In a recent conversation with a trio of major-league scouts, one of them offered this definition of a prospect: "It is someone who has never done anything in the major leagues."
That might sound harsh, but if you're willing to believe that a player is no longer a prospect once he gets to the big leagues, it is absolutely true. The subject arose because the calendar has turned to July and the clock is tick-tick-ticking toward the trade deadline.
It is always Christmas in July for contending big-league ballclubs. They have wish lists, and if their general managers can come through, the odds of a trip to the postseason and the World Series significantly improve. This is not a conversation the Phillies have needed to concern themselves with since 2011, which was the last time they sent prospects one way for a star player who could help them win now.
How could we ever forget Hunter Pence?
The primary conversation concerning the Phillies right now is how much they should be willing to give up for a superstar such as Baltimore shortstop Manny Machado, who could be here Aug. 1 and gone elsewhere as a free agent by opening day 2019. He said Wednesday that it was "a bold question" to ask him if he'd be willing to sign an extension before reaching free agency, but the Phillies' 2018 campaign slogan as brought to them by manager Gabe Kapler is "Be Bold."
They will surely ask Machado that question and if, as expected, he says he will not sign anything until his agent, Dan Lozano, gets a full view of the free-agent market this winter, the Phillies will have to decide how much they are willing to give up for Machado. As our Matt Breen wrote this past week, they should not let Baltimore's request for Zach Eflin stop them even though the 24-year-old righthander seems to have found the formula for success at the big-league level.
The Phillies' do-not-bother-asking list also likely includes Sixto Sanchez, the 19-year-old with the electric arm who is on the disabled list at high-A Clearwater. I don't give Sanchez up unless Machado agrees to a long-term deal. After that, every other minor-leaguer and quite a few big-leaguers should be fair game.
Here's why: Projecting what top-level prospects are going to do is a risky business, and that can easily be proved by looking at the issue from a variety of angles.
Let's, for example, look at the current Phillies, who have surprised us all by remaining in contention beyond the midpoint of the season despite being the youngest team in baseball.
Among the current Phillies, the top-rated prospects coming through their farm system were J.P. Crawford, Maikel Franco, Aaron Nola, and Scott Kingery. They were all included on top-100 lists by MLB.com and Baseball America. The only player on that list the Phillies could not live without right now is Nola. It is possible the other three will emerge one day as star big-leaguers. They are all 25 years or younger. Nobody knows for sure.
Machado, on the other hand, turned 26 Friday and is well on his way to what looks like a Hall of Fame career. He is not a prospect. He does not require speculation. He is already a superstar.
Sticking with the current Phillies: The team's three best position players this season have been Rhys Hoskins, Odubel Herrera, and Cesar Hernandez. During his power-hitting climb to the big leagues, Hoskins never ranked higher than 12th on the Phillies' MLB.com prospects list. How absurd is it to think he was behind Mickey Moniak, Cornelius Randolph, and Mark Appel on the 2016 list?
Herrera, meanwhile, never got a sniff on the top-prospects list with the Texas Rangers before being left exposed in the 2014 Rule 5 draft. Hernandez did climb as high as sixth on the Phillies' 2011 MLB.com list, but it's funny now to see that Brody Colvin, Sebastian Valle, and Trevor May were ahead of him. By 2013, he had slipped to 14th on the list.
And perhaps the best example of all is 2018 bullpen savior Seranthony Dominguez. He was 30th on last year's MLB.com list of top Phillies prospects. The list was 30 players long.
The point here is not to ridicule MLB.com's list. These lists are compiled after writers talk to scouts and front-office types. For a variety of reasons – injuries, mental challenges, and physical ability – some players do not live up to expectations and others far exceed them.
If you look at MLB.com's top-20 overall list from 2013, there are probably only two players – Cleveland's Francisco Lindor and Houston's Carlos Correa – whom you would not trade straight up right now for Machado. Billy Hamilton, Jonathan Singleton and Travis d'Arnaud were all on the list.
One other way to look at the prospects who become so ballyhooed at this time of year is by examining the Phillies' past. They gave up d'Arnaud, Kyle Drabek, and Michael Taylor to get the late Roy Halladay. Any regrets? They gave up Lou Marson, Jason Knapp, Jason Donald, and Carlos Carrasco to get Cliff Lee. Regrets? They gave up Singleton, Jarred Cosart, and Josh Zeid for Pence. Regrets?
The Phillies got Tyson Gillies, Phillippe Aumont, and J.C. Ramirez from Seattle for Lee, and they got Nate Schierholtz, Seth Rosin, and Tommy Joseph from San Francisco for Pence. Regrets? Yes, of course there are, and it is not unusual for that to be the case when talking about prospects.
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