Updating the Top 5 MLB Prospects Who Could Be on the Block
Given how the market in Major League Baseball works today, prospects have become more valuable than ever.
Teams are finding that it costs less to promote, say, a back-end starter who will only cost $500,000 in pre-arbitration years from the minors than to give $45-50 million to a mid-rotation pitcher like Ricky Nolasco or Matt Garza.
Because of this new market inefficiency, teams are less likely than ever to trade prospects they have multiple years of control over.
The biggest prospect traded so far this offseason is Matt Davidson, who went from Arizona to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for closer Addison Reed. I like Davidson as a third baseman with above-average power and contact issues, but he's not a star.
It's been hard sledding for teams trying to trade expensive veterans, even one as good as David Price, because teams don't want to trade two or three top prospects and empty their farm system to end up in a situation like the one Toronto is in after going all-in last season.
However, don't be surprised to see the trade market pick up later in the year. I would bet that there will be a lot of movement around the July trade deadline.
So assuming that trade winds do start swirling again, which prospects are most likely to find themselves on the move? Here are five names to watch.
Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.
No. 5 Mason Williams, OF, New York Yankees
This is going to be an important season for New York Yankees outfielder Mason Williams, who suffered a disappointing season split across two levels in 2013.
The 22-year-old hit just .245/.304/.337 in 117 games. He's always had a low-power ceiling thanks to a slight 6'1", 180-pound frame but was always able to hit a lot of doubles and drive balls into the gap with good bat speed and solid hip rotation through the ball.
Those offensive skills went away last season, significantly lowering his stock. Williams does have plus speed and a good glove in center field, so he will always have value in a farm system.
Unfortunately the Yankees don't seem to think that Williams is going to figure into their plans, at least based on their offseason. They invested $153 million over seven years to make Jacoby Ellsbury their center fielder.
That's not something a team, even one as desperate for impact players as the Yankees, does if it believes its future center fielder is already in the system.
Regardless of where Williams fits into New York's long-term plans, he has to prove that 2013 was just a blip on the radar.
He can be the center piece of a potential trade for the Yankees to fill another hole they may have, as well as rebuild his stock and project as more than just a defensive wizard with little offensive potential.
But that is dependent on Williams staying healthy and producing in Double-A this season.
No. 4 Stephen Piscotty, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
There are times when watching a player in person catches you by surprise, because they are displaying better tools or a more mature approach that changes their future outlook.
Stephen Piscotty, a first-round pick (36th overall) by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012, didn't get the chance to show much power at Stanford because the school is more concerned with contact than driving the ball.
The 2013 season saw Piscotty take several steps forward with the bat. He showed more power than ever before, hitting 15 homers across two levels, and making a ton of contact with just a 46-37 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 427 at-bats.
I saw Piscotty in the Arizona Fall League, where he was spraying balls all over the field with an easy, simple swing and better bat speed than I recall him having coming out of college. He's a good athlete with a nice frame at 6'3", 210 pounds and is an average defensive right fielder.
The Cardinals aren't exactly in the habit of trading away their young players, but Piscotty could prove to be an exception if a need arises elsewhere. Oscar Taveras is ahead of him in the prospect pipeline and just has to stay healthy to be St. Louis' everyday right fielder by midseason.
Trying to figure out what the Cardinals might trade a player like Piscotty for is problematic because they don't have a weakness at any position right now. First baseman Matt Adams might be the weakest link, though he hit 17 homers in 296 at-bats last season.
Peter Bourjos, just acquired from the Angels, isn't going to hit much but is an elite defensive center fielder, having saved 33 runs in four seasons (per FanGraphs).
No. 3 Rougned Odor, 2B, Texas Rangers
Much like Stephen Piscotty in St. Louis, Rougned Odor finds himself in the unenviable position of having to look up at Jurickson Profar, the top prospect in baseball last season, ahead of him on the depth chart.
In fact, the Rangers thought so highly of Profar's ability to transition from shortstop, where Elvis Andrus is locked into a long-term contract and is an elite defender, to second base that they traded Ian Kinsler to Detroit for Prince Fielder.
Odor has just 30 games of experience at Double-A, so he isn't likely to be ready for the big leagues until 2015, but the soon-to-be 20-year-old second baseman showed an impressive hit tool across two levels last season.
