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Prospects and the Value of Uncertainty

Figuring out when to recall a prospect and put him in the line of fire is Noesi task. (AP)

In the comment thread of my last piece, reader DavidG touched upon something that I've been meaning to get to in my various pieces on Brian Gordon:

I would love to hear your feedback on yet another theory about pros and cons of pitching Gordon. It has to do with the value of not knowing. I’m not sure I can explain it well, but let me give it a go. During the boom I heard one financial analyst ‘explain’ how a company that was actually showing profits diminished its ‘value’ on the open market. He noted that by showing a profit you defined what your potential profit might be, that removed the notion of speculation which would added to the allure of the potential investment...

Maybe there was some truth in it, and that the basic idea applies here with Gordon and the other in house prospects. Gordon wasn’t part of the Yankee system, and was purchased speculatively on the open market for very little. Any team could have made him an offer. The only thing he ‘cost’ the Yankees was some chump change and the opportunity to give a couple of starts to an in house prospects... The Yankee farm system is only stronger, not weaker. It may even have more value in the trade market.

The in house prospects haven’t already tested the open market the way Gordon has. Its not clear what the are worth. How many David Phelpses you would need to get the front line starter you want. The point is there is actually value in not looking to overly define what these in house entities are worth. That giving these guys a couple of starts may decrease their value, not add to it... They have maintained more information over their assets then their potential ‘buyers.’

I strongly believe that David is onto something which applies both to the Gordon situation as well as that of Jesus Montero, not to mention situations that have nothing to do with baseball. Think of the old saying (variously attributed to Mark Twain, Abe Lincoln, George Eliot, and the Bible), "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt." Think of the bizarre Hollywood phenomenon where options on screenwriters' works are often more valuable before they've had works produced, and almost invariably compromised by the system (I swear I read a New Yorker piece on the topic eight or 10 years ago but I can't find it).

Fundamentally, a team's farm system exists not only to directly replenish the major league roster, but to do so indirectly as well. The latter happens via prospects-for-proven-players trades, either because of organizational talent surpluses and shortfalls at various positions, or to exploit the information asymmetry and capture the value of differential views of the same player's worth across multiple organizations (your team thinks this guy's a stud, but we know he juggles chainsaws in bars until 3 AM and will never make it, so we'll trade him for your fourth starter) . For a long time the Yankees leaned too heavily towards the latter end of the spectrum, trading off so many parts while clogging their roster with older and more expensive players. Their success in tilting back towards their own products is mixed at best, with the Class of 2008 trio (Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy) causing plenty of frustration to go along with whatever success they experienced.

How much is Montero's stock going to drop if the Yankees call him up and he has trouble behind the plate, struggling to block pitches in the dirt or watching opposing baserunners run wild the way the Rangers and other teams did on Victor Martinez last year? Martinez is a proven major league hitter who's now mainly a DH in Detroit, and a similar fate may await Montero if his progress behind the plate is interrupted (I'm of two minds on that topic, admittedly). While recalling him makes sense on one level given the ineptitude of Francisco Cervelli and the possibility of Jorge Posada's rebound being more of a dead cat bounce, if Montero quickly winds up pigeonholed into a DH-only role, at the farthest left end of the defensive spectrum, his value is dented if the Yankees should decide to market him. Mind you, I'm not saying the Yankees necessarily should seek to trade him, but there are very few untradeable prospects, and enough questions about Montero's fit in the Bronx that he's not one of them. Hell, the Yankees thought they were dealing him to Seattle for Cliff Lee just a year ago.

