UPDATED: Story has been updated with the final numbers/percentages for 2017 trade deadline deals.
At the rate baseball is going, by 2020 teams will be signing international prospects on July 2 and trading them on July 3.
In the never-ending attempts to find an edge, the 2017 trade deadline has shown a developing pattern. Teams are willing to dig deeper into the furthest recesses of farm systems in an attempt to land a bargain.
Already a full one-fourth of Baseball America's 2016 Top 20 Dominican Summer League Prospects list has swapped teams. Dodgers’ lanky shortstop Oneil Cruz was sent to the Pirates for Tony Watson. Royals middle infielder Esteury Ruiz was traded to the Padres in the Trevor Cahill-Ryan Buchter-Brandon Maurer trade. Before him the Rays acquired Carlos Vargas from the Mariners, Jose King went to the Tigers in the recent J.D. Martinez trade and Brayan Hernandez was sent to the Marlins for David Phelps.
This is an almost entirely new trend. It wasn't that many years ago that most teams would balk at the idea of trading for a prospect who realistically is four to six years away, at best, from the big leagues. But in 2017, more teams are willing to trade risk for potential reward.
This year is the first time this century (and likely ever) that there were fewer Double-A and Triple-A prospects traded at the deadline this year than Class A prospects. In the past three seasons, 22 players have been traded at the deadline who were in short-season ball or lower. In the 15 seasons combined before that only 18 players in short-season or lower traded at the deadline.
Making tradeoffs in trade talks are nothing new. There are the big league tradeoffs–one team takes on the salary of a bad contract and gets more value back in return. But many of the discussions revolve around what prospect or prospects are going to be included, and when it comes to prospects, there are always going to be plusses and minuses.
While it's true that no prospect is ever truly a certainty, the highest-valued prospects are those that are near the big leagues, loaded with tools and having the minor league production to match. That's why the Yoan Moncadas of the world can be key parts of packages that fetch Chris Sale in return. But few near big league-ready prospects who have both tools and track record are traded, and there are few deadline deals that warrant including prospects of that pedigree in a deal.
So usually, further tradeoffs are involved in picking which prospects get plucked. In many cases it's a simple equation: you can have a prospect who is low risk (close to the big leagues), you can have a prospect who has plenty of tools, or you can have a prospect who has a track record of statistical production. What you can't have is all three, and depending on the big leaguer being traded, sometimes you can't have two of the three, either.
A couple of decades ago, when pro scouting departments were tiny and analytic departments were non-existent, fewer tradeoffs had to be made because prospects were simply less know and often less valued. In Dec. 1984 when then-A's general manager Sandy Alderson traded Rickey Henderson to the Yankees, he simply asked for the top five prospects in Baseball America's Yankees Top 10 Prospects list because he was more confident in those rankings than the scouting reports he could get from a gutted A's scouting department still recovering from the ownership of Charles O'Finley.
In 1990, the Astros could trade two months of reliever Larry Andersen for Double-A third baseman Jeff Bagwell, who was coming off a .333/.422/.457 season in Double-A. Bagwell was the No. 32 prospect in the game, according to Baseball America at the time. He spent the next 15 seasons as the Astros' everyday first baseman.
Nowadays, deals of that nature rarely happen. If a team wants to get a high-upside player, it comes with higher risk. And every year, teams have become more willing to shoulder more risk to land a potential star.
The Astros have been noted for popularizing the trend, but there were other previous examples. Most notably, the Rangers in 2007 made Elvis Andrus, an 18-year-old shortstop in high Class A, and Neftali Feliz, a hard-throwing 19-year-old who was pitching in the Appalachian League, two of the key parts of a trade for Mark Teixeira.
But it is true that the Astros took that idea and expanded it, scouting the complex leagues extensively. By hitting the back fields, they turned up Francis Martes and David Paulino, two righthanders who both ranked in their Top 10 Prospects this year. Paulino was plucked from the Tigers as the player to be named in the Jose Veras trade despite the fact that he had just 39 pro innings at the time in the Dominican Summer League and the Gulf Coast League. Martes was acquired out of the Gulf Coast League in the deal that sent Jarred Cosart to the Marlins.
But they aren't the only ones. The Padres swiped Fernando Tatis Jr., from the White Sox in the James Shields trade and have watched the 18-year-old turn into one of the most dynamic players in the Midwest League. The Brewers acquired Freddy Peralta out of the AZL in the Adam Lind deal with the Mariners and have watched him blossom.
Last year the Astros upped the ante, acquiring Dodgers first baseman/outfielder Yordan Alvarez in return for righthanded reliever Josh Fields. Alvarez, who signed out of Cuba, had yet to play a pro game for the Dodgers at the time. Now Alvarez ranks sixth on the Astros Top 10 midseason prospects list.
Since that Alvarez trade, we've now seen teams trade for four of the top 20 players in the DSL in 2016. None of those four had played more than 60 games in the U.S. and in all but the case of Brayan Hernandez, this summer was their stateside debut.
In 2017, there are very few secrets in baseball, so teams have to keep digging deeper to try to find an edge. Ruiz, Hernandez, King and Vargas were all known prospects, just less known and riskier than players finishing up the season in Double-A.
In a league where risk is accepted in the quest for impact, this is a trend that will continue.