The prospect pendulum swings

Updated: July 26, 2011, 2:27 PM ET
By Buster Olney

Heathcliff Slocumb will always be a centerpiece of a bit of baseball lore that is brought up this time of year. In the summer of 1997, he was serving as the closer for the Boston Red Sox -- and not doing so well, incidentally, with an ERA of close to 6 -- and on the other side of the country, in Seattle, Mariners manager Lou Piniella was desperate for a reliever. Which is not surprising, because Piniella tended to run through relievers the way a young mother goes through baby wipes.

As the story goes, Piniella begged and cajoled his general manager, Woody Woodward, to get him a reliever, just before the trade deadline. Woodward delivered on that request, sending two prospects to Boston in the last hours before the deadline for Slocumb.

One of the prospects was a catcher named Jason Varitek, who is still playing 14 years later.

And the other prospect was named Derek Lowe, who is still pitching 14 years later.

But executives who were around in that era of hyper-aggression -- before casual fans knew the names of prospects as well as they do now -- say that the pendulum has swung the other way. Earlier this month, a veteran official engaged in trade talk with a younger peer about a second-line major leaguer -- someone far below the pay grade of Carlos Beltran or James Shields.

The veteran official asked for a minor leaguer in return. Not a top-tier minor leaguer. Not a second-tier minor leaguer. Maybe a third-tier minor leaguer, a prospect with a notable weakness who is generally projected as fringe major leaguer, at best.

The answer: No.

"When you've reached the point when you're refusing to trade prospects who aren't even close to being your top guys," said the veteran executive, "then all that really is is being afraid to make a mistake. If you're not willing to trade a minor leaguer who you don't rate highly, then it's just fear. And that's a tough way to do business, because there the opportunities to win don't come every year."

The trade market is very different than it was in the days of Heathcliff Slocumb-for-nameless-prospects. I sent out an email to a number of officials and asked them how it has changed. Here are some of the responses: