Are top prospects overvalued in baseball?

mookie betts

It’s a predicament that every club faces at one point or another. Nearly every offseason, a big name player is available on the trade market and teams begin to evaluate two things: A) Whether or not they possess the quality of prospects to make such a deal and B) Whether or not they want to trade away the unfulfilled potential in a prospect in order to get an established superstar.

Like clothes, things go in and out of fashion. At certain periods of time, teams willingly dump their whole farm system to acquire an established major leaguer (EG: the Tigers trading Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin to the Marlins for Miguel Cabrera). Other times see teams wholly unwilling to even consider the idea of trading away top prospects in order to get something of value (EG: the Red Sox keeping Ryan Lavarnway completely off limits in the summer of 2011).

The reluctance of teams in recent years to trade top prospects partially stems from the immediate success of Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado during their major league debuts in the 2012 season. The unknown is always infinitely more intriguing than the established and the desire of having that next, young major league star is insatiable. Cost-controlled, super star young players are, by far, the most valuable commodity in baseball.

With the growth of the internet and the statistics and reports of young minor league stars more readily available, players such as Byron Buxton, Kris Bryant and Carlos Correa are becoming household names before they even step on a major league field.

But at a certain point, when does keeping top prospects under wraps hurt teams? Lets first consider how often prospects flop.

Publications such as Baseball America provide great information on a wealth of young players, but a significant number of those players covered never amount to anything of significance at the major league level. Consider this study from Matt Perez of Camden Depot which concluded that from 1990 through 2006, approximately 70 percent of Baseball America Top-100 prospects failed. Over at Royals Review, Scott McKinney conducted a similar study that came to a couple of conclusions: A) 70 percent of Baseball America Top-100 prospects fail. B) About 60 percent of position players ranked in the Top-20 succeed in the majors C) About 40 percent of pitchers ranked in the Top-20 succeed.

At FOX Sports, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs wrote that Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington should keep Mookie Betts, even if that prevents a deal for an established top-of-the-rotation starter such Chris Sale or Stephen Strasburg. Betts is an incredibly gifted player — one scout told me that he believed that Betts could be the best player on the Red Sox by the end of the 2015 season — but prospects are an incredibly fickle breed. For every 2005 Portland Sea Dogs, who featured Hanley Ramirez, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Anibal Sanchez, Jonathan Papelbon, Brandon Moss and David Murphy, you have an even greater number of busts.

Pride always plays a role in the evaluation of a prospect as a trade chip. Teams, on occasion, can be reluctant to trade players that they drafted and developed through their farm system. Teams don’t want to see others reap the benefits of their prospect development.

Currently, the tides appear to be shifting in the evaluation of prospects. Some recent trades only play that idea out further. Cherington trading Lester for Yoenis Cespedes instead of for any number of packages with prospect X, Y and Z is one of a few trades that indicates the shift in placing value on established major leaguers.

Dealing with prospects is exactly like working the stock market: you need to maximize prospect stock in order to receive maximum return, whether that is through a trade or on the field. The Red Sox face that very issue right now with two players. Betts, after an electric stint in the big leagues to close out the 2014 season, currently sits at his peak in stock value. On the other hand, Jackie Bradley slumps down at his lowest value after an abysmal offensive season and looks to start the 2015 season at Triple-A Pawtucket.

It’s easy to fall into the intrigue of top prospects. The idea of potential and not knowing what a player could be at the major league level is always enticing. What if the Red Sox had decided that Carl Pavano was too valuable a prospect to give up for Pedro Martinez?

That lefty starter in the minor leagues ranked at the top of the prospect rankings could be the next Clayton Kershaw. History, however, suggests that he’s more likely to be the next Brien Taylor than a rotation anchor for the next decade.

Joon Lee is a writer for SB Nation’s Over the Monster. His writing has appeared in the Boston Herald,, SB Nation and The Classical. He currently attends Cornell University. You can follow him on Twitter at @iamjoonlee.


  1. But you can’t look at dealing prospects in a vaccum. Much more goes into whether you will trade prospects for an established player or hold on to them. Who is the established player? What position does he play? How old is he? How much money is he owed for the length of his contract? Will he be a free agent in a year or a few months? Can I re-sign him if he is headed for free agency? Where is my organization at right now: are we rebuilding (if so at what point are we in the rebuild) or are we in a win now at all costs mode? What is my depth at the major and minor league levels at the position(s) the other team may want to acquire? If I trade away several cost controlled players for an expensive veteran will I have the budget to keep others who are headed for raises via arbitration or about to be free agents (and if I lose them how good will we be then)? These are all questions every organization asks when they consider making a deal.