He lacks impact power potential because of a diminutive 5'11", 170-pound frame but makes up for it with tremendous bat speed and the ability to find gaps. He hit 41 doubles in 511 at-bats in 2013.
While not a great defender at second base, Odor does have good instincts and enough arm strength for second base. The bat is his carrying tool, projecting for average and a lot of doubles, making him an attractive trade chip if/when the Rangers decide to make him available.
General manager Jon Daniels has done an excellent job of rebuilding Texas' lineup this offseason, landing a big power bat in Fielder and an on-base machine for the top of the order in Shin-Soo Choo.
Even with the upgrades, the Rangers aren't a perfect team. There are questions in the outfield beyond Choo. Alex Rios is entering the final season of his contract, unless the team picks up his option for 2015. Leonys Martin is a good defensive outfielder but had just a .698 OPS in 2013.
Michael Choice, acquired from Oakland in a small deal this offseason, came into professional baseball lauded for his power but has hit just 24 homers the last two years.
The rotation could stand to add another impact starter. Yu Darvish is one of the best pitchers in baseball, and Derek Holland, who will be out until at least midseason, is a good No. 2 option. Martin Perez seems ready to take a step forward after a solid rookie campaign in 2013.
Matt Harrison is returning from an injury-plagued 2013 that saw him pitch just 10.2 innings. Alexi Ogando is probably best suited for a relief role, though he has handled starting well enough to earn another shot.
If the pitching becomes an issue around the All-Star break, Odor could be the centerpiece of a trade that lands an impact arm available on a team out of contention.
No. 2 Joc Pederson, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
Sometimes a team has to make the tough decision to trade a prospect simply because there is no spot for him in the big leagues.
That's the possible predicament facing the Los Angeles Dodgers and outfielder Joc Pederson. The 21-year-old hit .278/.381/.497 in 123 games at Double-A Chattanooga. He will likely start the season at Triple-A, with a chance to be ready for the big leagues by midseason.
Pederson's tools project well at the MLB level. He's got an excellent approach at the plate, above-average power potential and arm strength to profile as an above-average right fielder. The one knock against him is a heavy platoon split, including a .664 OPS against lefties in winter ball.
When you look at what the Dodgers have in the big leagues, Pederson will likely be waiting for a lot of injuries to happen before getting his shot. Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Yasiel Puig and Carl Crawford are all fighting for playing time.
Ethier seems like the odd man out, though his trade value has likely bottomed out thanks to the $69 million he's guaranteed through 2017 and his own platoon issues (.613 OPS vs. lefties in 2013).
Offense is an issue for the Dodgers, who finished 17th in runs scored last season. They have to figure out what to do at second base, where Alexander Guerrero is reportedly disappointing the team this winter.
Catching is another area of need, as A.J. Ellis is a valuable defensive catcher but was a negative offensive player in 2013 (per FanGraphs).
Unless the Dodgers entertain the idea of trading shortstop Corey Seager, their best prospect in my opinion, Pederson remains their best potential trade chip if they want to fill another need during the season.
No. 1 Taijuan Walker, RHP, Seattle Mariners
After a lot of trade speculation around Taijuan Walker in December, largely around the winter meetings, things have died considerably in the nearly two months since then.
Jon Heyman of CBS Sports cited a Seattle Mariners source saying the team intends to enter 2014 with Walker in its organization.
Everything the Mariners have said, up to and including new manager Lloyd McClendon claiming the 21-year-old right-hander will be in the rotation on Opening Day, suggests no trades are coming.
Sorry, but I'm not buying it.
I'm skittish for two reasons. First, given how much the Mariners have invested in the short-term future thanks to their moves this offseason, they need to win right away. But they don't have pieces to add from the minors to upgrade if/when it is needed.
So what's a desperate team to do? Look at an area of strength, then trade from it to upgrade another, weaker area.
The Mariners have a strong starting rotation in place, even without Walker. Felix Hernandez is one of the best pitchers in baseball, ranking sixth in FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement last season.
Hisashi Iwakuma finished third in AL Cy Young voting last season. James Paxton, who I still like more as a reliever because of long arm action and an inconsistent release point, looked strong in four starts at the end of last season with a 21-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 24 innings.
Putting Walker, who has three plus pitches and No. 2 starter upside, on the market could be enough to land the Mariners another hitter they desperately need in the middle of the lineup.
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