Revisiting the M’s Top Prospects of 2006
I mentioned it in a game thread a few days ago, but seriously, you really have to read this Sam Miller piece at BP that looks at what’s become of the Rays top 30 prospects ten years later. It’s the fourth in a series of posts Sam’s done, detailing the outcome of the top farm system in baseball ten years previously. What’s fascinating is not just that many prospects bust, but, and this should’ve been obvious, what teams DO with their prospects vary widely. The Brewers group of 2003 (a group put together largely by Jack Zduriencik) got solid production from the very top of their list – headed by Prince Fielder, JJ Hardy and Rickie Weeks – but struggled to do much with everyone else, and if that isn’t some pretty big foreshadowing of the Zduriencik era in Seattle, I don’t know what is. The Angels did a bit better *despite* the fact that their top prospects at the time – Dallas McPherson and Brandon Wood – are legendary prospect busts. But they had a deep system, and thus got plenty of production from Kendrys Morales, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar and the like, and they made a few smaller moves with that cohort, including flipping Kendrick for today’s pre-arb starter, Andrew Heaney. The Rays article represents a very different approach. Instead of keeping their top prospects together, they were very selective about the players they kept, and after that, traded liberally with anyone who’d listen. What this means is that, even ten years later, the Rays still have a bunch of prospects and cost-controlled players they acquired in exchange for earlier prospects, who they acquired in exchange for the prospects on that original 2006 list. As a result, they’ve put up far more WAR as a result of their original list, many of their *current* prospects are in the organization as a result of the original prospects.
The Rays were remarkable in that they ID’d the right players to sign (Evan Longoria) and the right players to sell high on (Delmon Young), and then they kept parlaying one set of acquisitions into another, turning Delmon Young into Matt Garza into Chris Archer. The Angels weren’t quite as adept as that, but their deep system still provided the basis for 5-6 years of contention, thanks to the infield tandem of Kendrick and Aybar. So, what would the M’s look like in this kind of analysis? What would we learn, apart from the basic fact that baseball, like life, is pain, and that point-in-time errors cascade through the seasons, bringing old ghosts and new torments together in a Grand Guignol of… sorry, got a bit carried away. I’m not going to lie: doing this means reliving some of the most painful, most self-destructive moments in recent M’s history. This might hurt a bit.
To do this, we’re going to take a look at the M’s top 20 prospects as rated by Minor League Ball’s John Sickels. First, it’s freely available, and the top 20 really aren’t going to vary too much – the placement of this or that guy might change, but the actual group of 20 should be pretty consistent, particularly the all-important top 5 or so. Second, 20 is less than 30, and we’re all busy people. So, let’s go to the list:
Jeff Clement, C, Grade A-
Adam Jones, OF-SS, Grade B+
Asdrubal Cabrera, SS, B
Clint Nageotte, RHP, C+
Chris Snelling, OF, C+
Matt Tuiasosopo, SS, C+
Shin-Soo Choo, OF, C+
Yorman Bazardo, RHP, C+
Bobby Livingston, LHP, C+
Wladimir Balentien, OF, C+
Ryan Feierabend, LHP, C+
Luis Valbuena, 2B, C+
Michael Saunders, OF, C+
Michael Wilson, OF, C+
Sebastian Boucher, OF, C+
Osvaldo Navarro, SS, C+
Edgar Guaramato, RHP, C+
Cesar Jimenez, LHP, C
Anthony Vavaro, RHP, C
Craig James, RHP, C
Ok, on first glance, this is actually a pretty decent group. Remember, the systems Miller’s investigating were all seen as #1 overall (or close to it) groups. The M’s were never in that category, so if they got a bit less value, hey, no one ever thought this was the equivalent of the Rays system. And yet, these players have produced in the big leagues as much as the groups in Miller’s articles: by bWAR, Shin-Soo Choo’s been worth 29 WAR (28 by Fangraphs), Jones had 27.5 (25.5 by fWAR), Cabrera’s chipped in with 22 (16), Chris Tillman 9.5 (8), and Valbuena 6 (6). That production is roughly equivalent to what the Brewers got out of their group, and it’s right in line with the Rays group, headlined as it was by Young, Reid Brignac and, yes, okay, Evan Longoria. Jeff Niemann was OK for a while, as was Jeremy Hellickson, and Wade Davis certainly became something else for someone else. Longoria’s better than Choo, but the production from the M’s group *as a whole* is pretty much on par. That’s the good news.
