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July 30, 2010

You Could Look It Up

The Futility of Selling

by Steven Goldman

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Some truths are eternal. About 93 years ago, the Philadelphia Phillies traded their right-handed ace, Pete Alexander, to the Cubs. Alexander, 30 years old, was in his seventh season. He had two ERA titles, and had led the NL in wins five times, including the four seasons prior to the trade. Overall, his career mark was 190-88 with a 2.12 ERA and 61 shutouts, a category which he led in annually. Pete Alexander and his sidearm sinker and curve were deadly. The Phillies were fearful they were going to lose him after the season—not to free agency, which didn’t exist, but to the military. They resolved to get whatever they could for him. That turned out to be a catching prospect, Pickles Dillhoefer, a middling right-handed pitcher, Mike Prendergast, and $55,000.

Alexander is in the Hall of Fame. Dillhoefer lasted just 12 plate appearances with the Phillies (and died at 27 while a member of the Cardinals), Prendergast just 38 games, and knowing the Phillies, they spent the $55,000 on Raul Ibanez’s great-grandfather. Whatever their motives for the trade, which weren’t too different from modern teams worrying about losing players after their contract year, the Phillies didn’t get anything like equal value for one of the best pitchers in the game.

Normally, when writing about the difficulty of trading star players for prospects and getting any kind of return, you would have to reach back throughout history for these kinds of examples, if not as far as 1917, but you don’t have to do that anymore. You could pull out a 1989-vintage Rickey Henderson going from the Yankees to Oakland for Luis Polonia, Eric Plunk, and Greg Cadaret, or Minnesota’s favorite deal from 2008, in which they gift-wrapped Johan Santana for the Mets, receiving Carlos Gomez, Philip Humber, Kevin Mulvey, and Deolis Guerra. These deals are the rule, not the exception. When a star is traded for prospects, the seller almost always loses out just because the vast majority of prospects don’t achieve anything close to greatness.

There are exceptions, famous exceptions such as Ernie Broglio, who was something like a star (but no Santana) at roughly the moment he was dealt to the Cubs for Lou Brock; the Cardinals got one of the few players who was seemingly established as a journeyman at 25 but suddenly developed into something better. Simultaneously, Broglio lost his touch at 28, making the deal look even better for the Cards. Mark Langston brought the Mariners 10 years of Randy Johnson’s service. The Rangers are still sorting through the package they received for Mark Teixeira, and if Neftali Feliz turns out to be the only player of the five received worth remembering, he might turn out to be enough.

On the other hand, even Feliz and Elvis Andrus together might not add up to one Mark Teixeira, and therein lies the difficulty of this kind of deal. Sellers like to pretend that dealing a star for a pile of prospects is about rebuilding, but it isn’t. It may be about salary relief, or wanting to have players whose future is more concrete than that of a free-agent compensation draft pick that won’t be spent for close to a year. It may be about wanting to avoid the expensive arbitration process, or just intended to exchange one body for several, but it is almost never a literal rebuilding move. Rebuilding means acquiring players like the one that was just dealt away. The media will kick around these deals and talk about who won the trade. The team that got Mike Piazza (for Preston Wilson, Ed Yarnall, and Geoff Goetz) won the trade, that’s who.

It’s fun to mock the Reds for declaring that Frank Robinson was “an old 30” going into 1966 and swapping him for Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun, and Dick Simpson, but the sin wasn’t in what the Reds got back, it was in picking up the phone in the first place. The Mets’ “Midnight Massacre” of 1977, when they dealt Tom Seaver to the Reds for Steve Henderson, Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn, and Dan Norman? It shouldn’t have been surprising that the Mets didn’t receive any players worth 7-10 wins a season--there are only so many of those to go around. The Diamondbacks made two trades involving Curt Schilling, one to get him and one to give him away. They gave away four players (Travis Lee, Vicente Padilla, Omar Daal, Nelson Figueroa) and received four players (Brandon Lyon, Casey Fossum, Jorge de la Rosa, and Michael Goss) and didn’t come close to approximating Schilling’s value in either case. Heck, we can already be reasonably sure that we won’t someday say, “It was too bad the Phillies had to trade Cliff Lee, but at least he brought them multiple award-winners Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies, and J.C. Ramirez! They were the foundation of a Phillies dynasty”!

Yet, as I said above, these kinds of examples are no longer necessary, because the kinds of deals that have been made around this year’s trade deadline. Whatever one thinks of the prospects received in the deals for Lee, Dan Haren, and Roy Oswalt, you have to squint very hard to project any of them as a coming star. Perhaps Justin Smoak will someday fulfill that description in Seattle, but given his 10-for-63 showing with the Mariners, his weak performance with the Rangers, and a minor league record that was hardly dominant, that day may be awhile in coming.

