For obvious reasons, Moneyball is one of the most influential and thought provoking baseball books ever written. Though many consider it an attack on traditional scouting or a story peddling newfangled statistics, the book instead trumpets the importance and benefits of exploiting market inefficiencies in baseball. The book discusses how the chronically under-financed Oakland Athletics stay competitive with far wealthier opponents by extracting production from players that the rest of the league undervalues. The lesson of the book is that it is possible for smaller market teams to win against more lucrative franchises by exploiting these inefficiencies.
In the years since Oakland rode a "new" philosophy and a trio of aces to a handful of playoff appearances, large inefficiencies like revolutionary sabermetric analysis have become increasingly difficult to find. Every franchise employs innovative statistical analysts. Everybody knows about the benefits of extending the contracts of young talents into their free agent years. Every team understands the benefit of the draft, everyone scouts Latin America, and most teams have made inroads around the Pacific Rim as well. I don't want to give the impression that all of the major inefficiencies have been vanquished but the information gap between the top few teams and the rest of the league is probably smaller than it was even just a few years ago. Inefficiencies are more fluid now: they aren't as big and they don't last as long.
The big trend in baseball at the moment is to win now. Buttressed by a second wild card spot and a growing belief that even a ballclub with middling talent (like Baltimore) can sneak into contention with a bit of internal improvement and good fortune, teams appear to be gunning for the playoffs rather aggressively. This isn't just speculation: we're actually seeing teams behave this way. In the past week alone, two teams with no recent history of success have traded their blue chip prospects for somewhat marginal returns in an effort to compete right now.
First, Kansas City shipped Wil Myers (a consensus top 10 prospect in all of baseball) along with a trio of other well regarded minor leaguers for Wade Davis and two years of James Shields. Shields is certainly a good starter, but he's also expensive and he's taken his lumps outside of pitcher friendly Tropicana Field. The deal wasn't a popular one among Royals fans*, but everyone interpreted the move as a sign that Kansas City fashions itself as a contender.
*- The normally rigorously articulate Royals blogger Rany Jazeyerli has written all of two words since the deal was finalized: "This sucks."
Second, in a still developing discussion, the Blue Jays have agreed to send a king's ransom (two more top thirty prospects in catcher Travis D'Arnaud and starter Noah Syndergaard) for R.A. Dickey and a few minor pieces. Dickey can still effectively nix the deal if he doesn't agree to an extension with the Jays, but by all accounts, Toronto's front office has agreed to trade the jewels of their impressive farm system for a thirty-eight year old with a unique knuckleball. Like the Myers deal, this acquisition has been met with mixed reviews, and the consensus that Toronto paid a pretty penny for Dickey is nearly universal.
Regardless of whether Kansas City or Toronto compete next year, both pundits and the organizations themselves would agree that such deals essentially proclaim that each team expects to compete for the playoffs as soon as 2013. Both organizations do so despite significant risks. Kansas City did not have a good team last year, hasn't completely overhauled their roster, and will struggle to pass Detroit in the AL Central. Toronto did reinvent their team, but they're competing with financial goliaths in Boston and New York, the league's brain trust in Tampa Bay, and an Oriole team fresh off a playoff appearance. Both moves demonstrate that the 'go for it' motto is in vogue and that teams are willing to pay a steep price to augment their chances of contention, even from relatively low points on the win curve*.
*- Seriously, read that link if you haven't already. It's one of the smartest pieces about baseball floating around the internet.
What this also means is that the value of a prospect appears to be, relative to recent seasons, low right now. That's a debatable statement, but if we look to just last season, we see a couple of trades that reflect a very different valuation of prospects. When the Mariners acquired Jesus Montero, a player very comparable to Myers on publicly available prospect rankings, the Yankees received a gifted young starter with five years of team control remaining (Michael Pineda) and an intriguing arm (Jose Campos) as compensation. That's a substantially bigger package than what Myers or D'Arnaud fetched. And for those thinking that the Montero deal was an aberration, that same off-season, the Reds acquired four years of Mat Latos for a package centered around Yasmani Grandal and Yonder Alonso. The latter two players are talented, but it's an underwhelming return in comparison to either trade from the past week.