Likewise, if Hector Noesi, David Phelps, or Adam Warren can't get out of the fourth inning in a major league cameo, after the hype from some quarters about their being worth a spin, that's going to dent their value. Remember all of those pitchers the Yankees shipped off to Pittsburgh in the Damaso Marte/Xavier Nady deal — Jeff Karstens, Daniel McCutchen, Ross Ohlendorf? If the Scrantonese tyros don't flash stuff that plays at the major league level quickly, they'll be nothing but fodder for lower-end deadline deals which will require them to be stacked like cordwood. Sure, at the moment, Karstens is riding an abnormally low BABIP (.258) to a tidy 2.54 ERA for Pittsburgh right now, but he's into his fourth season beyond pinstripes, and still carrying a career 4.59 ERA with a 4.7 K/9 rate (he's up to 5.9 this year). That's not rosterable for long in the Bronx. McCutchen's having a decent season out of the Pirates' pen (2.39 ERA) but his story is largely the same as Karstens: a 4.64 ERA with 4.8 K/9 in parts of three seasons in the majors. The 'Dorf is on the DL with a shoulder strain at the moment, sadly, and while he's flashed a bit more potential (3.98 ERA and 5.9 K/9 in 50 starts in 2009-2010) than the other two, his career ERA is still 4.47, and he's rather reliant upon his defense to survive.

The flip side of the equation is that a starter comes up and does a Brandon Claussen imitation. Recall that Claussen — ranked #37 on Baseball America's top 100 prospect list in 2002, a much higher estimation than any of the Scrantonites has ever received — made a brilliant one-start cameo in 2003 in the nightcap of a doubleheader, and was soon shipped off to Cincinnati (with one Charlie Manning, who threw 42 innings of 5.14 ERA ball five years later) for Aaron Boone, who hit a very big home run that put the Yankees into the World Series. Boone didn't knock anybody dead during the regular season (.254/.302/.418) but he did fill a starting role that enabled the team to trade a nearly-cooked Robin Ventura to the Dodgers for Scott Proctor (who gave the Yanks two good years out of the bullpen and was then traded for Wilson Betemit, who in turn was traded for Nick Swisher) and Bubba Crosby, who could be counted on to water the plants in Joe Torre's office without being reminded. Claussen never amounted to much due to arm woes, having one good season in 2005 (4.21 in 29 starts) but compiling a 5.04 ERA in 316 lifetime innings and being gone from pro ball by the end of 2007.

So there are untold benefits to be reaped if the Yankees open themselves up to the risk — thank Claussen the next time you watch Swisher homer — of exposing their prospects, but there are also costs. Balancing the two is the topic of a worthy pair of articles that ran on ESPN on Thursday, though you had to know where to look (that's why I'm here), with Montero's readiness the immediate question. Weighing in on one side was ESPN New York's Andrew Marchand, in a piece featuring quotes from Scranton hitting/catching instructor Butch Wynegar and senior vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman. From the other side came Baseball Prospectus colleague Kevin Goldstein (whose piece was also at BP), addressing not only Montero's readiness but also the Gordon situation and the view that not calling upon the system's resources is sending the wrong message about the way they value them.

Here's Marchand, offering a sampling of the organization's reasons for keeping Montero on the farm:

"It is all in becoming a first-rate professional and he is still in the middle of that process," said Mark Newman, the Yankees' senior vice president of baseball operations, who heads up the team's minor leagues.

..."I think he expected to be in the big leagues by now," Newman said. "And that is OK, too. Part of the development process is to learn how to deal with frustration, learn how to deal with things when they don't go exactly your way."

...To play catcher for Joe Girardi in the Bronx, Montero must master the mental side. Between the on-field and video scouting that is paired with data analysis, Yankees coaches assimilate vast intelligence reports. If used properly, it can be a distinct advantage.

Montero still needs to learn how to consistently study so he can recall that the No. 6 hitter in the lineup loves off-speed stuff, and not to throw a fastball to the No. 3 batter. When his concentration level is high, Wynegar sees a major league defensive catcher.

"When he is locked in, he is very solid," Wynegar said.

Scouts who watched Montero earlier in the season say he again tried to pull the ball too much. Wynegar mentioned Montero -- cognizant of his low home run total at Scranton -- has overcompensated, trying go deep more, which is unneeded with his pure, powerful swing.

