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Trading top prospects for veteran pitchers at midseason

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Teams are hesitant to trade their top prospects in today's game. Is dealing a top prospect in order to be stronger for one or two seasons worth it? What has recent history shown us?

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I recently wrote an article on why the Red Sox should feel comfortable trading their top prospect Blake Swihart to the Phillies in a package deal for Cole Hamels. The point of the article was not to trade Swihart for Hamels because Swihart is an unproven prospect, but rather that the Red Sox have a young, up-and-coming catcher in Christian Vazquez, who played well in 2014, and is on the fast track to becoming a defensive prodigy. I also did not mean that the Red Sox have to make the trade right now. If in July, the Red Sox seem to be in contention and could add an additional arm to the rotation, they should feel comfortable giving up a prized possession for the veteran Hamels.

In my previous article, I attached this article on the success rate of Baseball America's top 100 prospects at the Major League level. It is an excellent article and analysis on the success rate of top prospects, and concludes that nearly 70% of Baseball America's top 100 prospects fail, or can be considered busts. Still, it seems as though baseball front offices are overrating their prospects at an increasing rate. Ben Badler of Baseball America seems to agree with me as well.

Can you blame teams for being hesitant when dealing their prospects that they have worked with, and developed through their farm system? A great emphasis has been placed on prospect development, and do you really want to develop your top prospects just to see them flourish with another team? When considering trading their top prospects, there is an overwhelming amount of scenarios teams must deliberate on including whether they want to play for now, or prepare for the future. Is a half a season for an ace worth giving up six or more years of control on a prospect?  Can they afford to go over the luxury tax? These are just a few.

I became very interested in looking at teams who have traded their top prospects for veteran pitchers to add to their rotation from 2008-2011. I stopped at 2011, because I felt that trades involving prospects in 2012 and later did not give enough time for prospects to progress to the major league level.

In addition, I only looked at teams who made a trade during the season for a veteran pitcher who qualified in terms of innings pitched to add to the rotation. Determining who got the better of these trades can be extremely tough, because many of the veterans they trade for only stay with the team for the remainder of the season, or for a few seasons after that. There are many different aspects to look at such as the luxury tax, teams flipping the prospects they received in separate deals, supplemental draft picks, and many other scenarios.

For this article, I simply looked at trades involving prospects who were ranked in the top 12 of their organization with a few exceptions added in simply because they were low prospects who were traded and actually panned out, for a veteran pitcher. Hint, the Cleveland Indians may have a prospect or two on the list. I simply looked at their fWAR and no other factors. I was interested in seeing just how well they turned out from an overall perspective in terms of overall win value, and whether trading prospects in order to go all-in on the short-term and boost their rotation was worth it for teams.

These lists only show trades in which top prospects were exchanged in a package or straight up for a veteran qualified pitcher. These lists do not show other veterans who may have been part of the deal, or prospects ranked below the top 12 in their organization (with a few exceptions).

VETERANS

Player Year Age when traded fWAR season of trade fWAR before trade (Season) fWAR after trade (Season) Seasons w/ team traded to fWAR since trade Seasons after trade fWAR/ season after trade
Joe Blanton 2008 27 1.9 1.6 0.3 2008-2012 7.8 5 1.6
CC Sabathia 2008 27 7.2 2.9 4.3 2008 24.9 6 4.2
Randy Wolf 2008 31 1.9 0.9 1.0 2008 6.0 4 1.5
Livan Hernandez 2008 33 1.3 1.3 0.0 2008 5.0 4 1.3
Cliff Lee 2009 30 6.4 4.1 2.3 2009, then re-signed 2011-2014 25.1 5 5.0
Cliff Lee 2010 31 6.9 3.7 3.2 2010 18.1 4 4.5
Roy Oswalt 2010 32 4.4 2.5 1.9 2010-2011 4.1 3 1.4
Dan Haren 2010 29 4.0 2.3 1.7 2010-2012 9.4 4 2.4
Edwin Jackson 2010 26 3.5 1.6 1.9 2010-2011 8.1 4 2.0
Jake Westbrook 2010 32 1.6 0.5 1.1 2010-2013 2.7 3 0.9
Ubaldo Jimenez 2011 27 3.3 2.4 0.9 2011-2013 4.0 3 1.3


