Sickels left Dellin off of his 2010 list entirely, and while it is possible for Betances to turn his career around, it seems like this is one lottery ticket that is not going to pay off.
There is a lesson in Betances’ story for Yankees fans like myself who obsess over the minor league system. There is no such thing as a pitching prospect. To delve deeper, the high-ceilinged, super skilled projects toiling in the lower levels that we get excited about are unlikely to ever see the majors. Most of those high risk, high reward guys are lottery tickets, and the lotto rarely pays off. Betances was a top prospect from the moment he was drafted, sporadically displayed tantalizing potential to maintain that status, and now is a 22 year old that has never been past High-A and is coming back from a fairly significant injury. (Note: This is a surgery that reportedly can help the player actually get stronger, so I am not sure how significant the injury is).
We get excited about these guys, project them as future aces, and hope that the team refuses to deal them for anyone but the greatest players. The fact of the matter is, many of these lottery tickets should be probably traded in for useful major league players. It is the job of the general manager to try and maximize the value that you can extract from such players by identifying which of these gambles should be cashed in. That is why it made sense to trade Arodys Vizcaino (who is likely a better prospect than Betances was at his age) for Javier Vazquez.
While this passage might look ridiculous to you at this point, I think the events of the last year actually confirm and buttress my initial argument. In a span of one year, Betances leapt from being an oft-injured question mark to becoming one of the crown jewels of a pitching-rich farm system, while Vizcaino went from intriguing prospect to injured prospect to top prospect equally rapidly. Their respective seasons help illustrate the incredible volatility that pitching prospects have, particularly those that are still at the lower levels of the minors. Would anyone be surprised if we were sitting here a year from now discussing what a shame it is that both of these guys succumbed to injury in 2011? A more apt comparison than my lottery ticket analogy might be that of a high risk investment, which can look incredibly promising one day and then fall apart the next. Similarly, while the stock price is up on Betances, there are many pitfalls that can cause the bottom to fall out before he ever contributes on the MLB level.
All of this leads me to reiterate my initial conclusion: a GM needs to remain clear-headed about his prospects and avoid falling into the trap that prospect hugging presents. He needs to try and identify which prospects the team is best served holding onto and which they would be better off cashing in for established Major League talent. While this might lead to occasionally trading a prospect who turns into a good MLB player, I see that as an unavoidable side effect of a process that should net the club value in the long-term. Holding on to all of your prospects is likely to end up in a deterioration of value due to attrition, something that can be mitigated by a shrewd GM.
As for the perspective of fans, it is just fine to get excited about top prospects, but I would not get too attached to them. As former TYA and current RAB author Stephen Rhoads wrote a few weeks ago:
Manny Banuelos is the hotness now. But this is the way it goes with assets: there’s risk involved. Anyone who sells you a big guaranteed return for your assets with no risk is probably playing you. This is precisely why the temptation to sell high is so strong, and this is why we should temper our expectations even if the team doesn’t succumb to that temptation. It’s our natural tendency to expect things never to blow up in our faces, but it doesn’t take much for our best hopes and dreams to vanish in a second. Appreciate Banuelos’ rise now; he may turn out to be that ace in the hole that we’re all dreaming about. But hold him loosely. There’s a lot of runway between now and his first Cy Young award.
Some of the prospects will get hurt, some will be unable to perform at the MLB level, some will be traded, and a handful will pan out. As Stephen states, appreciate and enjoy their success, but do not hold them too tightly. You might just find yourself holding nothing but disappointment down the road.
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