There's been a lot of gnashing of teeth on many different fronts about Cole Hamels, his value, and the reasonableness (or, more often than not, the unreasonableness) of the Phillies' reported asking cost for him. In case you've been living in a hole the past few months, here are the three things you need to know:
1) The Phillies are shopping Cole Hamels because they are absolutely putrid
2) The Phillies' asking price is apparently "all ur good dudes"
3) The media has gone from tolerant, to annoyed, to completely furious that the Phillies haven't traded Hamels yet
This media fury died down a bit after Hamels' no-hitter on Saturday, but has begun to ramp up again as reports have spread that the Yankees have four untouchable prospects, which means that when the Phillies asked if they wanted Hamels, they responded, ostensibly, with "Oh for sure, uh...Slade Heathcott and that Stoneburner guy good?"
Not that the Yankees or the media are really the main point of this article. I started thinking about prospects a lot, though, after tweeting about this and getting some responses from Yankees fans to the tone of "Trade two good prospects for Cole Hamels? No thanks!" I ended up saying some mean things about Yankees fans, and while I'd usually be good with that, I think I was a bit unhinged and under focused, and this is my attempt to remedy that. To that end, here's my thesis: prospects are meant to be traded.
I realize that this is probably a shocking claim and I don't pretend that it's company policy. Nor do I think it's a catch-all -- I wouldn't be happy if the Phillies traded JP Crawford, for instance. Nor, can I imagine, would Rangers fans be happy to see Joey Gallo go. There are prospects that seem like sure things, and they sure feel necessary and important; know that even as I write this, I think that.
That said, prospects are unreliable. They're unreliable, they're likely never to be worth what you get for them, and their true value really only exists for small market teams. Let's take these one at a time.
1) Prospects are unreliable.
You've seen this thought experiment before, but allow me to work through it one more time -- you ever look at old prospect lists? Like, even recent "old" lists? Like...randomly, like 2012's Baseball America top prospect list. Let's look at that. We'll go by every 20 spots and see what we find, totally subjectively ranking as we go:
Top 20 Hits: Bryce Harper (1), Mike Trout (3), Yu Darvish (4), Manny Machado (11), Gerrit Cole (12), Yoenis Cespedes (14), Devin Mesoraco (16), Anthony Rendon (19)
Top 20 Contributors: Matt Moore (2), Julio Teheran (5), Shelby Miller (8), Trevor Bauer (9), Tyler Skaggs (13), Travis d'Arnaud (17), Miguel Sano (18), Taijuan Walker (20)
Top 20 Busts/Not Yets: Jesus Montero (6), Jurickson Profar (7), Jameson Taillon (15)
Okay, some interesting names, but aside from those top 7 guys, no one you should be super worried about trading (with the possible exceptions of d'Arnaud and Sano). And in cases like Matt Moore and Jesus Montero, you have some serious cautionary tales. Buyer and seller beware, being a top 3 prospect does not a career make.
20-40 Hits: Carlos Martinez (27), Wil Myers (28), Jarrod Parker (26), Zack Wheeler (35)
20-40 Contributors: Jacob Turner (22), Mike Montgomery (23), Archie Bradley (25), Manny Banuelos (29), Drew Pomeranz (30), Martin Perez (31), Yonder Alonso (33), Jon Singleton (34), Brad Peacock (36), Francisco Lindor (37), Anthony Gose (39), Arodys Vizcaino (40)
20-40 Busts/Not Yets: Danny Hultzen (21), Bubba Starling (24), Brett Jackson (32), Gary Brown (38)
Obviously I'm being generous with "contributor" as outside of Lindor, Perez, and Alonso, there aren't many bright spots there, and even those three have their warts. Maybe Singleton matures or Bradley develops, but you're right now looking at a lot of "career WAR under 10" guys. And the 20-40 hits are all either hurt or slow burn guys like Carlos Martinez. And let's not get started on the poor busts.
