Back in December of 2009, we were witnesses of a most unusual kind of trade: the top prospect-for-top prospect swap. You'll see teams trade veterans for prospects, and vice versa. But quite rarely will you see teams make these kinds of trades, probably because of one key reason.
Teams don't want to get killed in retrospect for giving up a future superstar in exchange for a bust- if you keep your own prospect and he busts, you've only whiffed on evaluating one player, instead of two. You turn down dancing with a really beautiful girl? Okay. But to turn down the beautiful girl to dance with an ogre-like creature? Far more questionable. (Note: my analogies will change your life.)
But on December 14, 2009, the Blue Jays agreed to trade recently-acquired outfield prospect Michael Taylor to the Athletics for vaunted first base prospect Brett Wallace. Taylor would later be ranked as the 29th-best prospect in the game by Baseball America, while Wallace came in just two spots ahead at No. 27 on the same list. It was the ultimate "challenge" trade: my team prefers Wallace, your team prefers Taylor; which one of us will reap the benefits? And yet, by the end of last season, it seemed like both teams had managed to lose.
Taylor, already 24 coming into the 2010 season, would deal with some legitimate struggles as Triple-A Sacramento's right fielder. After posting isolated power marks above .200 in both 2008 and 2009, that figure dropped to a startling .121 with Sacramento, as he finished the year with just six home runs in 127 games. As a corner outfielder without outstanding patience, the decline in power put Taylor's projection into serious question.
Meanwhile, Wallace's fall from grace was arguably as shocking. Even though his performance at Triple-A was far more solid than Taylor's with a .301 average and 18 homers in 95 games, scouts began to sour on him, noting the extreme offensive nature of the parks that Wallace had been hitting in, as well as growing skepticism about his swing and athleticism. After falling out of favor with the A's, the Blue Jays soon followed suit, trading the hefty infielder to the Astros in exchange for center field prospect Anthony Gose over the summer.
One thing you have to say about Jays GM Alex Anthopolous from these kinds of trades: the guy has balls. Most teams would probably be pretty happy to turn Taylor into Wallace into Gose, but few would actually take the risk, I'm guessing.
But thus far in 2011, both players have seemingly rebounded quite nicely. At the end of last season, it seemed possible that the Astros would opt to play Carlos Lee at first base instead of Wallace, and Taylor would prove that his "Stanford Swing" (Stanford coaches teach their players a specific kind of swing, which the vast majority of professional evaluators consider to be extremely flawed) couldn't be totally fixed.
Now, Wallace is proving to be a non-awful long-term option for the Astros at first base, and Taylor is once again showing the pop of a potential contributor, rather than the pop of a Coke that expired in May of last year. Wallace's .374 on-base percentage is fourth among NL first baseman, while Taylor hit seven home runs in June.
Unfortunately, both players are showing some clear chinks in their armor. Wallace is still not hitting for power, as many scouts had worried about, his BABIP is pretty much unsustainable at .372, and he's been totally ineffective against left-handed pitchers. Taylor, for all of the added power, is striking out more and walking less than he did even while struggling last season. And even though his .282/.344/.483 line seems pretty solid at first glance, it's pretty underwhelming when compared to the Pacific Coast League averages. (Note: Taylor's played pretty awful in the few games since this was written, and he's now at .265/.333/.451 on the year, increasingly unimpressive for the PCL.)
Really, what we're seeing here is how ridiculously hard it can be to project young players. It's often said that young hitters are far easier to project than young pitchers, primarily because young pitchers are about as dependable as the Chicago weather, but this is just another example of a prospect's stock going all over the place.
Wallace and Taylor were seeing big-time hype going into 2010, and by the end of the season they were running on fumes. Now, both are seeing their stocks rise again as people take notice of their resurgent numbers- but a deeper look at those numbers indicates that the apparent improvement may not be so substantial.
So, who's going to come out on top in this trade? At this point, it's hard to say. You can obvious give the Blue Jays credit for flipping Wallace in exchange for Gose, but they likely didn't have that deal in mind when they initially acquired him. Rather, they appear to have genuinely preferred Wallace as a prospect; and they certainly weren't alone, as BA's ranking would attest.
But in the end, I think that we're going to look at these past few months as a blip on the radar- our perceptions of Wallace and Taylor really shouldn't be that different than they were in say, February. If anything, the additional things we know about them now, like Wallace's clear inability to hit lefties and Taylor's devolving patience, should be considered additional red flags. A few weeks ago, you would've said that we were way off base on how we viewed this deal back in September of last year.
But now? I think we've been pretty on base for a while now.