When is a top prospect not a top prospect? Dave covered that topic right before the deadline, and he makes an important point. There are plenty of things that can happen between the time when a prospect gets graded and when he gets traded that changes how teams value him. A No. 1 prospect can struggle at a higher level, causing his team to lose a little faith. We saw something along those lines when the Twins traded Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps. Unless the organization egregiously overvalued Capps, they had to have seen something that cause them to second guess Ramos’s potential.
We’ve seen the Dodgers do this a few times, most notably in 2008 and then again this year. At the trade deadline two years ago they traded Jon Meloan, who before the season was one of their No. 8 prospect, for veteran help from Casey Blake. Around the same time they also traded their No. 2 prospect, Andy LaRoche, in the deal that sent them Manny Ramirez. To date neither player has produced at the major league level. In fact, the player the Dodgers most regret trading, Carlos Santana, didn’t even make their Top 10 that year.
Once again the Dodgers were at it this year. To obtain Octavio Dotel, they traded the Pirates their Nos. 1 and 2 prospects from 2009, Andrew Lambo and James McDonald. Of course, both players’ situations have changed since the start of the 2009 season. Lambo had a so-so showing as a 20-year-old in AA. McDonald actually pitched excellently in the minors last year, striking out 11 per nine, but he exhausted his prospect status by pitching 63 innings. He wasn’t bad by any means, a 4.00 ERA, though his FIP, 4.48, and xFIP, 4.78, suggested he might have gotten a bit lucky.
This year both McDonald and Lambo produced poorly. Lambo improved slightly in his repeat performance at AA, but it was nothing that would raise his prospect status. McDonald spent some time injured, but was otherwise so-so in the minors. He didn’t get much of a chance in the majors. Both were seeing their stocks at their lowest, and the Pirates took advantage by dishing an expendable reliever in Dotel for the pair. So far it has worked out in their favor.
Last night McDonald dazzled in his Pittsburgh debut, striking out the side in the first and ending the night with eight strikeouts through six innings. The Pirates took it easy on him, sending up Jeff Clement to pinch hit in the bottom of the sixth with two outs even though McDonald had thrown just 89 pitches and had a 5-0 lead. It was as good a debut as they could have hoped, and it certainly has to give them further hope that a change of organizations is just what McDonald needed to fulfill his potential.
One start, of course, doesn’t mean that McDonald has gone from underperforming top prospect to legit major league starter. It’s a nice first step, but he has a long way to go before he proves the Dodgers wrong about his value. After all, the Dodgers have a decent track record when trading prospects when their values have been low. But for starters, a 0.3 WAR night will do just fine. It might be better than what Dotel produces for them the rest of the season.