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December 3, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

On the Midnight Trade to Georgia

by Steven Goldman

I come to you today in kind of a dizzy, Tasmanian Devil-like blur of frenzied activity, as we are deep into preparation of the 2011 Baseball Prospectus annual, the 16th edition in the series and my sixth as editor or co-editor. It is a time of great energy, excitement, and terror. The book has dozens of moving parts, and it’s my job to connect them: team chapters coming in from about a dozen different directions, stats from another, corrections from under the desk, and artwork from behind a curtain. There is limited time to get all of these disparate elements lined up the right way and off to the book factory, little chance to correct an error if something gets misrouted or lost. The hardest part, as the atomized bits of book whirl dizzyingly above my head, is keeping a weather eye on the Hot Stove for the big move that knocks down all my dominoes and requires me to yank whole chapters. 

If, say, Albert Pujols is traded as part of a three-team deal with the Red Sox and the Padres, with both major and minor leaguers included, we have to redo the PECOTAs for everyone to account for their new parks and roles, but more importantly, huge swaths of analysis in those chapters would likely have to go because the teams involved will have been fundamentally changed by the trade. Having a major star move is my worst nightmare, more so perhaps than the infamous Yankees-Orioles trade of November 1954, when the two teams shifted something like 17 players between them. I use the imprecise “something like” because I’m pretty sure that one player to be named later in that deal never was named, or was inaccurately reported at the time and was never truly part of the deal.

That deal wouldn’t have been too difficult for us, because with the exception of Gene Woodling, the players leaving the Yankees weren’t a central part of the team, while the only key players the Orioles gave up were Don Larsen and Bob Turley. They would have required us to do some rewriting, because they were two-fifths of the Orioles’ 1954 rotation, but the rest of the guys weren’t big cogs. The two teams wouldn’t have had to be reevaluated the way you would have to throw away everything you know about the Phillies and the Athletics if tomorrow’s headlines were to say, “Chase Utley traded for Trevor Cahill and Mark Ellis.”

Fortunately, most of the rumors that you hear over the winter don’t come to pass. Some of us learned that from reading Peter Gammons’ elephantine notes column in the Boston Globe before he became primarily an Internet and TV guy. Everyone was kicking the tires on everyone else, but no one ever bought. In fairness to Gammons, he didn’t invent the winter rumor that never comes to fruition. In researching the historical projects I’ve done here at BP and elsewhere, I’ve noticed the same kinds of pieces in newspapers going back to the 1910s. “The Tigers are unhappy with Ty Cobb, talking trade with the Naps for Elmer Flick.” That was actually a true rumor; they did talk about that deal. Cleveland pulled out—they thought Cobb was too crazy to last. They were right, too, though last he did, because he was also too stubborn to quit.

For the most part, though, you can’t pin the rumors down to that point, because the stories behind them don’t get reported. Thus, you read an old newspaper report and see, “The Yankees are very eager to acquire Dizzy Trout, and a deal for Tommy Henrich is imminent.” You scratch your head. “Really?” you say to yourself. “Ed Barrow was going to trade ‘Old Reliable’ for a fish?” You might check Barrow’s book and Henrich’s too, but of course there is no mention of a possible deal in either, and corroborating newspaper articles don’t turn up. The whole thing could have been dreamed up by some wet sportswriter who was looking to make a deadline.

When those stories happen now, they frustrate the heck out of me. For example, this week we heard that the Rockies were dogging Lance Berkman’s footsteps so loudly that you could hear the panting in Grand Junction. Then we heard that there was nothing going on. That was subsequently clarified: they met with him, but didn’t actually discuss anything. Or maybe they didn’t meet with him, but sent a singing telegram.

This concerned me because the Lance Berkman comment has already been written. A good deal of the book has. There just isn’t time to pound out the whole thing between the winter meetings and when the big baby has to go to press. We get the components in early, and 75 percent of them are cool that way, because the outlook for most players is the same now as it was in October. Alex Rodriguez is under contract, he has a job, and unless he falls off a mountain while skiing, the portrait that we’ve presented isn’t going to change. For others, be they free agents like Cliff Lee or a player like Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who as of now is Boston’s starting catcher but also soon might not be given that everyone expects the Red Sox to make a move, we get something down on paper but keep our hands poised over the keyboard ready to make changes as soon as the other shoe drops.

So, is Berkman a Rockie or isn’t he? The answer, at least for today, is that he’s not anything, and I’m reduced to hoping the matter resolves before we go to press. We pride ourselves as having the most up-to-date book on the market—I would hate to open a pre-season guide and see that Lee is still a Ranger if he actually signed with the Nationals, and I know you don’t either. Now, some of those changes happen too late even for us to account for them, and that’s something I accept but always hate. Most readers are very accepting of the idea that if the book comes out on February 14, and Lee signs on February 12, we won’t have been able to cover it. That said, over the years I have received a few e-mails which have traumatized me, things like, “I’m very upset that Marcus Thames is not listed as a Yankee.”

“Dude,” you want to say. “Thames was a free agent until February 10. Amazon was shipping copies on February 10!” Again, I understand where he’s coming from, because before I started writing and editing these books, I was an avid customer. In the days before you could look up the release date of coming books online, I would haunt the bookstores starting in January, waiting for The Bill James Baseball Abstract and The Scouting Notebook and other springtime publications.

As I write this, it is 4 a.m. Eastern. I am going to read the Tigers chapter of the book now and make edits where appropriate. Those of you who are Tigers fans, congratulations on the acquisition of Victor Martinez, to the extent that he helps you as a designated hitter. All I would ask now, if you would indulge me, is that your team not trade Rick Porcello for Brian Wilson, or package Jacob Turner and Casper Wells for Rickie Weeks. These things would upset me very deeply and cause me to lose a great deal of sleep. Stand pat, will you, for my sake?

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

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