NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 05: Jesus Montero #63 of the New York Yankees celebrates his fifth inning home run against the Baltimore Orioles on September 5, 2011 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. The home run was the first in the major leagues for Montero. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
On Wednesday, I talked about how we've come to value prospects much too highly, especially the Yankees big three of Jesus Montero, Dellin Betances, and Manny Banuelos (you can re-read the debate here). My point was that most prospects fail to meet expectations, so while it makes sense to try graduating some of them to the big leagues, refusing to trade any of them for established, cost-controlled young players is foolish.
One factor I didn't consider, however, is the opportunity cost associated with trading them now, and that may weigh more heavily in the decision-making process in the minds of fans at least. Let's Talk About Tex hit the nail on the head:
The value of a prospect isn’t limited to what he produces on the field. So in addition to weighing the cost of acquiring a player vs. the projected success of the prospect(s) you’re giving up, you also have to weigh the available player against other players who might become available in the not-too-distant future
This is kind of like buying your wife's Christmas gift in July, only to see it for half the price on Black Friday. Nobody wants that kind of buyer's remorse, especially since you can't make returns in baseball, so you wait until the best deal presents itself. You can't wait forever, though, because eventually Christmas will come and you'll need something to give her, just like the Yankees will eventually start playing real games again, preferably with another living, breathing quality pitcher on their roster.
I see two problems here (there are actually three, but we already talked about how we're overvaluing prospects). The first is improperly valuing the pitchers the Yankees have already decided not to trade for, and the second is the slim likelihood that anybody better is going to be both available and attainable any time soon.
Between Dan Haren, Zach Greinke, Trever Cahill, Mat Latos, Gio Gonzalez, and Ubaldo Jimenez, who I forgot about on Wednesday, I think the consensus is that only Haren is a true #2 starter; therefore, none of the others were worth parting with Montero, Betances, or Banuelos (edit: maybe Zach Greinke is a #2, but he "can't pitch in New York"). But really, what is a #2 starter? Does this pitcher actually exist?
I would suggest that he only exists relative to the other pitchers currently on the team. We know that A.J. Burnett, Ivan Nova, and Phil Hughes all bring significant question marks with them into 2012, which is to say nothing of 2013 and beyond, so none of them are #2s right now. Logically, if the Yankees could acquire someone who hasn't posted an ERA over 5.00 the past two seasons, isn't coming off of an unexpected rookie season, hasn't struggled with injuries for most of his young career, and isn't named Freddy Garcia, one would reason that this new pitcher would become their de facto #2, and if he's under contract for a few seasons, even better.
Is there an actual major leaguer who fits this description, somebody that is better than Haren and the rest of the bunch, and more importantly, might be available for trade sometime soon? In a word, no. I doubt the Yankees will have much luck prying Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay from the Phillies, Justin Verlander from the Tigers, Clayton Kershaw from the Dodgers, Jered Weaver from the Angels, Jon Lester from the Red Sox, or Chris Carpenter from the Cardinals.
That leaves them a handful of options for improving the rotation - praying that the Mariners or Giants try to trade Felix Hernandez or Tim Lincecum, ponying up the dough to sign a premier free agent in 2012 or 2013, continuing to play the scrap heap lottery, and hoping that the young arms pan out. However, this approach leaves us with more questions than answers.
Are the Yankees willing to give up Montero, either Banuelos or Betances, and a B prospect or two just to pay Lincecum $35 million over the next two seasons? How should they respond if King Felix tries to leverage his partial no-trade clause to negotiate a contract extension through 2022? Can they beat out the Phillies when Cole Hamels hits free agency next year, or would they prefer pay Matt Cain $20 million a season?
To complicate matters, any of these deals would require them to break their self-imposed $189 million salary cap in 2014, and if they're unwilling to do that, their options narrow even further to searching the scrap heap each and every offseason to find pitchers who can defy expectations and give them 200-300 average innings, or hoping that they can turn a couple of their low-ceiling AAA prospects and higher-ceiling AA prospects into productive major league starting pitchers by 2013/14, all while hoping CC Sabathia doesn't get hurt and some pitcher they already have can consistently give them 200 league-average innings.
Compared to these options, parting with some prospects to have Dan Haren, Gio Gonzalez, Ubaldo Jimenez, Trever Cahill, Zach Greinke, or Mat Latos around for a few seasons at reasonable salaries sounds like the easiest decision I've ever made in my life.
I tell myself that I'm missing something, that Brian Cashman and the Yankees' front office have information that I don't, because absent that, none of this makes any sense. The Yankees do still want to win, and with the failures of Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Kennedy in pinstripes still fresh in everyone's memory, I wouldn't expect the front office to allow a trio of prospects to make or break them over the next five years. Nevertheless, the logic behind taking a pass on six, talented, cost-controlled pitchers in the past 18 months still seems fuzzy at best and moronic at worst. Let's hope the Yankees brass knows something we don't.