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July 30, 2012
Pulling Back the Curtain on the Trade Deadline
As we announced earlier this month, former Los Angeles Dodgers GM, major-league executive, and player agent Dan Evans has joined Baseball Prospectus as a regular contributor. In his first article, he explains what the trade deadline is like from a general manager's perspective. Dan will be answering your questions in his chat this Wednesday at 1:00 PM ET, so submit your questions now.
Tuesday's MLB trade deadline is unlike any other time of the year, as it affects more people in the sport than any other event over the course of a season. By late July, everyone in the game has settled into a nice daily routine after spending the last several months and about two-thirds of the season together. Then the deadline arrives to disrupt the routine. Players, field staff, front office personnel, scouts, media, and minor-league franchises have no choice but to adjust. You you can feel its approach in everything that you do. And I mean everything.
The deadline seems to take on mythic proportions, but for the people who make the big decisions for each major-league club, it is the very best time of the year. It's an opportunity to impact your club at a critical stage, whether you are a buyer or a seller.
Everyone likes to talk about what you're looking to add as a contender, but the other path is the much more difficult one. If you are one of the 13 or so clubs who woke up today with little or no chance to play in the postseason, you have to evaluate who is part of your nucleus for the following year and beyond and whom you might consider moving to try to contend in the future. This is where your scouts and minor-league staff become critical decision makers if you're doing it right. If they can evaluate well and are realistic about your personnel, you can make shrewd moves. If not, two years later you'll still be waiting for guys to get out of Double-A. It is extremely tough to communicate with your staff if you are going to change course, but if there is a distinct plan, they will be part of the solution, not the problem.
If ownership believes in your plan, the decision can be served to different degrees. How much are you willing to do, and at what cost? Every club has its own unique dynamics. As in every business, there are budgets that have to be analyzed. A component of the process seldom publicized is the marketing department's attendance projections for the final third of the season. Remember, NFL camps are opening, and the battle for the entertainment dollar comes into play in many markets. If you tell your fans that you're out, ticket sales and group buys will slow, and the media will favor other franchises when it starts making decisions about which sports are more relevant. There is also the issue of being in a two-team market, which I experienced for many years in Chicago and Los Angeles. You definitely are aware of what the other club in your market is doing and how your deadline decisions will be perceived.
Buying isn’t always about bolstering a particular position, as sometimes you are more interested in adding experience or character to your club, somebody who has played in the postseason and would bring a stabilizing influence. I did that in 2003 when I traded for Robin Ventura, whom I knew extremely well from my days with the White Sox and whom I thought would improve a Dodger club that had not been to the postseason in nearly a decade. His contribution to the clubhouse was enormous and immediate.
A great talent evaluator told me early in my career that if you are focusing on bringing in a starting pitcher, make sure the guy has been there before, because it is a tough task to ask a starter to take on that type of pressure if he hasn't already experienced it. We added Tim Belcher one year with the White Sox because he had post-season experience and great character, and he was extremely valuable to our club throughout that run. I brought in James Baldwin when I was with the Dodgers because I knew what a great competitor he was, having been with him for years with the White Sox.
Like most everything, deadline decisions often come down to money. If you can assume a player's salary, you don't have to pay as much in terms of prospects, and you can remain in talks longer. But if you're limited by your budget, the other club will usually keep you in play but demand a pricey return. I can tell you from experience that you sleep much better as a buyer with budget room than without.
Here is where the field staff is important in the process. You have to know what they think are their club's weaknesses and what areas they would like to improve. Keep in mind that they’re the ones really filling out the lineup card and making substitutions. If you bring in a complementary player or a reliever, you have to know how he will be used, because that can alter how the candidate fits into your scheme.
Once you decide which direction your club is headed, you have to review which teams are a better fit from your perspective, and the sooner the better. Many conversations between clubs take place before or during the All-Star Game events. Some teams are ready to go early, while others sit on the fence because they just aren't ready to commit, and you have to adjust accordingly.
