There is peril on both sides – a potential impact player could be sent away, and when they pan out the move often looks foolish to the team that gained the veteran major leaguer.
Is your organization better off developing its own prospects or packaging them for proven veterans in trades?
The Arizona Diamondbacks are blessed with one of the best minor league systems around. Brandon Webb, Chad Tracy, Conor Jackson, Stephen Drew, and Carlos Quentin were all highly touted prospects that have actually contributed at the major league level. Other organizations may trade a prospect thinking that there's a fair chance that the youngster will never reach his potential, but time and time again, the Diamondbacks have shown that their best prospects are far more likely to pan out than not.
The only scenario in which the Diamondbacks should consider packaging their prospects for veterans occurs when the organization is overstocked at a particular position. We saw this in the Randy Johnson trade, as middle infielder Alberto Gonzalez was rendered expendable by the Stephen Drew/Orlando Hudson double play combo in the majors, with middle infield prospects Danny Richar, Alberto Callaspo, and Emilio Bonifacio not far behind in the minors.
We've also seen, however, the Diamondbacks deal four of their best young pitchers in their recent bids for Johnson and Livan Hernandez. Those losses will come back to haunt the organization, as there aren't many big-impact pitching prospects left in the Arizona cupboard.
Boston Red Sox
Trading prospects for proven veterans worked out pretty well when the Red Sox went that route to acquire Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling, their two most recent staff aces. But the Sox are now more likely to try and cultivate a No. 1 pitcher — or a difference-making position player — instead of dealing youth for experience.
Part of the change in philosophy is an acknowledgment that trading the future for instant gratification will eventually cripple a team. The main factor, though, is playing for the Red Sox is a unique experience, and Sox executives spend years preparing their top prospects for life in the fishbowl.
The Sox place as much emphasis on someone's character and intestinal fortitude as they do on the traditional tools. Top prospects are sent to Boston for two weeks in the winter, where they participate in a "rookie development program" in which they are tutored on what to expect once they reach the major leagues.
By the time a prospect is promoted to Boston, Sox executives are already confident he can handle Boston. And their instincts have been correct far more often than not the last two seasons. When you're operating a team that's a larger-than-life entity throughout New England, it's best to stake your fortunes on those you know — the players drafted and developed by the Sox — than those whom you don't.
San Francisco Giants
Few teams have been as criticized for continually trading away their young players and not keeping them like the Giants have. The infamous trade of Joe Nathan and Francisco Liriano for A.J. Pierzynski is perhaps the most obvious blunder.
That said the Giants have normally done well in trading their players. The team definitely got the better end of the deal when they sent Ryan Vogelsong to Pittsburgh for Jason Schmidt, and similarly when they traded Jesse Foppert to Seattle for Randy Winn. Still, the term ‘proven veterans' is a cliché looked on with disdain by many Giants fans.
In the future, the Giants are best off doing some from Column A and some from Column B. Keeping young pitchers like Matt Cain bodes well for the Giants, and having Tim Lincecum on the doorstep makes the future of the rotation even better. But the Giants have a large number of pitching prospects. Their best option is to trade some, but not all (keeping Cain and Lincecum), to help get position players the team hasn't yet developed.
After dealing a young Ryne Sandberg to the Cubs a number of years ago, the Phillies were determined to keep their own talent.
The Sandberg debacle and the following philosophy helped them keep players like Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell, Mike Lieberthal, Brett Myers, Chase Utley and Randy Wolf around to build solid clubs. They actually toyed with the idea of dealing Ryan Howard, but in the end kept him and he's been a huge addition to the lineup, proving that sometimes the best trades are the ones you don't make.
Under Pat Gillick, the philosophy has softened and the Phillies are now willing to deal away some young players to help the major league club. It's a best of both worlds approach, since they tend to deal only with positions where they're deep in the minors - left-handed pitching is especially deep right now - but they keep other prospects stashed away as potential pieces of the puzzle in Philadelphia. It's a philosophy that has helped bring the likes of Freddy Garcia to the team at the expense of left-hander Gio Gonzalez while still leaving the Phillies with a number of pitching prospects to draw from down the road.
