Blueprint for How to Know When It's Time to Trade a Top MLB Prospect

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Blueprint for How to Know When It's Time to Trade a Top MLB Prospect
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When a top-10 prospect is traded during the offseason, or any time for that matter, it’s a big deal. But when two are dealt, especially within the same week, it’s unprecedented.

On late Sunday night, the Kansas City Royals addressed their need for a frontline starter through the acquisition of James Shields (and Wade Davis) from the Tampa Bay Rays. In return the Royals parted with four prospects headlined by outfielder Wil Myers, whom I ranked as the No. 3 prospect in the game following the 2012 season.

And then, just 48 hours later, another top prospect was on the move as the Diamondbacks shipped right-hander Trevor Bauer, the No. 3 overall draft pick in 2011, to the Cleveland Indians as part of a three-team, nine-player deal. After breezing through the minor leagues to reach the major leagues in a little more than a year since his selection, Bauer was ranked as the game’s No. 9 overall prospect following the conclusion of the regular season.

As was the case with the aforementioned deals, both Myers and Bauer were traded to strengthen their team's major league roster. But how did it get to the point where the Royals and Diamondbacks were willing to part with such a significant and exciting piece of their future?

 

Warning Signs

When an organization decides to move an elite prospect, it’s not based solely on the potential return. Rather, it has just as much to do with the perceived ability of that player to reach their projected ceiling. Therefore, there are numerous red flags that team’s try to identify along the way before their high-regarded prospect reaches the major leagues.

For example, an organization may deem their prospect incapable of making adjustments at higher levels; overwhelming success in the minor leagues isn’t sure-fire indicator that a young player will become a successful big leaguer.

More often than not, a prospect’s offensive or defensive skill set simply doesn’t project favorably in the major leagues. So even though Darin Ruf led all minor leaguers with 38 home runs last season at Double-A and performed well during his late-season call-up with the Phillies, his all-or-nothing approach and tendency to cheat at the plate limit the 26-year-old’s chances of excelling in the major leagues. After all, if he is such an extraordinary power hitter, then why did he only reach the major leagues for the first time last season?

Similarly, the decision to trade a young commodity may stem from developmental issues, as was seemingly the case with Trevor Bauer. As pitcher who employs a highly unique training regimen and even more unorthodox mechanics, Bauer was understandably resistant towards altering his style and approach in accordance with the Diamondbacks’ philosophies.

However, the right-hander was still unwilling to implement necessary changes in the wake of the command issues magnified during his four big-league starts. Shortly thereafter, rumors began to circulate regarding the organization’s discontent with their highly-touted prospect. Therefore, when the Diamondbacks finally pulled the trigger and parted with Bauer on Tuesday night, it wasn’t a complete surprise.

 

Maximizing Value

Leon Halip/Getty Images

Regarded as the top catching prospect in baseball headed into the 2011 season, Jesus Montero ultimately reached the major leagues as a Sept. call-up after beginning the season at Triple-A. Appearing in 18 games with the Yankees, the 21-year-old made a strong impression by batting .328/.406/.590 with four home runs in 61 at-bats. Granted it was a small sample size, but Montero’s production left everyone wondering what he might be capable of over a full season. And despite his defensive shortcomings, the right-handed hitter’s offensive potential was enough to pique the Mariners’ interest and facilitate a blockbuster trade. Knowing that he would inevitably struggle in the major leagues, the Yankees seemingly cashed in on Montero at the perfect time.

Essentially, every organization covets big-league-ready, cost-controlled prospects, especially when they’re likely to stick at a premium position such as catcher or shortstop, or at the front of a starting rotation. And when such a player lacks a clear path to playing time in the major leagues, other teams perceive the player is expendable relative to the needs of their current organization.

 

Time to Trade?

Some top prospects are dealt out of necessity, as was the case when the San Francisco Giants traded their best pitching prospect, Zack Wheeler, to the New York Mets in exchange for essentially a one-month rental of Carlos Beltran in 2011. With the goal of making a late-season surge to reach the postseason, the Giants moved a future No. 1 starter for short-term success. While Beltran entered free agency after the Giants failed to make the playoffs, Wheeler has blossomed into one of baseball’s top-10 prospects.

A top prospect (or prospects) is commonly traded for a big-league player capable of improving the team immediately, as we saw this week in the Royals’ acquisition of James Shields—a move that the Royals believe will help them content for the American League Central title in 2013.

On the other hand, a prospect-for-prospect trade is increasingly rare due to the inherent risk involved. Remember, a vast majority of prospects fail upon reaching the major leagues—if they even make it that far. Either way, the trading of a potentially elite prospect is as much a result of a team’s projection for that player as it is his perceived value by other organizations.

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