Yesterday, we discussed John Sickels’ top 20 Yankees prospects list. One notable omission from the list was Dellin Betances, who was not even noted as an honorable mention. It represented a significant fall from grace from Betances, who was drafted by the Yankees in the 8th round of the 2006 draft. He came highly regarded, with a big arm, some inconsistent mechanics, control issues, and some questions about his durability. He quickly made his way onto top prospect lists, coming in at 100 on BA’s 2007 list and getting a very solid B from Sickels, who is not one to hand out rankings like that to pitchers with such limited experience. In 2008, Sickels dropped him to a B- after a 2007 season in which he pitched only 25.1 innings due to a strained elbow. However, he had a solid 2008, and seemed to solve his control problems in the second half as went from 40/64 BB/K in 55 innings before the ASB to a 19/71 BB/K in 60.1 innings after. Based on that performance, Sickels left Betances at B- but bumped him up to 3rd on the Yankee list for 2009.
Betances’ 2009 was a disaster, as he pitched just 44 innings, saw his K rate drop below 10 for the first time in his career (8.9), and had his BB rate climb back over 5 (5.5). He once again got injured, and the early word was that it was TJ surgery. However, it was in fact ligament enhancement surgery (Mariano had the same one), and he should be ready to pitch in High-A Tampa near the start of the year, when he will be 22. Sickels left Dellin off of his 2010 list entirely, and while it is possible for Betances to turn his career around, it seems like this is one lottery ticket that is not going to pay off.
There is a lesson in Betances’ story for Yankees fans like myself who obsess over the minor league system. There is no such thing as a pitching prospect. To delve deeper, the high-ceilinged, super skilled projects toiling in the lower levels that we get excited about are unlikely to ever see the majors. Most of those high risk, high reward guys are lottery tickets, and the lotto rarely pays off. Betances was a top prospect from the moment he was drafted, sporadically displayed tantalizing potential to maintain that status, and now is a 22 year old that has never been past High-A and is coming back from a fairly significant injury. (Note: This is a surgery that reportedly can help the player actually get stronger, so I am not sure how significant the injury is).
We get excited about these guys, project them as future aces, and hope that the team refuses to deal them for anyone but the greatest players. The fact of the matter is, many of these lottery tickets should be probably traded in for useful major league players. It is the job of the general manager to try and maximize the value that you can extract from such players by identifying which of these gambles should be cashed in. That is why it made sense to trade Arodys Vizcaino (who is likely a better prospect than Betances was at his age) for Javier Vazquez. You need to give the other club something of value in a trade for an established performer like Vazquez, and using a High-A player who is not yet a top 25-type prospect is a prudent use of resources. It is possible that Vizcaino will make the Yankees regret that trade at some point in the future. But as the saga of Dellin Betances shows us, it is unlikely.