Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Bird in the Hand

As the Texas Rangers made their postseason run, a friend of mine asked me, in all seriousness, whether the Mike Napoli – Frank Francisco trade was going to become the second-most regrettable Blue Jay trade in history. Now, given the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments that stemmed from that deal for the better part of 2011, I was almost relieved to hear that he would only consider it the second-most regrettable.

After a less-than-inspired effort to talk him off the ledge, I started to wrap my head around the trade he considered to be the most regrettable, which also happened to involve the Rangers: Michael Young for Esteban Loaiza.

Even if you rightfully believe Michael Young has been overrated for a large part of his career, it’s still tough to defend the trade from the Blue Jays’ perspective (though it can be done, based on the fact that they were only 1.5 games back of the first-place Yankees, and thought they might catch them with another arm in the rotation to complement David Wells, Kelvim Escobar and Chris Carpenter, while a 23-year-old Roy Halladay sported a 10.90 ERA. There’s a fine recap of the trade here). A great many fans have pined for a decade over the All-Star, batting champion middle infielder the team let get away for a second-rate starting pitcher that never helped them reach the postseason promised land.

The Young deal is probably just the most glaring example of “the one that got away” for Blue Jays fans. It’s hardly the only one. In the above-linked article, it’s pointed out that the Jays traded away three other middle-infield prospects in the system at the time in Felipe Lopez, Cesar Izturis, and Brett Abernathy. There’s obviously been varying degrees of big-league success amongst those erstwhile Jays prospects, but the returns were indisputably slim, including the likes of Steve Trachsel, Mark Guthrie and Luke Prokopec.

I think my friend who still rues the Young trade to this day uses it as a proxy for what he would perceive as the team’s tendency to get very low value back for its prospects. Young is his talisman, representing the what-might-be for every Jays prospect past and present, the upside realized, every last drop of value squeezed from the talent the player possesses.

I can pretty much guarantee you, though, that in 2000, my friend wouldn’t have had a sweet clue who Michael Young was. The fact is, even today when minor league stats, scouting reports and video are more readily available than ever, most fans have a familiarity level with their favourite team’s prospects that’s comparable to my grandparents’ familiarity level with programming the clock on their microwave.

But if hindsight is 20/20, then prospect hindsight is, like, 20/10 – and everybody has it, even Frank Costanza. That’s because prospects develop actual track records over time, across whatever organizations hold their rights, and we can see perfectly how they developed and what they accomplished after the fact. But the ones we remember are the ones that actually develop into big leaguers. Fans can be forgiven for feeling like we’ve seen way too many of them go on to bigger and better things for other teams, even if it’s just patently not true. We still don’t want to let ours go.

It does seem that at least among a more modern generation of Jays fans, the tendency to overvalue the team’s own prospects is beginning to wane. We can be forgiven for harbouring an unhealthy prospect infatuation here and there, but many of us are coming around to the idea that some prospects just aren’t going to be Blue Jays.

Maybe our added peace of mind with trading prospects comes from knowing that it’s Alex Anthopoulos who will be doing the trading. Before he’s done as General Manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, he’s going to make some bad trades (and it can be argued he has done so already). But for now, he seems to be pretty good at it, and he gets the benefit of the doubt more times than not.

That might be something we should all bear in mind this offseason. One thing I’ve noticed about Anthopoulos is that, while his forays into the media are occasional and vague, he usually does what he says he’s going to do. If he says he’s not going to break the bank for a top-tier free agent, I’ve seen nothing in his work as GM that should lead a fan to not believe him. Conversely, if he says he’s going to explore the trade market, and that not all the elite prospects in the system are going to be Toronto Blue Jays at the big league level, I believe him there too. He’s already shown he’ll make those moves. So we better not get too attached to those prospects as we get ready for more deals.

It’s entirely possible that this off-season, Alex Anthopoulos will trade another Michael Young out of the Jays’ farm system. Some fans, two or five or ten years later, are still going to have big problems with that. That’s fine – second guessing the GM is part of the fun of being a fan. But we should probably at least mentally prepare ourselves for the possible departures of our prospect man-crushes, and even the guys that we didn’t think would amount to much (the same way the Jays saw Michael Young back in 2000), and be reasonably comfortable that the Jays’ GM isn’t going to move any of them for another Esteban Loaiza.


NorthYorkJays said...

Excellent piece. If Snider, Drabek, Alvarez, D'Arnaud, Gose, Marisnick, etc. are what it takes to help the Jays pick up the right piece, do it. Last offseason people scoffed at the notion of trading Drabek/Snider for JUpton or Greinke, and I suspect everybody would be just fine with those deals today. Heck, I remember when Yankees fans thought parting with Hughes + Chamberlain for Halladay was WAY too much and they tried sticking Ian Kennedy and Melky Cabrera in every proposal.

