One year ago, there were three candidates for the title of baseball's top prospect. Since then, one debuted in the Majors, stuck, and lost his prospect eligibility. Another was one of the minors best hitters, and will be uncontested atop prospect lists this season. The third option, however, did not live up to expectations. The third option regressed.
Andy Marte's 2005 season was a disappointment. Many called for last season to be the one in which Marte truly broke out, showing superstar potential, and finding a spot on Atlanta's roster. Whether it meant in left field, or Chipper Jones in left field, we all assumed the Atlanta Braves would find a spot for such talent. A season later, the Braves have no interest in finding a spot.
Right before the Winter Meetings, in an interview with Talking Chop's Joe Hamrahi, John Schuerholz said:
...[Andy is] a primary dominant third base candidate for a major league team in the very near future, whether it be for our team or someone else's team. I mean this guy's total package, offensively and defensively, his power potential, and excellent defensive skills make him a legitimate major league third baseman. Right now, though, there's a guy named Chipper Jones ahead of him.
In the end, the Braves were not willing to wait for "the very near future." Marte had his two-week trial to impress the Braves' brass, a la Jeff Francoeur, and failed. From June 7 to June 23, Marte was given 35 at-bats at the Major League level. At the end of the two weeks, his line read .200/.286/.314, and his destination was Richmond. Bobby Cox would give the blue chip prospect just 22 more at-bats all season.
Suddenly, Marte is staring across from a lot more people in the other corner, the non-believers. There have to be doubts in the minds of the Atlanta Braves, who wonder if Marte's Major League debut was a sign of things to come. There are obviously doubts within the Tampa Bay organization, who might be among those who wonder about Andy's elbow, about a torn UCL. Many are wondering why, for nearly a fourth of his season from July 22 to August 20, Marte hit just .196/.304/.340. Or why he is, again, struggling in the Dominican Winter League so much.
There is certainly a case against Andy Marte. Trading Marte, however, is a bold move. Too bold, and too hasty. Simply put, there is little precedent for trading a prospect of this caliber, this early. John Schuerholz has very little wiggle room with this trade, as its results could either make him look like a genius (again) or a fool. Trading blue-chip prospects for Major League role players is a dangerous game.
Ask the Los Angeles Dodgers. Ask Tommy Lasorda, who needed a closer in early July of 1998. Lasorda, then GM of the Dodgers, traded a top five prospect for Jeff Shaw, since Eric Karros and Adrian Beltre were handling the infield corners. While Shaw was a positive influence on the Dodgers, the cost undoubtedly outweighed the return. Since that trade, the Dodgers have missed out on 206 home runs, or about 100 more than what Eric Karros gave the organization since then.
In 1994, Paul Konerko was the 13th overall pick out of an Arizona high school. He quickly signed with the Dodgers, and had more than 250 at-bats that season in the Northwest League, in which he would hit .288, with 24 extra-base hits, 36 walks and just 52 strikeouts. At the age of 18, Konerko was showing good power potential, plenty of patience, and developed contact skills.
By contrast, at the same age Andy Marte played his first full season in professional baseball. He was higher than Konerko, playing with Macon in the South Atlantic League. Marte's season was pretty fantastic for an 18-year-old, as he would hit .281/.339/.492 in 488 at-bats. His power was far more developed than that of Konerko, his contact skills (114 strikeouts) were fine, and his patience was coming. Marte was quickly deemed the Braves future at the hot corner.
The Dodgers were aggressive with Konerko at 19, allowing him to skip low-A and allow his full-season debut to come in the California League. Konerko jumped at the opportunity, and started right where he had left off in 1994. In 448 at-bats, Konerko would hit .277, this time with 41 extra-base hits (19 HR), 59 walks against 88 strikeouts. He showed the exact same skillset as he had in the Northwest League, though the full season began to show his weakness at the hot corner. His bat, however, undoubtedly profiled to find a home somewhere.
Like Konerko, Marte spent his age 19 season in high-A. While Konerko was playing in the hitter's California League, Marte was playing in the Carolina League, in one of the minors most difficult parks. He played great defense for a teenager at third base, not showing extraordinary range, but surprisingly solid with the balls he could reach. His offense pushed forward, despite the park he was playing in, as he hit .285/.372/.469. The declining slugging was a result of many of the balls that were once home runs turning into doubles, a fact that many thought would change as he moved up the ladder. The biggest news were his 67 walks, as he had become one of the minors more patient hitters within one season.
The age of 20 would bring the Texas League to Paul Konerko, who would finally start to refine the potential within his bat. Konerko hit .300 for the first time at Double-A in 470 at-bats, and also started to hit home runs. Of his 54 extra-base hits, in 470 at-bats, 29 were home runs. He also would walk 72 times, providing an OBP that hovered around .400. Furthermore, his lack of strikeouts, 85, was a sign of just how gifted Konerko was with the bat.
Double-A was also a good stop for Marte, although he didn't have the batting average luck that Konerko did, hitting .269/.364/.525. Missing time with injury, Marte hit 23 home runs in 387 at-bats. He also walked 58 times, keeping the patient eye that had developed just a year earlier. The only discouraging sign were 105 strikeouts, his highest strikeout percentage of his full-season career. Given his patience and power, however, Marte was one of the game's top three prospects.
That would be true the next season for Konerko, who would really turn a corner in Albuquerque of the Pacific Coast League. At 21, Konerko hit 37 home runs at AAA, giving him a slugging percentage of .621. His batting average moved up to .323, and Konerko finally walked (64) more than he struck out (61). His bat was hailed as the minors best, and while there were arguments on whether he could stay at the hot corner, some even preferred him to Eric Karros.
Marte was different, as his AAA season would lead to his departure. Like Konerko, the move to AAA provided Marte with more walks (64) and less strikeouts (83). And while those were encouraging signs, his slugging 'dipped' to .506, and he hit just .275. To this day, Marte has yet to bring his batting average above .285 at any level. His real failure, however, was in the Major Leagues, likely a contributing factor to his trade to the Boston Red Sox.
Konerko's Major League story is now history. The Dodgers would trade Konerko with a .215/.272/.306 line to the Cincinnati Reds, who would promptly trade him to Chicago for Mike Cameron. Konerko was a pretty average first baseman for five years in Chicago before exploding in the last two seasons. His patience just became an asset last year, fittingly in the season in which he struck out a career-high 109 times. A 30 home run threat before 2004, Konerko now has 81 home runs in two years, as well as a new, fat five-year contract.
Trading blue-chip prospects for role players is a dangerous game. Barring injury, look for the Boston Red Sox to come out winners.