There have been several trades recently of major league players for packages of prospects - from Roy Halladay in December 2009 through Mat Latos, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez in December 2011. In each case, the selling team received a stack of young prospects.
Invariably, there are differences of opinion about trading unproven (but promising!) minor league talent for proven MLB players. The discussion turns on the uncertainty surrounding minor league players, and the degree of success they will achieve at the major league level.
To get a better handle on the “odds”, I did an experiment.
I took the first rounds of the MLB drafts for 10 years, from 1996 to 2005. A total of 296 players (28 first round picks in 1996 and 1997). I then calculated how many of those 296 players turned out to be “stars” – which I defined as playing in at least one all-star game in their career.
I appreciate that this is greatly over-simplified. It equates an Albert Pujols with a J. D. Drew (2008 All-Star game MVP!). But it gives a general idea of the odds of a first-rounder making it at least semi-big.
Total number of all-stars? 53. Or to put it another way, a top-30 pick has about an 18% chance of playing in at least one all-star game in their career.
(For inquiring minds – of the 53 all-stars, 25 played in more than one all-star game)
I also did a calculation of the difference between a top-10 pick and a 11-30 pick. Of the 53 all-stars, 27 of them were chosen in the top 10 and 26 in the following 20 picks.
So your chances of getting an all-star in a top 10 pick is 27/100, or 27%. With an 11th – 30th pick, the odds drop to 13% (26/196).
To illustrate what this means – if a team traded 4 first-round picks for one MLB player, and none of the first-round picks was a top-10, the odds that even one of those picks would ever play in a single all-star game is less than 50%.
So what does it mean?
General managers are no fools. They realize that a Nestor Molina or Jarrod Parker could turn out to be the next Verlander … but it is statistically more likely that they will turn out to be Kris Benson (first overall pick in the 2006 draft. Lifetime 70-75, 4.42). And there is a very good chance they will turn out to be Chris Gruler (drafted 3rd overall in 2003 – never played a game at the MLB level)
Prospects are like lottery tickets – they have huge potential value, but (generally) with a low probability of success.
It is important to not be blinded by the upside without considering the odds.