Kevin C. Cox
Should we expect more or less out of the St. Louis Cardinals' top pitching prospects than the Atlanta Braves got from Tommy Hanson?
The Winter Meetings aren't quite here yet, but the trade market's already getting interesting: The Braves traded Tommy Hanson, in 2009 one of Baseball America's Top 5 prospects, for a reliever who throws baseball's only jump shot. I am a shallow, self-centered person, so my immediate response was a few seconds of pitching-prospect chills, St. Louis's fastest-growing psychosomatic baseball response.
Really impressive young position players are received with awe; really impressive young pitchers are received with a hushed mix of awe and terror. I don't think it's just because of the injury risk—it's because pitchers' skill-sets seem to fluctuate so rapidly and randomly that it's hard to enjoy a 100-mile-an-hour fastball or a letters-to-dirt curveball without wondering when it's going to vanish, and when that same pitcher is going to turn into a finesse guy with weirdly similar results.
You get those shifts for position players—Reid Brignac's conversion from all-bat-no-glove shortstop to all-glove-no-bat shortstop before reaching the majors is my favorite example—but you don't get so many of them; the threat doesn't seem so omnipresent. Hanson at 22 showed a great fastball, preternatural poise, and fully-formed results; Hanson at 26 is a nibbler whose still-solid strikeout rate seems to inspire more suspicion than a bad one would.
That's pitching prospects, I tell myself. But if it's a cautionary tale for Cardinals fans waiting on Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Tyrell Jenkins, Michael Wacha, et al, it might be for a different reason entirely. It might be because Tommy Hanson was kind of a success.
From that No. 4 prospect, the Atlanta Braves got one season that Baseball Reference—otherwise down on him, relative to FanGraphs—rated as nearly three wins above average, in a season in which they were contending. FanGraphs credits him with 10 WAR over 108 starts. For all that, the Braves paid him about $2 million. And now they have the use of an equally cheap above-average reliever who is somehow allowed to jump off the pitcher's mound while he throws. Which is nice.
In that sense, then, Hanson served as a pitching-prospect-corrective for me—if his career seems incredibly disappointing, I'm maybe overestimating what it takes to make a top prospect into a success.
When we see a top prospect finally play, we badly want the promise they've shown us to become something we can count on; I watch Trevor Rosenthal beat Bryce Harper and I want that to be something I have to look forward to for a while. For most prospects that's not the case. The scouting reports we've grown used to will become outdated; they'll put on weight and gain power or move to third base; they'll turn into somebody's reliable and boring fourth starter.
In aggregate, though, prospects are every bit as valuable as we believe they are—just for more pragmatic reasons. When teams are paying $5 million a win for B.J. Upton, they're making Jon Jay money. It might not be as romantic as imagining Tommy Hanson (and Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez) winning 200 games and postseason-dueling other 2009 top prospects into perpetuity, but it's not as bad as forgetting that Tommy Hanson, whatever he is now, was briefly a really good pitcher.