First Pitch: When Should a Prospect Be Untouchable?

I was talking with Kevin Creagh the other day about the Justin Upton and Carlos Quentin rumors. Kevin mentioned a few players that it would probably cost for each guy. Keeping with my “what would the Rays do” line of thinking, I mentioned that I wouldn’t deal any of the players mentioned (some of the names included Willy Garcia, Nick Kingham, or the Indianapolis left-handers).

Kevin’s response was something I’ve heard a few times over the last few days: you’ve got to give talent to get talent.

Of course that theory only works if you’re actually looking to get talent by giving up talent.

As I’ve mentioned many times over the last week, I don’t think the Pirates should approach the idea of giving up prospects lightly. They’re a small market team, and prospects have a huge value to them. This isn’t a new theory. It’s the same thing I said last year. The ideal trade for the Pirates involves them giving up cash, rather than prospects.

All of this got me thinking about untouchable prospects. The Pirates say that no one is untouchable. But let’s be honest, there are some players that would be extremely difficult to trade. As an example, Gerrit Cole has the upside of a number one starter. He’s on pace to be in the majors a year from now. At that point he would be under team control through the 2019 season. By comparison, his trade value right now is about $26 M, which means the Pirates would have to come up with an additional $20 M in prospects to get a guy like Justin Upton for three and a half years.

That move wouldn’t make much sense for the Pirates. They’d be getting a superstar, but they’d be giving up a guy who looks like a superstar in the making, and who would be under team control for six and a half years, all while being much more affordable. Say what you want about prospects being far from a guarantee, but that’s the game the Pirates have to play.

On that same note, the Pirates can’t afford to deal guys who are close to the majors. They’re looking for help not only to compete in 2012, but to continue to compete in the coming years. The Indianapolis left-handers, for example, are extremely valuable to the Pirates. There’s three number 3-5 starters under control for six years. Yet every trade discussion that comes up, you usually hear one of these guys sent away, and most of the time it’s for a guy who would only be here two months.

It makes sense if you’re looking at the short-term. But look down the line a year or two. Erik Bedard and Kevin Correia are gone at the end of the year. A.J. Burnett and Jeff Karstens are gone after 2013. The only guys you could project for the 2014 rotation are James McDonald, Gerrit Cole, and Charlie Morton, assuming he’s still around. You’re going to need those Indianapolis left-handers, especially when you consider that teams need more than five starters over the course of a season.

It might make sense to trade one of those guys in the right deal. But all three are major league ready right now, which means it wouldn’t make sense to deal them for a rental.

Then there’s lower level prospects. Lower level guys are tricky. Their values are mostly fueled by talent and upside, but when the numbers match, you start to dream on their potential. The prime example this year is Alen Hanson. A guy like Hanson should be untouchable not only because of his numbers, but because he has a chance at sticking at shortstop. The Pirates don’t have a long term answer at shortstop, so they can’t afford to deal the best looking option right now.

But what about someone who hasn’t broken out this year? Hanson is getting all of the attention, and showing up on top 50 prospect lists. But what about a guy like Willy Garcia? Garcia is hitting for power, with ten homers in 304 at-bats this year, and a .135 ISO at the age of 19 in the South Atlantic League. But his overall line is .250/.300/.385. Right now, Garcia is more potential than numbers. But as we’ve seen with Hanson, that can change very quickly. There is such a thing as selling low with prospects, and dealing a guy before he has a shot to break out and start realizing his potential is selling low. The last thing a team wants to do is deal a guy with upside, then watch him put it together the next year and become a top prospect.

Of course, not all players put it together. That’s the risk with young players, and with players in the lower levels. Considering the needs of the system (offense), and considering how many resources the Pirates have focused on adding pitching in the last several drafts, I’d be more inclined to deal one of the younger pitchers than one of the younger hitters.

I agree that no player should be untouchable in the right deal. But if you’re like me, and you feel that small market teams need to build through prospects, rather than selling prospects away for short-term upgrades, then you’re going to have a harder time finding that “right deal”.

