Too often, we think of baseball management offices as technologically advanced think tanks, where the game’s greatest minds blend crude statistical analysis with sophisticated scouting reports to pinpoint future stars and weed out over-the-hill bust. This is particularly true when we consider the game’s most revered GMs – Theo Epstein, Billy Beane, Andrew Friedman, etc. Yet, in reality, the most effective form of management is often akin to the considerably less elegant art of spitballing – throwing as many semi-talented players as possible onto the field, and seeing what sticks. From increased success rate to trade value, this strategy has numerous advantages, most of which can be clearly gleaned from simply watching Billy Beane and his mystifying the Oakland Athletics, who, after finishing with 74 wins just two years ago, have won consecutive AL West titles and are just one victory away from the 2013 ALCS.
After that fateful 74-win 2011 season, GM Billy Beane actually went into rebuilding mode, trading off Gio Gonzalez, one of the best young strikeout pitchers in baseball, Trevor Cahill, a 23 year old former 18 game winner, and Andrew Bailey, a top closer and 2009 AL ROY award winner. In return for this prodigious bounty, Beane received, by Baseball America and MLB.com standards, not a single top 25 prospect. Instead, he collected A.J. Cole, Jarrod Parker (he actually ranked fairly highly on BA’s list at #26), Raul Alcantara, Miles Head, Josh Reddick, Derek Norris, Brad Peacock, Tommy Milone, Collin Cowgill, and Ryan Cook. Cole and Parker were both unilaterally considered premeir prospects, but aside from Peacock and Norris, who each snuck into the back of a couple of top 100 lists, the rest was generally thought to be a mixed bag of lottery tickets (Alcantara), future role players (Cowgill), and potential #5 starters (Milone). An analyst at MLB Trade Rumors called the Cahill for Parker, Cook, and Cowgill trade “puzzling,” and actually quoted numerous industry sources who referred to Reddick as a “fourth outfielder.”
Lastly, Beane made his biggest monetary splashed by snagging Cuban free agent Yoenis Cespedes on a 36 million dollar deal. Although he possessed unquestionable athleticism and power, baseball experts were divided over how that would translate into games. Keith law said he could hit 30 home runs in the majors, but that he was unpolished and needed time in the minors.
As any baseball fan knows, that signing and those trades worked out a little differently for the Athletics than many predicted. Sure, Miles Head and Colin Cowgill are not likely to provide signficant production to any team in the near or far future and Brad Peacock got battered around in the minors before being shipped off to Houston, but throw enough arms and bats against the wall and something has to stick. The sheer volume of prospects absorbs the failures of any one individual. Josh Reddick struggled this season but was a lot more than a 4th outfielder for the Athletics season, hitting 32 home runs and leading the team with a 4.8 WAR. Ryan Cook is just a reliever, but he’s one of the dominant ones in all of baseball and Tom Milone’s 0.6 WAR this season may indicate a back end starter, but its hard to discount the value of his 3.74 ERA over 190 innings last year and 4.14 ERA over 156 innings this season. Derek Norris isn’t Buster Posey, but his .754 OPS and 113 OPS+ are high marks for a catcher, and Jarrod Parker can’t yet replicate Cahill’s 19 win season, but his 6.1 WAR since his 2012 promotion is a clear sign of a dependable number two/three starter. Yoenis Cespedes was arguably better than them all, hitting 23 home runs with a 139 OPS+ last season and 26 home runs with a 105 OPS+ this year.
Sure, most prospect hauls are not going to have the high success rate Beane’s 2011 one did, but even when they don’t, the prospect depth can still bring auxiliary benefits; they give GMs the flexibility to make trades without moving the upper crust of talent. Brad Peacock was an integral part of the swap that brought starting shortstop Jed Lowrie to Oakland, and AJ Cole was flipped last offseason for left handed catcher John Jaso, who will be a pivotal addition for the Athletics if he returns for the ALCS (current catchers Derek Norris tore up lefties this season but hit just .149 with zero home runs against righthanders). Prospect-for-veteran trades simply cannot be readily made when all of a farm system’s value is tied up in one or two “untouchable” top-25 prospects.
Those trades also help bolster a cash-strapped ballclub that can’t afford to rely on free agency. Much has been made of the A’s ability to win without money, but this can be squarely chalked up to their prospect depth. Because they have young guys at most every position and are adept at finding talented minor league veterans such as Brandon Moss, they have no need to make ten acquisitions and spend 126 million dollars in free agency to plug holes like the Red Sox did this past offseason.
There is no greater argument for populism over elitism when it comes to prospects, however, than the simple fact that prospects fail – a lot. Scott Mckinney at Royals Review, actually did a comprehensive study before the start of the 2011 season and found that 70% of the players on Baseball America’s annual top 100 prospect list “bust,” or accumulate less than 1.5 fWAR per season. Basic logic dictates that if that high of a percentage fail, then it would be advantageous to collect a trove of prospects, instead of investing in one who is likely to fail. Now, granted, players ranked higher on the list obviously have a better chance of success (that’s why they are higher on the list), but even the top ten annual prospects “bust” 45% of the time, and there is only a 5% difference in “bust” percentage between the top 11-20 prospects and the 91-100 ones (70% and 75%, respectively).
Fans may not find names like Milone and Norris as sexy as the uber-hyped first overall picks and Wil Myers of the world, but they should learn to accept them. For when teams pin their futures on Jesus Monteros and Justin Smoaks, the results can be catastrophic for an organization.