The Total Trading Trap

Like a dog with a bone, this space has been tenaciously commenting upon this season’s MLB trading trends. In particular, I followed the Oakland Athletics–the local team, and thus the easiest to track–in June and July to examine how the path of their season determined whether or not they should buy or sell at the deadline. (You can retrace much of this discussion by finding posts marked with the ‘trade deadline’ tag.)

But there is a coda we need to add to our discourse on trades: what are the long term implications of a repeated, reflexive “trade ’em away” strategy? Are teams really doing themselves a favor by always dealing their stars at the deadline, regardless of the outlook for post-season play? Or is that master plan for long-term viability actually sowing the seeds of a team’s long-term destruction?

The DFR: BaseballWhen Moneyball came out, first in book form and later as the very high-profile movie, the Athletics became the model for how a supposed “small-market” team should be run. The program is simple: raise young talent, get the most out of that talent before free-agency arrives, then deal those budding stars away, thus leaving others to foot that tremendous bill and bringing back a gaggle of prospects whom you can then turn around and raise into new young talent, thus allowing the cycle to start all over again. And if that young talent helps you get into the post-season, so much the better–declare it all a success, then sit back and collect the accolades.

That…is the Total Trade Trap: this idea that you will rebuild your club into a contender by trading away your major talents is undermined by the fact that everyone knows you’ll be trading those talents away. It is a process that, by its nature, leads to diminishing returns…

So goes the formula. This strategy isn’t exactly new; July deadline trades have been a part of baseball for a long time now, and sending players away to build for the future was not invented by the A’s. At the 1997 deadline, the White Sox famously completed their “White Flag Trade,” a heavily criticized deal that sent veterans to the Giants for prospects Keith Foulke and Bobby Howry. Back in 1998, Houston sent three players to Seattle for Randy Johnson in a deadline deal. And on the same day as Chicago’s give-up in ’97, the A’s sent Mark McGwire–a free-agent-to-be–to the Cardinals for a few bags of magic beans. So perhaps, if the A’s didn’t invent the deadline trade-away, it could be said they were hanging around the shop when the machine was built

Were any of those trades successful? Sure. The ’97 Giants won their division, as did the ’98 Astros. The Cardinals floundered in ’97, but acquiring McGwire returned big dividends soon thereafter, at the gate if not in the playoffs (though eventually that success lost a lot of its luster…but that’s another story). The teams on the other sides of those deals did well, too; Chicago won their division in 2000, thanks to major contributions from Foulke and Howry. The players who went to the Mariners in ’98–Freddy Garcia, John Halama, and Carlos Guillen–all contributed to Seattle’s record-breaking, 116 win club in 2001. So deadline trades always work out for everyone, right?

Not so fast. The one team in the trades mentioned above that did not get good value in return was…wait for it…the A’s, who got next to nothing for McGwire. Oakland did return to the playoffs themselves in 2000, though without major contributions from anyone picked up from the Cardinals. Is it a coincidence that the prototypical small-market team is the one that didn’t come out ahead by dealing away a free agent-to-be?

One could argue that by dealing McGwire and keeping the payroll low, the A’s gave themselves the resources to rebuild and get back to contention that much quicker. However, Oakland’s success in the early Oughts was founded largely on young players who came up from the system and excelled: Hudson, Mulder, Zito, Giambi, Chavez, Tejada, Hernandez. Having payroll resources didn’t come into play at least until they traded for Jermaine Dye in 2001. Of course, Giambi, Tejada, Dye, and Zito all eventually left as free agents. Hudson, Mulder, and Hernandez were all traded before free agency, in deals that yielded only a few major league talents (a couple of good years from Mark Kotsay and Dan Haren, most notably).

So the Athletics have had a spotty record with their deadline trades. And that doesn’t even take into account the previously discussed disastrous trade for Matt Holliday, which eventually led to the deadline trade of Matt Holliday, which returned another batch of the proverbial supernatural legumes. What’s going on here? Is it just an A’s thing? Or does it have wider implications for other bottom-feeding teams around MLB?

I suspect that the “trade ’em and get something” ethic, followed so religiously by Billy Beane throughout his tenure as Athletics GM, is showing signs of reduced efficacy. You see, when everyone knows that you’re always going to trade away upcoming free agents, that knowledge affects your ability to get good value in return. Other GMs around the leagues are not asleep nor in comas; they’re aware that the A’s are trading from a position of weakness, and they offer return value accordingly.

Consider the returns the A’s got this season for Zobrist, Kazmir, and Clippard. Almost every prospect they got was a pitcher; Oakland got only one position player in return (Jacob Nottingham, the catcher they got from the Astros). This is a problem: Oakland has tons of pitching but desperately needs to upgrade its position players.

Look, too, at the Rockies, who face the opposite roster problem: lots of guys who can swing the stick and field, but a desperate need for more and better pitchers. And who did they get from Toronto in the Tulowitzki trade? Jose Reyes–a good offensive shortstop–and three young pitchers. But those pitchers came from the Blue Jays, a team so desperate for better pitching that they took LaTroy Hawkins in that trade and immediately installed him as their closer. If those pitching prospects couldn’t help the Blue Jays–who are aching for arms–then what are the chances that they’ll help Colorado?

That’s not the first time the Rockies made a deadline deal that didn’t pan out. In 2011 Colorado sent Ubaldo Jimenez to Cleveland for another bag of beans so beany that even Billy Beane would have blushed at it. Indeed, the only time the Rockies made a deal in which they made out like bandits was the aforementioned Holliday trade–and that was not a deadline deal.

What the Rockies and A’s (and other bottom feeders like the Marlins and perhaps the Twins and Brewers) have in common, besides that Holliday trade, is a penchant for trading away players who get too expensive. Colorado has been spinning its wheels since 2009, their last playoff appearance. Now the Athletics look like they’ll be joining the Rockies in also-ran-land–unless Beane pulls some real magic again.

That, then, is the Total Trading Trap: this idea that you will rebuild your club into a contender by trading away your major talents is undermined by the fact that everyone knows you’ll be trading those talents away. It is a process that, by its nature, leads to diminishing returns over time.

What’s the solution? Sign one of your free agents once in a while. Convince the other teams that you actually will keep a guy now and then, and thereby force your potential trading partners to pony up something better when you get them on the phone come the end of July. That’s the only way that living and dying on the deadline can be turned into more living and less dying.


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