Links and Notes

**The National League won the All-Star Game 8-0.

**Prospect Watch: GCL Pirates Break Out the Bats in Slow Day For the System.

**Pirates Shuffle Rotation for Second Half.

**How Much Trade Value Does Brad Lincoln Have?

**Prospect Notebook: Cole Reflects on Futures Game, Colla Incorporates Long Toss.

About Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He is a credentialed media member with every team in the Pirates’ system, including the Pirates themselves. He’s a regular guest on Extra Innings on 104.7, and makes regular appearances on ESPN 970, 93.7 The Fan, and TribLIVE Radio in Pittsburgh, as well as ESPN 1430 in Altoona and ESPN 1450 in State College.
  • Dave Parker’s Unfiltered Camel

    I wonder if the Pirates have an “internal” value on their prospects versus the more standard values we see in articles like this one. For example, a prospect like Hanson may have a more standard value simply based on his performance. However the Pirates may have a formula based on dollars invested, performance, an assessment of the players potential, the current depth in the minor league system and composition of the major league roster. If you take the above parameters into account, a player like Hanson may have a much greater value to the Pirates than the “standard” type values we see quoted.

    As far as trading a top pitching prospect, there is no way

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      Every team has internal values, whether it’s prospects or major league players. That’s no different than everyday purchases in real life. You would spend X amount on a car, but I might not value a car as much as you.

      I think all teams take a similar approach to putting value on their prospects. They research what prospects have done historically, which gives them an idea of what a prospect is capable of going forward. It’s probably not the same system that we use, but it’s probably similar.

      • Dave Parker’s Unfiltered Camel

        I’ll be clear on this: I’m not implying that your methodology is wrong. I’m just wondering if the organization looks at it a little differently. I have a feeling that they place even greater value in their prospects. I agree with your thought process with regard to building from within.

  • Lee Young

    Karstens gone after 2013? That’s the first I’ve heard that. Should we be signing him to a long term contract?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Smalley/100001279428589 Andrew Smalley

    While I agree w/ the general sentiment of this post (ie: we should think long and hard before giving up assets for quick fixes), I’m pretty sure that most teams would agree with most prospector sites: the arms in AAA (Wilson, Locke, Owens) all project to be closer to #5′s rather than #3′s as this article seems to indicate. While a back-end starter is still valuable, those are the types of guys that we should be less reluctant to trade as opposed to high-end guys like Polanco/Garcia/Hanson. While everyone has their preferences regarding the AAA-arms (I prefer Wilson over Locke/Owens), we need to be realistic that there is a reason these guys are all pushing their mid-20′s and still haven’t been given an extended chance at the ML level – and it isn’t because we have some great depth in the starting rotation. If giving up one of those guys were to get us another bat this year, or if giving up one of those guys w/ some other pieces gets us an impact player, we shouldn’t be hesitating b/c of the ‘fear’ of giving up a back-end starter. High-ceiling prospects are a different story; somewhat known commodities are/should be easier to deal.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      Baseball America just called Jeff Locke a middle of the rotation guy.

      Also, a number five starter is a pretty low bar. The average number five starter usually has an ERA above 5.00. A number four starter is closer to 4.50-4.75. A number three starter is around the high 3s, low 4s.

      I don’t see these guys being number five starters and putting up ERAs over five. I see them being number four starters in a strong rotation or a number three starter in a weaker rotation. Both amount to ERAs in the low 4s.

      As for their ages and why they haven’t been given a chance, they’re all 24 and all major league ready. The reason they haven’t been given a chance is because there has been no chance in the majors this year with the Pirates.
      Also, I’ll just point out that your value of these guys doesn’t match up with your trade ideas. If they’re only back end starters, then you’re not going to get anything of value in return.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Smalley/100001279428589 Andrew Smalley

