The Mets head into the season with Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran in the final years of their respective contracts. There has been talk of trading either or both in the middle of the season for prospects, and this discussion spurred me to take a look at the relative success of prospects traded in exchange for established players. It seems like it's a 50/50 proposition at best that the players you receive come anywhere near matching the quality of the player traded. For every Jeff Bagwell there is an Alex Ochoa. But I wanted to verify that by looking through all of the player-prospect deals done over the past 10-20 years to see how often the team selling off its established stars received an adequate return on investment.
Then I quickly sobered up and realized that would take a really long time and involve a lot more research than I have time for. So another way to gauge whether prospects traded for stars ever make it is to see how many of the top players in the game are guys that were dealt in deadline deals or the like for established players. So I looked at Fangraphs top 70 players by WAR and top 70 pitchers by WAR for 2010. Why 70? Because that's how many returns you get on 2 pages. That also averages out to approximately 5 players for team, so that's a decent sampling. The bottom WAR range for everyday players is 3.1, and for pitchers 2.2. I acknowledge that there are methodological problems with this approach, but I figured this should provide a deep enough list of the best players in the game to get some kind of idea how stars are acquired.
After looking through each players' transaction history, I also wound up compiling a list of categories of how each player was acquired, so the scope of my research ultimately went beyond determining how many of these guys were once prospects for another team. So how do things shake out?
This is the breakdown of how the top 140 (or so) players were acquired by the teams they played for in 2010. For those guys who played for more than one team, I went by the team that they played for at the end of the 2010 season. This list does not account for players who changed teams after the season ended.
Drafted by Team in First Round: 35
Free Agent: 24
Drafted by Team in Rounds 2-10: 17
Signed by Team as Amateur Free Agent: 9
Drafted by Team After 20th Round: 4
Drafted by Team in Rounds 11-20: 3
Rule 5 pick: 3
Claimed off waivers: 3
So a majority of the top players in the game were either dealt for, or are still playing for the team that originally drafted them in the first round (obviously many of the traded players were first round picks themselves at some point).
These categories don't tell the whole story. For instance, the free agent category includes highly sought after prices like CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira, as well as instances where teams struck gold: David Ortiz, Jayson Werth, R.A. Dickey etc. In fact I'd say most of the free agents on this list are not guys who were necessarily thought of as major acquisitions. (A possible topic for another post - the percentage of major signings that work versus those that don't.)
What's notable is that for all the talk that the draft is a crapshoot, and to some extent it is, stars are not often found past the first two rounds. Yes, Albert Pujols was a 13th round pick, but he's the exception to the rule. The only four guys on the list who were drafted past the 20th round and who are still with their original team are: Jaime Garcia (22nd Rd), Dallas Braden (24th Rd), Jonathan Sanchez (27th Rd), and Mark Buehrle (38th Rd). Roy Oswalt would have been the fifth guy had he not been traded by the Astros in mid-season.
As for those traded, most of these were already established stars (Oswalt, Halladay, Alex Rodriguez, Scott Rolen, Johan Santana, etc). A few were prospects or younger players who were dealt in minor deals for other prospects: Josh Hamilton, Angel Pagan, Jon Danks, Jason Hammel.
So how many of these guys were prospects or non-established young players who were traded for established names? Here is a breakdown of players that meet this criteria, with their 2010 Fangraph WAR value in parentheses:
Daric Barton (4.9): Part of one of the worst robberies ever, as he was dealt from St. Louis with Dan Haren in exchange for Mark Mulder. Yeah, that did not work out too well for the Cards. Actually, Mulder was decent in 2005 before his career was decimated by injuries. But this is one of the rare times when two eventually productive prospects were traded, and the return was pretty minimal for St. Louis, although not as bad as the AJ Pierzynski deal - we'll get to that in a moment.
Paul Konerko (4.2): Traded by the Dodgers in 1998 to Cincy for Jeff Shaw, and then flipped later for Mike Cameron. Considering that Cameron himself was hardly established at the time, this barely qualifies.
Gio Gonzalez (3.2): Traded not once, not twice, but three times. He was dealt by the White Sox as the player to be named later added to the Aaron Rowand for Jim Thome deal in 2005, and then traded back to them in the Floyd-Garcia trade above, and then dealt with Ran Sweeney and Faustno de Los Santos to Oakland for Nick Swisher.
Jason Vargas (2.6): Originally acquired by the Mets along with the Adam Bostick for Lindstrom and Owens. He was then dealt to Seattle in the three-team
clusterfuck trade for JJ Putz. If it makes you feel any better he's on the low end of the leaderboard.