PROSPECTS

Player Current Age Traded For Organization Rank (Team) Baseball America Rank Total MLB Appearances (Seasons) fWAR Overall fWAR/Season
Adrian Cardenas 27 Joe Blanton Phillies #2 76 1 -0.3 -0.3
Josh Outman 30 Joe Blanton Phillies #4 N/A 6 3.1 0.5
Matt LaPorta 30 CC Sabathia Brewers #1 23 4 -1.4 -0.3
Rob Bryson 27 CC Sabathia Brewers #11 N/A 0 N/A N/A
Taylor Green 28 CC Sabathia Brewers #8 N/A 2 -0.1 -0.0
Michael Brantley 27 CC Sabathia Brewers #24 N/A 6 11.1 1.8
Chad Reineke 32 Randy Wolf Astros #7 N/A 3 -0.3 -0.1
Matt Chico 31 Livan Hernandez Nationals #8 Rookie when traded N/A 3 -0.3 -0.1
Carlos Carrasco 28 Cliff Lee Phillies #2 52 5 4.5 0.9
Lou Marson 28 Cliff Lee Phillies #3 66 6 2.7 0.5
Jason Donald 30 Cliff Lee Phillies #4 69 3 0.5 0.2
Jason Knapp 24 Cliff Lee Phillies #10 64 0 N/A N/A
Justin Smoak 28 Cliff Lee Rangers #2 13 5 -0.2 -0.04
Blake Beavan 26 Cliff Lee Rangers #17 N/A 4 0.6 0.2
J.A. Happ 32 Roy Oswalt Phillies #9 Rookie when traded N/A 8 7.3 0.9
Anthony Gose 24 Roy Oswalt Phillies #6 N/A (#39 following season) 3 1.5 0.5
Jonathan Villar 23 Roy Oswalt Phillies #2 N/A 2
-0.5
Patrick Corbin


Tyler Skaggs
25



23
Dan Haren



Dan Haren

Angels
#12


Angels #8

N/A

82 (#13 following season)
2


3
4.9


1.5
2.5


0.5
Daniel Hudson 28 Edwin Jackson White Sox #3 66 5 7.5 1.5
David Holmberg 23 Edwin Jackson White Sox #8 N/A 2 -0.9 -0.4
Corey Kluber 28 Jake Westbrook Padres #29 N/A 3 10.6 3.5
Drew Pomeranz 26 Ubaldo Jimenez Indians #4 Became Rockies #1 61 (#30 following season) 4 2.3 0.6
Alex White 26 Ubaldo Jimenez Indians #2 47 2 -0.3 -0.1
Joe Gardner 27 Ubaldo Jimenez Indians #9 N/A 0 N/A N/A


Let's take a look at the big trades by season. Once again, we're looking solely at the prospects that were traded for a veteran pitcher in terms of production.

2008

The Phillies traded their second and fourth overall prospects for Joe Blanton. Blanton was coming off a 2007 campaign in which he produced a 5.5 fWAR. Blanton went 4-0 with a 4.20 ERA with the Phillies to finish the regular season, and also went 2-0 with a 3.18 ERA in the postseason to help the Phillies in the World Series. The two prospects traded for him have combined for an fWAR of 2.8 for their career.

The Brewers traded for CC Sabathia in 2008 and gave up their top overall prospect in Matt LaPorta who was ranked 23rd overall by Baseball America, along with their #8, #11, and #24 prospects. CC Sabathia only played half a season with the Brewers, but posted 4.3 fWAR in that short time span, and led the Brewers to a 90-win season, along with their first playoff appearance since 1982. Because he signed elsewhere after the season, the Brewers also received two supplemental first-round picks. Of the prospects traded for him, only their #24 prospect, who was the player to be named later, has been productive for them at the major league level. That was Michael Brantley who had a breakout 2014 campaign.

2009

The Phillies made yet another move and traded their second, third, fourth, and tenth best prospects to acquire ace Cliff Lee. Lee went 7-4 with a 3.39 ERA and a 2.83 FIP that season with the Phillies. The Phillies won the NL East and advanced to the World Series. They lost to the Yankees, but you can't blame Lee for the defeat. He started 5 games and threw 40.1 innings in the playoffs. He produced a 4-0 record and a 1.56 ERA, including two wins in the World Series. Lou Marson, who was supposed to be the "heir apparent" to Victor Martinez, and Jason Donald have been complete busts in the deal. Jason Knapp, who the Indians said would not have made the trade without him, has had an injury plagued career and was ultimately released by the team. However, Carlos Carrasco put together a nice 2014 campaign and will only be 28 this season.