        There is a lot wrong with this post:
        1) “The reason they haven’t been given a chance is because there has been no chance in the Majors this year w/ the Pirates.” That’s not accurate. As far as I know, Kevin Correia is still in the rotation; Brad Lincoln was given numerous starts this year, despite being a more natural fit (two-pitch pitcher) and getting better results in the bullpen; and, Charlie Morton (the projected #5) is gone for the season. All three of the above situations created a situation where one of the AAA-arms could have been called up…..if the Pirates thought they had what you seemingly think they have.
        2) “If they’re only back end starters, then you’re not going to get anything of value in return.” This is clearly wrong, and, incidentally, contrary to your original article. If you don’t think a back-end, inning-eater SP (w/ years of control, as these would in all cases) could get you a 2-3 month rental, you’re mistaken. While the Nationals haven’t traded Lannan yet (due mostly to questions w/ Detwiler and Strausburg’s innings limit, presumably), there was and is interest in him. He’s not a #3 or a #4; he’s a #5, charitably. Yet, his name is still thrown around as an asset. Plus, if you think #3/#4 is as valuable as you state, why wouldn’t a #5 at least have some value? Guys that can start and eat innings still have value and can get *something* (particularly a rental) in return.
        3) Also, you’re projecting 2 guys that haven’t seen the majors and one guy that wasn’t very good as being #3 SPs. That is a bit rich and a bit optimistic. I didn’t see the BA quote on Locke, but that has to be based on his first-half this season and not his results in the Majors last year or his ‘stuff’. Therefore, SSS included, I have questions concerning that ranking.
        4) You’re using ERA as the metric, which is your first problem. It’s also probably why you were late to the “Kevin Correia is awful” mantra that most Pirate fans know and appreciate. I don’t care what a guy’s ERA will be w/ good defense and a tough hitter’s park behind him; I care what a guy’s actual value is independent of his defense and park. Saying a 5th starter is this ERA or a 4th starter is that ERA doesn’t begin to tell the reader (or person you’re attempting to persuade, including opposing GM) actually *how* good of a pitcher a guy is. Tell me his K/BB, tell me scouting reports on his stuff, tell me his out-pitch, tell me how he makes people swing and miss. These are all more crucial in determining a guy’s value than some antiquated stat like ERA.

        Essentially, I think you’re overvaluing the AAA-pitchers, while simultaneously undervaluing what a back-end starter could get in return. Projecting their performance, based on no evidence at the ML level and using a dubious stat to do the same, doesn’t make it very likely that your projections will be right and, therefore, your values are skewed, in my opinion.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=72405411 Ian Rothermund

          The reason Lannan has value as a #5 guy is because he’s a proven commodity. Guys in AAA need to at least be projected to be better than that to actually have any value. Going back to being proven, that’s why Correia is still here for that matter. I’d like to go into more, but I’m kind of indifferent, and you seem relatively heated. If I could match your passion here, I’d probably go for it.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Smalley/100001279428589 Andrew Smalley

            Ha. Nah, not heated, just focused on the next three weeks and what, at least to me, seems like an overvaluing of our guys which will lead to a disappointment in their return. Lannan is a proven commodity, I agree – just not a very good one. However, based on the fact that he can take the ball every 5 days and not get obliterated, he has some value. Correia is also a proven commodity – again, just not a very good one. I don’t doubt that Locke/Owens/Wilson (particularly the latter) can’t be better than Lannen/Correia (particularly the latter), but I still don’t see them as #3 SPs, like Tim does.

          • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

            Again, you’re focusing on one number. I don’t see them as #3 starters. That’s saying they’ll only be #3 starters. I’m saying they could be 3-5 guys. There are possibilities there.

          • http://www.facebook.com/kirk.vandergrift Kirk Lee

            Tim, I think you do a very good job of taking a level-headed approach when everyone in Pittsburgh is losing their heads and getting starry-eyed at the available upgrades… even if you may have a tendency to be slightly overly-protective of Pirates prospects at times (after all, it is the name of your website these days). I don’t think the Pirates should have to be blown away with a deal to pull the trigger on some prospects, but I do think they should have to truly believe they are getting the better end of it. Guys like Cole and Taillon should be untouchable with rare exceptions (such as when a superstar with several years of control is being discussed). Other guys should be dealt very cautiously. But no one should be untouchable. The Nats offer Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg (which they would obviously never do), you give them whatever they want in return. Hypothetical insanities aside, each offer should be considered before being rejected, and considered long and hard before being accepted.
            On a side note, I don’t think it’s a certainty that Karstens is gone after 2013. He wouldn’t exactly break the bank to bring back in free agency, and Pittsburgh loves the guy.

          • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

            My approach to prospects has nothing to do with the site. It actually benefits me if they deal prospects, as that leads to incoming links from other teams learning about the prospects they just got. That’s what happened when they dealt Pounders to the Royals and Cayonez/Moreno to the Yankees.

            The reason I’m protective with prospects is because of what I’ve been saying pretty much since starting this site in 2009. The Pirates need to build through prospects. They need to take the approach of the Rays. Bring up prospects, have them perform for their controlled years, then trade them before free agency hits and reload the system, ideally with a new prospect ready to take over. You don’t get to that point by making it a habit to casually deal prospects away.

