Prospects are the lifeblood of baseball. Every great player was, of course, a prospect at one time, slumming it on buses in Class A or playing in Double-A stadiums still small enough that smoke from the hamburger grill can be seen from the batter's box.
In this day of $100 million-plus contracts and $15 million annual salaries for .245 hitters, prospects serve another valuable purpose: When they graduate to the majors, they're inexpensive, meaning teams can get dirt-cheap production if the prospects turn into good players. For small-market franchises that can't afford the big-ticket free agents -- such as the Kansas City Royals -- developing prospects is the only chance to win.
Prospect evaluation -- once solely the domain of Baseball America and later John Sickels on ESPN.com and his annual prospect books -- has increased in intensity in recent years with our own Keith Law, MLB.com, Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus (he now works for the Astros) and many others. With more coverage comes more hype and more expectations and the belief that the best prospects have huge amounts of value.
This gets us to Sunday night's deal between the Royals and Tampa Bay Rays, in which top prospect Wil Myers (plus prospects Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery and Patrick Leonard) went to Tampa Bay for pitchers James Shields, Wade Davis and a player to be named.
The reaction for the Royals' end of the trade has not been kind, to put it gently. Keith compared it to the Erik Bedard-Adam Jones trade between Seattle and Baltimore, writing, "This looks very much like the deal that, barring something completely unexpected, will be the move that brings Dayton Moore's tenure in Kansas City, one marked by massive improvement in the team's farm system, to an end." Buster Olney writes that "Myers could become the Rays' next Evan Longoria." Royals blogger Rany Jazayerli summed up his reaction in two words: "This sucks." The headline on Dave Cameron's analysis at FanGraphs (which also brought up the Bedard comparison) reads, "Royals mortgage future to be mediocre in 2013." Craig Brown at Royals Review writes, "I'm not going to lie ... This hurts."
Myers is widely regarded as one of the game's top prospects after hitting .314 with 37 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A in 2012 at age 21. Originally a catcher, he played primarily center field but projects as a right fielder. Keith called him a top-five prospect. MLB.com recently ranked Myers as the No. 3 prospect in baseball, behind Jurickson Profar and Dylan Bundy.
Thus the widespread criticism of the deal. Myers has the potential to be a middle-of-the-order bat, several years away from making big money and under team control for six years. But right now, that's all he is: potential. You know who else had potential? Domonic Brown, Travis Snider, Cameron Maybin, Colby Rasmus, Delmon Young, Brandon Wood, Jeremy Hermida, Lastings Milledge, Ian Stewart, Joel Guzman and Andy Marte. They were all Baseball America's top-10 prospects since 2005. They were sure things. They, too, were going to be middle-of-the-order bats.
I'm not saying the prospect evaluators are wrong about Myers. My point: Just because Myers is a great prospect is no guarantee he'll be a great major leaguer. There's just too much evidence to suggest otherwise. Also, nobody knows Myers better than the Royals; it could be that there is something in his game or approach that they don't like. Or they simply don't rate him as a high as others. I know, I know: It's the Royals. With nationally known writers-slash-Royals fans such as Rany and Rob Neyer and Joe Posnanski, no small-market team gets critiqued as deeply as the Royals. General manager Dayton Moore's "process" has been a running joke for years.
Because it's the Royals, it is easier to rip the deal. Now, everyone could certainly be right. Maybe Myers does turn into the next Longoria or an American League version of Giancarlo Stanton, and maybe Shields struggles away from The Trop and Joe Maddon's defensive shifts and the Royals finish 75-87.
At the same time, it's important not to overvalue your own prospects. Because while prospects are valuable commodities as future big leaguers, they're also valuable commodities as trade chips. Think of Cliff Lee: The Phillies, Mariners and Rangers all traded for Lee before he returned to Philadelphia as a free agent. None of the 11 prospects in those three deals has created much value at the major league level.
True, none of those prospects were on Myers' level (Justin Smoak would have been the highest rated, a top-15 prospect). R.J. Anderson of Baseball Prospectus wrote an article in late November, however, that listed the 23 top-10 Baseball America prospects since 1990 who had been traded within three years of their ranking. It's a mixed bag of prospects -- that Pedro Martinez guy turned out pretty good -- and pitcher Brad Penny is the only other player on the list traded before he had reached the majors, but the list includes flops such as Marte, Ruben Mateo and Travis Lee. The two players traded most recently, Jesus Montero and Rasmus, have hardly inspired confidence that they will turn into stars. And Myers isn't a perfect prospect -- he struck out 140 times last year, a red flag in my book.
Maybe this will turn into another Martinez-Delino DeShields deal. Maybe it will be the deal that costs Dayton Moore his job. On the other hand, the Royals are finally trying to win, trying to end the parade of replacement-level starting pitchers. The Royals need Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez to turn into stars; the Royals' future rests on their shoulders as much as it would have on Myers', and they have enough experience that it's now or never for that group.
In the AL Central, anything can happen. Maybe this becomes the deal that gets the Royals into the postseason for first time since 1985. Let's see what happens before we put Wil Myers in the Hall of Fame.