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Trading Prospects: A Key to Building a Winning Team

Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman doesn't get a lot of credit as a developer of minor league talent.  Yet for the past eight seasons, Cashman has done an almost unparalleled job turning prospects into major league WAR.  He's done it by trading his prospects at the peak of their value.

What do you think would have been a reasonable cost in prospects for such players as Randy Johnson, Bobby Abreu, Aaron Boone, Kevin Brown and Nick Swisher?  Cashman got them in deals where the prospects involved were the likes of Dioner Navarro, Brandon Weeden, Brandon Claussen, Charlie Manning, Yhency Brazoban, Joaquin Arias, Brad Halsey, C.J. Henry, Matt Smith, Jesus Sanchez, Jeff Marquez, Jhonny Nunez, and Carlos Monastrios.  If beyond Navarro, none of those names are familiar to you, well, they shouldn't be.  None of them went on to succeed at the Major League level; only about half of them ever saw the majors.

A big part of how Cashman has been able to acquire these players for such unspectacular young talent is because he is able to take on contracts that other teams can't or are eager to get rid of.  But a big part of it that gets overlooked is that he is able to do it by developing a solid base of low minors prospect talent, and is willing to part with a lot of it.  And because he has such a broad base of talent, Cashman is able to make deals while still developing players from within, like Robinson Cano, Phil Hughes, and current top 10 overall prospect Jesus Montero.

Young talent developed from within is of tremendous value in the Majors today, and particularly for a mid-market team like the Orioles, which may not be able to compete, dollar for dollar, with the Yankees and Red Sox.  It is also more valuable than ever because teams are being smarter about locking up the best young players before they ever reach the open market.  But there is also a simple truth to be faced: many, if not most, of the Orioles' young prospects, will never be more valuable than they are now.

All of us can name prospects who were traded and went on to become stars, like Hanley Ramirez.  But for every Hanley, we can name a dozen top prospects who went on to disappoint: Adam Loewen and Daniel Cabrera from our own recent past, to former top prospects Brandon Wood of the Angels and Alex Gordon of the Royals.  At the peak of his value, Wood was a name who was rumored to be about to bring the Angels many different All Stars in potential deals.  Now he is struggling to hold on to a roster spot as an out-of-options bust.

Due to the ineptitude of recent Orioles teams, many of us have dreamed of a day when our major league roster features names like Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Caleb Joseph, Brandon Snyder and Brandon Erbe.  The unfortunate reality, however, is that most of them will probably not reach their potential.  It is quite possible that Adrian Gonzalez, for example, will produce more Wins Above Replacement in 2011 then they will combined in their careers.

I'm not suggesting that we ought to sell the farm for Gonzalez, or that we are necessarily at the point where trading our prospects for other teams' stars is the correct choice.  What I think cannot be disputed is that smart teams make sure that they get a major league return from their most valuable assets.  The Yankees are not alone in this.  In our division, key players such as Josh Beckett and Matt Garza were acquired through trades of top prospects.  It is highly improbable that we will able to be a successful, contending franchise without doing likewise.