Smoak aside, the return has been about aspiring fourth starters and right-handed middle relievers, compromised personalities like Josh Lueke, and pure tools-over-performance types like Anthony Gose, whose projection as something more than a fifth outfielder relies on the distant, perhaps never-arriving day when he harnesses those tools and turns into…what, Gary Pettis? That the Astros would immediately flip Gose for future Ross Gload/Ryan Shealy/Ryan Garko type Brett Wallace speaks to the marginal nature of both prospects. Deadline trading has officially become a degraded pastime.

As we get further away from the star pitchers and see more run-of-the-mill talents being dealt, deals like the one that sent the venerable Miguel Tejada to San Diego, the chances of the seller making a successful exchange become more pronounced. Just to pick one deal, consider the 2005 trade that sent Juan Pierre--a player who generally wasn’t very valuable even at his best--from the Marlins to the Cubs. The Fish received three pitchers: Sergio Mitre, Ricky Nolasco, and Renyel Pinto. None of the three will see their uniform numbers hanging on the wall of the Marlins’ new ballpark, but they do demonstrate that when you give away nothing, you might get something back that exceeds it in value. The reverse is also true. When you give away something of value, you might get nothing, or something of so little value that you’re worse off than when you started.

We like to pretend it’s otherwise, if, for example, the Nationals hold on to Adam Dunn this weekend some will say that they were foolish not to get what they could. Yet, the truth is that unless they were very lucky or very canny in their trading, the end result would have been no different—Dunn gone, and perhaps not even a puff of Smoak to mark his passing.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Rebuilding

34 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Fresh Hops

"Rebuilding" may be the wrong word, but aren't all these trades about taking a guy who has no value to you (an good player under contract for 2 more months in a season in which you are guaranteed not to make the play offs) for something that does have value for you (a guy with the possibility of being an everyday major league player under club control for 6 seasons, and some other guys who could play a role or two for you)? Cliff Lee has a very specific, limited value right now, and he gets to re-negotiate that this off season.

Maybe Justin Smoak is the next star around whom (with Felix Henandez) the Mariners build a team. Maybe that star is Dustin Ackley, or Michael Pineda, or Nick Franklin, or Taijaun Walker. Regardless, the Mariners are going to need a first baseman for the next 6 years, and if Smoak provides 1/3 the value every year at the position that Lee provided, the Mariners solved a big piece of the six-year puzzle with Smoak.

Jul 30, 2010 07:55 AM
rating: 7
 
Jamie

One trade comes to mind that worked out well for the seller. The Indians traded Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew for Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and Lee Stevens in 2002.

Jul 30, 2010 08:02 AM
rating: 4
 
Aaron/YYZ

Doyle Alexander to the Tigers for John Smoltz?

Jul 30, 2010 10:22 AM
rating: 0
 
lionstar1964

And of course, Larry Anderson to the Red Sox for Jeff Bagwell.

Jul 30, 2010 10:55 AM
rating: 1
 
Lyford

In Red Sox nation, that's generally shorthanded to BFA (Bagwell For Andersen) and it was, of course, a brutal trade from Boston's point of view. On the flip side of that, Dan Duquette stole Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe from Seattle for Heathcliff Slocumb.

And the Mike Boddicker trade worked out for both sides, as Boddicker helped the Red Sox win the East twice, but Brady Anderson and Curt Schilling both became stars.

Jul 31, 2010 18:20 PM
rating: 0
 
Peter7899

Not to mention a small trade of Casey Blake for Carlos Santana.

Jul 30, 2010 11:10 AM
rating: 4
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

All three of the veterans in those trades were far below the star level and so the deals had a greater chance of achieving equilibrium in the first place. That said, even if you want to look at Alexander, Blake, and Andersen as stars, these trades would still be rare cases compared to the prevalence of the kind that I cite.

Jul 30, 2010 11:22 AM
 
evo34

Might be nice to show some actual numbers rather than just state that they almost never work out and expect that the reader will take your work for it. I had assumed from the article's teaser line on the main page that there would be even some light analysis of deadline deal results, rather than simple assertions and cherry-picked examples.

Jul 30, 2010 17:45 PM
rating: 13
 
Nowhereman

Agreed. Additionally, I agree with those that have said that you're effectively trading someone with no value (beyond draft picks) for something that may have value. While it may be true that the majority of these deals don't work out particularly well, is the rate of failure really any higher than the rate of failure for the draft picks they could have gotten when the traded star packed up and left? That would be interesting to compare.

To say that "The team that got [Star Player] won" greatly oversimplifies and, in particular, ignores the COST of keeping players--a cost some teams frequently cannot afford.

Jul 31, 2010 07:55 AM
rating: 3
 
DonnieBaseball

OK, I'm a Yankee fan and live in Dallas, so I have seen a bit of Andrus and Feliz - Andrus alone will make the Teixiera trade a good trade for the Rangers. They were losing him anyway(Scott Boras; to not characterise their trade with the Braves as a big plus move is wrong. I think its time to say Andrus and Feliz is "enough."

