Less than two months but several trades ago, the D-backs acquired Jeremy Hellickson from Tampa Bay for minor leaguers Andrew Velazquez and Justin Williams, two players that had not played above the Single-A level. The trade was reasonable by any measure, but it does seem that either the D-backs liked Hellickson much more than most, or they weren’t quite as high on the two minor leaguers as we expected. In the wake of the trade, members of the Arizona front office talked up all three players, so I hesitate to draw too strong a conclusion from any particular comment. But there was some minor cause for alarm.
From indefatigable beat reporter Nick Piecoro just after the Hellickson trade:
“For you to get a starting pitcher at the major league level — and we consider this guy to be a number two or number three starter — to get a guy like that you have to give up some talent,” Diamondbacks General Manager Dave Stewart said.
“They could both be All-Stars, but from our standpoint they’re three or four years away from being major league players. We have an opportunity to get a good starter to put in our rotation now and go along with our plans for our team with the 2015 season.”
No one was under any illusions that Velazquez or Williams was going to make the 2015 or 2016 active roster, right? And I think it goes without saying that a prospect of a particular quality is worth more if he’s doing his damage at Triple-A rather than Low-A. So at the time, I thought it was curious that both players’ distance from the major league roster was raised here as a reason (rather than offered as a simple description) for why they were traded.
A few weeks ago, we did a review of the team’s transactions since the new guard took over, since they pointed in different directions (rebuilding, retooling, “win now,” etc.). Either there’s a method to the madness and the rest of the FO’s plan hasn’t come to fruition yet, or the FO is simply taking every opportunity they see as possible and good. Both possibilities are fine, but no matter what, they point to this: the team is focused on being the best it can be in 2017 while making the 2015 squad better, as well.
With the possible exception of getting Domingo Leyba (who seems to have been included in the Gregorius trade to even out value), the team has not departed from that 2015-2017 strategy. There’s nothing wrong with that. Treating low minors prospects as expendable because of the fact that they’re in the low minors? There might be a problem with that.
Even if you could guarantee that a particular prospect wouldn’t play in the majors until 2018, it’s still possible that he can help the 2017 club. It’s trade value — maybe you feel strongly that your prospect looks better to the outside world than he does to you, and if you feel relatively certain that he’s likely to flame out soon, of course it makes sense to pull the trigger. And I don’t want to dismiss the possibility that that’s how the organization viewed Williams (who was moving a little slowly) and Velazquez. But even if a low minors prospect has a merely average chance of becoming a high minors prospect, it can still make sense to wait.
2018 may not be in the team’s plans, but isn’t 2017? But for the Hellickson trade, all of the team’s moves thus far this winter fit this model of emphasizing 2017, but getting better for 2015 in any possible way that doesn’t put any kind of dent in 2017. Maybe in Hellickson’s case, the team decided the deal was too good, and that 2016 was also important — Hellickson is only under club control for two more seasons, and the team has a bad recent history with signing mid-level starting pitchers to free agent deals. But the Hellickson acquisition still doesn’t fit; he’s absolutely not a strong bet to be above average in 2015, and yet we can’t really put him in the same data-gathering category as Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa and Robbie Ray, because if the D-backs succeed in “finding” Hellickson, the party that stands to benefit most is Hellickson, not the D-backs.
In other words, the Hellickson trade does put a dent in 2017. He’ll be in a rotation spot that might otherwise have gone to someone who’d get a chance to prove or disprove that they should be in the 2017 plans — and if the idea is just to diversify the portfolio and have one shorter-term turnaround guy in the mix, the team already had an option like that in Daniel Hudson. Churning and re-churning the offseason in my mind, it’s the Hellickson trade that just doesn’t fit. If he were under control for one extra year, or if he was a stronger bet to excel, the trade probably would.
Prospects are unplayable assets, and on one level, it makes sense to view a prospect as either worth his present value in trade, or his future value on the field — without a third perspective, future value in trade. In preparing to make this point, I reviewed all of the prospect rating or projection systems that I’m familiar with. Each one focuses on potential playing role, on ceiling in the majors, and on the player’s likely floor. There really isn’t as robust a marketplace for ideas on the likelihood of a particular prospect becoming a better prospect, of whether he might start to look better as a prospect without necessarily changing as a prospect. It’s partly a question of semantics, but it’s also largely a question of emphasis. If you send around an email proposing that a low-minors prospect be traded instead of kept for a 2018 squad, maybe it’s just not that likely that someone will knock on your door and ask why your analysis didn’t include the possibility that the best route might be trading the player in 2017.
That’s why I hope the Hellickson trade stays an outlier in terms of selling low-minors guys for short term upgrades that aren’t sure things. If we assume for the moment that the team is gearing up for a 2017 World Series run, which would be completely defensible, what are the chances that a championship team is perfectly complete before the 2017 season starts? The D-backs have tons of experiments to try, and many of them may pan out (at least, one has to plan as if things trended toward the best-case scenario). Maybe all of them will pan out. But the team may still have some hole to fill, or may just be one very good player away — or they may develop a need through injury midseason. What then? If the team has chosen to keep its ETA-2016 and ETA-2017 guys by plundering the ETA-2018 cupboard, it could lack the type of asset needed to acquire a player who is a much surer thing than Hellickson is now while keeping the rest of the major league squad intact.
It may look like I’m looking for something to fret about, but I assure you I’m not, and that I’m not trying to raise an alarm. Consider it a polite tap on the shoulder. If a low-minors prospect has a 20% chance of being an average major league player, than he’s worth something like 1/6th of an average major league player who has almost no service time (an adjustment there for time value). His “distance” from the majors is already baked into his value — no one thinks that low-minors guy is worth as much as a high-minors guy with a 50% chance of being an average major league player. If a low-minors prospect is already valued as a low-minors prospect, there’s no extra adjustment to make.
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