The Theory and Practice of Trading Wil Myers

The latest brush fire to burn across the dry high plains of the internet was sparked by trade rumors involving Royals super prospect Wil Myers. Reportedly the Atlanta Braves are interesting in acquiring Myers, possibly in exchange for Jair Jurrjens. Naturally, the potential first ever Jair-Wil trade in history is itself noteworthy, although that undersells the possibility that a same exchange once took place in a Amsterdam night club, which I argue is plausible. (Would "Wils" count?)

No, Wil Myers is a top prospect, and in 2011 that means he is a very famous person. We don't know how likely a Wil Myers trade is, but should it happen, it would be one of the biggest Royals stories of the last five or six years. Wil Myers was ranked the #10 prospect in the game by Baseball America prior to the 2011 season and there is a class of fan who will be upset if he is traded for the #10 player in the American League this winter. 

My sense is that most hardcore Royals fans would be against a Myers trade. I don't think "against" is a strong enough word to describe their opinions on a Myers-Jurrjens trade. I think we're right to feel this way, at least about Jurrjens. However, although I don't trust Dayton Moore on the market, I think a potential Wil Myers trade is a tremendous opportunity for the franchise. Given the right offer, I think the Royals should be highly interested in trading Wil Myers. As with all things, the execution matters. My contention is that more scenarios than those assumed by my fellow hardcore Royals fan on sites like this one are potential boons for the Royals than might be assumed. The market, I believe, has shifted so far in valuing prospects that even small-market teams like the Royals should look closely at maximizing assets like Myers on the trade market. Now, I understand that this reads like a truism, like blather, like milquetoast conventional wisdom. It is. Or it should be. Right now, so is the idea that top prospects are sacred.

 

In the last decade two developments, mostly unrelated, conspired to change the way we view prospects like Myers. The first was the continued explosion of baseball writing on the internet, which at this point seems to have reached a point of full saturation. There are baseball websites about fantasy sports, about uniforms, about baseball cards, about team histories, about the cutest players, about their wives and girlfriends. There are serious sites and sites that try to make you laugh and sites in between. And in this universe, there are is a wide array of sites about minor league players and amateur prospects. There are at least two blogs dedicated soley to Royals prospects alone. But it isn't just blogs. Mainstream providers also have virtual space to fill, and with more and more information readily available, they're also ready to talk prospects. I was a pretty big baseball fan growing up in the 1980s and 1990s and here are the prospects I can remember knowing about before they became rookies: Todd Van Poppel and Ben McDonald. The latter, I think, I only knew about because of his baseball card. Not too long ago, all of these guys were simply "minor leaguers" in your local paper. Now, they're people that people know about. 

Secondly, within baseball itself, it gradually dawned on everyone that an elite player paid on MLB's strange pre-set pre-free-agency pay scale was the single most valuable commodity in the game and perhaps the most valuable commodity in sports. Each major American sport now has some kind of rookie pay scale, but no others go so far as to dictate that all rookies be paid the league minimum. This realization transcends the new school/old school divide as well as the various gradations of small, medium, and large markets. Since the turn of the century, the number of teams that really seemed to not to care about their minor league system (or were at least appeared to be going through the motions) dwindled. The effect this has had on the industry has been profound, altering the nature of organizational budgets, the shape and tenor of the trade deadline, and the nature of the season itself. So-called service time "gaming", the practice of delaying a player's time on the Major League roster for solely financial reasons has gone from the purview of a few oddball teams to entirely mainstream practice, so common that we not only expect it, we often demand it.

I also believe, and this is not something that is often written about, that youth sports is much more advanced than it was twenty years ago. Travel teams, much maligned in basketball circuits for sometimes unclear reasons, have made players better and at younger ages. But, along with video, they have also made scouting better. Perhaps, over the next decade, we'll see the failure rate for early round draft picks drop. I'd buy that possibility. On his podcast Rany talked about how, although Bubba Starling played against very weak competition in Kansas, he also played a large number of showcase games that gave scouts more valuable information. The odds of a first round pick showing up at Single A and being unable to play are lower than ever before. What we do know is that the equation within the game is already changed. Each year teams on the verge of trading veteran players dream of the entirely amazing prospects they will acquire for their stars and each year they are increasingly disappointed. You got that for Zack Greinke? You got him for Roy Halladay? That's all? When even the Yankees won't play the game, turning down offers for Jesus Montero for years now, you know the dynamic has truly altered.

