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Teams prefer to hold on to their prospect depth this early in the season, taking a patient approach despite a possible slow start and an overload of talent at any particular position.
A few teams with deep farm systems know they have the chips to acquire some of the best players available in a trade should a hole in their 25-man roster present itself or should a current one become a bigger problem than anticipated.
Here are five teams loaded with prospect talent that have the best chance to improve their teams during the season.
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The Bucs have been active during the past two trade deadlines, acquiring Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick in 2011, and Wandy Rodriguez, Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider last season.
They haven’t gone after the big fish, however, instead opting to hold on to their top prospects. We’ll never know if a bigger name acquisition would’ve helped but the team faded down the stretch in both cases.
On the bright side, top pitching prospects Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon (pictured) and Luis Heredia are all still Pirates and they’re starting to develop some very good position player prospects as well, including infielder Alen Hanson (.309 BA, 16 HR, 62 RBI, 35 SB in Lo-A) and center fielder Gregory Polanco (.325 BA, 16 HR, 85 RBI, 40 SB in Lo-A).
Outfielder Josh Bell, who signed for $5 million as a second round pick in 2011, has huge potential and could be worth every penny in a few years.
While Cole is at the point where he’s pretty much untouchable as he closes in on the big leagues, the Pirates have plenty of high end prospect talent to make a run at middle of the order bat who can play first base or a corner outfield spot.
San Diego Padres
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Because of their payroll limitations, the Padres are much less likely to trade a package of prospects for major league talent. For them to eventually be successful on a yearly basis, they need a steady stream of talent graduating to the majors and another wave replacing them.
That doesn’t mean they won’t sacrifice the future, but the timing has to be perfect. It’s been a long time but think of the Kevin Brown acquisition in 1998. They knew they were close and a No. 1 starter could push them over the top. So they traded their top prospect Derrek Lee and two other minor leaguers to acquire him from the Marlins before the season.
This risk paid off as they won the NL Pennant and went to the World Series for the second time in franchise history. Lee became a very productive player and helped lead the Marlins to the World Series in 2003.
If the Padres can enter July near the top of the division and the team is playing much better than anyone could have expected, similar to the second half of 2012, then maybe they pull the trigger to add a top-of-the-rotation starter to a staff that currently looks very vulnerable.
The farm has already taken a hit, losing two of its top players, outfielder Rymer Liriano (pictured) and starting pitcher Casey Kelly, to Tommy John surgery, but they still have enough high end talent to make a huge upgrade around midseason.
The best of the best, catcher Austin Hedges and lefty starter Max Fried, are both a few years away but either would be a great centerpiece to any deal. Other pitching prospects, such as Donn Roach (Double-A), Joe Ross (Lo-A) and Matt Wisler (High-A) are also impressive. In fact, they started 2013 off about as good as possible. Here's a tweet from Padres Vice President of Player Development and International Scouting, Randy Smith, on their Opening Day performances.
Nice job by the kids, Roach, Wis, Ross for a combined line of 15 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 5 W, 13 K— Randy Smith (@ResPadres) April 5, 2013
St. Louis Cardinals
The top farm system in baseball, according to Baseball Prospectus, the Cardinals could have one of the best young teams in baseball in the near future. High ceiling, low risk talents in the upper minors give the team a chance to replace veteran free agents with players making less than $500,000 per season once they arrive in the majors.
First baseman Matt Adams, second baseman Kolten Wong and outfielder Oscar Taveras should have regular major league jobs in 2014. Top pitching prospect Shelby Miller is in the rotation now while Trevor Rosenthal (pictured) and Joe Kelly could join him next season after spending this season in the bullpen.
Carlos Martinez could be on a similar path as Rosenthal, but in 2014. With electric stuff, he could dominate in the late innings as a reliever but he also has a chance to be a front line starter in the big leagues. Right-hander Michael Wacha, last year’s top draft pick, doesn’t quite have Martinez’s ceiling, but he could be an effective No. 3 starter in the majors.
While there aren’t any gaping holes on the Cardinals’ 25-man roster, they are thin in the rotation if another pitcher goes down with an injury. The left side of the infield is also vulnerable if the oft-injured David Freese can’t stay healthy. He’s currently on the disabled list with a strained lower back while starting shortstop Rafael Furcal is out for the season because of Tommy John surgery.
If they need to add a reinforcement or two at midseason, they have more than enough trade chips to make it happen.
Tampa Bay Rays
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After a couple years of holding on to some extra pitching depth, the Rays replenished a farm system that had graduated a lot of its best prospects by trading starting pitcher James Shields for outfielder Wil Myers, starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi and two other minor leaguers.
This doesn’t push them back to the top of the rankings but it certainly adds some depth and puts them in position to make another deal in July if their offseason acquisitions/projects (James Loney, Kelly Johnson, Yunel Escobar) don’t work out.
Although they have Myers and shortstop Hak-Ju Lee as two of their best position player prospects, starting pitching is still their overall strength. A Triple-A rotation that includes Odorizzi, Chris Archer (pictured), Mike Montgomery, Alex Colome and Alex Torres is one of the best around. Archer is big league ready now and the others could be soon.
With lower level starting pitchers Taylor Guerrieri and Blake Snell on the fast track, the Rays shouldn’t be afraid to trade away more pitching if it fills a need during a pennant race.
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If you’re looking for a ton of pitching talent, you’ve come to the wrong place. But the Rangers’ system is stacked from top to bottom with elite position player prospects, starting at the top with shortstop Jurickson Profar (pictured) and third baseman Mike Olt.
Down in the lower minors, the Rangers can pretty much put together an All-Star team of quality players starting with catcher Jorge Alfaro, first baseman Ronald Guzman and infielder Luis Sardinas.
While they say they’re not interested in trading Profar, despite big league shortstop Elvis Andrus inking a long-term extension, they have enough depth in the middle infield where it might not even affect them very much.
And they’re so talented, they could probably land a pretty good major league player in a deal by just dealing prospects currently in High-A or below.
If the rotation can’t hold up until Colby Lewis returns from elbow surgery, or if the bullpen is as shaky as it looks on paper, look for them to be active on the trade front. They certainly have the chips to be major players.