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The Realmuto trade, or why we hug our prospects

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It’s not about marginal value; it’s about abundant sentimentality.

New York Mets v Philadelphia Phillies
El Oso has taken his last ice bath as a Phillie
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Here’s a phrase we’ve heard a lot around the Phillies recently, a (mild) pejorative describing the collective mental state of fans: “prospect hugging.” It refers to the tendency to value young talent beyond a rational point—to the degree, say, that you tear your hair out on Twitter even when your team is getting a player who’s the best at what he does in the game.

Rationally, the mockery has a point. It’s admittedly hard to remember now, but during the glory run of 2007-2011, the Phillies made five significant trades of prospects or very young big leaguers for established veteran stars. Those deals brought in Brad Lidge, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Hunter Pence, pretty much all of whom met expectations and made significant contributions for one or more Phillies contenders.

The best players sent out were Michael Bourn, Carlos Carrasco, and J.A. Happ—nice pieces, to be sure, but not guys who would have altered the course of the franchise, especially since they all peaked after the window closed. And if you’d asked fans—or most prospect mavens—at the time, the names of maximum lamentation would have included Kyle Drabek, Michael Taylor, Jarred Cosart, or Jon Singleton.

The Phillies’ big trade last week, acquiring all-star catcher J.T. Realmuto for incumbent backstop Jorge Alfaro, top pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez, and fellow young arm Will Stewart, doesn’t quite track those deals of about a decade ago, in two respects.

First, the current Phillies aren’t trying to complete a core; they’re trying to build one. At age 28, Realmuto could be a foundational piece through the mid-2020s. He’s under control for “only” two seasons, but barring an actuarially unlikely collapse in performance or something else unforeseeable, he probably gets extended.

Second, with no disrespect to the young men whom Ruben Amaro dealt away all those years ago, this package tops them all. It’s not hard to imagine a future in which Alfaro is a top-10 or even top-5 catcher in the game, catching a perennial Cy Young contender in Sanchez. Yes, Alfaro’s strike zone judgment and blocking issues could leave him more in the realm of “spectacular but average,” and Sixto has all the usual young pitcher risks. But it’s all too possible they’ll form a battery that reliably beats the Phils multiple times per year throughout the 2020s. (Stewart maybe too, I guess, but if we’re going to compare him to a dealt prospect of yesteryear, he seems more like Josh Outman without the cool name.)

But all this is diagonal to my real point, which is about why some of us freaked out last week as the deal drew near.

I submit there are two flavors of prospect-hugging: an essentially cold take in which you’re thinking about WAR per dollar and actuarial patterns and marginal value and such, and a sentimental variant in which you as a fan would just rather win with “your” guys: players who’ve spent all or nearly all of their entire pro careers wearing the laundry you love. Consider this Buster Olney tweet from Thursday about a best-timeline Phillies 2019 lineup:

After an initial gleeful reaction, I realized it left me just a little cold. Thinking about the reason why brought me to a big part of what made the 2008 title team so special: virtually every star of that team was homegrown.

Of the 12 players on that club who registered at least one bWAR, six—including the top three of Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, and Jimmy Rollins—had never played for another organization; two more (Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth, who rounded out the top five) had their major breakouts as Phillies. In all, five of the team’s eight regulars were entirely homegrown, as were the top two starters and the setup man. Of the major contributors to that team, only Lidge and Jamie Moyer were established before coming to town. Virtually every other guy was a player we watched reach the majors, show promise, struggle, start to figure it out—and then blossom into a key contributor to a champion.

The hope of seeing the next championship core rise helped sustained the fan base over these last few lean years. The notional foundation a year ago included maybe a dozen names that the Phillies drafted, signed as international free agents, or acquired as minor leaguers—and that was it. As we enter 2019—the first season where anything short of a playoff berth will mean disappointment—that homegrown core is pretty much down to Aaron Nola and Rhys Hoskins, plus maybe a Nick Pivetta or Seranthony Dominguez. J.P. Crawford is in Seattle; Alfaro and Sanchez are in Miami; Scott Kingery faces an unclear role on the bench; Maikel Franco, Nick Williams and even Odubel Herrera all are dealing with ambiguity as training camp opens.

This isn’t a bad thing. The choice between winning with imports and losing with homegrown guys isn’t a very tough one, and sentimentality is not (and shouldn’t be) a valued job criterion for a GM. But there also might be something to the idea that when a homegrown core ripens together, that’s a team set up for an extended run of contention and a permanent spot in the collective heart of the fan base. When some of us bemoaned the trade last week, I think that was part of the reason why.