The Practice Of Flipping Players For Prospects

Following the trades of Starling Marte, Josh Bell and Joe Musgrove, General Manager Ben Cherington is nearing the end of his list of realistic trade pieces, outside the possibilities of moving Adam Frazier, Jameson Taillon, Richard Rodriguez and Chris Stratton; all of which are becoming less likely by the day and moving toward the in-season trade deadline type of move. This has led to discussions surrounding an idea that seems to have become more popular, at least over the past couple of years of signing free agents, mostly likely a reclamation project or bounce back candidate, that can be flipped at the deadline for prospects. In theory this method appears to be a potentially productive way to acquire prospects using a minimal investment for a team who’s payroll could easily fit a player or two without taking too much of a hit. In practice I wonder more about how successful these types of transactions would actually be.

An obvious, and recent example, of how to work a bait and switch such as this happened just a couple of years back when the Pirates signed Jordan Lyles to a one year contract worth $2.05 million, only to trade him near the 2019 trade deadline for then AA pitcher Cody Ponce . When this trade originally happened Pirates Fans were less than happy about the immediate outcome, to say the least as Lyles went on to go 7-1 with a 2.45 ERA over his last 11 starts in Milwaukee. Now, based on an extremely small sample size, coupled with the fact that many will eventually forget that Lyles was ever on the Pirates to begin with it has become an instance of how this sort of move can be successful; when in all actuality Ponce is simply a player who has accumulated .3 WAR or -.2 fWAR if that’s your thing. While Ponce could eventually end up working out, this is far from guaranteed.

First off, I realize that this is only one occasion when this idea was utilized and we still don’t know the final result, which made me want to search for more in order determine if it would be worth trying again. Unfortunately there are not really any immediate studies that jump off the page for a topic that is so specific, especially when I would also like for them to consider the number of times a player is signed to a one year deal and merely allowed to walk when the season is over, or designated for assignment before this option is even explored. Last year alone, for the Pirates, I counted approximately five that could fit into that category.

Luckily, however, for the purpose of at least being able to gather some data on the subject, there have been several on the idea of trading for prospects in the general sense; most recently by Zach Kram of The Ringer, with the ominous title of Why Trading for Top Prospects Is Less of a Win Than More MLB Teams Seem to Think; where the value of players traded out of their organization is compared against those who remain over the prized six years of control, which is extremely important to a team such as the Pirates.

While reading Zach’s article much of it hit very close to home, but none more than his statements about how, Every year, a handful of teams divest themselves of top prospects, and every year, a new set of fan bases convince themselves that their new young talent will soon shine. and Teams that watch a player every day know more about him than those that want to trade for him—and especially more than public prospect rankers.

These are both points that fit right into how many Pirates Fans are feeling at this very moment after all of the moves General Manager Ben Cherington has made in a little over a year on the job.

Now onto the findings of this extremely helpful bit of research. Of the prospects that were traded 28% of them had a negative WAR, while only 2.9% produced at least 24 WAR during that time or on a yearly average an all star caliber player. In the end over 60% fell below the line of an everyday player, 2.0 WAR per year, in MLB. And once again I will point out this is only takes into account the players that were actually traded, as well as the prospects that eventually made it to the big league club.

So, what does this all mean? Well, as always I am open to any idea that could potentially infuse more talent and competition into the system, but, I am also cautioning people to realize that at least 60% of the time the trade would not be considered successful and almost 30% will be abject failures. In the end I guess it comes down to how much of a gambler you are and how much faith you have in your scouting department and development team to grow that 2.9%.

Published by Craig W. Toth

Former Contributing Author at, Co-Host of the Bucs in the Basement Podcast and life-long/diehard Pittsburgh Pirates Fan!

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