Now we’ve got to do the bad part. The first to exit the list is Cabrera, traded in late June for Eduardo Perez. Perez would retire after posting a sub-replacement half-year in Seattle. A few weeks later, the M’s would go back to the well, trading Choo for 1B Ben Broussard. Broussard ended up with about 0 WAR over half of 2006 and half of ’07, then got fewer than 100 PAs to close out his MLB career in Texas. The M’s acquired Tug Hulett in that deal, who was sub-replacement level and then waived. For two players who’d go on to make All-Star teams, are still playing, and who posted over 50 WAR combined, the M’s got less than nothing. Instead of bushy, ever-bearing trade trees like the Rays, the M’s got two shoots that were instantly charred by the sun. The next trade will probably be better.
Nope. In a move that probably destroyed a non-negligble portion of USSMariner’s collective soul, the M’s send Chris Snelling (and Emiliano Fruto) to Washington for DH Jose Vidro. Vidro had a decent 2007, then a sub-replacement level 2008, and retired. Another branchless-tree. Snelling obviously never reached the highs that Choo/Cabrera did, but the pattern’s pretty strong here. The M’s front office at the time actively targeted older players, trying to get the M’s roster into contention. The Rays strategy of targeting young players is risky, but the Rays balance that by dealing in volume, bringing in Costco-packages of minor leaguers when they deal, say, Matt Garza, instead of focusing the return in one, older, gravitas-laden player. That would be OK if it worked, but it did not for Mr. Bavasi.
At the end of 2006, the M’s also released Clint Nageotte, who wouldn’t pitch in the majors again, and waived Bobby Livingston, who’d make a handful of starts for Cincinnati. Edgar Guaramato retired after the 2006 season, which he spent in the Midwest League.
In early 2007, the M’s traded Yorman Bazardo for Jeff Frazier (Todd’s brother). Bazardo went on to pitch in the majors with Detroit while Frazier was released after the 2007 season, and promptly resigned with the Tigers. So that was fabulous. Travis Blackley could’ve been on a list like this,* but he was traded for Jason Ellison, resulting in not much. Cesar Jimenez hurt his shoulder, a problem that would recur sporadically, though hey, he’s still pitching in the majors, and Clint Nageotte, and his fabulous slider, is not. In August, the M’s outrighted Oswaldo Navarro off the 40-man, and traded Sebastian Boucher to Baltimore for reliever John Parrish. Parrish somehow yielded 22 hits in his 10 1/3 IP as a Mariner and then, mercifully, left as a free agent. Lamest trade-trees ever. Oh, and Craig James was released. Maybe a blockbuster trade would help?
Nooooo, it would not. The M’s packaged Jones, Chris Tillman, Tony Butler, Kam Mickolio and George Sherrill and sent them to Baltimore in exchange for LHP Erik Bedard. This worked out swimmingly for the O’s, as Sherrill made the All-Star team that year, and Jones would a bit later, along with Tillman. The Orioles, the team making the rebuild trade, ended up in the playoffs in 2012. The M’s…did not. Bedard made it through three injury plagued years, signing as a free agent twice. As a result, it’s not clear if the M’s get credit for the players Bedard brought back once he was dealt to Boston in 2011, but hey, what the hell: Trayvon Robinson and Chih-Hsien Chang came over. Robinson made the big club, but a high K rate and no power, and produced a bit under replacement level until he was traded to Baltimore for Robert Andino who also produced less than replacement level. Neither player has made the majors since, and the tree ends here, as Andino was traded for “Cash consideration” and Chih-Hsien Chang was horrific in a year in the M’s minors before being released. It’s generally hard to say that one team or another “won” or “lost” a trade, given different aims, different places on the win curve, different organizational needs, but the M’s lost this trade, and lost the trade’s echoes, turning a disappointing return into worse returns.
Following the disastrous 2008 season, Jack Zduriencik took over, and attempted to quickly overhaul the roster, leading to a lot of churn and some of the few bright spots in this sad tale. At this point, late in 2008, 10 of the original top 20 remain. First, Z pulled off a huge three-team trade with the Mets and Indians, sending closer JJ Putz, OF Jeremy Reed and Sean Green east for a bunch of prospects, but also flipping Luis Valbuena for a young, sometimes injured, but it’s nothing and is probably meaningless and nothing to fret about CF named Franklin Gutierrez. Depending on how you apportion this out, Valbuena and Guti were minor components of a much bigger deal, or you could say the Seattle/Cleveland part was almost a separate trade, and take it as a one-to-one swap. In any event, Guti’s earned around 12 WAR, while Valbuena’s earned around half of that for Chicago and Houston.
