Most Prospects Dealt At Deadline Don't Pan Out

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Hope is the last refuge for fans of a cellar dweller.

When late July rolls around, a team can trade away productive veteran talent, add a couple of prime prospects and watch them develop into franchise cornerstones over the next decade.

After all it worked for the Rangers. With first baseman Mark Teixeira a year and a half away from free agency and in the middle of an excellent 2007 season, Texas sent him to the Braves. In return, the Rangers picked up their future big league shortstop, Elvis Andrus; a future rotation stalwart in Matt Harrison; and the closer for two pennant winners, Neftali Feliz (though he had Tommy John surgery in early August after making seven starts this season).

At the time, the centerpiece of the trade appeared to be catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who never thrived in Texas, but he's now hit 36 home runs in the past season and a half with the Red Sox.

It took a few years for those players to reach their potential, but Andrus, Harrison and Feliz all have made the all-star team. It's the kind of trade that can turn around an organization, and in Texas' case, it has. Those three have played a large part of the Rangers' rise to the top of the American League, with two straight pennants and one of the AL's top records in 2012.

WAR for
WAR for
AVG Career
WAR of
3 25.3 8 3.2
2-2.9 26.9 10 2.7
1-1.9 61.6 30 2.1
0-0.9 109.5 82 1.3
< 0 -5.6 31 -0.2

But while every fan of a sub.-500 team can dream of a Teixeira-type return in trade, they will likely keep on dreaming. A deeper look at recent trade history indicates that when teams trade a top big leaguer at the deadline for prospects, they are unlikely to land much significant help in return. The Rangers may have landed a trio of future starters, but teams are much more likely to end up getting a minor contributor at best.

Baseball America evaluated 161 trades in which a prospect was traded for a major leaguer in the two weeks leading up to the July 31 trade deadline during the eight seasons from 2001-08, cutting off the study there to ensure prospects traded have had a chance to mature and reach the big leagues.

In just 15 percent of those trades have the prospects involved produced two or more wins above replacement (WAR), using the iteration. In two-thirds of trades, the prospects produced zero WAR. That is, they contributed no more than a theoretical replacement-level player, i.e. one  who could be acquired at little or no cost; he might even play in the farm system already.

In more than half of the trades, the team acquiring the veteran received more WAR contributions over the remainder of that season than the prospects wound up producing over their careers.

Some Success Stories

The Rangers' haul for Teixeira stands as the ultimate success story, and while other teams acquiring prospects for veterans have come out ahead in the end, the examples aren't numerous. Players from just six trades produced more than half of the 227 career wins above replacement attributed to the prospect-hoarding teams. See the sidebar for details on how that 114 WAR is distributed.

Expanding the pool to include trades from May 1 to the trade deadline does introduce a few more franchise-altering deals. The Rays swapped two months of Aubrey Huff to the Astros for second baseman/outfielder Ben Zobrist (23.1 career WAR) in July 2006. The Mariners mistakenly dealt Asdrubal Cabrera (16.2) to the Indians for an unproductive couple of months of Eduardo Perez in June of that same year. The Marlins used Adrian Gonzalez (26.4) to land Ugueth Urbina from the Rangers on their successful run to the World Series in 2003.

But that also brings in swaps like the Royals sending Carlos Beltran to the Astros in June 2004 for little return. Similarly lopsided was the Brewers' acquisition of C.C. Sabathia from the Indians for four prospects, none of whom has yet matched the 4.7 WAR Sabathia contributed to Milwaukee over the final two months of that 2008 season. Likewise, the Rangers don't miss any of the four prospects—Justin Smoak, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke and Matt Lawson—they sent to the Mariners for Cliff Lee in July 2010.

If the trends hold, then of the 44 prospects traded during this year's deadline season, roughly four will end up being significant big league contributors. The better the veteran surrendered, the better the chance that the prospect coming back will pan out—but the odds don't go up that much when a team trades a star.

Of the eight trades in which a team dealt away a player who had contributed three or more WAR at the time of the trade, only twice have the prospects acquired accumulated even one win above replacement for their careers. Downgrade the quality of the veteran to 2-2.9 WAR and 10 trades qualify. Of those 10, just three prospect hauls yielded at least one career win above replacement.

"A lot of times, the player ends up not being what you think," said an American League pro scouting director. "I've seen players where something happens, whether it's an injury or a glaring weakness is exploited that they can't adjust to it."

That's not often a perception shared by fans, who collectively have a habit of falling back on precedent set 25 years ago.

Going rates for top veterans traded at the 2012 deadline, with prospect rankings assessed by Jim Callis in his post-deadline Top 10 ranking
Rangers Get WAR Cubs Get
Ryan Dempster 3 3B Christian Villanueva (No. 5)
Angels Get WAR Brewers Get
Zack Greinke 2.3 SS Jean Segura (No. 2), RHP Johnny Hellweg (7), RHP Ariel Pena (9)

Tigers Get WAR Marlins Get
Anibal Sanchez 1.4 RHP Jacob Turner (No. 1), C Rob Brantly (6)

Omar Infante 1.2
Dodgers Get WAR Phillies Get
Shane Victorino 1.3 RHP Ethan Martin (No. 8)
Braves Get WAR Cubs Get
Paul Maholm 1.2 RHP Arodys Vizcaino (No. 3)
Reed Johnson 0.7
Giants Get WAR Phillies Get
Hunter Pence 0.6 C Tommy Joseph (No. 4)
Cardinals Get WAR Marlins Get
Edward Mujica 0 3B Zack Cox (No. 10)
Others . . .
Reds Get WAR Royals Get
Jonathan Broxton 1.2 RHP Juan Carlos Sulbaran, LHP Donnie Joseph

Pirates Get WAR Astros Get
Wandy Rodriguez 1.0 OF Robbie Grossman

When the Tigers dealt John Smoltz to the Braves for Doyle Alexander in August 1987, or when the Red Sox surrendered Jeff Bagwell to the Astros for Larry Anderson three years later, pretty much anyone without a Baseball America subscription was completely unaware of the minor leaguer involved in the deal. Nowadays, prospects like Bryce Harper and Dylan Bundy are famous before they make their minor league debuts.

"Prospects don't have any greater significance today than they did when John Smoltz got traded for Doyle Alexander or when Trevor Hoffman got traded for Gary Sheffield," said a second American League pro scouting director.

"What has changed in the last decade is the understanding of who the prospects are, (information gleaned) from the various media outlets and the fan's perspective. For example, a player currently in the minor leagues who has a high prospect pedigree will be chronicled as far back as when he was eligible for the draft and throughout his entire minor league apprenticeship.

"No longer is an established player shipped out for three minor leaguers. Now he was moved for their second-, fourth- and sixth-best prospect that is universally known in various circles."

The lesson seems to be that if you're the general manager for a club in a playoff race, then mortgaging your future in a deadline deal often is a bill that never comes due.

"Your window to win is so small, that it's my opinion that when you believe you have a chance, you have to do it," said the first AL pro scouting director.