This past offseason featured an unprecedented number of blockbuster trades involving top-ranked prospects.
First, the Kansas City Royals dealt top prospects Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi, as well as Mike Montgomery and Patrick Leonard, to the Rays in exchange for right-handers James Shields and Wade Davis.
Then, in early December, the Arizona Diamondbacks traded their top prospect for the second straight year, as they sent right-hander Trevor Bauer to the Cleveland Indians as part of a three-team, nine-player deal.
And just a week later, the New York Mets dealt Cy Young-winner R.A. Dickey to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for baseball’s top catching prospect, Travis d’Arnaud, and hard-throwing right-hander Noah Syndergaard.
While there have been trades centered on prospects in previous years, what happened this offseason suggests a drastic change in the prospect landscape.
Ever since the trade deadline in 2007, when the Atlanta Braves sent then-prospects Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz and Matt Harrison to the Rangers in exchange for Mark Teixeira, teams seemingly have been hesitant to part with their top young talent.
So, what led to some teams’ sudden willingness to part with their top prospects over the offseason? And are they suddenly a lesser commodity relative to previous seasons?
Well, by looking back at years of prospect-related trades, there are several important trends that have taken shape and continue to dictate how certain organizations manage their coveted young players.
Here's a look at each of those trends with numerous examples of each.
Trades made out of necessity are the most costly
There’s a sizable difference between an organization trading prospects for a big league player out of preference rather than necessity. Regarding the latter, most organizations overpay when making a trade out of necessity, as it’s typically in response to an unexpected injury or deficiency on the major league roster. Therefore, trades of this nature usually take place either in the last few weeks of spring training or surrounding the trade deadline in late July. Furthermore, teams that trade their top prospects for major league talent are commonly teams that believe they are in a position to win immediately, hence the urgency of the trade.
June 27, 2002: Montreal Expos acquire Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew; Cleveland Indians acquire Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Lee Stevens
The cost of landing Bartolo Colon was steep for the then-Montreal Expos. Brandon Phillips, who at the time was ranked as the No. 22 overall prospect by Baseball America, has since blossomed into a perennial All-Star, while Grady Sizemore, who would rank as the No. 9 overall prospect headed into the 2004 season, went 30-30 (30 home runs, 30 stolen bases) in 2008 and posted a 26.5 WAR with the Tribe from 2004-2011. Meanwhile, Cliff Lee aged like a fine wine, as he went on to win the 2008 American League Cy Young award and register a 14.8 WAR over eight seasons.
Colon, on the other hand, was good for a 2.3 WAR in his lone season north of the border and was dealt to the Chicago White Sox prior to the 2003 season. That being said, the Expos were also well-aware that their future as an organization was fading, and, as a result, decided to go all-in during the 2002 season.
July 26, 2008: The Cleveland Indians acquire Carlos Santana and Jon Meloan; Los Angeles Dodgers acquire Casey Blake
A deal made out of necessity, the Dodgers dealt top catching prospect Carlos Santana, who would rank as baseball’s No. 26 overall prospect headed into the 2009 season, to the Indians in exchange for Casey Blake. While Santana has blossomed into one of the better offensive backstops in the game, Blake was good for 8.6 WAR over four seasons with the Dodgers and has since retired.
July 31, 2007: Atlanta Braves acquire Mark Teixeira; Texas Rangers acquire Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz and Matt Harrison
In desperate need of a bat at the 2007 trade deadline, the Braves depleted their farm system in exchange for Teixeira by moving Saltalamacchia (No. 36 prospect pre-2007), Andrus (No. 65), Harrison (No. 90) and Feliz. While Teixeira’s stay in Atlanta would only last 157 games over parts of two seasons, the Rangers are still reaping the rewards from the trade, as Andrus, Harrison and Feliz have combined for 27.3 WAR since joining the organization.
Meanwhile, Teixeira played well during his time in Atlanta, as the switch-hitting first baseman batted .295/.395/.548 with 37 home runs and 134 RBI in 157 over parts of two seasons.
July 25, 2010: Los Angeles Angels acquire Dan Haren; Arizona Diamondbacks acquire Joe Saunders, Rafael Rodriguez, Tyler Skaggs and Patrick Corbin
The Angels paid a hefty price for Haren when they acquired him around the 2010 trade deadline. In addition to trading Saunders, the organization also parted with a pair of left-handed pitching prospects in Skaggs and Corbin. Since then, Corbin has established himself as a valuable back-end starter for the Diamondbacks, while Skaggs ranks as their top prospect headed into the 2013 season.
Since joining the Angels, Haren’s career has been on the decline. After accumulating a WAR of 12.5 over three seasons with the Diamondbacks, the right-hander posted a 5.8 WAR over his next three with the Angels before leaving as a free agent following the 2012 season.
Offseason trades yield best results for both sides
While trades made during the season are often hastily thrown together, deals that transpire during the offseason are typically more well-constructed. As was the case this offseason with the Rays-Royals and Mets-Blue Jays deals, this type of trade is usually the result of one team attempting to add impact talent to its big league roster, while the other tries to clear salary and get younger.
November 25, 2005: Boston Red Sox acquire Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell and Guillermo Mota; Florida Marlins acquire Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, Jesus Delgado and Harvey Garcia.