The next big move was the trade of C Jeff Clement, erstwhile #1 prospect, for a package of SS Jack Wilson and SP Ian Snell. While Clement was the only member of the 2006 prospect list heading east, the M’s were also clearing out some of Bavasi’s later draft picks in pitchers Aaron Pribanic, Nate Adcock and Brett Lorin. While the prospects didn’t do much, neither did Wilson and Snell: Wilson was brilliant defensively, but didn’t hit enough to stick in the line-up, giving way to Brendan Ryan for the cycle to begin again anew. Thanks to his defense, Wilson was actually worth a few WAR with Seattle, so this move certainly didn’t hurt, but Snell, who seemed like such a good buy-low, bounce-back starter simply imploded, turning in a sub-replacement level season in 2010 and seeing his big league career effectively end at age 28. Jack Wilson was sent to Atlanta for a PTBNL, so again, we have another branchless tree, a species seemingly endemic to the Puget Sound region.
That same month (July of 2009), the M’s sent Wladimir Balentien to Cincinnati for reliever Robert Manuel, who was released after a truly abysmal half-year for Tacoma. Manuel ended up making the Red Sox for a brief period in 2010, but the M’s got nothing for him when he left the org after 2009. Ryan Feierabend stuck around through 2010, but he and Anthony Varvaro left the org as free agents, signing with Philadelphia and Atlanta, respectively. Mike Wilson stuck around to help Tacoma win the PCL in 2010, and finally left after 2012 as a minor league free agent.
That left one player, Michael Saunders, still in the organization. He too was moved for a veteran in a rent-a-player transaction, this time a few months before the 2015 season. Saunders went to Toronto in exchange for FA-to-be JA Happ, whom the M’s then flipped to Pittsburgh for Adrian Sampson. Sampson is still in the org, and figures to begin 2016 in the minors, likely with Tacoma, meaning that the M’s were able to turn a 2006 prospect into a 2016 prospect – they finally grew a tree with a branch. Even that small success is tinged with shrug-emoji, as Happ immediately turned into a world-beater under the tutelage of Ray Searage and signed a sizable FA contract back with Toronto.
What have we learned from all of this? First: the Bavasi administration really did try to get production by swapping their prospects for MLB-ready talent. They used the exact same approach as the Rays, they just totally bungled it. Like any team, though, they carefully kept a few prospects off the trading block, trying to build around them the way the Angels and Brewers did. They just totally bungled it. They had MLB All-Star talent, but shipped it off while the guys they rated higher busted. In contrast, while the Zduriencik regime was happy to move any and all remaining Bavasi prospects, they tried to keep their core more or less intact. A very, very different organization using a very, very different approach ended up in a similar spot because they, too, struggled to ID the future stars from the future waiver-wire fodder. The main similarity, though, isn’t related to the prospects themselves, but rather the players both Zduriencik and Bavasi targeted in exchange for the prospects. Failed win-now pushes in 2006 and 2007, and then another in 2009-10 not only didn’t produce a playoff team, they produced players with literally zero value. It’s still a bit early to tell with Jerry Dipoto, and the bar he has to clear is just sitting there on the ground, but I’m hoping he and his pro scouting team are able to identify MLB talent in a way the M’s just haven’t been able to do in recent years.
* That’s what’s so amazing. This list didn’t yet have Chris Tillman, who was drafted in ’06, and it didn’t have Yuni Betancourt, who’d been a big-time prospect the year before and spent enough time in the majors that he couldn’t be excluded here. It just didn’t matter. Tillman was in the Bedard trade, and Betancourt produced Dan Cortes and Derick Saito; Saito was done a half-year later, while Cortes left via free agency. The M’s turned a starting shortstop (yes, yes, a bad one, I’ll grant that) into two more trade stumps. The other guy that 2005 list had? Someone named Bernandez or something. The sheer amount of future big league production on these lists is kind of staggering, and even while the M’s kept and nurtured their best prospect since A-Rod, and even while they had MLB All-stars dotting the lists, they weren’t able to translate that into sustained contention, which is as depressing as it is remarkable. The Rays trade trees are still young, and still huge, while the M’s are a hillside after a clearcut, with Felix on top of it.