Dealing prospects is risky business for Phils

Cody Asche during spring training. (Michael Bryant/Staff file photo)
Cody Asche during spring training. (Michael Bryant/Staff file photo)
Posted: July 19, 2013

The Phillies begin the first day of the rest of their two-week lives on Friday when they open a three-city road trip that could ultimately determine whether Ruben Amaro Jr. will try to strip down or beef up the team.

Either way, there's no guarantee the Phils will be able to navigate the path they choose. If they opt to package prospects and superfluous players in order to bolster the sagging bullpen and perhaps add a bat, that would require finding another team to provide those helpful pieces and accept the swap Amaro proposes. If they decide to close the show, deal away veterans, and rebuild with someone else's prospects, that represents just about the same level of difficulty.

"Making a trade is hard," Amaro said before the all-star break. "Right now, there's a lot more buyers than sellers because everybody is still in it."

Even when the next two weeks shake that out a bit, and the urgency of the non-waiver trade deadline takes hold, Amaro and the front office will have some battles to fight with other organizations, and a few policy items to sort through internally, too.

Getting ready to go into a potential trading flurry, a baseball team has to know exactly how it ranks its own prospects. When the phone call comes with a trade offer, a general manager can't caucus an organizational meeting to chew it over.

For instance, let's say Amaro identifies a good bullpen pitcher who can help the team not only this season, but in future seasons. Amaro was asked before the break whether he would part with a top prospect in order to get a good pitcher to settle the bullpen situation in the middle innings.

"Maybe," he said, meaning it would depend on the "good" pitcher and the "top" prospect.

Let's say the price being asked for the bullpen pitcher is either Cody Asche or Maikel Franco, currently the third basemen at Lehigh Valley and Reading, respectively. Both are listed among the organization's five best prospects in the latest Inquirer top-25 ranking of minor-league hopefuls. Both are projected to become major-league third basemen, although such projections are notoriously inaccurate.

The Phillies could have to choose between Asche and Franco if they wanted to make that particular deal, or be willing to walk away. They could have to take everything they know and decide whether Franco or Asche is the better bet to have a long, successful major-league career. The fact is they will have to decide eventually unless one or the other falls by the wayside of his own accord.

All up and down the minor-league system, those rankings and preferences have to be made and, most of the time, there isn't enough data to make a certain judgment. A team has to make its best guess and hope a throw-in who allows a trade to work doesn't become a 10-time all-star, league MVP, and member of the Hall of Fame. (Like Ryne Sandberg, that is. Phils GM Paul Owens, who added Sandberg to a Larry Bowa-for-Ivan DeJesus deal with the Cubs, later said his scouts assured him Sandberg would be a role player at best.)

As you look at the Phils' top prospects, it's easy to see what a guessing game this is. Sixteen of those top 25 began the season at single A or lower in the organization. Those players aren't just around the corner from the big club, and there is an awful lot that could get in their way.

To pick between developing shortstops Roman Quinn and J.P. Crawford at this point, for example, would be difficult, and the same often goes with players further along. Is Freddy Galvis or Cesar Hernandez more likely to solve one of the eventual middle-infield vacancies, or is one or both of them going to end up in the outfield? And who has a better chance there?

The Phils think they know most or all of the answers to those questions, but judging one's own players is sometimes tougher than scouting those on other teams. Emotion gets involved. The scout who signed a guy lobbies for him. A player who was drafted highly gets more consideration. There is more than just a black-and-white report sitting on the GM's desk.

A generation ago, the Phillies had two catchers coming along as Darren Daulton's seven-year reign as the starter was coming to a close. The organization had Mike Lieberthal and Bobby Estalella chasing through the pipeline, and there was a serious internal disagreement about which of them would be the better major-league catcher.

If you look at their minor-league stats, you can understand the debate. It was close between them, and Estalella was bigger, stronger (now we know why - he was later tangled up in the Balco scandal and admitted to using steroids), and hit the ball a very long way. Lieberthal was smallish, but with solid fundamentals and just enough pop to stay ahead in the race of prospects. It didn't hurt that while Estalella was taken in the 23d round of the draft, Lieberthal had been the third pick of the first round.

After one transitional season with Benito Santiago, Lieberthal got the starting job and held it for most of a decade. Estalella wasn't traded away immediately, but not for lack of trying. Then-general manager Ed Wade couldn't find the right deal, but the organization had made its decision.

Amaro will have to juggle all those considerations two weeks from now, whether the team perks up in the interim or whether it doesn't. Doing nothing at the trade deadline would almost be the worst of scenarios, because whatever leverage the Phils have will disappear and the opportunity to unload some prospects they don't really trust for something of value will evaporate.

Making a trade is hard, though. We'll find out how hard soon.


Contact Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @bobfordsports. Read his blog at www.inquirer.com/

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