Everyone loves prospects. That’s because we can project a prospect to be anything we want. A prospect hasn’t struck out with the bases loaded or muffed a grounder. Prospects don’t make $40 million, and whatever holes might exist in their game can be attributed to youth instead of a lack of talent.
But here’s the thing: MLB prospects come with an expiration date
Back in the late 1990s, the Cleveland Indians were one good starting pitcher away from an absolute dynasty. They came close on trades for Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez, but when their trading partners asked for top prospects like Brian Giles, Cleveland backed off. Giles played two full seasons in Cleveland as a platoon outfielder, but the Indians never fully committed to giving him a starting gig.
Ultimately, Giles was traded for a pitcher, but it wasn’t Pedro Martinez … it was Ricardo Rincon, a relief pitcher who specialized in getting out left-handed hitters. Cleveland had hung on to a prospect for so long that he was no longer a prospect, but they never made him a core piece of their lineup. Of the three main actors in this plot, Glies played in a couple of All-Star games for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Martinez became the dominant pitcher of his generation, and Ricardo Rincon … well … didn’t do either of those things.
There’s a moral to this story, which is that prospects only have value if you use them. During the current Hot Stove season, you will hear a lot of teams say that they won’t give up top prospects to fill a current hole on their roster. To put that into context, it’s useful when a team says that to go back to that team’s top prospects from, say, 2017, and see how many you have heard of. Most of the time, the majority will not have made a significant MLB impact five years later. But the teams that held on to those prospects in 2017 are still doing the same thing in 2022.
There’s a quote attributed to Sparky Anderson that if you have three great pitching prospects, one will blow his arm out, one will lose his command, and one will have a solid major league career. A conservative organization will interpret that to mean that you should keep all three prospects just to make certain one makes it. Even in the best-case scenario, though, that third guy is far more likely to end up as Ricardo Rincon than Pedro Martinez. When a team has a chance to upgrade its current roster and the price is prospects, keep that in mind.
Once a prospect has completed a full season at Triple-A, he is, to some degree, no longer really a prospect. If the organization does not either find a role for him on the MLB roster or get good value for him in a trade, he will end up back in Triple-A, and his trade value will begin to diminish.
The best-run organizations get this. The St. Louis Cardinals have been able to fill most of their roster with homegrown talent (despite almost never having a top-10 farm system), but were still able to put together large prospect packages to get Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado when the opportunity arose. They understand that having a highly ranked farm system isn’t as important as what those players do for you at the MLB level, and that even the best prospects rarely have the same impact as a Goldschmidt or an Arenado.
They also get that there’s only so many spots on a team, and especially on a 40-man roster. You can stockpile middle infielders or pitchers or whatever you think is the best use of a roster spot. However, at some point, you either get some value from those guys or you lose them through the Rule 5 Draft.
Or worse, they take a up a space on the 40-man roster that could go to a player you really need. That almost happened to the Guardians last year. Cleveland had a 40-man roster that was loaded with pitchers and middle infielders, but they couldn’t find room for Oscar Gonzalez, even after he had hit 31 home runs in the minors in 2021. The only reason Cleveland, which faces some tough choices this offseason, didn’t lose Gonzalez was that the Rule 5 draft was cancelled that offseason.
Since Gonzalez ended up hitting cleanup for a good part of the 2022 season and had game-winning hits in two postseason games, it seems clear that he should have been on the 40-man roster all along.