Those are some big ifs, though. Prospects, even top prospects, bust all the time.
Consider, say, Justin Smoak, who was the star prospect in the Mariners’ return for ace left-hander Cliff Lee in 2010. He’s been a below-average hitter for his career thus far and looks remarkably like a AAAA player – a minor league star who can’t hack it in the big leagues.
Consider Matt LaPorta, the big hitting prospect who helped the Milwaukee Brewers pry CC Sabathia away from the Cleveland Indians back in 2008. After a few thoroughly uninspiring seasons in the Cleveland lineup, he’s been out of the big leagues since 2012. (In fairness, the player to be named later in that trade turned out to be Michael Brantley, who’s since become a very productive outfielder for the Indians.)
More or less every team has seen a great prospect get traded and then fail to pan out. Former top Yankees prospect Jesus Montero has failed to accomplish anything of note in Seattle. The Red Sox sent Andy Marte to Cleveland, where he fell to pieces. Rangers fans remember acquiring catching prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia from Atlanta in exchange for slugging first baseman Mark Teixeira. Salty has had his good moments as a major league player – he’s actually playing quite well in Miami right now – but not so much for Texas.
Saltalamacchia, incidentally, is one of those top prospects who at least somewhat panned out, but not for the teams who acquired them. Drew Pomeranz, to take another example, was originally the centerpiece in a 2011 deal that sent Ubaldo Jimenez from Colorado to Cleveland. After a few underwhelming seasons in Colorado, Pomeranz found himself traded again, this time to… Oakland, where he’s been very good thus far.
Even the best prospects in the league often fail to pan out, and when that happens, the team that traded a productive veteran is left with nothing. But of course, that’s not the only way those trades can go wrong.