As names got tossed around, their scouting reports get examined, as do their statistics. Who wrote the report? When did the scout see the player? You can always find numbers that reflect either positively or negatively on a player. Everyone has their own stats they like best, and I am no exception. The key is to use similar measures to compare players, and every team has its own favorite tools. I have been a SABR member for over 30 years and started in an extremely progressive White Sox organization, so I have been using some stats for an extended period. In addition to some of the usual stats, I want to see how a player has performed in his team's home ballpark. Along with the typical hitting measures, I look at pitches per plate appearance, percentage of RBI opportunities converted (a Baseball Prospectus stat I have used for years), and previous performance against elite pitchers in the game. For pitchers, aside from the usual stats, I migrate toward first pitch strike percentage, baserunners per nine innings, groundball/fly ball ratio, and complete breakdowns of each player’s pitch repertoire.
When trying to acquire a player, a team has to know the player's current footprint on the baseball landscape. A player's major-league service time and current contract status are as important to know as his scouting reports, because they dictate the control a club has over the player in the next few years in terms of roster status and rights (arbitration, free agency, 10/5 status), along with the player's impact on the club's budget. Every team has its own method of weighing these factors. Service time travels with a player if he’s traded, and some have certain provisions that everyone internally has to be aware of when evaluating the potential deal. In addition, clubs have to monitor their under-control limit, because you cannot have more than 40 players on the major-league roster (with some exceptions, most notably the 60-day disabled list). That is frequently a topic of discussion in multi-player deals, since teams have to maneuver around their 40-man and sometimes will need to make subsequent moves to make room.
You would be amazed at how that initial contact occurs with another club, and how sometimes it is carefully plotted to get the correct message to the right person. It can come from the owner, the general manager, a top scout, or even floated in a strategically placed comment in the media. From that point, interaction comes in a myriad of ways, from direct calls to e-mails to texts and direct messages. Fresh batteries and a new stack of Post-it notes become a key part of your day at this time of year regardless of what position in the game you hold.
It is humbling to be in the race, trying to add pieces to your big-league team, when your minor-league system does not have the resources to land an intended target. One year, a club reviewed the team I was working for and said, "We don't like any of your players in a deal for our guy." I used that as motivation to improve our minor-league system in the future, but those words stung at the time and in fact proved true, as our lack of attractive minor-league talent prevented us from making any significant deals.
Internally, you go through a lot of conference calls and video chats, getting input from the people whose opinion you value. In addition to the general manager and his top front office staff, the club's top scouts become critical elements. Sometimes your best evaluators include some of your amateur area scouts, and you have to take them off their usual coverage. The scouting director and his top cross-checkers know valuable things about players, both on and off the field, from their amateur days. The trainers and team doctor also become critical, since they give you feedback about the risk involved in adding players with some injury history. I know that having the great Dr. Frank Jobe as a teammate with the Dodgers saved me from making at least one crucial mistake at the deadline.
After that round of internal evaluations, your trade targets then need to be scouted again. This time, it becomes a more specific evaluation, whether you're a buyer or a seller. If you’re looking to add, your best scouts have to see the candidates and have the latest info. It is useful just to see who else is in the ballpark and know your competition. People don’t just happen to be in the same stadium. You network like crazy and try to find out about guys' makeup and their ability to fit into what you are trying to accomplish.
One of the funny aspects about this particular stage is that every scout needs to call the host team for a prime seat at each game. As a result, that team has valuable information, because it really knows who is in on a particular club or player. If that club is a seller, the person who administrates the scout tickets gives the best seats to the team their club believes is the best match. If you're in a poor scouting position, you know you're not in the lead!
Great scouts sometimes operate a little like the CIA. One year, I went to visit a friend whom I had gotten tickets for and ran into one of the game's best evaluators, hidden down the line away from the scouting pack. We exchanged hellos, and later he told me that he did not want anyone to know his club was in attendance. It was a great lesson for me.
Another time, I spotted a great GM at a minor-league game that did not involve his team. Knowing that he wasn't talking with my club about any specific deals, I immediately thought he was closing on a trade with the other organization. Soon afterward, he confided that he was there just to watch one of the managers, as he was considering making changes to his field staff and wanted to get a first-hand look at a candidate.
