One of the most controversial topics in baseball comes down to baseball prospects. Prospects are typically players with major league talent, but lack the polish to play on a regular basis in the major leagues, so they refine their game down in the minor leagues. Across the 30 different baseball organizations, there is a varying degree of how much each organization values their own prospects, some are more likely to hold onto them with an iron fist and others willing to hand them out like candy for "proven" major leaguers. The Diamondbacks front office has established a pattern of doing more of the latter. The type of moves they’ve made previously leaves to wonder whether or not they can evaluate the worth of their own prospects.
Baseball organizations acquire amateur talent through the MLB Draft, which happens every June or bidding for international talent every July. Major League Baseball has imposed spending caps on both, which are good for the game because it forces front offices to operate with some kind of strategy instead of simply throwing money around. While the draft and international signings are the two most common ways that teams acquire prospect talent, another avenue comes down to trades. Teams can use prospect talent to acquire pieces to their major league roster or vice versa, depending on how they’re building their roster to compete moving forward.
As I wrote before the season started, prospects are lottery tickets. Teams are taking a gamble on a player’s talent after investing monetary and baseball capital to get that player. Prospects are ranked by both their odds of reaching the major leagues and the upside of the player should he establish himself. Prospects that have higher odds of sticking on a MLB roster and/or have the upside to develop into a future MVP or Cy Young award candidate will rate higher than those that don’t.
A quality MLB front office evaluates which prospects are worth retaining and which ones should become trade chips to bolster the major league roster. The type of prospects that wind up becoming trade chips are those whose risks outweigh their upside. Those risks include a higher chance of severe injuries, inability to develop their game, or issues in the clubhouse.
When evaluating upside, these are the type of grades I stick with a player. The WAR projection is over the course of six years. For example, if we put in Paul Goldschmidt in 2011, he would have ranked as an A- prospect. Goldy’s production has been closer towards the level you expect for an A+ prospect. The Diamondbacks current top prospect, Braden Shipley, gets a solid B grade.
A+: Perennial Top 3 MVP/Cy Young candidate, should win a couple (30+ WAR)
A: Perennial All-Star, may win at least 1 MVP/Cy Young candidate (25-30 WAR)
A-: Perennial All-Star and Top 15 MVP/Cy Young finisher (20-25 WAR)
B+: Above Average MLB starter/#2 starter (15-20 WAR)
B: Average MLB Starter/#3 starter (10-15 WAR)
B-: Slightly below average MLB starter/#4 starter (5-10 WAR)
C+: MLB Bench/Major Platoon partner/#5 starter (2-5 WAR)
C: Could reach majors (0-2 WAR)
C-: Not even worth a look (Negative WAR)
Currency for Prospects and Three Trade Examples:
When it comes to trades, prospects are like currency in baseball. Prospects with higher grades/upside will be worth more to an organization as a trade chip or a future contributor to the MLB team. Prospects aren’t going to be worth as much as major leaguers in a 1-for-1 swap given that a major leaguer’s value to a franchise is easier to project than a prospect of equal value. However, in the deal the prospect comes with 6 years of future control.
MLB Bench: $0.75 per service year
MLB Starter: $1 per service year
MLB All-Star: $3 per service year
MLB MVP/CY candidate: $5 per service year
A Prospect: $0.80 per service year
B Prospect: $0.60 per service year
C Prospect: $0.40 per service year
+/- adds $0.10 value to the prospect
First we’ll use that formula to see if the Diamondbacks got enough value out of the Shelby Miller trade.
Dbacks get: Shelby Miller: 3x$3=$9 + Gabe Speier: 6x$0.40 = $11.40
Dbacks give up: Ender Inciarte: 5x$1=$5 + Aaron Blair: 6x$0.60 + Dansby Swanson: 6x$0.70=$12.80
Now it’s beating a dead horse to criticize the Miller deal based on the value they gave up to get him. The trade favors the Braves by the equivalent of 1.4 years of an average MLB player. Had they taken Swanson and Speier off the deal, then the equation is more balanced. Another deal to examine would include the Robbie Ray deal, which grades out favorably. Ray would have been the equivalent of a B- prospect and Leyba a C prospect at the time.
Dbacks get: Ray: 6x$0.60 + Domingo Leyba: 6x$0.40 = $6.00
Dbacks give up: Didi Gregorius: 5x$1 = $5.00
This trade gives the Dbacks a net positive of 1 year of an average MLB starter. What matters is the value of the players at the time. The value of Miller and Inciarte decrease in the Miller trade due to both having issues with injuries and less production than a year ago, although Miller’s service clock was altered where they could still try to get 3 good years out of him. In the Ray trade, both the value of Gregorius, Leyba, and Ray all increase with Gregorius and Ray ascending close to All-Star status and Leyba’s breakout season in the minors.
The value a prospect brings to an organization varies based on how they feel about the player’s chances of sticking and the upside. The Diamondbacks have spent years trading highly-valued talent to try to bolster their MLB roster for them to fall flat. Max Scherzer, Tyler Skaggs, Trevor Bauer, Adam Eaton, Jarrod Parker, and Dansby Swanson are all examples. In the case of Parker, Eaton, and Scherzer, the team saw them as injury risks and that would prevent them of realizing their value. Skaggs and Swanson were both dealt for pie in the sky deals involving Mark Trumbo and Shelby Miller. The Dbacks were able to salvage Trumbo’s value and flipped him for Welington Castillo and 3 C level prospects. The bottom line here is that the Front Office, whether this regime stays or a new one comes along in 2017, needs to do a better job at figuring out how to properly evaluate the value of their prospects.