MLB top prospects lists of years ago tell brutal, sad stories

We are in the lull. The best free agents have signed. Spring training is now less than two weeks away. The major business of the offseason is complete, though I assume we will be surprised a few times between now and Opening Day on March 30.

It is at this time annually that I go through three exercises as a way to — among other items — maintain perspective about the offseason and to continue to think about changes I believe would positively impact the game.

So sharing these exercises fits neatly into 3Up for this week:

1. This is the time of year when the publications that do such things — such as, Baseball America and The Athletic — put out their top 100 prospect lists.

I annually look at who the top 100 players were 10 years earlier. I do this because no matter how many times history shows how incredibly hard it is to translate even elite prospect skills into consistent major league excellence, organizations and their fan bases too often see these rankings as biblical rather than fallible.

Just try to suggest — for example — that the Mets should trade Francisco Alvarez or Brett Baty or the Yankees should deal Anthony Volpe or Jasson Dominguez.

If 10 years ago, you would have told the Rangers or their fans that it was the moment to maximize the top prospect in the game in a trade, there would have been outrage. But Jurickson Profar, then a shortstop, never honored his prospect status — he was No. 1 across the board with the top spot on lists from Baseball America, and Baseball Prospectus.

Jurickson Profar #13 of the Texas Rangers stands in the dugout prior to the game against the Oakland Athletics at Coliseum on September 4, 2013 in Oakland, California. The Athletics defeated the Rangers 11-4.
Widely considered the best prospect in baseball a decade ago, Jurickson Profar has become a journeyman, and is currently unsigned.
Getty Images

Profar became a fine player after a while, but as an outfielder, not an infielder, and arguably is the best free agent still available this offseason. That current unemployment speaks to an industry that now does not share Profar’s view of his value.

I always find interesting tidbits by looking back. For example, the Yankees had three players in’s top 100 before the 2013 season: Gary Sanchez (36), Mason Williams (41) and Tyler Austin (75). I wonder what they could have gotten in a trade for all three at that point. But a large group of other players on the list eventually would be Yankees: Gerrit Cole (9), Jameson Taillon (15), James Paxton (61), Didi Gregorius (62), Andrew Heaney (81), Adeiny Hechavarria (82), A.J. Cole (91) and Aaron Hicks (98).

But something stood out this year that is incredibly sad just a decade later: Three of the players in the top 10 have died.

Outfielder Oscar Taveras was the No. 3 prospect. He had debuted in 2014, and had the kind of five-tool status that led to his nickname pf “El Fenomeno” (The Phenomenon). He died in a car crash in October 2014 at the age of 22 in his native Dominican Republic, just before the Cardinals were to play Game 5 of the World Series.

Jose Fernandez was the No. 7 prospect, ranking between Travis d’Arnaud and Zack Wheeler. He was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2013, twice an All-Star and was viewed as one of the better pitchers in the game. On the morning of Sept. 15, 2016, Fernandez, 24, died in a boat crash off the coast of Miami.

Jose Fernandez #16 of the Miami Marlins pitches during the game against the Chicago Cubs at Marlins Park on June 26, 2016 in Miami, Florida.
Jose Fernandez already had been named an All-Star twice when he was killed in a boat accident in 2016 at the age of 24.
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Tyler Skaggs was the No. 10 prospect, just behind Gerrit Cole and four spots ahead of Francisco Lindor. He had settled in as a mid-to-lower-end starter before dying in late June 2019 at the age of 27. He choked on his own vomit in a Texas hotel room after taking a combination of drugs and alcohol.

Also, at No. 59 was Yordano Ventura. He would become a key part of the 2014-15 AL champion Royals. He signed a five-year, $23 million contract prior to the 2015 campaign. But in January 2017, in his native Dominican Republic, Ventura, 25, died in a car crash.

2. Another exercise I undertake annually — when there is the natural inclination to award bouquets to the teams that spent the most money over the offseason — is to look back a decade at the 10 largest free-agent signings.

The 2012-13 offseason has undertones of this one because:

• It was the first offseason since a new collective bargaining agreement had been signed. The promise of labor peace for years to come usually triggers strong spending. It happened then, and it happened again in this record offseason.

• It was the first full offseason of new Guggenheim ownership by the Dodgers after the penurious reign of Frank McCourt. It was just this kind of aggressive spending to try to contend immediately while creating cover to build a strong farm system that Mets owner Steve Cohen is attempting to mimic after the penny-squeezing ways of the Wilpons.

Los Angeles Dodgers owner Magic Johnson (right) hands a Dodgers baseball hat to new Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Zack Greinke (left) at a press conference announcing Greinke's signing at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on December 11, 2012.
Zack Greinke pitched well after signing a $147 million deal with Magic Johnson and the Dodgers, recording a 2.30 ERA in three seasons before opting out of his deal.
Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag

The Yankees were not big players in free agency that offseason. They were strategizing how to get under the initial luxury-tax threshold in 2013. The largest deal the Yankees signed was for one year at $15 million for Hiroki Kuroda (one of the best deals for a team that offseason). The Mets were still in the throes of revelations about Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. They did sign David Wright to a contract extension for eight years at $122 million, but traded Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey to the Blue Jays for d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard. Their largest free agent deal was one year at $4 million for Shaun Marcum.

These were the top 10 deals of the 2012-13 offseason:

Zack Greinke, Dodgers, six years, $147 million
Josh Hamilton, Angels, five years, $123 million
Anibal Sanchez, Tigers, five years, $80 million
B.J. Upton, Braves, five years, $75.25M
Nick Swisher, Cleveland, four years, $56 million
Edwin Jackson, Cubs, four years, $52 million
Michael Bourn, Cleveland, four years, $48 million
Angel Pagan, Giants, four years, $40 million
Shane Victorino, Red Sox, three years, $39 million
Hyun Jin Ryu, Dodgers, six years, $36 million

There are success stories. Greinke pitched brilliantly for the Dodgers, garnering Cy Young votes in all three of his seasons with the team before opting out of his contract.

