They’re more coveted than a Hamptons address, more treasured than a priceless work of art, more valuable than diamonds. The mere thought of parting with one of them triggers pangs of panic. They are baseball prospects.
Never in the illustrious history of professional baseball has the prospect, the bus-riding, barely-shaving, twenty-something minor leaguer, enjoyed the exalted status it does now. Baseball practically worships at the cleats of the callow and unproven.
Major League Baseball’s non-waiver trade deadline is 4 p.m. Wednesday and decisions will be made, fortunes will rise or fall on the willingness of teams to part with players whose futures are murkier than the bottom of the Mystic River.
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington owed it to the men in his clubhouse to make a move to buttress the chances of playoff baseball returning to Boston for the first time since 2009. This hasn’t been a bridge year since April. The Red Sox are a half-game back of Tampa Bay; they previously had spent 99 days in or tied for first place, which would make Dan Duquette ecstatic if he weren’t currently the GM of the Orioles.
Tuesday night the Sox made a three-way deal that delivered Chicago starting pitcher Jake Peavy and sacrificed young shortstop/third baseman Jose Iglesias and lower-level prospects. That was the best of both worlds for Cherington. He helped this very good Red Sox team while not sacrificing building blocks from the Next Great Red Sox team.
American League East rivals Baltimore, Tampa Bay and New York have made significant deals to augment their teams, so have Texas and Detroit. Cherington made a trade to pick up lefthander reliever Matt Thornton from the White Sox. But the acquisition of Peavy is an acknowledgement that the Red Sox roster needed more significant enhancement, especially with Clay Buchholz’s return still TBD.
The Holy Grail would be Phillies lefthander Cliff Lee, a front-line starter with playoff experience and Cy Young pedigree who is under contract for at least two seasons beyond this one. Lee would be enough reason to start preparing the Duck Boats. But he would have cost the Sox a bounty of their best prospects. Peavy was the compromise candidate.
One of the most fecund farm systems in baseball provided Cherington and the Sox with the ability to pull off a major or a minor deal. The Sox had such depth that trading a 23-year-old Gold Glove-caliber shortstop was preferable to dealing precious prospects.
The crown jewel of the Sox’ system is slugging shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who is Hanley Ramirez 2.0. Outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr is waiting in the wings to replace Jacoby Ellsbury and third base prospect Garin Cecchini is a lefthanded hit machine. It’s too early to write off Will Middlebrooks, as well.
The Sox have a passel of pitching prospects, one of whom, Brandon Workman, started for them Tuesday night against the Mariners.
But the odds of all those prospects becoming productive major leaguers is the same as the odds of Tim Tebow leading the Patriots to a Super Bowl title.
Farm systems, by nature, build in redundancy. It is in recognition of the inevitable failure of a portion of their crops.
The lure of prospects is understandable. They’re cheap labor and carry the most intoxicating elixir in sports -— potential. They’re an empty vessel that can be filled with the hope or promise of a future All-Star or a franchise icon.
You’re reading someone who can’t go to bed unless he checks minorleaguebaseball.com to see what Mookie Betts, a Red Sox second base prospect, has done at Single A Salem. I’m a prospect junkie.
But the fact is that baseball prospects have become romanticized to a point that defies the unyielding reality of developing baseball players — the majority of them fail. And an even smaller percentage of the players who make it end up living up to their advance billing as stars.
For every Clay Buchholz or Jon Lester or Jonathan Papelbon there are pitchers like Kevin Morton, Frankie Rodriguez, Jeff Suppan, Brian Rose, Sun-Woo Kim, Casey Fossum, and Craig Hansen.
For every Dustin Pedroia or Jacoby Ellsbury there are players like Donnie Sadler, Michael Coleman, Sam Horn, Phil Plantier, Dernell Stenson, and Lars Anderson.
The real challenge for Cherington and the boys in baseball operations at 4 Yawkey Way is to identify which prospects are essential pieces of the Next Great Red Sox team and which ones can be moved to help the next good Red Sox team, which is this one.
My list of untouchables from the Sox farm system at this point is Bogaerts, Single A lefty Henry Owens, who had a 19⅓ hitless inning streak, and Bradley. I could be swayed on Bradley if Lee was coming back in return.
No trade deadline in Boston can pass without a mention of the epitome of the myopic deal that comes back to haunt a team, the Sox trading third base prospect Jeff Bagwell for reliever Larry Andersen in 1990. It is invoked every year as a cautionary tale supporting trade inactivity.
Bagwell went on to have a Hall of Fame-caliber career for the Houston Astros and Andersen pitched 15 regular-season and three playoff games for the Sox.
But what about the other side? Before the 2003 season, then-Red Sox GM Theo Epstein regarded Fossum so highly he would not trade him for Bartolo Colon. The lithe lefthander finished his career with a 40-53 record and a 5.45 ERA.
In December 2007, Miguel Cabrera, was dealt by the Marlins to the Tigers for a passel of prospects, including sure-fire stars Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller. Yes, that Andrew Miller, the same one who was pitching in middle relief for the Red Sox until he was felled by a season-ending foot injury.
The point is that can’t-miss prospects do miss, often, or end up being unremarkable major league players.
Cherington found himself at the intersection of protecting the future and investing in the present.
It turned out he was able to do both.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.