            I agree that each offer should be considered. That’s why I tried to outline some examples of when a guy would be untouchable. A major league ready prospect for a two month rental? I don’t do it. Dealing a guy with upside who hasn’t broken out? You’re selling low. Dealing a potential star who is close to the majors and can give you six years of cost-controlled production for three and a half years of an expensive option? Again, not the move the Pirates should be making.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Smalley/100001279428589 Andrew Smalley

            That’s true. I guess I’m stating, in my opinion, which is *most* likely. But, you’re right, that ceiling *could* be higher, particularly w/r/t Wilson, in my eyes.

        • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

          1. I agree Correia should have been removed for one of these guys. But Correia is putting up good numbers. He probably won’t continue with these numbers, but he’s done it so far. Lincoln was given a chance to start, which is the right call since his value is greater as a starter. None of this says anything about these three players.

          2. You were the one who called them back-end starters. And Lannan is not a number five guy. Your expectations for each pitching slot are off. The reason #5 guys don’t have much value is because they’re barely major leaguers. They’re guys who are similar to 4-A guys. Kevin Correia is an example of a number five starter. And he has no trade value.

          3. I’m not projecting them as #3 starters. I’m saying they have the potential to be 3-5 starters. I’m including a range of possibilities. You’re setting the limits.

          4. My starter ranges are based on research that I did on this subject, looking at every major league rotation. Also, my opinion on Kevin Correia has never changed. I’ve always felt he is what he is. He’s a number four or five starter in a bad rotation (which the Pirates had pre-2011) and he’s a number five starter or a spot starter in a good rotation. The only thing that has changed is the Pirates rotation got better, and didn’t need him.

          If you’ve read the site, you know I rely more on xFIP when looking at individual pitchers. But over the sample size for my research, ERA worked. Now if I’m comparing an individual pitcher to those ERA numbers I posted, I’m comparing their xFIP. So Correia, for example. He has a 4.34 ERA, but his xFIP is 4.77. The 4.34 is a 3/4 starter, but the 4.77 is a 4/5 starter.

          I think your expectations for pitchers are off. As for the AAA pitchers, I think it’s convenient to say they’re number five starters (especially if you don’t know what a number five starter is). I’m basing my opinion on all of those things you talk about above: their stuff, their control, their command, and their secondary numbers. And my values are pretty close to what other outlets and scouts I’ve talked to have said about those guys.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Smalley/100001279428589 Andrew Smalley

            All good points. I’m not as high on the AAA-guys as you are, but I do still think they have value. However, I just think, while not expendable surely, they are available to be had, much easier than a Polanco/Hanson type that you can dream on a little more. That’s just my perspective in regards to prospects: if they *can* be stars – even if not likely – they have much more relative value – to me – than a guy that his future is relatively stable and easy to envision and, most importantly, easy to replace. Perhaps ‘shiny new toy’ syndrome, but it has always been my preference.

          • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

            I think they’re available to be had, but only in the right deal. As I mentioned in the article, I wouldn’t deal them for a rental.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=72405411 Ian Rothermund

    Now, I’m not a huge fan of ESPN, so I tend to gravitate towards local sports radio. Given that, if I hear the guys on 93.7 talk about how the Pirates need to sell off prospects and go for it all this year, I’m going to tear my car radio out and throw it right out of my window on the highway. What if this isn’t the year? Quite frankly I don’t see this team as a World Series team this year, even with someone like Justin Upton. I have a feeling that many would agree with me, so really, are people suggesting that sending 3-4 legitimate prospects away (two of the top-5), including a guy with #1 upside in the rotation, is a good idea in exchange for a player that they’d only have for 2-3 years?

    Utterly ridiculous.

    If they hold on to these guys, the Pirates could continue on like they have been, progressively getting better and building from within. To give away 3-4 top 10 prospects for a chance at maybe getting to the playoffs makes no sense.

  • Kevin_Creagh

    I’m a day late on this piece, but let me explain my theory a little….
    I’m probably repeating myself, but a farm system has 2 uses. The first is to supply cost-controlled talent to the major league team. Second is to use as trade chips to augment the major league team.
    The Pirates are in an unusual (for them) position to contend right now, right here, in 2012. They have to make a move of some sort to auger the fan base for a playoff run.
    Prospects are a little like fruit — you can’t keep them on the vine forever or else they will wither. To some extent, that’s what is starting to happen with Owens, Locke, and Wilson. Correia should have been replaced by 1 of these three at this point, but the Pirates are trying to squeeze every dollar out of him. Next year, two of the 3 should be starting, but most likely it will be only 1. So get someone value out of 1 right now for a Carlos Quentin type. (My offer was one of the 3 plus Willy Garcia in the conversation with Tim).