Trading Top 10 Prospects Carries Risk, But Also A Reward

Dave Dombrowski wasn’t hired to focus on the future.
When the Red Sox hired Dombrowski, they knew his reputation. Prospects are currency; they can be used to bolster the big league roster or they can be used to acquire big league talent.

When Dombrowski arrived on Aug. 18, 2015, the Red Sox had a stacked farm system, as well as a young lineup that is largely under contract for years. So Dombrowski has spent his prospect surplus in exchange for help now.

Since arriving in Boston, Dombrowski has traded away a farm system of talent. Four Top 100 Prospects (Yoan Moncada, Anderson Espinoza, Michael Kopech, Manuel Margot) as well as nine prospects who rated as candidates to be among the Red Sox Top 30 Prospects: Wendell Rijo, Mauricio Dubon, Luis Alejandro Basabe, Luis Alexander Basabe, Pat Light, Aaron Wilkerson, Javier Guerra, Carlos Asuaje and Victor Diaz.

Moncada (No. 3 in 2016) ties Addison Russell (No. 3 in 2015) as the highest-ranked prospect this century to be traded within a year of his ranking. So it’s worth looking at what’s happened in the past to the best prospects in the game who were traded at the peak of their prospect status.

Moncada will assuredly again rank in the top five of next February’s Top 100 Prospects and he will be in the discussion for No. 1 overall. Since 2000, there have been eight other players who were traded away during the season/offseason in which they were ranked among the Top 10 Prospects by Baseball America.

top-100Of those eight, there have been hits and misses, but generally those traded prospects were very productive big leaguers. Only one of those eight, Jesus Montero, has failed to post at least one season of 3+ Wins Above Replacement (using Baseball Reference’s WAR).

The list of traded prospects includes a Rookie of the Year (Wil Myers), a shortstop on a World Series championship team (Addison Russell), a long-time first baseman (Carlos Pena) and a second baseman with multiple Gold Gloves and all-star appearances (Brandon Phillips).

But even with all that, the list also illustrates the potential benefits of trading away top prospects.

Those trades include a number of prospects who can fairly be said to have peaked in value at the time they were traded. That makes some sense as the team that owns the rights to a player should know more about the prospect than anyone else.

For Montero (ranked sixth after the 2011 season), Cameron Maybin (ranked sixth after the 2007 season) and Carlos Pena (ranked fifth after the 2001 season), the team trading them away cashed in at just the right time.

Pena and Maybin did prove to be useful big leaguers, but it took them quite a while to get there. By the time Pena and Maybin put together their best years, they had been traded again (and in Pena’s case, released twice). The same could be said for Phillips, who didn’t blossom until after the Indians largely gave him away to the Reds. Myers was Rookie of the Year in Tampa Bay, but he has since been traded again. And Bauer’s career in Cleveland has just started to head in the direction long expected of him.

It’s worth remembering that the best prospect-for-big-league-talent trade of this century was a deal Dombowski made. In Detroit, Dombrowski traded Maybin and Andrew Miller to the Marlins for Miguel Cabrera. Neither Maybin nor Miller made any impact in Miami while Cabrera has been the best hitter in baseball for much of the past decade in Detroit.

There is no certainty in baseball. Dombrowski and the Red Sox traded away two prospects (Moncada and Kopech) who both have the potential to be impact big leaguers. But the Red Sox improved their chances for success in 2017-2019 in exchange for facing bigger questions in 2020 and beyond. With a young, cost controlled lineup for the next several years, that’s the kind of calculated risk that can make sense for a big market team.

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