In baseball, as in life, you have to give up something to get something.
With the July 31 trade deadline looming, it's the perfect time to take a look back at a bunch of top propsects-for-superstar deals from the recent past and see how they turned out.
The goal? To determine whether it's worth trading promising prospects for big-name big leaguers.
Which side wins out: prospects or production?
To find out, we explored the five-season stretch from 2005 through 2009 and looked at noteworthy trades involving at least one prospect who made a Baseball America Top 100 Prospects list in the season prior to, during or immediately after the deal. From there, we looked for returns that included a major leaguer who had at least one All-Star-caliber campaign (i.e., 4.0 WAR+, per FanGraphs) in the two seasons prior to the deal—and who also passed the superstar "sniff test."
If these criteria were met, that deal is dissected below.
Here are a couple of examples to help clarify:
1. This method didn't count any prospect-for-non-superstar deals, like the July 2008 deal in which the Los Angeles Dodgers gave up elite catching prospect Carlos Santana for third baseman Casey Blake, who was a fine player but not really worthy of "superstar status," as his WARs from 2006 (1.8) and 2007 (2.8) prove.
1A. As to the "sniff test" corollary: With apologies to players like Joe Blanton (traded by the Oakland Athletics in July 2008 to the Philadelphia Phillies for top infield prospect Adrian Cardenas, Josh Outman and Matt Spencer) and Mark DeRosa (traded by the Cleveland Indians in June 2009 to the St. Louis Cardinals for closer prospect Chris Perez and Jess Todd), who met the 4-WAR threshold—barely—in one of the two seasons prior to their trades, they just weren't legitimate superstars. There were other examples of this type of situation, but when in doubt, they weren't counted.
2. You also won't find any prospect-for-prospect type deals, such as the December 2009 swap that sent infielder Brett Wallace from the Oakland Athletics to the Toronto Blue Jays for outfielder Michael Taylor, even though both players were top-30 prospects at one time, according to BA. We will, though, check back on a previous trade that included Wallace...
Now, there have been plenty of top prospect-for-superstar trades since 2010, obviously, but for the purposes of this piece, we need to have some way of evaluating the success or failure of the prospect(s) involved relative to the major league player(s)—and trying to do so without a legitimate sample of big-league performance by the prospect(s) to this point wouldn't be fair.
In other words, sometimes it's just too soon to tell.
For yet another example, take the July 2011 trade that sent Hunter Pence from the Houston Astros to the Phillies for prospects Jarred Cosart, Jonathan Singleton, Domingo Santana and Josh Zeid.
Sure, Pence helped the Phillies over the final few months of that season—they finished with an MLB-best 102-60 record—so you could argue that they "won" the trade. Except on the other side of the transaction, only Cosart has even made it to the big leagues so far, so there's still a good chance the deal could wind up being better for Houston in the long run.
The long run is, after all, what acquiring prospects is all about. The nature of the vast majority of trades built around high-end prospects is that one team is playing for now—and thus willing to sacrifice prospects—and the other team is playing for the future—and thus willing to sacrifice production.
And by the way, declaring a "winner" in these deals isn't as easy as you might think, especially the more recent ones. Given the fluctuations of player performance from year to year—and even month-to-month—a trade might look like a clear win for one club and a horrible loss for the other...only to completely reverse course over time for one reason (i.e., performance, injury) or another (contract status, free agency, etc.).
But enough chatter. Let's dive in, going in reverse chronological order from most to least recent trades.