After winning the World Series in 2004, the Boston Red Sox dismantled their farm system to land established major league talent. Although both Beckett and Lowell would serve as main cogs on their 2007 World Series-winning squad, the trade cost them Hanley Ramirez, ranked as the No. 30 prospect headed into the 2006 season, and Anibal Sanchez, who was ranked as the No. 40 prospect.
While neither player is still with the organization, their lasting impact is undeniable. Ramirez, the 2006 National League Rookie of the Year, registered a 26.0 WAR over eight seasons with the Marlins. Sanchez generated a WAR of 14.2 over seven seasons.
December 9, 2011: Arizona Diamondbacks acquire Trevor Cahill and Brad Ziegler; Oakland Athletics acquire Jarrod Parker, Ryan Cook and Collin Cowgill
Despite signing a team-friendly five-year, $30.5 million contract (plus club options for 2016-17) at the onset of the 2011 season, the A’s decided to trade the right-hander to the Diamondbacks during the following offseason. In return, they received the team’s top prospect, Parker, who had made only one start in the major leagues at that time. While the trade was undoubtedly questionable, both Parker and Cook were instrumental in the A’s' American League West title-winning season in 2013.
Dealing prospects for average big leaguers is still not a good idea
Excluding scenarios when top prospects are dealt out of necessity, teams that trade coveted, young talent for average big leaguers never fare well. Most of the time, this type of deal usually involves a prospect who’s perceived to be relatively close to the major leagues, but blocked at his natural position. And so it goes, a majority of the time, the traded prospect(s) ultimately outperform the player(s) for which they were dealt.
December 13, 2005: Oakland Athletics acquire Milton Bradley and Antonio Perez; Los Angeles Dodgers acquire Andre Ethier
After two mediocre seasons with the Dodgers, the organization parted ways with outfielder Milton Bradley, dealing him to the A’s in exchange for prospect Andre Ethier. While Bradley would ultimately amass only 1.8 WAR over two seasons with Oakland, Ethier, who was ranked as the No. 89 overall prospect at the time, blossomed with his new organization. Over seven seasons with the Dodgers, the 31-year-old has posted an .838 OPS and 15.1 WAR.
December 6, 2010: Milwaukee Brewers acquire Shaun Marcum; Toronto Blue Jays acquire Brett Lawrie
Ah yes, the one-for-one swap. Looking to bolster their starting rotation headed into the 2010 season, the Brewers ultimately destroyed their farm system. Not only did they deal countless top prospects, including Jake Odorizzi to the Royals in exchange for Zack Greinke, they also traded Brett Lawrie straight-up to the Blue Jays for Shaun Marcum.
Coming off a solid bounce-back season with the Blue Jays in 2010 after missing all of 2009 recovering from Tommy John surgery, Marcum was acquired by the Brewers with two years remaining on his current contract. After registering a WAR of 4.2 during the span, the organization chose not to re-sign him prior to the 2013 season. Lawrie, meanwhile, reached the major leagues in his first season with the Blue Jays and has already accumulated a WAR of 7.6.
Quantity can be enticing
Sometimes in order to land big league talent, a team decides to trade a large contingent of prospects rather than one or two notable ones. However, more is not always merrier. Rather, some teams have the tendency to be blinded by quantity and not quality.
December 5, 2007: Detroit Tigers acquire Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis; Miami Marlins acquire Dallas Trahern, Burke Badenhop, Eulogio de la Cruz, Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller and Mike Rabelo
Regarded as one of the more lopsided trades in recent memory, the Marlins dealt Cabrera and Willis, their two biggest stars, to the Tigers for a host of young players including Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller, the organization’s first-round picks in 2005 and 2006, respectively. However, Maybin batted only .257/.323/.391 over parts of three seasons with the Marlins before he was traded to the Padres. Miller registered a 5.89 ERA with 144 walks in 220 innings (over three seasons) before he was dealt to the Red Sox.
February 2, 2008: New York Mets acquire Johan Santana; Minnesota Twins acquire Carlos Gomez, Philip Humber, Kevin Mulvey and Deolis Guerra
Despite winning two American league Cy Young awards with the Twins in 2004 and 2006, the organization ultimately traded Johan Santana to the Mets prior to the 2008 season in exchange for a prospect package headlined by Carlos Gomez (No. 52-ranked prospect headed into the 2008 season) and former first-rounder Philip Humber.
While Santana’s career with the Mets has been disappointing, the same can be said about the aforementioned prospects for whom he was traded. The lone exception would be Carlos Gomez, who has evolved into an everyday center fielder, but was dealt to the Brewers prior to the 2010 season.
December 16, 2009: The Seattle Mariners acquire Cliff Lee; Philadelphia Phillies acquire J.C. Ramirez, Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies.
Acquired from the Indians during the 2009 season, Lee helped the Phillies make it back to the World Series for the second straight year, though they ultimately lost to the Yankees. That was it for Lee in Philadelphia (or so it seemed at the time), as the team dealt him to the Mariners prior to the 2010 season. In return for the perennial hired gun, the Phillies received a former first-round pick in Aumont, as well as a speedy outfielder in Gillies.