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August 5, 2010
Anatomy of a Trade Deadline
As non-waiver deadline time approaches at the end of each July, baseball observers divide teams into buyers and sellers, separating the soon-to-haves from the soon-to-have-nots. A few players from each team placed into the latter camp earn the dreaded “trade target” tag, dooming them to weeks of reading and hearing their names bandied about in various media by every rumormonger in the business, always unsure of where they’ll be playing their next game or spending their next night.
So how do we determine which players might be on the move when we construct our own hypothetical trade scenarios, or evaluate those concocted by others? Certain well-connected sources may get the choicest names straight from the horses’ mouths, but those of us with less enviable access resort to more conventional means of speculation, in addition to parroting the people with press credentials. Do we simply know trade bait when we see it, la Justice Stewart, or is there a more complicated calculus at work? Obviously, one need not be a GM to tell a buyer from a seller, and most trade targets share a few salient traits. Nevertheless, I thought I’d take a look at the players who changed hands this July to see if I could come up with a composite image of a player whose bags might well have been packed in preparation as the deadline approached. If we had to hire a police sketch artist to draw our prime trade fodder suspect’s Baseball-Reference page, how would we instruct him to fill in the fields?
The following table lists the players who headlined their respective deals, along with some relevant information about their old and new teams at the times of the swaps. The two rightmost columns list the number of games by which the respective squads trailed in their divisions when the trades went down (with dashes indicating division leads):
As we might have expected, this year’s tale of the trading tape tells a story of the talent-rich getting richer. Ryan Ludwick may have been lucky enough to play for a first-place team both before and after switching area codes, as he was traded from the Cardinals to the Padres, but that kind of charmed life is far from the norm. The average acquiring team sported a .559 winning percentage at the time of its trade, while the teams bidding farewell to the players in question were putting up a collective winning percentage of .426 when their GMs pulled the trigger (on the trades, that is). The players lucky enough to be whisked away to bigger and better things went from an average of 15
So the typical seller was somewhere in the range of the Royals and Indians, record-wise. What about the sellers’ wares? Here’s another look at the players involved in deadline deals this season, this time from the perspective of their own attributes, not their teams’. Salary information, as usual, comes from the indispensable Cot’s Contracts. The figures quoted are base salaries for 2010; in cases where a player is under team control for another year after this one, he’s usually due for a raise in 2011. The “Over/Under” column indicates whether the player was exceeding or falling short of his PECOTA weighted-mean forecast after his last game with his original 2010 team (though not by how much he exceeded or fell short of it; in some cases, the difference is negligible). I used projected TAv or ERA as the basis for comparison; that choice shortchanges pitchers with skill-interactive ERAs far below their actual ERAs, but might provide a clearer picture how the players in question are regarded around the league.
We’re looking at only one season of data, so what happened in 2010 isn’t necessarily reflective of typical trade deadline behavior. That said, the results jibe with our expectations. Most players who changed uniforms were on the wrong side of 30, carrying substantial salaries, and close to the end of their periods of team control. Interestingly, this list isn’t littered with “sell-high” guys, which indicates that teams were either unwilling to part with unexpectedly productive assets, or unable to convince opposing teams that their performances were for real. The latter explanation wouldn’t mean that major-league front offices are entirely devoid of suckers, but it might be worth remembering the next time we’re inclined to assume that it would be easy to unload the likes of Jose Guillen after a deceptive .609 slugging percentage in April.
So whose Baseball-Reference page is taking shape in our sketch? A number of suspects could fit the description (our artist wasn’t very precise), but our likely candidate is starting to look a lot like Ty Wigginton, who’s 32, employed by a losing team, making $3 million in a contract year, and nearly hitting his weighted-mean PECOTA projection on the nose. Unfortunately, Wigginton has an air-tight alibi; witnesses place him in Oriole orange at first base in the O’s-Royals game that commenced just a few hours after the trading deadline passed. Although other Orioles took wing before 4 p.m. on July 31, what kept Wigginton where he was, ironically, may have been the fact that the Orioles were simply too bad to trade him. The typical veteran involved in a deadline trade may resemble Alex Gonzalez much more closely than Yunel Escobar, but that doesn’t mean that players of both types can’t be dealt (even for each other). Still, when you’re deciding which rumors to place your faith in the next time a non-waiver deadline rolls around, remember that certain subjects fit the profile better than others.