The Seattle Mariners held their first full-squad workout yesterday and most of the eyes fell on the likes of Julio Rodriguez, Jarred Kelenic, Evan White, and Logan Gilbert.
Right off the top, let’s acknowledge that the transformation the Mariners farm system has undergone over the past 24 months really is remarkable. Just a year ranking in the bottom 10 farm systems in the game, Baseball America named the Mariners as the 5th best farm system in all of baseball.
Seattle appears to have hit its grove in finding, signing, and developing young players who can and should contribute at the big league level and have even acquired a number of potential All-Stars and perhaps even a superstar or two. GM Jerry Dipoto and his staff, Andy McKay, and Scott Hunter deserve a lot of credit for that.
The renaissance of hope on the farm system has sparked interest even amongst the most casual of fans and that spark should grow into a flame this spring, as many of these names will get opportunities in Spring Training games to flash some of their tools. But while Mariners fans should embrace these young players and cheer for their success, it is important to not fall into a trap that has plagued baseball front offices in recent years.
The plague that can befall those who watch the game and those who run the game is what we will call “prospect worship”. The game is getting younger and the best chance teams have to sustain success is to find young players, pay them peanuts for a few years, and then let them leave in free agency or trade them when they become too expensive, and start the process over again.
The Mariners are at the beginning of their rebuild, so it will be a good long while before Seattle will watch these young, developing players walk away in free agency. However, that doesn’t mean they’ll all be safe in trade.
Young players, particularly those with high ceilings or MLB experience, are the most valuable commodity in baseball right now. Pair a few of them up in trade talks, and you can receive an All-Star quality player like that.
A time will someday come when Jerry Dipoto decides to make such a trade. One day, he will trade a Noelvi Marte or George Kirby for a legitimate MLB player. And when that day comes, Mariners fans will be tested for prospect worship.
Fan bases often value their prospects more than any other in the game. It is only natural. We tend to inflate their value and dream that they can be better than we could ever hope. But at the end of the day, these are unproven players who the acquiring team HOPES can someday be as good or better than the player they have given up.
This common analogy can be helpful: you walk into a bank and you’re the 1 millionth customer. The bank offers you a choice; you can either take $1 million cash, or you can open the mystery box and take what is in there. The trick is, you don’t get to see what is in the box until you forfeit the $1 million prize. So, the box could contain $5 million or a coupon book (or anything in-between).
In our analogy, the boxes are the prospects and the veteran is the known prize. Sure, you could regret taking the cash prize, but you’ll still have one million dollars. If you select the box, IE overvalues upside, you could end up with nothing.
Of course, there are scenarios where trading prospects for veterans isn’t worth it. If I offer $20 now or 10, $1 scratchers with reasonably good payout odds, you’ll probably take the scratchers (unless you really need the $20). In this scenario, you are trading a low guarantee for the possibility of hitting it big. Even if you take the $20 and tickets aren’t winners, you still haven’t gotten much better.
The moral to our two analogies are pretty simple; look at every deal as objectively as possible. Sure, the Mariners are going to trade a prospect for an MLB player one day and it will sting. And Seattle may end up regretting it if the mystery player hits for $5 million. But hopefully, Seattle will still have it’s $1 million prizes to consul itself.