The in-industry development of prospect prizing has furthered fan interest in these guys, which is perfectly understandable. Matt Wieters is certainly probably maybe going to be a hugely important part of your roster in 3 4 5 6 7 years, so it makes sense that you'd want to know how he's doing on a Tuesday night against Sioux City. Hey, we're all here, online, for a reason. Make no mistake, I have no problem with prospect hype. I blog myself and I spent years writing a dissertation on 18th century poetry. I like wasting time and I like research and knowledge for their own sake. (Though both, combined, have probably ruined my life -- no hyperbole -- and set me up for an absolutely hellish future.)

Prospect love is attractive to fans because it is a glimpse at the future and an opportunity to dream. It's also a way to deepen our experience as fans, which, insomuch as we care at all, we might as well care in a broader way. I remember, four or five years ago, going to a college football game with a friend. It was the first season in which players I'd followed as recruits were contributing on the field. I was excited and must have been saying random factoids in the stands about sophomore backups. My friend finally asked me, "how do you know this stuff?" "Oh, online," I said. That's where we're at now, if you want to go there, at least.

Prospects can also be attractive to teams. 95% of this attraction is justified. Until baseball gets a new financial structure, you absolutely want, more than anything else, to have two All-Star level players making the league minimum or close to it on your roster. You want cheap players available as backups and solid contributors as well. And of course, you want Hall of Famers in their prime, and really, the only way you can get those guys is to luck into developing one. Even large market teams often can't sign a Hall of Famer at his peak as a free agent, because usually they're close to decline when, if ever, they get to that point. But about that other 5%? Increasingly minor league prospects can be used to justify a regime's existence to the owner, the media, and the fans. A strong farm system can be sold as an achievement even though, really, inherently, it isn't one. That isn't a shot at Dayton Moore by the way. Not yet, at least. It's just... the minor leagues aren't the point. Prospects, even the greatest prospects, are the miser's stacks of gold: items only valuable in exchange.

It's beyond the scope of this post (but maybe not one in the future) to go through the last ten or so trades involving major prospects. But consider the Greinke trade. When you strip away some of the effluvia, essentially the Brewers acquired two years of Greinke for their rights to six years of Jake Odorizzi. No one, not even Odorizzi's biggest fans, think that he will ever be as good as Zack Greinke. Yet this was a well-regarded trade. Again, there are all kinds of details and specifics and conjectures, and most importantly, there is the time issue. But again, Odorizzi, even if he works out, beats the odds, avoids injuries and all the rest, almost certainly will never be as good as Zack Greinke will be from 2009-2012.

This post isn't really about Myers the individual prospect. There are pros and cons to trading Myers the individual. Of course, it's also mostly pointless to talk about one half of a trade. But consider Myers in more abstract terms. Unlike Odorizzi, Myers has, for now, superstar upside. A Myers trade could burn the Royals in a way that trading Odorizzi cannot, which is important. Potentially however, Myers could also bring greater rewards.

Don't worry, I'm getting to Matt Garza. In November 2007 the Rays traded Delmon Young to the Twins for Garza. (There were other spare parts involved, notably Jason Bartlett, but that was the gist of the trade.) Both players had similar amounts of Major League experience, and Young was coming off of a well-regarded 2007. While Garza had reached #20 in BA's ubiquitous rankings, Young was the mid-1980s Michael Jackson of mid-2000s BA. He was a top 3 prospect between 2004-07 and mostly for that reason is still regarded as a good player today.

We know how that trade worked out. The Rays traded some upside for certainty and walked away big winners. They also shaped raw baseball assets, as it were, into a better Major League roster. Somehow, they reached the 2008 World Series. Despite so much praise for what the Rays have done around baseball, how many GMs could pull the trigger on that trade today?

So, if the Royals are looking at trading Wil Myers, I'm not going to freak out. I'm going to be nervous, but I'm also going to be excited. Of course, the details matter. I don't think the Royals can contend in 2012, so I don't want a win now trade. On balance, however, I think the idea of Wil Myers is much more attractive than the reality of Wil Myers. I think there's a good trade out there, waiting to be made.

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