PROSPECTS ARE A GAMBLE

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PROSPECTS ARE A GAMBLE

There has been a lot of discussion this offseason about the possibility of the Red Sox trading a pitching prospect for a catching prospect. Most often, these discussions have centered on the idea of exchanging either Clay Buchholz or Michael Bowden for Arizona's Miguel Montero, or for one of Texas' young catchers, Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Taylor Teagarden.

The problem with prospects is that you never truly know what you’re dealing with, what you’re giving up, or what you’re getting in return.

Remember Andy Marte? He was the highly touted third base prospect the Red Sox got from Atlanta in exchange for Edgar Renteria. The Sox then flipped Marte and Kelly Shoppach to Cleveland for Coco Crisp, David Riske and Josh Bard. The move wasn't without great protest in Red Sox Nation. After all, the Sox were believed to be trading away a budding star, a heart of the order hitter, and the third baseman of the future.

But Marte, that once-heralded prospect, now qualifies as a bust. In 513 career Major League at-bats, he’s hit .211 with a .337 slugging percentage. At this point, the Indians have so little faith in him that they traded three prospects to the Cubs in exchange for utility infielder Mark DeRosa, who will now become their third baseman. 

The Indians made the trade despite the fact that Marte is out of options and cannot be returned to the minors. He batted only .221 in 80 games last season, and had to hit .291 over his final 34 games just to finish with that meager average. If the guy doesn’t get it together quickly, he could be out of baseball at the age of 25. As a result, this could be a make or break year for the former wunderkind. 

Prospects who are considered “can’t miss” clearly can miss – sometimes badly. Many Red Sox fans surely remember Brian Rose; he went from top prospect to journeyman pitcher in a heartbeat.

And, quite famously, Buchholz threw a no-hitter in just the second game of his career in September 2007. He then proceeded to go 2-9, with a 6.75 ERA, in his encore last season. Initially he looked like second-coming of Cy Young. Then he looked like a guy who belonged in the minors. So which is it?

No one knows for sure. It's all guesswork and projection when dealing with prospects. And any Sox fans salivating over the idea of Saltalamacchia, one of the game's premier catching prospects, crouching behind the plate in a Boston jersey, should have realistic expectations. 
The following three players were among the most highly touted prospects in baseball over the past few years. Although each is young and still has time to mature and develop, based on previous expectations and projections, each looks like a bust at this point. In each case, the team that drafted and attempted to develop the player eventually gave up and cut ties with him.
24-year-old outfielder Elijah Dukes, Washington Nationals
Two seasons, 460 at-bats, 23 HR, 65 RBI, .235 AVG., .359 OBP, .443 SLG.
23-year-old outfielder Lastings Milledge, Washington Nationals
Three seasons, 873 at-bats, 25 HR, 112 RBI, .263 AVG, .329 OBP, .407 SLG
23-year-old outfielder Felix Pie, Baltimore Orioles
Two seasons, 260 at-bats, 3 HR, 30 RBI, .223 AVG., .284 OBP, .331 SLG
As much as "can't miss" prospects do indeed miss, sometimes overlooked prospects are traded and go on to become stars. Case in point:

Sox fans who are old enough to remember will probably forever lament the August 30, 1990 trade that brought Larry Andersen to Boston and sent HOF-caliber first baseman Jeff Bagwell to Houston.

Andersen compiled a 1.23 ERA in 15 appearances for the Red Sox, who won the AL East by two games over Toronto. The Sox were then swept by Oakland in the ALCS, and Andersen left as a free agent at season's end.

Meanwhile, Bagwell went on to win the 1991 NL Rookie of the Year, 1994 NL MVP, one Gold Glove, three Silver Sluggers, and made four All Star appearances. On the way, he compiled a career .297 average, 449 home runs and 1529 RBI.

But here's what most Sox fans probably don't know; Bagwell was a fourth-round draft choice in 1989 and hit just six home runs in 731 minor league at-bats. Though he did hit .321 while in the minors, he certainly didn't look like a superstar in the making, much less one who would eventually join the elite 400 home run club.

Bagwell will forever be remembered as the one that got away (second only to Babe Ruth, perhaps), but he never showed the raw power he developed in the Majors (perhaps with the help of PEDs). 

The point is, the Sox could hang on to Buchholz or Bowden and live to regret it if one or both turns out to be a bust. On the other hand, the Sox could trade for Montero, Saltalamacchia, or Teagarden and live to regret it if he fails to develop as expected – especially if the pitcher they give up in exchange goes on to have a great career.

The bottom line is this; prospects are a gamble. We'd all be well-advised to never forget it. 

Copyright © 2009 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.

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