season appearances since his acquisiton.  Barreto won the Northwest League's MVP award that year at the tender age of 18, and was the centrepiece of that deal.  He made his MLB debut in June, and was returned to AAA after hitting .190/.262/.381.  Graveman did a decent job in the back of the Athletics' rotation last year, but injuries have limited him to 8 starts this year, and he's currently on a rehab assignment.  The oft-injured Noin made 6 starts for Oakland in 2015, spent all of last year on the DL, and was picked up by Milwaukee on waivers last fall.  He's been on the DL again since Opening Day.  Lawrie was dealt to the White Sox after one season, and was released early in spring training this year, and has yet to catch on with an MLB organization.
    It was sad to see Barreto go, but he was so far away (and there was considerable doubt about his eventual position), so the victors in this deal were clearly the Blue Jays.

July 28, 2015
   Troy Tulowitzki and LaTroy Hawkins for Jose Reyes, Jeff Hoffman, Miguel Castro, and Jesus Tinoco.
    Tulo plugged the gaping hole at SS that was Reyes, and Hawkins stablilized the 7th inning for the club, and both were integral parts of the run to the pennant that year.  Hoffman was a 1st round pick in 2014, but was coming off Tommy John surgery.  He made 4 starts for Colorado in 2016, and now has become a mainstay of their rotation, but like many pitchers who ply their trade in Coors Field, his numbers are a bit unsightly.  Castro was an electric-armed reliever who rocketed through the Blue Jays farm system in 2014, and broke camp with the club the following year, even though he had never pitched about High A.  MLB hitters teed off on his fastball, which consistently caught too much of the plate, and he was back in the minors after a month.  Traded to Baltimore at the start of this season, Castro has been on the MLB/AAA shuffle, but appears to be sticking with the O's this time around, and has posted a 2.70 ERA in 26 innings.  Tinoco made great progress in Low A in 2015, but has struggled since then, and has yet to pitch above High A.
   Hawkins retired after 2015, and while Tulo has had his struggles with the bat this year, and is possibly out for the season after injuring his ankle this weekend,  the Blue Jays are once again clearly the hands-down winners of this deal.  His contributions on and off the field have been numerous.

July 30, 2015
   David Price for Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd
    On paper, this deal had the greatest potential to be win-win for both sides.  Price gave the Blue Jays a legitimate ace, and Norris and Boyd promised to give the Tigers some long-term rotation depth.
     Price, of course, moved on to the Red Sox as a free agent at the end of the season.  Norris had some health issues, but over the last month of 2016 appeared to be on the verge of becoming a front-of-the-rotation arm.  Boyd was never a highly-heralded prospect, but all he did as a minor leaguer was get hitters out.  He made 18 starts for the Tigers in 2016, and it was easy to pencil him in as a back-of-the-rotation guy for 2017.  Both have had their struggles this year:  Norris posted a 5.29 ERA in 16 starts before going on the DL in early July, and is rehabbing in AAA; Boyd has been on the Detroit-Toledo shuffle after making the club out of spring training, and is currently with the Tigers.
    Price led the Blue Jays to the post-season.  Norris and Boyd have not put the Tigers over the top.  If there was a winner in this deal, a slight edge would go to the Blue Jays, although they have proved they could have used some starting pitching depth this year.

July 31st, 2015
   Mark Lowe for Jake Brentz and Nick Wells.
    Lowe, along with Hawkins, helped bolster the Blue Jays pennant run in 2015.  He left for the Tigers as a free agent after the season, and has bounced to the Mariners and the White Sox, for whom he's pitching in AAA at the moment.
    Brentz was a project - a guy who hadn't pitched a whole lot before being drafted, and was still learning the craft in 2015.  Dealt to the Pirates last year, he was moved to the bullpen full time this year, and was recently promoted to AA.  In four pro seasons, Wells has not pitched above Low A.
    This is a  deal that is almost a wash, except for the fact that Lowe played some post-season ball in 2015.

July 31, 2015
   Ben Revere for Jimmy Cordero and Alberto Tirado.
   Revere played very well for the Blue Jays for two months in 2015, and was a fixture at the top of the order, getting on base at a rate well above his career average.  Things have been pretty much downhill for him since then.
   Cordero had a fastball that could reach triple digits, but he didn't always know where it was going, and he's walked as many (32) as he has struck out in 42 innings at AA this year.  Tirado seems to have been around forever, but is only 22.  He had been moved to the bullpen that year after having difficulties as a starter, but the Phillies sent him from High to Low A last year in an attempt to move him back into the rotation.  It seems to have succeeded, as Tirado was promoted to AA recently.
    Slight edge to the Blue Jays.  Revere is long gone, but he gave the club two months of value and contributed to a pennant winner.

   There was some wringing of hands among Blue Jays fans about the number of prospects that were given up, but the truth of the matter is that the only quality players the team gave up were Barreto, Norris, and Hoffman, and all three have yet to make a big impact at the major league level.  The Blue Jays in 2015 were still able to hang onto the prospects they were least willing to part with (Anthony Alford, Rowdy Tellez, Richard UreƱa, Conner Greene, Sean Reid-Foley), and yet they acquired key pieces to their pennant drive.
   Recent research by Baseball America suggests that prospect deals made at the trade deadline don't work out for the team acquiring prospects more often than they do.  Most teams now are very reluctant to give up young, controllable players whom they've already invested a great deal of time and money in. And the Blue Jays' experience in 2015 seems to point in that direction.  The short-term gain the team experienced more than cancelled out any long term consequences of the deal, and they still were able to hold on to the prospects the prized the most.


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