Twenty-five years later people in Detroit are still talking about John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander.
It’s the Motor City’s version of the Alamo.
It was around this time in 1987 when the Tigers traded blue chip pitching prospect Smoltz (Lansing Waverly), 20, to the then-awful Atlanta Braves for wily, irascible veteran Alexander, who was 36 at the time of the trade (he turned 37 in September).
Alexander was lights out for the ’87 Tigers, going 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA down the stretch as Detroit came from behind to nip the Toronto Blue Jays at the wire for the AL East title.
Hall of Fame. But who knew?
And that is the rub.
It’s been a quarter century since that trade and there are still baseball fans in this town who shake their fists and use it as their rallying cry whenever talk of trading a minor league prospect is bandied about.
In San Antonio-like fashion, they cry, “Trade BLANK? Remember John Smoltz!”
It’s happening again.
Nick Castellanos is a nice looking player who terrorized Class A with Lakeland, which earned him a promotion to Double-A Erie. He’s not doing all that bad over there, either. He, like Smoltz in 1987, is 20 years old.
Castellanos is a third baseman by trade, but the Tigers seem to be set there with some guy named Miguel Cabrera, who is 29 and on the way to a Hall of Fame career of his own. As for Castellanos, there hasn’t been a Greek athlete this popular in Detroit since Alex Karras.
The Tigers are experimenting with Castellanos in the outfield, a move that is perhaps designed with two things in mind: to prepare Castellanos for a career in Detroit, or to make him more valuable as a trading commodity.
Think about it: if other big league teams think that Castellanos is stonewalled at third base because of Cabrera’s presence, the Tigers deal from a point of weakness. But if Castellanos is being groomed for the outfield, then the Tigers aren’t buttonholed.
Either way, the Tigers win with Castellanos.
Prospects are just that—prospects. They’re chips to be played at the table.
But there is hand-wringing from the Alamo people. The thought of trading Castellanos (just one example) makes them queasy. As if the Tigers will never have another prospect ever again.
Remember how we were told what a prospect Cameron Maybin was? How he was a five-tool player? A can’t miss kid?
Maybin was traded to Florida in December 2007, along with another supposed blue chipper, lefty Andrew Miller, in a deal that brought Cabrera, no less, to Detroit. Maybin was eventually shipped to San Diego. He hasn’t done much as a big leaguer. The ceiling for Maybin now seems unreachable, judging from his big league numbers so far.
You want the real deal? For every Smoltz, there are hundreds of Maybins. You want to place your chips on the smart money? Place them on the established big leaguer.
Job One of any big league organization is to constantly develop players, i.e. trading chips. Some of those kids will be funneled through the system and eventually play for the club that drafted them. Others will be traded, usually for established big league players.
You’re afraid to trade Castellanos? Or right-hander Jacob Turner? Or lefty Andy Oliver? Or anyone else being grown on the farm? Tough. Then go out and draft and develop more prospects.
For a contending team like the Tigers, when given the choice of hanging on to a “can’t miss” prospect or trading said prospect to acquire a big league player to help NOW, the error should be on the side of risk instead of caution.
You don’t win pennants and World Series with kids or prospects. You win with good, solid major league players. You use the prospects to get those MLB players.
Do those big leaguers always pan out? Of course not. But hey, do prospects? No, and even less so.
This is big league baseball. High stakes stuff. The meek do not inherit this Earth. If you want to win, are serious about winning, then you have to take risks. You have to sometimes cut the cord with your supposed blue chip prospects. You have to trade them. Sometimes.
In my book, there is no such thing as an “untouchable” prospect, unless that player is specifically penciled in for a position with the big league team immediately, i.e. Mike Trout of the Angels, 20 years old and an amazing talent.
So forget John Smoltz. Please. It’s been 25 years.
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