The role of prospects in trades

With the Winter Meetings coming up in a few weeks, we’re about to hit the Super Bowl of the Hot Stove rumor season. The collection of every general manager under one roof multiplied by the anticipation of blockbusters from fans leads to a rumor frenzy of ridiculous proportions featuring a solid week of far-out suggestions and projections.

Prospects play huge roles in many offseason moves, although not always in the ways fans anticipate. Fans like to suggest trades that involve player X, Y and Z from their favorite team’s top-10 list in exchange for a superstar who isn’t even available, but we all know that’s not how the real world works. Or even how your fantasy league works. But prospects do influence decision making in a number of different ways.

Opportunity cost

The blockbuster last week between the Tigers and Rangers was based primarily on the Rangers’ need for a power bat and the Tigers’ need for a second baseman, desire to shed payroll and desire to move Miguel Cabrera back to first base. But don’t underestimate the role that prospects played on both sides. With the Tigers looking to pare down their bank statement, this trade wouldn’t have worked for them had they then needed spend money on a new third baseman. Prince Fielder wasn’t traded specifically to make room for Nick Castellanos at third base, but Castellanos’ presence in the Tigers organization certainly allowed them to pull off the move. And I don’t need to explain the role Jurickson Profar’s presence on the Rangers roster played on their end.

Roster crunch

Sometimes, the nuances of the 40-man roster force teams into moves they might not have otherwise made. The Padres and Pirates hooked up on a minor deal that involved some fringe prospects which worked out for exactly this reason.

Jaff Decker made a late-season cameo in the majors in 2013. He’s not a guy the Padres were actively looking to get rid of, but due to roster limitations, they were forced to designate him for assignment earlier this week. This gives them a short period of time during which they can work out a trade, and they did just that with the Pirates.

In return for Decker, a left-handed hitting outfielder, the Padres received Alex Dickerson, who is also a left-handed hitting outfielder. Both are fringy prospects who don’t profile as impact players but could find their niche on major league rosters. So why the trade of two similar players?

Decker is ready for the majors now, while Dickerson is not. The Pirates were looking for an inexpensive replacement for Garrett Jones, who they themselves designated for assignment in correspondence with this move. Decker could help fill that role, while Dickerson was not yet ready to do so. Decker was already on the Padres’ 40-man roster while Dickerson does not yet need to use up a spot, making him a better fit for the roster-strapped Padres.

Essentially, this trade was about moving around the pieces that fit their respective rosters. Big answers weren’t found here, but players were moved because the roster limitations dictated that something give or else a player would be lost.

Not always a factor

While prospects can often influence decisions, we can’t assume that they will always play a deciding role. For the latest example, look no further than the newest free agent in the Bronx.

The Yankees decided they needed Brian McCann in their 2014 lineup and were willing to commit five years and $85 million to make sure it happened. McCann was the biggest prize in a deep crop of free agent catchers this offseason, a group that gave the Yankees a number of shorter-term options had they wanted to pursue them. This is more significant to the Yankees than anyone else because the Yankees have perhaps the best minor league catching depth in baseball.

Gary Sanchez has long been considered the Yankees’ catcher of the future, and having spent the entire 2013 season in Double-A, he probably would have been ready for the job by the 2015 season. The Yankees really needed only a one-year stopgap to get them to Sanchez, had they wanted to wait that long. Instead, they grabbed McCann without regard to what Sanchez’s role will be upon being ready for the big leagues.

Which is not to say that this was a bad deal. McCann is an all-star and Sanchez is unproven. McCann is a potential Hall of Famer and Sanchez could be a total bust. The point is that even with impact prospects on the horizon, it’s not always enough to truly influence decision making at the major league level.

The big game

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The deal everyone wants to see, however, is the collection of prospects for the super star. The suggestions for them run rampant in online forums and in discussions among fans, with the majority being unrealistic, but the fact is that these trades to happen from time to time.

Nearly every prospect in the game has been rumored in a deal for Giancarlo Stanton at some point over the past year. The same is happening again this offseason with David Price and any prospect from a team in need of an ace. Most won’t happen, but the speculation is fun and the consideration of these deals by the teams themselves is very real.

For example, the Pirates have among the deepest farm systems in baseball and a real need for one or two impact players who could set them over the top. As a conservative organization with a conservative GM, they’re unlikely to make a big move, but you can bet they’re looking at all of the options.

The Pirates aren’t likely to be the ones to pull the trigger, but you can bet that someone will for a player like Price. He’s going to get the Rays a collection of prospects much like James Shields did for them last season, and this collection should be even better.

These aren’t the only moves that involve prospects, but they certainly are the most fun, especially during the long, action-less winter.

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don’t forget, the Yankees are always in the “win now” mode….they could care less about their farm system and the future.