Are Teams Over-Valuing Young Players?

BOSTON, MA: Ubaldo Jimenez of the Cleveland Indians chats with new teammate Justin Masterson #63 before a game with the Cleveland Indians at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The general gist of Tom Verducci's latest piece is that now Billy Beane's shit doesn't work in the regular season, either. Why? Because teams today, even the rich teams, value young players to such a degree that you can't get them unless you draft and develop them yourself, and it's almost impossible to draft and develop enough of them.

"What you'll find is that the window for a small market team will grow smaller and eventually go away completely," Beane said. "Eventually it becomes like Premier League soccer, where the teams that spend the most money are the teams that win every year. They'll all come from the top quartile in payroll."

Well, okay. That's what they were saying 35 years ago, but maybe this time they're right. Anyway, Verducci editorializes thusly:

The words "under control" -- as in contractual control -- rule the business of the game. It's why the Padres could trade Mike Adams (under control through 2012) and not Heath Bell (under control for two months) before the deadline. Draft picks -- the generic slots, not the specific players -- have become so wildly and unexpectedly valued that the free agent compensation system needs to be reworked. No one anticipated that hoarding picks would harm the hard-earned free agent value of established big leaguers.

Like most emerging trends, the valuation of young players is based on solid theory but has come to be overemphasized -- except in San Francisco, where old-school Yoda Brian Sabean shipped off a former first-round pick, Zack Wheeler, to try to win a second straight World Series by renting Carlos Beltrán.

The emphasis on young players is such that Cleveland, suddenly blessed with one of these rare "windows," was criticized for trading two top pitching prospects to get 27-year-old star pitcher Ubaldo Jiménez, and the Yankees pronounced their pride in having traded nobody.

The Padres could have traded Heath Bell; reportedly, they simply decided that the prospects they were offered for Bell were less valuable than the draft picks they'll receive if he leaves as a free agent after this season plus the goodwill they'll gain with the fans, by keeping Bell.

This is a strange argument: Like most emerging trends, the valuation of young players is based on solid theory but has come to be overemphasized -- except in San Francisco ...

It's a little too early to say, isn't it? What if Carlos Beltrán struggles, or the Giants don't make the playoffs. What if one or both of those things happen, and Zack Wheeler wins 50 games for the Mets?

Granted, none of those things are likely. Beltrán will probably play well, the Giants will probably make the playoffs, and Wheeler will probably get hurt and struggle in the majors, like most talented Class A pitchers. But two months of Beltrán vs. six years of Wheeler? Verducci's right: the valuation of young players is based on solid theory.

If it's based on solid theory, where would things go wrong? Supposedly, psychology. Supposedly, general managers are less inclined to make trades because they don't want to be criticized for trading prospects. But the Ubaldo Jiménez example seems a little odd, considering a) the trade was actually made, and b) for all the criticism that might have been leveled in Chris Antonetti's direction, a great deal of the Internet sentiment was squarely on his side, because Jiménez (wouldn't you know it?) is still fairly young and exceptionally cheap. Beltrán's a good example; Jiménez is not.

General managers, already armed with metrics to enhance the value of young players (chiefly, they are cheaper and more durable), now are saddled with swollen reputations of young players that make moving them more risky -- from a public relations standpoint. Pat Gillick, the only Hall of Fame general manager of the free agent era, once traded Gio González and Gavin Floyd for Freddy García without getting the heat that Indians GM Chris Antonetti did for the Jiménez deal.

Drew Pomeranz, one of the pitchers Antonetti put in the deal, was drafted on national TV and become a familiar, can't-miss name. "The MLB Network is the worst thing to happen to baseball," one veteran player told me recently, knowing I appear on the network, "because every young player is a star.

Pat Gillick should have gotten some heat for trading Gio González and Gavin Floyd for Freddy García. Especially after the fact. García went 1-5 with the Phillies, 5.90 ERA. He was done (for a while, anyway). Floyd's won 48 games since the trade; González has won 31 games and was an All-Star this season.

Got that? The Phillies got one victory in the trade, and gave up 79 (so far). That deal was a good thing? Maybe if there'd been more heat -- based on solid theory, of course -- maybe Gillick wouldn't have done something that worked out so terribly for his club. Looks to me like Gillick underemphasized the value of young, cost-controlled prospects. In that particular case, anyway.

As for Drew Pomeranz, I don't know a single human being who thinks he's a can't-miss guy. He's a 22-year-old pitcher with 14 innings of experience above Class A, and the odds are against him. Still, he's worth some millions of dollars because of his potential.

That's just solid theory, and shouldn't be ignored in the interest of making the trade deadline more exciting for the baseball writers.

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