by Joe Giglio
While the Winter Meeting laid the groundwork for the flurry of activity around the sport over the last week, the annual February release of Baseball America’s Top 100 prospect rankings now serves as the true precursor to major deals.
Despite baseball’s revenues growing by the day, every organization is seeking to build a farm system capable of producing future stars. Now, that’s always been the case. Pre-arbitration players are most always cheaper, more durable, and more productive than older, expensive veterans. But they’ve never been as sought after as they are now.
From Oakland to New York to Tampa to Los Angeles, having a trade chip that projects to a cheap, All-Star caliber player is impossible to top in trade negotiations. Depending on the era, putting a true “Ace” or “RBI guy” on the open market would be a quick way to rebuild or retool the most pressing area of an organization. Now, it’s about the highly-touted youngster.
A look through Baseball America’s Top 10 preseason lists over the past decade reveals a startling truth about the impact of these prospects in a farm system. Teams like Minnesota, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Texas would have never moved players like Mauer, Fielder, Prior, and Teixeira, respectively, a decade ago. In 2012, there is no such thing as the “untouchable” player.
As Jonah Keri of Grantland chronicled in his breakdown of the Ray-Royals deal that sent Wil Myers -- ‘11 Top 10 BA prospect, likely to be in the Top 5 this coming February -- team building doesn’t have to be a black and white affair. Thinking outside the box has helped teams like Tampa Bay and Oakland thrive recently. That might help explain why nine -- Jesus Montero, Trevor Bauer, Wil Myers, Colby Rasmus, Tommy Hanson, Cameron Maybin, Travis Snider, Delmon Young, Andrew Miller -- of BA’s Top 10 prospects have been traded over the past six years.
Win-now franchises have always been willing to sacrifice the future for the present, but many of the deals those nine were involved in did not fit that profile. Arizona moving Bauer a year after his No. 9 overall ranking for a 22-year-old shortstop that has 21 major league plate appearances doesn’t scream desperation or front office pressure to win in 2012. The same can be said for Brian Cashman flipping Montero for Michael Pineda -- a year from Russell Martin’s impending free agency and subsequent defection to Pittsburgh.
As recently as a decade ago, the cream of the prospect crop was labeled as one of two commodities: Franchise building block or trade chip to acquire the player to put a team over the top.
The willingness of Kansas City GM Dayton Moore to move Myers -- regardless of what you think of the deal -- showed the new label for the cost-controlled future star: Asset.
With salaries skyrocketing due to revenue streams, crafty agents, and more postseasons spots available to contenders, every franchise -- not just the smaller markets -- hopes to find some of these players. Drafting and developing them remains the easiest and most efficient way, but trading for them has now become an option for many executives.
Clearly, these moves come with enhanced risk. It’s generally understood that trading an established play for a prospect is risky, but can be very, very rewarding. On the other hand, trading a prospect for an older, but established star -- think Kansas City betting big on James Shields -- represents a different gamble. Breaking from the “untouchable” label is something some fans have clamored for over the years. We are now in the bizarro world of team building and farm system shaping: Cashing in future, cheap All-Star level production as an asset rather than a foundational piece in an organization.
Joe Giglio is a sports talk host at WFAN in New York, former intramural coordinator at DeSales University, husband, and baseball fanatic willing to argue Jeff Bagwell's Hall of Fame candidacy at a moment's notice. Follow him on Twitter @JoeGiglioSports and check out his blog at joegiglio.blogspot.com.