St. Louis Cardinals
Since joining the St. Louis Cardinals late in 1994, general manager Walt Jocketty has espoused an organizational philosophy of trading prospects for proven veterans. This has proven to be effective for a club that been in the playoffs six of the last seven years despite not being high-spending in the free agent market.
In recent years, key late-season additions such as Chuck Finley, Will Clark, Larry Walker and last year's World Series star Jeff Weaver were acquired for prospects. As a result, for every homegrown Albert Pujols, there are several Danny Harens, Cardinals draftees who end up in starring roles elsewhere. Yet, because industry-watchers only look at where players are, not where they began, many "experts" unfairly trash the Cards' scouting and player development organization.
We recently ran a study looking at the first six draft classes from the Jocketty years, comparing the major league results of players drafted. Of the 30 major league organizations, the Cardinals were second only to the Oakland A's in terms of major league contributions by their draftees from the years 1995 through 2000.
Still, with escalating player salaries, Jocketty has moderated his stance recently. For a club whose last in-house developed front-line starting pitchers were Matt Morris and Rick Ankiel, the Cardinals resisted the trade temptation and held onto youngsters Anthony Reyes and Adam Wainwright. Both are expected to slip into the 2007 major league rotation.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Organizations are much better off if they spend money developing their own players with their own particular methods than throwing money at over-age free agents.
If teams are crafty enough, however, they can package prospects to fill a pressing need. But, in the long run, development of your own is the best program.
The Dodgers, under Branch Rickey, increased scouting during World War II and as a result were swimming in good young players when the war ended. They could sell the surplus, plowing the money back into the farm system. At one time they had 28 farm teams. When the team cutback on scouting/development under FOX, the farm system fell into disrepair and it had taken many years to return to having a well-stocked system to fill their needs either by promotion or trade.
The best farm systems are the ones that produce enough talent to allow a team to do both.
The A's have used their extra draft picks and emphasis on college-level draft picks over the last 10 years to build up a lot of major league ready talent so that they can plug the holes in their major league roster through trades and promotions from the minor leagues.
Sometimes, it serves the team to trade top prospects like Mark Teahen for Octavio Dotel and sometimes it makes sense to hold onto those prospects, like Nick Swisher or Rich Harden. You can't be afraid to trade your talent when you have a chance at the playoffs, but you also can't be afraid to commit to a rookie when it would become prohibitively expensive to sign a free agent to fill a starting spot at the big leagues.
San Diego Padres
Successful teams in today's market find a way to do both. With the escalation of salaries across the board, a mid-level team like the Padres has to be creative, trading away players that may make the major leagues for established veterans to plug holes. They must also fill the gaps with homegrown talent, allowing for manageable salaries to supplement the rising costs of doing business in today's baseball world.
"If I am sitting in KT's (Kevin Towers) spot and we are in a pennant race and trying to get better, and you have players in the minor leagues who haven't proven themselves yet and you are going to get a big leaguer back that will help the big league club – I can understand why he does it," Padres minor league field coordinator, Bill Bryk said.
The Padres have used both sides successfully. This off-season they turned homegrown second base talent Josh Barfield over to Cleveland for third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff. They believe they filled the tougher position with the move. They also dealt minor league prospects Fabian Jimenez, Joel Santo and Jose Ceda to the Chicago Cubs near the trading deadline for Todd Walker and Scott Williamson and sent catching prospect George Kottaras to the Red Sox for David Wells. Walker and Wells helped San Diego earn back-to-back NL West pennants.
A balanced mix of homegrown prospects and proven major leaguers is essential – the cardinal rule is: if you can get that veteran player that puts you in the postseason for a prospect you always make the deal. As St. Louis proved this season, when you get into the playoffs, records are thrown out the window and anyone can win the World Series.