The Phillies have been taking advantage of the overvaluing of prospects for years now. Bourn/Costanzo/Geary got them Brad Lidge. Cardenas/Outman got them Joe Blanton. Golson got them John Mayberry. Donald/Carrasco/Knapp/Marson got them Cliff Lee. Taylor/dArnaud/Drabek got them Roy Halladay. Gose/Villar/Happ got them Roy Oswalt. Cosart/Singleton got them Hunter Pence. The one time they traded their stud for prospects (Cliff Lee), they got back Phillipe Aumont/Tyson Gillies/JC Ramirez. Could a few of those Phillies prospects turn into elite players? Sure. Do the Phillies regret any of those trades? Nope. They just continue to draft high ceiling players and restock the system. That's a model to emulate.

Matthew E said...

whether the Mike Napoli – Frank Francisco trade was going to become the second-most regrettable Blue Jay trade in history

Nowhere close. First, there was no way to know Napoli was going to be that good, and the Jays just didn't need him that much. Second, Francisco had value.

So how does that put this trade behind Wells/Sirotka-Simmons, or Ashby/Lemongello, or Olerud/Person?

Section 36 said...

All deals need to be put in their time perspective. That's how I can forgive the Red Sox for trading away Jeff Bagwell.

Mark said...

Michael Young career @ home - 866 OPS
Michael Young career @ road - 737 OPS

He's really not that big a loss. Especially when you add in the defensive issues. And the fact that despite all reports, that he's not a team first guy, constantly whining any time Texas acquires a better player and asks the inferior player (Young) to move positions to improve the team.

gabriel said...

Section 36: I remember reading Bill James that offseason saying Bagwell was going to be incredible, so I think the Red Sox definitely missed something there.

Regarding AA & prospects, I think you have to give him a great deal of credit for the prospects he's traded thus far. Johermyn Chavez had a poor year in Seattle; Zach Stewart is probably too early to be definitive about, but he looks like a 3/4 guy at best; the real impressive work he's done has flowed out of the Halladay deal: getting d'Arnaud, who has blossomed; flipping Michael Taylor for Brett Wallace, then trading Brett Wallace for Anthony Gose. Today, it's pretty clear that Gose >> Wallace >> Taylor. That's some pretty sharp evaluation.

Darrell said...

Napoli would have been part of the EE, JPA and Lind catcher, dh, 1B mix. At the time no one could have said definitively that he was clearly better than any of those guys

Section 36 said...

gabriel - That may have been the case. But, blocking his way at third base was a future Hall-of-Famer (Wade Boggs) and a minor league top prospect and 2-time AL all-star (Scott Cooper). At first, he was blocked by a fellow future MVP (Mo Vaughn). So, perhaps he was supposed to be pretty good. But, so were the other guys.

Out West said...

Jeff Kent > David Cone

This trade shaped the AL East for the next decade....

I think the Jays still win in 92, but a little revisionist history a la Sliders...

Alomar @ SS
Kent @ 2nd

no Fernandez in 93? do they win? Kent was 0.3 WAR in 1993

no re aquiring Cone in 95...does he stay away from the Yankees and what does that mean to them? Does Kent <5.0 avg. WAR in late 90s alter the balance of power in AL EAST. Does Alomar stay in 1996 as a result

2nd/SS has been a black-hole for a decade and a half...I often wonder what could have been with that tandem up the middle

gabriel said...

Section 36- the issue is in part the Bagwell vs. Vaughn question; the other part is do you ever give up a top-tier prospect for a rental reliever, no matter how good? The Sox sold Bagwell extremely cheap, even if he was expendable to the organization.

Peter DeMarco said...

Cone was huge for the Jays in the 1992 playoffs, I don't undo that trade for any reason.

However the worst Jays trade of all time may still involve Cone in his second go around with the Jays when they traded him to AL East rival New York Yankees for Jason Jarvis (minors), Mike Gordon (minors) and Marty Janzen.

None of the players they got back from the Yankees amounted to anything and Cone when 60-26 for the Yankees over the next 4.5 years.

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Pinedasljv said...

Jeff Kent > David Cone This trade shaped the AL East for the next decade.... I think the Jays still win in 92, but a little revisionist history a la Sliders... Alomar @ SS Kent @ 2nd no Fernandez in 93? do they win? Kent was 0.3 WAR in 1993 no re aquiring Cone in 95...does he stay away from the Yankees and what does that mean to them? Does Kent <5.0 avg. WAR in late 90s alter the balance of power in AL EAST. Does Alomar stay in 1996 as a result 2nd/SS has been a black-hole for a decade and a half...I often wonder what could have been with that tandem up the middle

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