The Red Sox’ rookie development program marks an annual exercise in the search for the next big thing, a chance to examine a small group of prospects and imagine a limitless future as Fenway Park cornerstones.
But should the program instead be viewed as a pageant of potential trade chips?
That question is intriguing in a winter that has been a reminder that the value of top prospects can crash with startling suddenness and the veteran return on deals can be a bargain. After all, 28 franchises had a chance this month – at the time of his election to the Hall of Fame – to contemplate how Pedro Martinez’s career might have been. What direction might their organizations have taken had they outbid the Red Sox’ offer of pitchers Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr. to acquire a 25-year-old coming off a Cy Young season?
“There were a couple [runners-up to the Red Sox in the 1997 deal for Martinez],” recalled former Expos GM Jim Beattie, the man who sifted through the offers for Martinez 17 winters ago. “But there were mostly guys that wouldn’t trade players, organizations that wouldn’t trade some of their young prospects and some of those guys had very short careers.
“[Former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette] was the guy that said he’s going to go for it, who trusted that he would sign him to an extension, and he did. But other clubs weren’t going to do that, or at least give you the quality of the players you’re looking for. I’m sure a lot of GMs ended up saying one year of Pedro would have been a lot better than the couple guys I could have traded for him in retrospect.”
The Red Sox have also seen plenty of examples this offseason of prospects whose value either plummeted or vanished entirely:
■ The Red Sox traded Will Middlebrooks, their top prospect (as ranked by Baseball America) entering the 2012 season and a player with even greater value after a tremendous rookie campaign, to the Padres for backup catcher Ryan Hanigan. “Obviously we’re not trading Will at a particularly high point right now, we understand that,” GM Ben Cherington said in a conference call.
■ Ryan Lavarnway, once ranked by Baseball America as the Sox’ No. 9 prospect and kept off limits in the summer of 2011 (at a time when he could have served as a kickstarter in conversations about a pitcher like Doug Fister), has pinballed on waivers from the Sox to the Dodgers, Cubs, and Orioles. He was designated for assignment by the Orioles last week.
■ Lars Anderson once ranked as the Sox’ top prospect, earning status as something between an untouchable and a possible centerpiece to a deal for a star. But by 2012, he was a chip that netted minor league knuckleballer Steven Wright. Anderson, now 27, signed a minor league free agent deal with the Dodgers this month.
There are other instances of players who weren’t dealt when their value was at its peak and who ultimately offered the Sox little or no value. The Sox are by no means alone in that regard.
A prospect who performs at the level of a big league star is the ultimate franchise game-changer. Such players deliver immense value at cost-controlled salaries that fall well below their market worth, in turn giving teams the latitude to spend aggressively elsewhere.
Still, prospect upside is accompanied by immense volatility. A Baseball America study found that more than two-thirds of the players ranked in the publication’s top 100 ended up being a bust.
There have been times the Sox have defied those odds. In 2005, the team’s top six prospects – Hanley Ramirez, Brandon Moss, Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, Anibal Sanchez, and Dustin Pedroia, in that order – went on to experience significant big league success. But in other years, such as 2009, the team’s top 10 (Anderson, Michael Bowden, Nick Hagadone, Daniel Bard, Josh Reddick, Casey Kelly, Ryan Westmoreland, Michael Almanzar, Yamaico Navarro, and Stolmy Pimentel) yielded far less big league impact.
In theory, a team can sidestep the unpredictable nature of prospect values by aggressively trading young players for established big league veterans. The Tigers typically have done that for years, showing little hesitation about dealing the likes of Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin to anchor a deal for Miguel Cabrera or using top-10 prospects to land the likes of Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez.
So why don’t the Red Sox focus on dealing prospects at their peak to load up on veterans rather than risk selling low?
“Our belief is that we need to maintain a strong core of young talent and that core gives ourselves the best chance to [compete year-in, year-out],” GM Ben Cherington recently explained.
Of course, for the most valuable kinds of prospects – the ones who are on the cusp of the big leagues – it’s almost impossible to figure out whether a team is selling high or low until a prospect gets to the big leagues. Even then, it can take years to make that determination.
The Sox dealt Anthony Rizzo, for instance, to the Padres as the second piece in a three-prospect deal for Adrian Gonzalez after 2010. Rizzo’s value had grown significantly and continued to grow after he joined the Padres, but then traveled sideways or perhaps even down as he adjusted to the big leagues from 2011-13. But last year with the Cubs, at 24, he emerged as a 30-home run hitter who could be one of the top hitters in baseball for years to come.
“There’s no guarantee that what you’re getting works out, either,” noted Cherington. “The only way to find out if you have a core young player who you can control for six years through his prime age years and be one of those guys you can build the team around is to give them an opportunity.
“Teams can be guilty of being too protective of young players, no doubt about it – especially teams in markets where expectations are high,” said Cherington. “That said, as long as the expectations are for the Red Sox to be good every year, long past when I’m in this job, I think we’ll always feel like one of the ways we can give ourselves the chance to do that is to have a very strong base of young talent.”
But it’s not the only way. Somewhere, sometime, there’s another superstar, perhaps even the next Pedro, to be acquired.
“Sometimes you’ve got to do something like that,” Beattie said. “You give up prospects because prospects are prospects. I think that’s one thing you learn.”
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.