Jul 30, 2010 08:04 AM
rating: 2
 
Shaun P.
(676)

Great article, Steven.

For some reason, it got me thinking about Matt Swartz's articles on teams re-signing their own free agents. I wonder if the extra knowledge of its own prospects helps to give the team trading the prospects a leg up on the team receiving the prospects.

Jul 30, 2010 08:11 AM
rating: -1
 
brain1081

But isn't all of this a part of rebuilding? The players coming back only need to match the value of 2 months (or whatever the remaining contract was) of the leaving player. Every thing else is just gravy. Furthermore, when they do provide their value to the team it will be much more likely to be in a contending situation. The team may also be able to see if a fringe AAA prospect can be an every day player going forward or if there is a need to fill the hole with free agency. Regardless, the team was going to need to fill the traded players spot in the off season. Now they have a better idea of if this can be done internally. I think that you're main point of teams not often getting minor league players that end up as super star players is spot on. It doesn't necessarily make these bad trades though.

Jul 30, 2010 08:34 AM
rating: 1
 
Richie

I concur with Goldman. But no one else should care that I do. A Swartz-like study of this question would be great.

Jul 30, 2010 09:16 AM
rating: 3
 
Dano

I see Brett Wallace as more of a new Matt Stairs clone with less power.

Jul 30, 2010 09:42 AM
rating: 2
 
Aaron/YYZ

I prefer a cheaper Lyle Overbay

Jul 30, 2010 10:20 AM
rating: 1
 
bmarinko

While you might not get equal value after trading a star, its not futile as the articles sub-title suggests. Many teams can not afford to keep a star when their contract is up. So why wouldn't that club try and get as many prospects as possible?

Jul 30, 2010 10:06 AM
rating: 3
 
redsoxtalk

Your larger point is true- you are trading a proven big league commodity for an unproven prospect(s). By and large, the majority of even the best prospects don't become regulars for any long period of time.

HOWEVER, I think the bust rates for prospects is pretty high, whether or not they were acquired in a "sell-off" type deal. If anything, I'd think that prospects acquired like this might do slightly better, since the acquiring team has some statistical data they can look at in a minor legue context, as opposed to the draft, when all you have is their scouting report and their high school/college numbers.

What I'd like to see is a comparison between traded prospects and those who are drafted and come up. Who's more likely to succeed?

Jul 30, 2010 10:12 AM
rating: 1
 
krissbeth

Preach it, Steven!

Jul 30, 2010 10:21 AM
rating: 0
 
Brian Oakchunas

Great article. The recent trend of teams being afraid to give up much of value for a win-now guy has seemed over the top to me. Teams used to get ready-now prospects for a star; now it is guys who are 2-3 years away, which also seem 2-3 times less likely to work out.

Jul 30, 2010 11:36 AM
rating: 0
 
pboerner

Another exception: Mark Mulder for Dan Haren, Daric Barton and Kiko Calero. That wasn't midseason, and Mulder still had 2 years left on his contract, but he was an established star who was dealt for prospects, and the seller won that one.

Of course, that was the same offseason that the A's traded Tim Hudson for...I'm not sure. So I think your point is generally true. And I agree with the implication that teams who deal their stars for prospects may not be putting enough weight on the value that a good player can provide, even in a season that ends without a playoff appearance. That's the kind of confusion that leads to MVP voters saying that only players whose teams made the playoffs had any "value."

Jul 30, 2010 12:53 PM
rating: 1
 
Nowhereman

Additionally, the trade of Dan Haren to the DBacks for Brett Anderson, Chris Carter, Carlos Gonzalez and others is looking like it has a pretty good chance to be successful for the A's. From the Rockies' perspective, getting Carlos Gonzalez (along with Street) is looking like a good return for Matt Holliday.

Jul 31, 2010 08:00 AM
rating: 0
 
rweiler

I think the real mistake is trading quality for quantity, and also the act that 'there is no such thing as a pitching prospect'. If you are going to trade a Tom Seaver, you better be darn sure you have 3 or 4 of 'the next Tom Seavers' in your system because only one of them is going to turn out nearly as good. Trading for position players isn't as much of a crap shoot, but if you are going to trade an elite starter to the Phillies, you better get Domonic Brown back in return, and not 5 guys that, if they are luck, are replacement level.

Jul 30, 2010 13:59 PM
rating: 0
 
Tommy Fastball

Hello? Hanley et all for Josh Beckett. Best counter example available.

Jul 30, 2010 17:09 PM
rating: 1
 
greenfrog

The trick is to trade for guys like Domonic Brown *before* they become the best prospect in the minors (preferably when they're having an off season at an early age). That's what the Marlins did so brilliantly in trading for Ramirez.

