He is the greatest pitching prospect you’ve ever seen. He is more polished than Clayton Kershaw was at this age. He is composed. He is poised. He has plus velocity. He harnesses and controls that velocity like it’s no thing. He is not afraid to pitch inside. You think he’s afraid to pitch inside? Child please. He has a major league fastball. He has a major league curveball. He reminds you of Johan Santana. He is nineteen years old.
He is the new hotness, and his name is Manny Banuelos. Due to a velocity jump, a superb 44.1 inning showing at High A Tampa, and a very good, very brief (15.1 innings) stint at Double A, Manny Banuelos rocketed up prospect lists this winter and shot into the forefront of national baseball consciousness. A year ago, many didn’t have the slightest idea who he was, and now many Yankee fans view him as an untouchable commodity. Who can blame them, the fans that wouldn’t part with Banuelos any easier than they’d part with their own checking accounts? Who wants to lose six years of team control of the next Johan Santana for a lesser specimen?
The only thing is the risk. With any asset comes risk. With a home it’s the risk of a housing market decline, of the neighborhood going to pot, or the market turning illiquid. With a car it’s the risk that you could own a lemon and be forced to shell out big bucks for repairs. With stocks there is greater risk. Anything could derail a stock’s upward climb: rumors of illiquidity, or the CEO getting sick or dying, or the latest product turning out to be a bust, or of good old-fashioned fraud. Yet compared to pitching prospects, houses and cars and stocks look like the most stable index fund your investment manager has ever laid eyes on: pitching prospects blow up in your face more frequently than cars in a Michael Bay flick.
Manny Banuelos is no different, of course. He’s not any less risky per se than Casey Kelly or Julio Teheran or Zach Britton or Stephen Strasburg. It’s funny how the constructed meaning of Strasburg’s name has changed over time. Last year he was the sure thing, the next Roger Clemens incarnate. Now he’s rehabbing his new elbow ligaments and hoping for an August or September return. This is a roundabout way of saying that Manny Banuelos’ value could plummet at any time without any prior warning. Sure, there are reasons to be optimistic about his long-term future. Scouts love his easy delivery and the way the ball jumps out of his hand without any apparent effort. But it doesn’t change the fact that the next time Manny Banuelos takes the mound could be a game-changer. All it takes is one occasion of him injuring his shoulder to forever change the way fans, analysts, rival teams and talent evaluators perceive his value. He’s no longer Manny Banuelos, the kid with the poise beyond his years and the command of a man ten years his senior. No, now he’s Manny Banuelos, the prospect who impressed in A-ball but found his ascent to the majors marred by injury concerns.
It’s easy to ignore this, particularly because of the way the Internet has changed the way that fans perceive the value of their own prospects. More casual fans are aware of the ups and downs of prospects than ever. Thus when Keith Law says in a chat that Banuelos could start the season in the rotation, his perceived value in the minds of fans goes up. Ten years ago this never would have happened, but digital technology allows fans to become hyper-aware of the goings on of their favorite prospects. Yet the risk is the same right now as it’s always been. The big difference is that the Banuelos looks more like a bird in the hand than ever. He’s our prospect, he’s our DotF darling, he’s our guy. Yet Banuelos is the same guy whether or not fans have any concept of who he is, and he’s just as likely to go bust as he always has been.
This is easy to ignore, beause no one wants to think about the fact that a prospect’s value could be destroyed overnight. It’s far more fun to think about Banuelos and Betances joining Hughes and Sabathia to win 80 games combined and multiple World Series championships. Yet all it takes is one measly bad outing on the bump followed by one very rapid right hand to the left shoulder or left elbow for Manny Banuelos to become the one that got away, the new Brien Taylor or Joba Chamberlain, the new “why didn’t that idiot Cashman trade him when his value was high”. Manny Banuelos is the hotness now. But this is the way it goes with assets: there’s risk involved. Anyone who sells you a big guaranteed return for your assets with no risk is probably playing you. This is precisely why the temptation to sell high is so strong, and this is why we should temper our expectations even if the team doesn’t succumb to that temptation. It’s our natural tendency to expect things never to blow up in our faces, but it doesn’t take much for our best hopes and dreams to vanish in a second. Appreciate Banuelos’ rise now; he may turn out to be that ace in the hole that we’re all dreaming about. But hold him loosely. There’s a lot of runway between now and his first Cy Young award.