The Recent Evolution of Prospects Throughout Baseball

Written by: Adam Ehrenreich (@mel_reich)

Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365

There are moments in baseball history that you remember.

Having a catch with your dad, striking out your first batter in little league or seeing your favorite player hit a home run at a stadium so big it’s incomprehensible. Fantasy baseball has those moments as well. Getting the first overall pick for the first time, stashing your favorite prospect and being right on the money or nailing that sleeper pick that wins you your league championship.

As a site that runs on the development of prospects, we know the highs-and-lows of pushing your chips to the center of the table for a young player. But the state of the prospect has changed in recent years, and I want to dive into what the prospect has evolved into for the MLB, fantasy baseball and the entire realm of the sport.

On December 4th last year, the New York Mets, my rooting interest since birth, made their biggest offseason trade. As you probably know, the Mets traded a slew of likely minimal impact major leaguers and a slew of potentially very impactful minor league assets for an aging Robinson Cano and an up-and-coming star closer in Edwin Diaz. This trade was discussed in magnitude for weeks after it occurred. I’ll be honest: my gut reaction was much different than I thought it would be. As a Mets fan, I liked it wholeheartedly. I didn’t care about the money, we’re a New York baseball team, and the money shouldn’t be an issue in this market. I didn’t care about Cano’s age or the caravan of prospects sent to the Mariners, but we live in an age where my ‘simple’ thoughts were likely frowned upon, especially in the growing world of prospect fandom.

To the untrained eye, you wouldn’t need the names of the players the Mets sent to Seattle, because it shouldn’t matter. They got Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz, enough said. Yes, Cano is 36 years old with five years left on his $120 million contract. Yes, we’re less than a season removed from Cano serving an 80-game suspension for PED use. Still, he’s a prolific hitter and a big name that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

But the headliner of the blockbuster was Edwin Diaz, who had a league-leading 57 saves last season. He’s 24 years old, is making a minuscule $571,000 and is the long-term closer the Mets have been searching for. He is the prize of this deal.

The prospect enthusiast looks at Jarred Kelenic to the left, Justin Dunn to the right and says “Wow! These prospects could be organizational cornerstones for years to come, how could you trade them for older players?” But the Mets currently find themselves in a unique situation. Their four star pitchers (Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz) are still affordable for now, so the Mets can afford to spend elsewhere in effort to win now.

Look at how NFL teams with quarterbacks on rookie contracts have begun to spend their offseasons, following the mold of the Los Angeles Rams the last two seasons. The Mets are treating their rotation like an NFL quarterback on a rookie contract, and they’re going for it now. Perhaps it doesn’t even necessarily matter if Dunn and Kelenic are stars in 3-4 seasons because the Mets’ cheap core will no longer be cheap. If you turn the dial a single degree, you could consider a cheap, 24-year-old Diaz a prospect who is simply exceeding expectations wildly. ‘Win now’ is a concept that is tried and not always successful, but a forward-thinking GM recognizes the opportunity and goes for it.

Trades like this have been made more and more often the last few seasons. Think about the Chris Sale trade, which featured the Red Sox sending the White Sox Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, Luis Alexander Basabe and Victor Diaz. Look at the Jose Quintana trade, in which the White Sox acquired Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease and two others. The Yankees acquired Gleyber Torres and Billy McKinney by trading Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs, who went on to win the World Series that season. The Nationals, on the other hand, sent the White Sox Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López and Dane Dunning for Adam Eaton and didn’t win. There are many others to record. Yes, the White Sox have a ton of promising young players. Yes, with hindsight, some of these trades will end up being bad, some good and some great, but was it worth it for the teams that traded their stars? Years of cellar-dwelling for the off chance that every top prospect you acquire may become a superstar. There is far too much randomness in the sport to rely on such a process, yet it’s thought of as the best way to rebuild.

Prospects continue to rule the trade market, in real life and in the fantasy world. I am in a dynasty league with teams that only roster prospects and don’t attempt to compete. I can see the fun in it—the potential to succeed in hitting on numerous prospects as you build a hypothetical dynasty. Following the career trajectory of young players is a blast. Trades based around who you believe is going to be the next breakout prospect is amusing and leaves a lot to the unknown. Years from now, a simple trade of Lewis Brinson, whose arrow was clearly pointing downward before a solid spring, for Willie Calhoun, who role for the Rangers in 2019 is unknown, could turn into quite the one-sided deal if either of the once-top prospects never makes it. And those are current big league talents; think about the hundreds of players who are years away from making the MLB but currently sit on a dynasty roster. Now look at an MLB team, taking risks in similar scenarios but potentially hampering the next few years of a franchise.

To me, the strategy in the majors is simple: go for it whenever possible. Generally, the odds of a top prospect becoming a star are lower than becoming a bust. If teams are willing to take the risk to trade their stars in order to rebuild in a sport that doesn’t see immediate impact from its draft picks, then I am making that trade. Of course, I’m not an MLB GM.

In fantasy, I can pretend to be a GM, and recency bias plays a massive part in that process. Young players who don’t strike gold in their first audition in the show immediately see their values plummet. The opportunity to turn deep prospects into players on the cusp of breaking out based on hype and potential is tremendous. Think about Moncada, Brinson and Calhoun, along with, more recently, players like Scott Kingery, Julio Urias, Brett Honeywell, Derek Fisher and Rafael Devers. How quickly we forget the hype around some of baseball’s biggest prospect names because of injuries or lack of production in their first go-around in the big leagues. The talent level stays the same and the tools don’t disappear, yet we are quick to dismiss them in favor of younger prospects who we can only hope have a similar outlook at the time of their big league debut as the player we just discarded.

It’s time to take a step back and recognize what prospects actually represent in baseball—both in real life and in the fantasy world—and recognize they aren’t one in the same. While you go to great lengths to win in fantasy, the consequences upon failing to do so aren’t nearly as catastrophic as they are for an MLB organization and general manager. Happy prospecting.

Follow P365 staff writer Adam Ehrenreich on Twitter! @mel_reich

Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365

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