One of the most difficult jobs within an organization is that of the minor-league director, and that person is a huge part of the process if you want to succeed at the deadline. I was lucky to work with some talented guys in that role. Rotations sometimes have to be plotted out far in advance so that a guy's starting day can coincide with a potential opening in the rotation if a trade works out. Plus, if you are a buyer, those assets you are willing to move to make a deal have to be showcased as prominently as possible, and that is an art in itself.
Early in my career, the late Hall of Fame writer Jerome Holtzman told me that resourceful writers, particularly the beat and national ones, know what almost everybody intends to do, because they are getting so much info flow. He was 100 percent right. As I got more experience, I realized that writers talk with everyone and have a global perspective rather than a myopic one. Whether you like it or not, they find out which players you like and which you don't. It's an amazing process. One year, a writer I truly respect called because he’d heard that I had offered an incredible package for Vladimir Guerrero, and he had it down to the last player in the deal.
Guys get pulled from lineups throughout the year, but when that occurs in the final two weeks before the trade deadline, it becomes news. Speculation follows, most of it faulty, but some of it occasionally dead-on. Pitchers get pulled at just the right time to keep their value at its highest point, and those moves don't just happen. They are discussed before and during the game, and sometimes a guy will play when you least expect him to because he is being showcased.
The most difficult aspect of the trade deadline is that as the GM, you have to focus on both the short-term and long-term state of the franchise. You are the only person with that responsibility. It is numbing at times, because you hear from everyone, and each person has their own agenda.
This can also be a great source of humor. I once got a call from a season-ticket holder who supposedly was really concerned about a potential deal. After a few minutes, I realized that what he was most concerned about was that he was leading his National League-only fantasy league, and the potential deal would involve one of his key guys going to the American League. I wished him the best of luck with his team, but he didn’t reciprocate.
Another time, I was filling my car at a gas station when I was approached by a fellow customer. I had our youngest daughter with me, who was only in second grade at the time. The guy went into a tirade about something he had just heard on talk radio and used words in ways that my little girl had never heard before. I let him rant for a bit and then assured him that what he had heard on the radio was absolutely not going to happen. Suddenly, I had a friend, and he offered to pay for my gas! It's only a game, right?
Major-league managers and their field staff are concerned about now, as well they should be. Here is where the relationship between the general manager and the manager is critical. If they are on the same page, it makes the process easier for all involved. I have been on both sides of the equation. But the big-league manager is in a tough spot, because his focus is on his own major-league team. The field staff does not see the farm system, except for a few games in spring training. Sometimes they cannot understand why a guy in your system is considered untouchable. Here's where interaction with scouts and minor-league staff can make this moment easier, because their frequent input throughout the year keeps the big-league staff informed about why a guy cannot be moved.
With all of this activity taking place at once, things get complicated for everybody, and today's electronic advances have made it even more difficult. Branch Rickey did not have to deal with the constant rumors that today's decision makers have to face on a daily basis. Everyone has relationships with the players involved. If you are with the team, mingling in the clubhouse, traveling, or in batting practice, that can get awkward. Media members have to ask difficult questions and balance their own unique relationships. In addition, traveling is tougher than ever and very expensive, so you have to plan ahead as best you can.
The deadline is an incredibly difficult time for players, who have little to no control over their professional futures. Imagine hearing your name come up in media conversations while you were at work, or in a tweet about a trade. In actuality, that deal might be imminent, or it might have zero chance of coming to fruition. But in baseball, a potential trade means that you might be transferring your entire life to another city the next day and be expected to play. It's even more complicated if the player has a family. In the "real" world, these things just don't happen. For some minor-league prospects, the deadline is the first time the business side of the game truly affects them, because their name is linked to a deal and they suddenly recognize that the club they signed with as an amateur might not be their team for much longer.
Once, near the deadline, a GM went to a big-league game not involving his team to personally scout a starting pitcher who was a critical element in a huge deal being discussed. The poor kid couldn't get out of the first inning, and the GM made a bold statement by leaving the ballpark along with one of his key staff members as the starter was being removed from the game. That departure was noticed by the intended observer—the other GM involved in the negotiation. The deal ended up getting done, but not before the ante was upped by the team whose starter couldn't get the first three outs of the game.
