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The everlasting battle of potential versus proven commodities

Trading prospects is often wise but maybe not this year.

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

On the night of the 2001 NBA Draft, the Chicago Bulls traded their young centerpiece Elton Brand to the Los Angeles Clippers for the just-drafted Tyson Chandler and throw-in part Brian Skinner. It was a risky move, universally loathed at the time by most Bulls fans like myself, and it didn’t work. Brand immediately became an All Star in Los Angeles and while Chandler would eventually become a very good NBA player, it didn’t happen while he was in a Bulls uniform. The team was terrible in the aftermath of the trade (to be fair, they were also atrocious during Brand’s two seasons with the Bulls) and General Manager Jerry Krause retired following the ’03 season citing health reasons.

There was a quote from Krause at the time of the trade which reached mythical status with my friends and I (and it truly might be mythical as I can’t find it anywhere on the internet) in which he defended the trade by noting that Chandler had the potential to be a 20 points / 10 rebounds guy. Brand’s stats in his two seasons with the Bulls? 20.1 points per game to go along with exactly ten rebounds. Potential was somehow being valued higher than the real thing.

I’m not sure if Krause ever actually defended the trade in that exact way, and I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t, but you see this sort of scenario play out all the time around this time of year. The build-up to the eventual Chris Sale trade is one example.

Before Sale was traded to the Red Sox on Tuesday for a haul that included Yoan Moncada - considered by many to be the top prospect in baseball - the Cardinals were loosely considered to be one of the possible landings spots. Well, we’ve now learned that any package for Sale that didn’t include at least Alex Reyes and some more not-insignificant parts would have been laughed out of the room. I would have had a hard time letting go of a prospect like Reyes, or say Carlos Martinez, not to mention the others who would have been packaged along with them, and I likely would have been wrong.

Since 2012, Sale’s breakout season, Clayton Kershaw has far and away been the best pitcher in baseball. He’s in a tier by himself. Sale belongs firmly in the next tier of aces with the likes of Max Scherzer, David Price, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, et al, and he’s younger than all of those guys, too.

It’s tough to think about parting with a Reyes or Martinez because we’ve watched them develop and we think they have the potential to be a Sale-like pitcher even though statistics indicate that is unlikely. Meanwhile, Chris Sale is Chris Sale. Or at least he has been Chris Sale. He has a delivery that always looks one pitch away from a career-altering injury, but he’s still thrown nearly 175 innings for five straight seasons which should probably speak more to his durability going forward.

As Heather noted yesterday, a trade is usually painful when it involves saying goodbye to someone whose talent has yet to be fully realized. This does not look like the year that’s going to happen for the Cardinals, and unless it’s top-tier talent like a Chris Sale that’s probably a good thing. A few days into the Winter Meetings revealed a trade market slanted toward the sellers (yesterday’s Adam Eaton trade to the Nationals being the latest example) and John Mozeliak is likely a bit too frugal to wade in these waters. And, by Mozeliak’s own admission, the Cardinals likely don’t have the pieces beyond Reyes to compete for any high-end players.

All of this is also the bad news. I still think a trade for Andrelton Simmons would be wise and interesting but I’m not sure such a thing is even possible now. So barring something unforeseen, the Cardinals will have to make due with what’s available on the free agency market where they haven’t had a ton of luck the last few seasons, and where a relief pitcher with bad character just signed for $86 million.

Fine. I think Dexter Fowler fills in a lot of unchecked boxes. Justin Turner would improve third base, which right now seems like an under-reported position of need. The Cardinals are fine financially so overpaying both of them shouldn’t keep anyone up at night. Pull that off and the offseason all of sudden looks pretty successful and the only loss would be the two draft picks attached to the qualifying offer who, similar to above, aren’t likely to ever have the modest careers Fowler and Turner have enjoyed.

Bottom line, potential too often is over valued when compared to a proven commodity. Fretting about losing an Alex Reyes-type prospect to bring in an established ace is reasonable, but also probably misguided. The conversation shifts though when the return for elite prospects falls short of elite talent and production. And in this year’s seller’s market, it won’t necessarily be a bad thing if the offseason comes and goes and the Cardinals remain unwilling to part with their top prospects so long as they’re not as attached to future draft picks.