The most bizarre trade of the offseason was the Brandon Moss trade, bar none. When news started to leak about the return — a fringey AA 2B and none of Cleveland’s prime MLB ready infield talent — it made me feel worse than the Josh Donaldson trade. And man, I felt bad after the Josh Donaldson trade.
It felt more like a salary dump than any trade Beane’s made in the past few years, just trying to free up some budget room for a Tyler Clippard or a Ben Zobrist. And that’s fine, it's how a low-revenue team operates, but there’s still the problem of Joey Wendle. Why him? Why not literally any other low-minors lottery ticket? You have to assume that the A’s didn’t just randomly pick him out of a box marked "free to a good home", the front office deserves at least that much respect.
In the interest of at least figuring out what the hell Beane is doing, here’s what I could figure out.
"Flashy" players are overvalued
Prospect evaluators love athleticism and power. If you can hit dingers and run fast, you’re going to get crazy prospect love. It’s the "chicks dig the long ball" theory. Often overlooked in these lists are the guys who don’t show the same sort of flash — the guys who don’t stand out in terms of power and speed, but have can hit for average and show good skills across the board. There’s value in doing a bit of everything well, just as much as doing one or two things incredibly well.
Second basemen in particular are the most overlooked player group. One of the biggest biases you can find in major prospect lists is the discounting of 2Bs — the tendency is to look at them as failed shortstops. Of course, there are cases where this is probably warranted: Grant Green comes to mind. But on the other hand, this has led to some spectacular misses in evaluation. Robinson Cano never made a top 100. Dustin Pedroia and Chase Utley never made it into the top 70. In the past 24 years of Baseball America top 100s, 80 players classified as a 2B made the top 100.
Joey Wendle is the platonic ideal of a mostly average guy with a good feel to hit. He might hit 15 HRs in the best year of his career, and he might steal 15 bases. That’s not exciting. But he also might hit well for average and take walks, which would turn him into an excellent player. He’s a second baseman. Move him over one spot to the left, and you may be looking at fringe top-100 guy. Hell, move him to shortstop and he’s basically Marcus Semien.
College players are undervalued
Prospect evaluators love youth. If you’re a 19 year old in AA, you’re going to be regarded as the second coming of Mike Trout. Don’t get me wrong, I love Franklin Barreto as a prospect and I think he’ll be excellent at the MLB level, but that sort of extreme youth can get people carried away. Position players out of college who aren’t rushed through the minors are easily written off as old for their level.
Mark Ellis comes to mind as the most familiar example of this. As a 9th round draft pick out of college, he took 3 years to make the MLB — more than your typically well-regarded pick from college. Despite excellent minor league seasons, a 25 year old hitting well in AAA just isn’t going to turn any heads. He never made any top-100 lists, was barely regarded as a prospect, and eventually turned into the unicorn we all know and love.
Ben Zobrist, Matt Carpenter, Daniel Murphy, and Kyle Seager were all contact oriented college 2Bs, got to the MLB in their mid-to-late 20s, and never made a top 100. Ian Kinsler got as far as #98 on the Baseball America list. Brian Dozier fits the pattern as well, despite focusing more on power than contact. Developed college infielders simply are not valued as prospects, despite having a fairly strong hit rate.
Joey Wendle is a 24 year old entering AAA after hitting well in the minors. He was a 6th rounder taken out of college. He’s going into his 3rd full year in the minors. I’m just saying, I don’t really have to try too hard to find the parallels.
Minor league splits matter
The tendency to dismiss Wendle’s status as a prospect is to look at him as a guy who couldn’t hit at AA. And it’s true, he turned in a perfectly average line of .253/.311/.414. That’s nothing to write home about, and it’s almost bad enough to be worthy of a repeat AA season.
There is more to this story, however. His AA season was cut short by a broken hamate. He returned to AA for the final week of August, but he missed all of July and spent most of August in the Rookie League for rehab. Let’s look at the month-by-month splits before his injury:
Hey now. That paints a different story — a guy who was simply figuring his way through the learning curve of a new level. And it really looks like he figured it out after the initial struggles in April. Maybe if he had a full year in AA, he’d look a whole lot more attractive. The walk rate is still a point of improvement, but he’s starting to look like he’s ready for AAA and progressing at a normal rate for a prospect.
It could be so much worse
Two guys who fit Brandon Moss's profile perfectly were traded this offseason — Adam Lind and Michael Saunders. Both were left-handed power hitters, had platoon problems, and played the corner outfield or first base. Both were traded for old, below-average 5th starters: Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ, respectively.
When viewed in that context, suddenly Joey Wendle seems like a prize. Even if there's a very slim chance of Wendle being productive at the MLB level, I would much rather have him than Marco Estrada or J.A. Happ, because they're terrible at baseball.
Wendle seems like a bizarre return for a guy as beloved as Brandon Moss. But Wendle could be a diamond in the rough, the type of guy that prospect-razzi simply do not find attractive despite having a real chance at being a productive major leaguer. That’s the type of player that the modern A’s are built on.