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The Prospect of Trading Prospects

Buying lottery tickets is a bad investment strategy, and it is a worse business model. That’s why you see very little of it happening during the Major League trade season.

If you look at the way deals get made today, you can see that teams are fairly adept at valuing their own players, and through analytics they perhaps are able to see more things in players they acquire than they could in the past. A familiar refrain on fan message boards is to call for deals based on prospect packages, or fans will say things like “throw-in a prospect or two” to make a trade happen. It just doesn’t work like that anymore, if it ever did. More and more of the deals we see now are big leaguer for big leaguer. There’s a reason for that. Teams know how to value a player who’s made it to the Majors. They also greatly increase the chance of recovering value in a trade by acquiring a Major League player. If you look at the prospects moving in trades, they are guys who are either on the cusp of the Majors or, in the rare case they are in the low minors, they have encouraged a high percentage of likelihood they reach the Majors at some point.

That means every fan clamoring for the Yankees to make trades needs to consider what assets they have to move at the Major League level first before considering the health of the prospect base. While Yankee fans may think guys like Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge are great prospects, other teams have to view them as near-future Major League players in order to trade anything of value for them. Look at the recent past of the Yankees’ trade practices to see the way things are going.

The Yankees seemed to know what they were last year. They had a chance to make the playoffs, so they remained very active on the trade front, but due to injuries and under-performance they were unlikely to outlast teams in longer series, so they did not leverage their best assets. They acquired Brandon McCarthy, Chase Headley, Stephen Drew, and Martin Prado for their playoff chase, and, other than Prado, the players the Yankees acquired were free agents at the end of the season. The grand sum of their trade bill was Vidal Nuno, Yangervis Solarte, Rafael DePaula, Kelly Johnson, and Peter O’Brien. That’s three Major Leaguers and two minor leaguers.

DePaula has struggled as a starter in the Minors, but he has a really good chance of becoming a Major League reliever. O’Brien was the “only” return for Prado because the Yankees picked up all of Prado’s contract. O’Brien is difficult to project defensively, but his power is legitimate and he will maintain a spot in a Major League batting order at some point in the near future. They aren’t sure things, and what level of success they achieve is up for grabs, but the point is they have a great chance to get there. That makes them real prospects.

Look at the trades the Yankees have made this off-season. Francisco Cervelli, who was a good backup catcher in New York, was traded to Pittsburgh for left-handed reliever Justin Wilson. Major League backup catcher for Major League middle reliever is a fair trade, value for value. Each player has a chance to out-perform his previous years, but potential isn’t the point in a deal like that. They were both extra pieces for their respective teams who could be replaced for less money and then move into greater roles for their acquiring teams.

In early December the Yankees traded, essentially, Shane Greene for Didi Gregorius. That’s a Major League starting pitcher with very little experience for a Major League starting shortstop with very little experience. That seems to fit. Both have a chance to be good for a long time. Both have a chance to be in reduced roles by 2016.

Last Friday the Yankees traded for Nathan Eovaldi, Garrett Jones, and Domingo German, giving up Martin Prado and David Phelps for the trio from the Marlins. That’s four Major League players in the deal and one pitcher from the low minors. When considering the value of players moving, that’s a starting pitcher and a bench player who could get 300 at-bats for a starting infielder and a swing man. That sounds about right.

Was German included in the deal to balance out the talent? Probably not, considering the Yankees are paying a reported $6 million in the deal. They likely are receiving German in exchange for paying that money. German has a great arm, and he’s definitely a prospect, but he may have been something of a pain for the Marlins in that he was on the 40-man roster at 22 years old and hasn’t pitched above A-ball yet. That means he perhaps eats up a roster spot without helping the Major League team for at least a couple of years, and while he is a starter now he is not certain to remain in that role. German is what Brian Cashman calls a “lottery ticket,” and while those can be exciting to have, they can also be bad for business.

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