Weirdly, the rest of the list is filled with guys you'd absolutely have cringed to have traded away, including Christian Yelich, Nolan Arenado, Anthony Rizzo, Matt Harvey, Xander Bogaerts, George Springer, Dellin Betances, Sonny Gray, and Starling Marte. And mixed in are a bunch of useful major leaguers, too. So what do we make of all this?
Well, first, pedigree might matter in terms of reaching elite ceilings, but in terms of bust rate, it doesn't seem to mean much. If you were to reorder the list, you might have a top 10 made up half of guys from the bottom 50 of this list. So when or if the Phillies bring in the 70th ranked prospect or whatever, don't knee-jerk react.
More importantly, this proves that prospects can't be relied upon to be successful -- they fail a lot. And even when they succeed, they might just be marginal contenders. For all the sturm und drang I myself spilled over the Hunter Pence trade, only Jarred Cosart is doing anything of real note right now in the bigs, and even that is middling. Maybe they'll all be great soon (except probably not Josh Zeid, sorry), but right now, right now, that trade doesn't look that bad.
An overpay, and an unneccesary one? Sure. Franchise crippling? Probably not until you consider what those prospects could have brought in instead of just Pence. Because prospects...are for trading.
2) Prospects won't be as good as who you get for them
Cole Hamels will be the example here, obviously. Cole Hamels has 39.7 fWAR right now over his career. Over the past year and a half, it's 6.9 fWAR. He's never posted a FIP that didn't start with a 3, and only two ERAs over 4 since 2006. Oh and he's pitched nearly 30 starts a year since 2007, 23 in 2006. He's been a very good MLB player! How likely is it that any prospect is going to match him, though?
As it happens...not very! Baseball Reference's WAR Leaderboard puts Hamels, up to now, as the 394th most valuable player in baseball history. rWAR gives Hamels a bit of a boost, giving him 44.5 WAR, but still. There have been, accounting for ties, still probably less than 500 players who have been as good as Hamels has been in the history of the sport. And he's 31. And he's underpaid. He can probably rattle off three more 5 WAR seasons easily enough. And say he falls apart and gives you three 3 WAR seasons instead. Well then he's produced almost a third of Jacoby Ellsbury's career WAR.
The point isn't to suggest WAR is infallible -- my god it's not -- but rather to say that Hamels is a ludicrously talented baseball player. Yankees fans might expect Luis Severino to become better than Hamels, and I'm sure Dodgers fans feel the same about Julio Urias. But the truth is that only 163 pitchers ever have matched or bested Cole's 44.5 rWAR to date. And out of those 163 pitchers, only eight are still active. And one is, uh, Cliff Lee :( .
In any case, what are the odds that Severino, or Urias, or any of the prospects the Phillies get will be this good? Not great!
3) The true value of prospects is only available for small market teams
So why ever trade veterans? Well, you can be like the Phillies, concerned you won't compete until Hamels is 35 in four years, and potentially on the other end of his prime. You want to cash in that 10-20 WAR for something, and if you can get prospects who'll have a high ceiling and a big risk, and who you can bank on for 0-5 WAR in 2020, you can punt.
Or maybe you're a small market team who can't afford your veterans. Then you trade Casey Blake for Carlos Santana and are able to put together a competitive team because your new catcher is making the league minimum.
But the Yankees, as much as they might love Luis Severino, Aaron Judge, Greg Bird, and Jorge Mateo, have no real excuse for making them "untouchable." The death of free agency has been presaged for some time, but we still see massive free agent deals being signed every winter, and every winter, some deep pocketed team spends themselves into contention. For these deep pocketed teams, not every dollar is earmarked for marginal upgrades and bench pieces. They can spend money to get things. And one way they can spend money is by selling the savings they make on prospects, cashing in players making league minimum for already and predictably elite players.
Because even if the average fan now knows these prospects, and just because we've seen our share of Harpers and Trouts, does not mean that all of the 2015 top ten are going to be difference makers for their teams. Half, likely, will do nothing. One way a team can be sure they'll do something, though?
They can buy Cole Hamels with them.