Jul 30, 2010 18:37 PM
rating: 0
 
TheRealNeal

Just looking at the final paragraph, is this true?

Define "star player" at some level of WARP. Find all the players that were traded for "star players" in the month of July. Add up their WARP. Convert that to your $/win number and add to that the money saved on these star player's contracts. Subtract from that the value of type A free agency compensation, and what do you come up with?

Jul 31, 2010 05:58 AM
rating: 2
 
aidanpalmer

I agree with Steven. For the last several years I've been keeping a list of the deadline trades, and I'm surprised how few of the prospects made any kind of big-league impact (let alone became stars).

Looking back at 2003-2006, and considering how many prospects were traded, the list of successful and semi-successful ones doesn't seem very long...

2003: Adrian Gonzalez (for Ugueth Urbina), Freddy Sanchez (for Jeff Suppan), Aaron Harang (for Jose Guillen)

2004: Scott Kazmir (for Victor Zambrano), Jose Bautista (for Kris Benson), Brendan Harris (for Orlando Cabrera)

2005: Zach Miner (for Kyle Farnsworth)

2006: Ben Zobrist & Mitch Talbot (for Aubrey Huff), Shin-Soo Choo (for Ben Broussard), Evan Meek (for Russell Branyan), Luis Atilano (for Daryle Ward)

Jul 31, 2010 07:26 AM
rating: 0
 
keef66

One more exception--Randy Johnson for Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen and John Halama. That's a very good return, but it's complicated by the fact that Guillen didn't become a star until he went to Detroit.

Jul 31, 2010 08:48 AM
rating: 0
 
Pat Folz

There's also value to the selling team in making itself worse, to get better draft picks.

Jul 31, 2010 10:49 AM
rating: 0
 
pcanderson

It appears from the anecdotal stuff above that the premise might not survive a direct challenge on the merits of the argument. But I wonder if it would survive a speculative challenge, either. We all know the economics of the game have changed drastically in the last few years; as well, the game is getting younger. What I mean is that prospect talent may be stronger, and more readily evaluated and bargained for, than ever before. What was true about trading stars for prospects in the past (assuming the merits of the argument) may not hold true for trading for prospects in the current era.

Jul 31, 2010 10:57 AM
rating: 2
 
mickeyg13

What I saw in this article was a handful of cherry-picked examples...where is the analysis? Is this not a website claiming to be a leader in the objective analysis of baseball?

A star player who might get traded has a certain projected performance going forward and a certain cost. The prospects have the same thing, albeit with higher variance. A nice article might have compared the two historically to see if the star players actually had more value, on average, than the prospects received in return. Victor Wang already did much of the legwork for such a study in his research over prospect values.

No offense, but I expect better from Baseball Prospectus.

Jul 31, 2010 12:00 PM
rating: 5
 
rabbipesach


Very interesting piece. One problem with the line of thinking. Seeing things this way, everything spent on prospects is a gamble that usually doesn't work out because, as Steven said, "the vast majority of prospects don’t achieve anything close to greatness."
Would you say the same thing about every signing bonus and dollar spent on player development? For the vast majority of prospects, this looks like wasted money. What's the difference between trading a star player and spending millions on bonuses and scouting? Both represent the expending of a resource (the star player or the money) to cover more numbers at the roulette table in the hopes that somebody pans out and becomes a star. The question, then, is did you get value for the star player as a resource spent on development?

Aug 01, 2010 09:04 AM
rating: 3
 
jimnabby

Seems to me that the team trading the veteran star is usually in rebuilding mode and really only has a couple of choices.

1. Make the deal for the best prospects they can get.
2. Hold on to him, offer arbitration, hope the player doesn't accept it, and take the draft pick.

So if the chances of making good on the trade are better than the chances of making good on the draft pick, then the team should make the trade. And the reason for the trade really is to rebuild the team. The fact that it's hard to rebuild a team doesn't make that less true.

Aug 01, 2010 20:25 PM
rating: 0
 
worldtour

Did I miss something or was there no mention of the value of getting out from under a burdensome contract? A team in contention might be willing to pay top dollar for a star player to go for it for two months, but that, let's say $5 million, will be much more useful to a team that's fallen out of it going into player development. Especially if the star is going to leave at the end of the season anyway. In that case, even getting Luis Polonia back is better than paying Rickey Henderson dollars when you're out of contention. (I know it wasn't $5mm back then)

I seem to remember a player being deadline-dealt in recent years and then signing back with his "selling" team the following offseason. Anyone remember that one?

Aug 02, 2010 05:27 AM
rating: 0
 
mickeyg13

I don't know if this counts as "recently," but the Pirates traded former closer Mike Williams to Houston near the deadline in 2001, and he proceeded to re-sign with the Pirates that offseason.

Aug 02, 2010 16:06 PM
rating: 0
 
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