Next up in the Pinch Hitters series is Moshe Mandel, who used the career of one young pitcher to evaluate the trade of another young pitcher.
Moshe is a second-year student at Harvard Law School, “and would love to use my legal education to find a job in sports,” he wrote. The law education came in handy when his year-old blog, The Yankee Universe, was given a cease-and-desist from the Yankees, who seemed to have a problem with the blog’s name.
After a name change — to TYU — the blog has continued with a staff of six writers. It’s another of the truly great Yankees blogs out there. Bookmark it.
A few weeks ago, John Sickels released his top 20 Yankees prospects list for 2010. One notable omission from the list was Dellin Betances, who was not even referenced as an honorable mention.
It represented a significant fall from grace from Betances, who was drafted by the Yankees in the 8th round of the 2006 draft. He came highly regarded, with a big arm, exciting repertoire, inconsistent mechanics that caused control issues, and some questions about his durability. He quickly made his way onto top prospect lists, coming in at 100 on BA’s 2007 list and getting a very solid B from Sickels, who is not one to hand out rankings like that to pitchers with such limited experience. In 2008, Sickels dropped him to a B- after a 2007 season in which he pitched only 25.1 innings due to a strained elbow. However, he had a solid 2008, and seemed to solve his control problems in the second half as went from 40/64 BB/K in 55 innings before the All Star break to a 19/71 BB/K in 60.1 innings after. Based on that performance, Sickels left Betances at B- but bumped him up to 3rd on the Yankee list for 2009.
Betances’ 2009 was a disaster, as he pitched just 44 innings, saw his K rate drop below 10 for the first time in his career (8.9), and had his BB rate climb back over 5 (5.5). He once again got injured, and the early word was that it was Tommy John surgery. However, it was in fact ligament enhancement surgery (Mariano had the same one near the start of his career), and he should be ready to pitch in High-A Tampa near the start of the year, when he will be 22. Sickels left Dellin off of his 2010 list entirely, and he currently has little trade value.
While he should not be written off and could still turn his career around, it seems that this is one lottery ticket that is probably not going to yield positive results. 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 who has never been past High-A and is coming back from a fairly significant injury. 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 probably be traded in for useful major league players before injuries and ineffectiveness sap them of their value.
It is the job of the general manager to try and maximize the return on investment that can extracted from such players by refraining from falling in love with their potential and then 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. You need to give the other club something of value in a trade for an established performer like Vazquez, and relinquishing a Low-A player who is not yet a top 25-type prospect is a prudent use of resources. It is possible that Vizcaino will make the Yankees regret that trade at some point in the future. But as the saga of Dellin Betances shows us, it is unlikely.