2010

Once again we see Cliff Lee being traded. This time it was from the Mariners to the Rangers. The Mariners received the Rangers second best prospect in Justin Smoak, and their 17th best prospect, Blake Beavan. Smoak is 28, and has shown flashes of power at the big league level, but ultimately hasn't performed as expected as he has produced a negative fWAR so far in his career. Meanwhile, Lee went 4-6 with a 3.89 ERA and a 2.83 FIP with the Rangers. Lee made five starts in the post season going 3-2 with a 2.78 ERA, along with 47 strikeouts. The Rangers made the World Series, but lost to the Giants.

Once again we see the Phillies involved in a midseason trade for a veteran pitcher. This time they traded away their second, sixth, and ninth best prospects in Jonathan Villar, Anthony Gose, and J.A. Happ to the Astros for Roy Oswalt. Oswalt made 12 starts in the regular season with the Phillies going 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA. The Phillies made it to the NLCS, but lost to the Giants in six games. Oswalt made three starts going 1-1 with a 1.74 ERA in the playoffs that season. Happ has had a decent career posting an overall fWAR of 7.3 over eight seasons, coming out to 0.91 fWAR per season. Gose and Villar are still young at 24 and 23 respectively. Oswalt posted a 2.5 fWAR in 2011 for the Phillies, but we can't really determine who won this trade until we give Gose and Villar a few more seasons to produce.

In 2010, the Angels made a move for Dan Haren. The two prospects involved in the trade were Patrick Corbin and Tyler Skaggs. Skaggs was the No. 40 overall pick in the 2009 draft the previous year. Corbin and Skaggs are both young and have both made it to the big leagues, and look to have bright futures ahead of them. The Angels got lucky and were able to get Skaggs back this past season. Corbin missed last season due to Tommy John surgery. Even with the acquisition of Haren, the Angels failed to reach the playoffs for consecutive seasons in 2010 and 2011. Haren did post an fWAR of 6.2 for the Angels in an amazing 2011 season.

Arguably the best move on this list, the Indians traded away 32-year-old Jake Westbrook who had arm injuries including Tommy John surgery in 2008. Westbrook only played two and a half more seasons in the big leagues after the trade before retiring. This was part of a three team trade, and in return, the Indians got back the Padres #29 prospect. Sure, Westbrook had injury and age concern, but you would think you could get something better than an organization's 29th best prospect. Well, that prospect turned out to be none other than Corey Kluber. I think we can all agree on who won this trade.

2011

The Indians made a move in 2011 to acquire the highly touted Ubaldo Jimenez. Jimenez produced an fWAR of 16 over the previous three seasons from 2008-2010 for the Rockies. After the trade, Jimenez took a nose dive in value. It was a complete shock, especially after dominating in hitter-friendly Coors Field. The prospects in the trade haven't panned out either. To make this quick, neither team won this trade. No player in this trade has produced.

Feel free to look at this information and come up with your own conclusions. I'm biased as I fully believe in dealing prospects for proven veteran players, especially front-of-the-rotation pitchers. Look at the Brewers acquiring Sabathia for a bunch of prospects who didn't pan out, except for the lowest ranked prospect, Michael Brantley. If the organization's #24 prospect didn't pan out, what a complete bust! The Phillies picked up Blanton who put together a few good seasons for a couple of prospects who did nothing. The Phillies also picked up Cliff Lee for a couple of prospects who didn't pan out either. We still have to see what Carlos Carrasco can do for the Indians. Lee also got flipped for a couple of prospects who didn't pan out with Seattle. However, the Jake Westbrook for prospect Corey Kluber was a definite win trading for the prospect. However, he wasn't even considered a top prospect. You can make a case for the 2010 trades of Dan Haren and Roy Oswalt, that the prospect packages were better, but all of those players are still young, and we have to give it a few years to see how they perform.

Trading for a prospect is a roll of the dice. Granted, many prospects who are traded during the season certainly pan out. It's quite a bit more likely that instead of a trade turning out as Mark Langston for Randy Johnson, it becomes more of a Justin Smoak for Cliff Lee. I am a strong believer in teams trading prospects for veterans near the trade deadline, and "playing for now."

* * *

All data courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, and MLB Trade Rumors.

Brandon Decker is a contributor at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @bdeck02.