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Does selling pay? Baseball Prospectus says no

Another story at Baseball Prospectus caught my eye today: The Futility of Selling (subscription required). The flipside of the "futility" of selling can be thought of as "the low cost of buying."

I'll say up front I don't think this is the strongest story ever written for their site. It doesn't come with a lot of numbers, and I think it's safe to say you can give example and counter-example back and forth for quite a while. However, it brings up a point I've said before: Just because you're trading prospects ranked in your organization's top ten doesn't necessarily mean you're giving up a sure thing.

Prospect ranking is an inexact art, and I don't think anyone can say with certainty why some players with the tools or numbers are able to perform at the major league level while others don't. (I'm sure some people have their theories, of course.) And when you start seeing names like Roy Oswalt, Dan Haren, Adam Dunn or more on the trading block, the likelihood of giving up a prospect who will ever come close to attaining that level of success becomes increasingly small.

Yet teams keep giving them up. (And fans keep arguing that prospects are too important to give up in a trade.)

Sellers like to pretend that dealing a star for a pile of prospects is about rebuilding, but it isn’t. It may be about salary relief, or wanting to have players whose future is more concrete than that of a free-agent compensation draft pick that won’t be spent for close to a year. It may be about wanting to avoid the expensive arbitration process, or just intended to exchange one body for several, but it is almost never a literal rebuilding move. Rebuilding means acquiring players like the one that was just dealt away.

I doubt the Tigers are sellers in the next several hours. They probably won't be buyers, either. But if they are, I'm not going to be all that offended about the minor leaguers they send away.

However, I might wonder if they could have gotten better value for them.

I don't value minor leaguers based on projecting of statistics and the financial value they could be worth. I've seen a lot of can't-miss prospects fail. I've seen a lot of "who's that?" prospects succeed. I think the entire exercise is futile, personally.

But prospects are assets. Getting the most out of your assets, no matter whose uniform they end up wearing, should be the goal. And to do that, you've got to establish the value of your asset.

Maybe it's because I had far too many economics credits in college, but I value prospects based on what players they might net you in exchange. Jacob Turner and Andy Oliver for Dan Haren was a rumored deal. If Turner were then traded for, say, Ted Lilly, that would be awful use of his rumored established value. If Turner is traded for a better player than Haren, that's great use of his value. And if Turner's peak value were Lilly, I'd say a lot of people aren't seeing things the way 30 seasoned general managers are and suggest they might be missing some information somewhere.

Anyway, that's a long-winded way of saying prospects are good, but players are greater. I'd rather be a buyer than a seller any day. That doesn't mean selling doesn't pay, or buying always works. And it doesn't mean every time you trade a prospect for a middle-of-the-line major leaguer is a "win." You can't just be giving away your prospects for less than their market value. If you can't get much for them, you might just want to hold on and hope they turn out.

But if a deal like Turner and Oliver for Haren comes along, I say take it. While the other team gathers lottery tickets and hopes one will contain the lucky numbers, your team is already enjoying the prize.