Rany Jazayerli has a column on Grantland subtitled "Once upon a time, teams got great value by trading for minor league studs. Not anymore." Rany's point is that front offices are smarter than a generation ago, making it difficult to pilfer players like Jeff Bagwell, Randy Johnson or Jay Buhner from less-savvy general managers.
In fact, Rany argues, the tide has swung too far the other way -- the Oakland A's just traded a solid pitcher in Trevor Cahill, signed to a team-friendly contract for up to six more seasons, for prospect Jarrod Parker. While Parker is an excellent prospect -- he should rank around No. 30 overall when prospect lists are unveiled early next year -- Cahill was once an excellent prospect as well, ranking 11th on Baseball America's top 100 list. The year before, the Diamondbacks had made a similar trade, only in reverse fashion -- dealing Dan Haren, one of the best starters in the majors, for essentially prospect Tyler Skaggs (who had a very good 2011 in the minors) and mediocre lefty Joe Saunders. In other words, Tyler Skaggs may grow up to be ... Dan Haren. But he may not.
Rany's point is right on. It also ties into what I call prospect hype. Prospect hype is bigger than ever before. Besides Baseball America, terrific analysts such as our own Keith Law and Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein offer more information and better scouting reports than we had available even 10 years ago. This is a good thing; the more information we have, the smarter fans we become. It's also fun, adding another layer to our baseball fanaticism.
However, the danger is when we start treating baseball prospects like fans currently view NFL or NBA prospects. Baseball prospects are far more difficult to project than NFL or NBA prospects, and the failure rate of first-round picks in those sports is high enough. Most fans of those sports don't realize this, of course, which explains why draft day in those sports have become two of the biggest events on the sports calendar. The reality is that your first-round NBA pick won't actually amount to much, but the hype obscures rational analysis (there's only talk of upside, not of downside).
As baseball prospects get more and more hype, the expectations thus change. These guys are going to be stars. This is why I loved the Mat Latos trade from the Reds' perspective. Sure, maybe Yasmani Grandal and Yonder Alonso will both turn into great players; but Latos is already a terrific player. It could work out for both teams, but the fact is it's the kind of trade we rarely see anymore; as Rany writes, general managers are essentially afraid to trade prospects for fear of getting burned.
In other words, they've bought into the hype. The truth, of course, is that most prospects don't become stars. Jarrod Parker may have a higher ceiling than Trevor Cahill, but the odds are his career won't be as good as Cahill's.
I'm not saying prospects aren't important; there's nothing more valuable in baseball than a young player making a low salary. As the Tampa Bay Rays have shown, if your system keeps churning out talented young players, you can compete with a low payroll. As the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates have shown over the past 15-plus years, however, banking solely on cheap young players is a difficult proposition.
Here's another way to look at it: Sitting on my desk is the 2005 "Baseball America Prospect Handbook." Prospects from that book have now reached the majors and are contributing to their teams. The No. 30-ranked farm system that year? The St. Louis Cardinals. It's not that Baseball America misjudged the Cardinals' system -- it was indeed, a bad system. The only player in the top 30 to contribute to their 2011 World Series title was Skip Schumacher. The only other major leaguers of note from the list are Adam Wainwright and Brendan Ryan.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Twins, Colorado Rockies, Cleveland Indians, Oakland A's, Chicago Cubs and Seattle Mariners all ranked in the top 11 farm systems. Those teams averaged 91 losses in 2011.