On Monday, the Yankees brought in their roving hitting instructor, James Rowson, to look at video in Scranton, wanting Montero to stay more balanced in his base and consistent with his hands. When Montero is right at the plate he has been compared to an in-his-prime Manny Ramirez because he can go the other way with power.

Elsewhere, Wynegar's quotes on Montero's focus and level of frustration echo a recent Newsday piece in which the coach said similar things. Meanwhile, Goldstein's piece, which is a more theoretical and less reportorial take than Marchand's, features an anonymous talent evaluator (presumably from outside the organization, though that's not clear) making similar observations: "He looks like a player who knows he's stuck in Pennsylvania." From the BP version:

For much of the first part of the century, the Yankees didn't have the prospects to help the team due to some downright embarrassing drafts. But that's not the case anymore: A combination of good picks and excellent work in the international market has transformed the system into one of baseball's best, and one that general manager Brian Cashman is happy to show public pride in while insisting that the Yankees want to keep their top prospects as opposed to using them as trade chips come July. For the first time in ages, they actually have the kind of prospects they've been hoping for, but they don't seem to know what they are doing with them.

Take the Brian Gordon situation. Gordon is a fantastic story, but he’s also a perfect example of what's going wrong in the Bronx when it comes to long-term thinking. The Yankees needed a starter, and while Gordon performed admirably in his first turn, the club has very good prospects in Double-A with Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances. If they wanted to avoid the hype train coming to town, Triple-A righty Adam Warren has been surging for Triple-A Scranton and could have been promoted in the same quiet manner Ivan Nova arrived last year. But the Yankees seem almost scared to bring their prospects up. “They just don't seem to trust their young players,” said one big-league executive. “Look at what the Braves did. When they needed a warm body, they had no issue with calling on [Julio] Teheran or [Randall] Delgado, even though those guys weren't fully big league-ready.” Nobody is saying to call up one of the new Killer B’s for good, but to go through all of the machinations for Gordon instead of leaning on what the team already has for a handful of outings shows either a lack of confidence in their own prospects, or maybe more telling, an almost perverse fear of failure.

...The Yankees don’t seem to have learned that when they've been forced to take chances on young players, those risks have paid off. They've done nothing in the draft lately; Brett Gardner represents the only regular player they've drafted and developed since the turn of the century, but New York has thrived in the international market. Robinson Cano was always seen as a good prospect—not a future superstar—during his minor-league career, yet when the Yankees gave him a shot at a job, he turned into an All-Star. That chance only came after the team figured out what everyone else already knew: Tony Womack wasn't anyone's answer at second base.

It's worth pointing out, as I did in this week's NL Hit List, that the Braves are 0-3 in the games started by Teheran and Delgado, who have combined to yield nine runs in 12.2 innings without reaching five innings in any start; the Braves haven't scored for them, either (2.0 runs per game), but then their offense has been a sub-4.0 run travesty anyway. Because the Senior Circuit has credible Wild Card challengers in all three divisions, they're in far more jeopardy of missing the postseason for the lack of an extra win than the Yankees, so I'm not sure how laudatory their strategy is, and even less certain that Betances or Banuelos should be taking a spin given their command woes at Double-A. That said, I certainly respect Goldstein's opinion on Warren, which I may have undersold given that he had him below Ivan Nova and Noesi on his prospect list.

The bottom line is that there are strong arguments to be made on both sides of the question of exposing these prospects to the majors. Certainly, there's value in knowing what you have in the cupboard, so you can make a shopping list, but what if the grocery store knew you were short of something and jacked up the price prohibitively? There's also value in going to the market and simply buying what's on special and seeing if it cooks up nicely (as the Yankees did with Gordon) while worrying about the cupboard another day. To mix metaphors seven ways to Sunday, there's value in not showing your hand at the table, in not revealing that Al Capone's vault is empty, in not opening your mouth to remove all doubt that you are, in fact, a fool. Perhaps a fool with nothing but a quarter of the future Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff marking time in Triple-A, in which case, Bubba, you better hope you've played your cards right.