Things can change in an instant. An injury can force a deal to blow up or a club's target to change. A "Breaking News" crawl on the bottom of the TV screen can eliminate one or more of your options. I remember watching a guy being removed early in a game once while I was scouting and seeing him exchanging handshakes from teammates; I knew then that he wasn't coming to my club. An injury to a prospect that you're dangling can force a club out of trade talks. When working on a deal, you'll usually get a call telling you that the team is going in another direction. When Plan A is no longer available and you have fewer options, you have to turn to Plan B or C immediately.
The final few hours before the deadline are unlike anything that I have ever experienced, and the last 45 minutes can be stunningly busy and not for the faint of heart. This situation requires a balancing act, and it’s impressive to see what some people can accomplish under the pressure. Baseball staffs often conduct multiple conversations at once, and the GM is always trying to develop and keep his options open while measuring whether a deal can be consummated. Relationships are key, as one person cannot manage all potential trade partners. Fallback options are critical. Like any negotiation, there comes a time when all the cards are on the table, and everyone has their own way of managing that moment.
Finally, the key is that every trade must be completed in time for the transaction to be submitted and approved by the central office. There are 30 clubs considering multiple deals at the deadline, so your administrative personnel have to be just as strategic in terms of having all of the necessary paperwork and functions completed. That can be a test at crunch time. There are some deals that would have been huge but were never completed because the teams involved ran out of time.
The End Result
General managers like John Schuerholz or Pat Gillick have made great deals to propel their contending teams to the playoffs or even a World Series. Consider what adding Rickey Henderson, Mark McGwire, Fred McGriff, David Cone, or Doyle Alexander meant to their teams. Now there are more post-season spots than ever before, but you have to win as many as 12 games to earn a World Series title.
Adding a starting pitcher at the deadline is difficult, but frequently lost in the details is how the trade deepens the rotation, pushing some of the starters to a lower notch than where they were before. Often, I hear that a pitcher acquired at the deadline will make only a dozen starts, but in reality, the addition positively affects match-ups for the rest of the season and gives you better depth if you get to the postseason. The September schedule has more off days, and smart pitching coaches can plot a rotation that makes the most of those dates. Adding a pitcher could be huge for a wild card entrant this year, because getting into the League Division Series requires winning a single-game playoff and then possibly starting a five-game series the very next day. Making a trade that leads to a deeper rotation could enable a club to survive that initial five-game series.
A pet peeve of mine is when people rush to judgment on who won a deal. In reality, you cannot review a trade at the time it occurs. A team that gets to the postseason or wins a World Series because of a big contribution from a deadline acquisition likes the deal even more in October. Prospects take time to develop, and the "selling" team can't evaluate its end of the deal immediately. It's fun to talk about transaction winners and losers, but no one really knows which is which, since it sometimes takes years after a deal for its full effects to become known.
There have been some suggestions that the trade deadline should be pushed back by a couple weeks, potentially to August 15. I understand both sides of this debate and feel that asking teams to make a decision on their status on July 31 might be too early, particularly with two post-season spots being added this year. At the end of the 2012 season, we will have a better idea of how it all works. Selfishly, it would have simplified my life a little in the past if the deadline were later. Our oldest daughter, who is now in college, says that she didn’t grasp when she was young that her birthday was a few days before the trade deadline but now understands and appreciates why Dad was on the phone so frequently at her parties.
One year, I spent the final 13 days before the trade deadline scouting in 12 different cities. I was coordinating our overall coverage, and on the morning of August 1, I ended up at an airport with three other scouts whom I had been running into for two weeks at many of the same games. We had a great chat, and although we had been pursuing many of the same players, we let our guards down a bit. One of the scouts uttered something that I will never forget: "It was incredibly fun giving my 100 percent for the last few weeks to get five percent of what we were trying to do accomplished."
His club won the World Series that year, and I called him the day after they hoisted the trophy to remind him of the conversation we had and congratulate him.
Enjoy the deadline, and appreciate what makes it such a unique part of the game. I know I will.