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MLB.com Columnist

Matthew Leach

Even top pitching prospects are no sure thing

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MLB.com Columnist

Matthew Leach

As acronyms have invaded baseball in recent years, one of the best ones never really took off. "TINSTAAPP," coined some years back by the smart folks at Baseball Prospectus, stands for "there is no such thing as a pitching prospect."

It may be a bit of an overstatement, but it's definitely not without a lot of truth. Pitching prospects don't progress in the same clean, linear fashion that hitting prospects do. They're much more unpredictable and much riskier.

All of which is why, if a recent New York Daily News report is to be believed, the Mets should get a deal done with the Marlins before Miami changes its mind. The report suggested that New York is eying a possible trade for slugger Giancarlo Stanton, a deal in which Triple-A right-hander Zack Wheeler would be the centerpiece.

Likewise, just about any club that could acquire Stanton for a package centered on a pitching prospect should get the deal done and not look back. For all the upside that someone like Wheeler may have, it's not a fair fight between a top pitching prospect and a big league hitter who's already established he's an elite player.

Sometimes a top pitching prospect turns into David Price or Felix Hernandez or Justin Verlander. This is the risk a team takes in trading one away. More often, they turn into Homer Bailey or Tommy Hanson or Francisco Liriano or Andrew Miller, pitchers who either flamed out or reached a certain level and no higher. Players like Stanton? They tend to remain elite.

There's no shame in having the career of Bailey or Phil Hughes or Edwin Jackson, all of whom have been quality big league pitchers. But it's important to remember that in all likelihood, that's the upside of someone like Wheeler. All three of those pitchers were actually more highly rated prospects than Wheeler, whom MLB.com ranks as the No. 8 prospect in baseball. Each was, at some point, considered one of the five best prospects in the game.

And those guys are, relatively, success stories. They have stayed healthy and been contributors to big league clubs on a regular basis. The real cautionary tales are guys like Franklin Morales, Miller, Liriano and Scott Kazmir.

It's not that there's no value in prospect rankings, even for pitchers. Top pitching prospects are still a much better bet than lower-ranked pitching prospects. There's very real value there. Over the past decade, R.A. Dickey, Brandon Webb and Johan Santana are the only starters to win a Cy Young Award without being ranked as a top-30 prospect at least once, and 11 Cy Youngs in that time have been won by pitchers who were top-15 prospects.

But the odds are long. There are simply more cautionary tales than there are winning lottery tickets. We just haven't figured out how to predict pitchers' careers with the same kind of accuracy as we have for hitters.

Even if Wheeler stays healthy -- or Dylan Bundy, Taijuan Walker, or Jose Fernandez, for that matter -- there's a very good chance that the end result is a quality, frontline big league starter, but not a superstar. Even that isn't a guarantee, but that's the likely upside in most of these cases. The scouting report in this year's Baseball America Prospect Handbook refers to Wheeler as having "a classic No. 2 starter profile."

That's to say, if he reaches his potential, he still might not be an ace.

Meanwhile, there's not much that's more predictable, or safer, than a young veteran slugger. Players who already have experience and have established a high level of ability -- like Stanton -- are obviously a safer bet. When that player also happens to be entering his prime, so much the better.

When you trade for someone like Stanton, or Carlos Gonzalez, or any other young star-level player who might be available, you're acquiring an asset with very real present-day value and the likelihood of maintaining or even increasing that value. When you trade for someone like Wheeler, you're acquiring an asset which may reach that kind of level, and may not.

It's a risk-reward assessment, where the likely potential reward on the risky asset isn't really any higher than the actual reward on the safe asset. It's pretty easy to know which side of that equation you'd rather be on.

Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"event":["prospect" ] }
{"event":["prospect" ] }
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