Jake Westbrook (2.3): I have to bend the rules here in order to include him, but he was traded by the Yankees, along with Ricky Ledee (remember him?) and Zach Day for David Justice in 2000. After a decade in Cleveland he was dealt last July to St. Louis. He was 68th according to Fangraphs WAR.
Austin Jackson (3.8) : Saving the best for last. There are no less than 5 players on the two leaderboards that were involved in the 3-team deal involving the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Tigers: Jackson, Curtis Granderson (3.6), Edwin Jackson (3.8), Max Scherzer (3.7), and Ian Kennedy (2.4).
As I said, this methodology isn't perfect. It doesn't include, for example, the Mark Teixeira trade in which the Braves traded Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison and Jarrod Saltalamacchia in exchange for Teixeira. Andrus has been a decent player in his first two seasons and Feliz is now the closer. (As a side note, it's worth noting that the trade did not help the Braves get into the post-season in 2007, and a year later they traded Teixeira to Anaheim basically for Casey Kotchman. Not exactly a good return on investment). Also missed is the infamous Bartolo Colon trade where Expos GM Omar Minaya traded away Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore to Cleveland in exchange for Colon and Tim Drew. But hey - at least Minaya was able to flip Colon to the White Sox for Rocky Biddle, Orlando Hernandez and Jeff Liefer. Umm, yeah. (And for what it's worth, Colon had a very good season in 2004 after being traded, so Minaya really screwed the pooch).
Then again, this also misses some of the spectacular misses. So far Matt LaPorta isn't working out so hot for the Indians after being dealt for CC Sabathia. The best prospect the Phillies received when they traded Scott Rolen to the Cardinals was Placido Polanco, and he had to go to the Tigers before becoming a decent player. The Twins acquired four prospects for Johan Santana, and so far none of them have really done much in the majors, though there's still time for some of them to develop into useful Major Leaguers.
In fact, the Mets are a prime example of team that has dealt prospects without experiencing too much regret. For example, as poorly as as the Roberto Alomar trade worked out on the Mets end, the best player they traded away in that deal was Matt Lawton, who can most generously be described as having had a mediocre big league career. In fact, looking over the deals the Mets have made for guys like John Olerud, Al Leiter, Mike Piazza, and Carlos Delgado over the years, the only prospect traded away in those deals who became an above average Major Leaguer was AJ Burnett. We all of course remember the Scott Kazmir trade, but one of the reasons its stands out so much is that it is one of the few major deals involving a prospect where the Mets got burned. In fact most of the guys we later lamented dealing - Jason Bay and Heath Bell spring to mind - were dealt either in minor deals or for other prospects.
So what's the point of this long discussion? Trading for prospects, especially when you're out of contention and unlikely to re-sign a player, sounds appealing, and honestly, sometimes you do wind up with a gem of a player. But just as often the prized acquisition becomes a bust. Like everything in Major League baseball, it's a bit of a crapshoot.
But what's notable is that more often than not real value is attained not in major acquisitions - via trade or free agency - but in minor deals or when you go bargain hunting. Among the elite players in the majors there are just as many guys claimed off the scrap heap as there are guys who Scott Boras was able to land lucrative deals for.
So what does this all mean when it comes to deciding whether or not to trade that soon-to-be free agent? There is absolutely no hard and fast rule, and again, maybe there is value in trying to nab some prospects. But my inclination is that you're better off keeping the guy until the end of the season, and here's why.
First of all, as you can see that the largest chunk of elite players are guys who were 1st and 2nd round draft picks and are still with the team that originally drafted them. If a player the caliber of Jose Reye walks, I believe that the Mets would get two first round picks, and building a team through the draft seems to be the surest way to success. I didn't note where each player was drafted specifically in the first round, but there were a fair number of guys taken in the first round and drafted at lower than 30 - meaning these were compensatory picks. David Wright comes to mind.
Second, the allure of obtaining multiple prospects in exchange for one guy is appealing, but rarely do you hit on more than one, if any. The Pierzysnki, Colon and Mulder trades stand out, but those are pretty rare, and in the first two cases really examples of GM incompetency. It would seem to me that if you are going to insist on trading away an elite player before he hits free agency, you are best advised to eschew the potpourri approach and instead focus on one elite prospect. Obviously I've never been involved in behind-the-scenes dealmaking, but I would guess that GMs might be less reluctant to trade away their A #1 prospect if they also weren't being pressured to deal 3 or 4 other guys. If your potential trade partner doesn't want to give you his best or even second best prospect, don't settle for a bunch of good but not great prospects on the hopes that one of them might develop into a star. If you can't get another teams' best, just hold onto that free agent and trust your scouting and development guys to help you draft a couple of good prospects. Sure, that's a crapshoot in and of itself, but I'd rather roll the dice that way.