These deals don't necessarily indicate that the rest of the league has drastically dropped their valuations for farmhands, but they do suggest that teams near the top of the win curve are willing to pay premium prices for big league talent. In either case, if we assume that teams are placing more of an emphasis on acquiring already developed players, then it must follow that the value of a prospect has dropped in turn.
Nobody has found that premise more true than the Mariners. It's always dangerous to read too much into media reports, but from every appearance, the M's have spent the winter desperately trying to upgrade the big league roster. Not only were they talking to pretty much every free agent who's ever held a bat, but they also have reportedly attempted to upgrade the offense through trades. Assuming that Jack Zduriencik wasn't lying when he said he wasn't trading Felix, and presuming that he also isn't interested in flipping a piece of the big league core for an established player, one would have to guess that he has been trying to use the farm system to land a hitter. That he hasn't done so yet lends further credence to the idea that prospects might not hold their weight in gold anymore.
Let's tie this situation into the context of market inefficiencies outlined earlier. We'll start with a brief assessment of the 2013 Mariners, as the roster currently stands. The Mariners, in their current form, are probably not going to the playoffs in 2013. Yes, Baltimore and Oakland reinforced the idea that there's always a chance a mediocre team can bust out and unexpectedly compete, but in all likelihood, the M's won't have a strong enough group of position players or a deep enough rotation to outlast Oakland, Texas, and a revamped Los Angeles.
This is particularly true if Zduriencik can't land an impact addition this winter. I still think the M's should be players on the free agent and trade markets, particularly for a guy like Nick Swisher, but sometimes the right deal just doesn't work out. And if that's the case, it's not a bad idea to zag while everyone else zigs. If the value of a prospect is (artificially?) low, it might be a good idea to exploit that particular inefficiency.
I understand that trading for prospects is unpalatable. The Mariners have been dreadful for a decade and dealing a major league piece for minor league talent just pushes back the timeline for when the M's can plan for playoff baseball. On some level, that would be frustrating for current players, fans, and even the executives alike.
But the front office's objective isn't to win now, expenses be damned. Instead, the Mariner brass should be targeting a set of years where the team is likely to compete, and positioning the organization's endemic talent in such a way to maximize the potential for success in that window. That plan could include signing Swisher, but it might also mean trading for a prospect expected to start in 2014. On some level, it's important to take what the market gives you, and if talented minor leaguers are cheap, the M's are at a point on the win curve where it's not a bad idea to stock up.
I'm not suggesting something radical like dealing Hernandez: The Mariners aren't the Astros and if they play their hand right, they can probably expect to compete in the next few seasons. But if the value for decent major leaguers is high right now, they might exploit an inefficiency by dealing some of their starters for impact prospects. They may not be able to land someone of Myers's caliber, but is there a chance that an ~85 win team with a glaring hole at third base finds five years of Kyle Seager attractive enough to overpay for him? Could an organization without much depth in their outfield be willing to exchange a bluechipper and a body for Michael Saunders and James Paxton? I'm not sure, but if the Royals and Blue Jays are any indication, there might be a buyer's market for some of the Mariner regulars.
The key word in that last sentence is 'might.' We don't have a nuanced understanding of baseball's trade market or any strong idea on how individual teams value prospects in the aggregate. But right now, teams appear to be willing to sell premium minor league talent for short term major league upgrades. Given that the M's aren't likely to make the playoffs next year, this might be an opportunity for the team to add talent to the organization. I'm not suggesting that the Mariners tear down their foundation: this core should be good enough to compete in the next few seasons. I'm just arguing that if the M's add an impact prospect in exchange for someone like Saunders or Seager, we should applaud not begrudge the move. It may not help the team next year, but such a philosophy could position the Mariners to win bigger down the road.