The Dodgers also paid a $25.7 million posting fee to Ryu’s Hanwa Tigers in South Korea, and would probably say the lefty was worth the combination of that fee and his contract. Ryu missed most of two seasons with shoulder and then elbow problems that necessitated surgeries. But he was excellent in the other four years of the deal.

The whole deal did not work, but Victorino was terrific in his first Red Sox season and was instrumental in a championship.

Red Sox player Shane Victorino after hitting a grand slam in the seventh inning of Game Six of the American League Champion Series between the Detroit Tigers and the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on Oct. 19, 2013.
Shane Victorino hit 15 homers and stole 21 bases to help the Red Sox win the 2013 World Series in his first year after signing as a free agent.
Boston Globe via Getty Images

Pagan was never as good again as he was in helping the Giants win it all in 2012 and helping earn himself the four-year contract. But he was far from the disaster of many others in this top 10.

Hamilton, like Albert Pujols and later Anthony Rendon, fit into the famous-name fantasy of Angels owner Arte Moreno as he attempted (poorly) to surround Mike Trout with championship talent. Hamilton played meh for two years, relapsed with drug addiction issues and never played again for the Angels. He was traded back to Texas, where he played a bit in 2015 and never again.

During his five-year deal, Sanchez had one superb season, one OK one and three final seasons in which he was a financial albatross to the Tigers.

The Braves loved the idea of teaming B.J. Upton with his brother Justin, but B.J. was one of the worst players in the majors in his two seasons in Atlanta before he was dealt to San Diego.

Swisher and Bourn arrived together in Cleveland and exited together in a swap of bad salaries with Atlanta. In their 2 ½ seasons together in Cleveland, that duo combined to hit .244 with a .672 OPS and be worth 2.1 Wins Above Replacement (Fangaphs). The pain of trying to be financially bold has lingered. Since then, Cleveland’s only significant multi-year free-agent deals were three years at $60 million for Edwin Encarnacion after the 2016 AL title (still the largest free-agent deal in franchise history) and Josh Bell for two years at $33 million this offseason.

Stung by the lack of production they received after signing Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher for a combined $104 million, Cleveland has been extremely judicious in free agency since.
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The top free-agent deals for Greinke, Hamilton and Sanchez equaled $350 million in guarantees — $10 million less than the largest deal of this offseason all by itself: the nine-year, $360 million pact Aaron Judge signed with the Yankees.

3. At several points of the calendar — including now — I have this thought: Wouldn’t it be more interesting if teams could trade draft picks beyond those in supplemental rounds?

For example, the Rangers will pick fourth and Twins fifth in the first round of the draft on July 9. Both AL clubs are trying to make significant moves in the standings this year after signing Jacob deGrom and Carlos Correa, respectively, in free agency among other moves.

As things stand now, the Rangers likely will choose between Josh Smith and Bubba Thompson in left field, but they have been interested in Pittsburgh’s Bryan Reynolds. The Pirates have the first pick in July. How attractive would it be for a rebuilding club to have the first overall pick plus the Rangers’ No. 4 overall pick and the pool dollars that go along with that plus a prospect or two?

At this point, when they are projected to have a team record payroll (by a large margin) of more than $200 million, the Rangers probably would prefer three years of control with Reynolds than the fourth pick in the draft. Meanwhile, the Pirates had the seventh pick in 2020 (shortstop Nick Gonzales), the first pick in 2021 (catcher Henry Davis) and the fourth pick last year (second baseman Temarr Johnson). has all three among its preseason top 100 prospects. Now, imagine adding two more top-four picks to have a class of players ascending simultaneously?

Bryan Reynolds #10 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits an RBI single in the first inning during the game against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park on September 23, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Granting Bryan Reynolds his wish to be traded would be a lot easier for the Pirates if they could deal him for a standard draft pick.
Getty Images

Between now and the Aug. 1 trade deadline, the Pirates almost certainly will move Reynolds even without being able to acquire a standard draft pick. But wouldn’t everything between now and then be more interesting and thus more enjoyable to the fan base if all draft picks could be traded?

Try this if you are a Yankees fan: The industry thinks they have drafted better in recent years, especially the position group taken with their first picks: Anthony Volpe, Austin Wells, Trey Sweeney and Spencer Jones. A fan might find it hard to mentally part with one of these players — though most fans have never seen any of these guys play. But we love considering who’s next, which gets the imagination going about what it would look like to have Volpe playing in the middle infield in The Bronx this year and the much-needed lefty bats of Wells, Sweeney and Jones shooting for the short porch in coming seasons.

So it is easier to accept the Yankees including the 26th overall pick this July than someone with a name and some minor league accomplishments. But it should be remembered that the past four Yankees first-round picks were selected between Nos. 20 and 30 overall.

GLENDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 11, 2021: Austin Wells #13 of the Surprise Saguaros throws to second base against the Glendale Desert Dogs at Camelback Ranch on November 11, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images)
Austin Wells has yet to play a game above Double-A, yet many Yankees fans would be reluctant to deal the young catcher.
Diamond Images/Getty Images

By the way, the Yankees only have had the 26th overall pick in the draft once. In 2013, they used their first of three first-round picks to take third baseman Eric Jagielo. With the second of those picks, No. 32 overall, they took Judge.

This July, the No. 32 overall pick belongs to a team that had its first pick drop 10 spots by rule because they exceeded the luxury tax threshold by $40 million.

That would be the Mets.

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