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June 26, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

Much Ado About Nothing

by Joe Sheehan

The baseball world is abuzz with trade rumors that have a pair of thirtysomething Hispanic right fielders with good power and suspect defensive ability changing addresses. Juan Gonzalez and Sammy Sosa could be going to Boston, Toronto, the Bronx, Queens or possibly even staying in their current cities, Detroit and Chicago.

Not to be a contrarian...OK, in part to be a contrarian...I'm going to point out something that may ruin the fun: whatever happens isn't going to impact the standings that much, either for the team trading the star or for the team acquiring one.

Over the course of a season, the very best players in baseball are worth between seven and nine wins over an average player. In half a season, those players can be worth, then, between three-and-a-half and four-and-a-half wins.

That's the best players: otherworldly hitters like Mark McGwire; great hitters who play key defensive positions like Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra; or great pitchers having their best seasons, like Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson. It's not unfair to say that Gonzalez and Sosa, while excellent players, are not in that category. Both are corner outfielders who play average or below-average defense and will hit at a .300 EqA level.

Sosa and Gonzalez look very good to the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox right now because those teams are wasting at-bats on unacceptable corner outfielders. But there are other players who would upgrade those at-bats for considerably less than what either of the two famous guys will cost, either in talent and in future commitments.

That last part is key: Gonzalez is a free agent after the 2000 season, so trading for him without signing him to an extension sets up the possibility of trading a lot of talent for 275 at-bats. Signing him to an expensive extension, given his performance decline, age and single-dimension game, is an even bigger risk.

Sosa isn't a free agent until after the 2001 season, but he is a 10-and-5 player who is expected to demand an extension before approving any trade. While a better player and a better risk than Gonzalez, he will also be more expensive and probably require a longer commitment. Is it worth committing $18 million a year for four to six years to Sammy Sosa when better, younger players like Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez will be available in three months?

(Free hint: No.)

If you're the Tigers or the Cubs, history is not looking kindly upon you. Teams that trade superstars in-season have generally done a lousy job of acquiring talent that eventually contributes to a winning team. You hear a lot about Jeff Bagwell-for-Larry Andersen and John Smoltz-for-Doyle Alexander, but those trades are exceptions. The Mariners did well in trading Randy Johnson in 1998, but for every John Halama there are a half-dozen Marty Janzens.

The Tigers probably have to trade Gonzalez. He's unlikely to re-sign with them and he can't help them do anything this year but hurt their draft position. They should do everything they can to get a deal worked out, focusing less on quantity and more on getting the one right prospect--Nick Johnson or someone of that ilk--from the right suitor.

On the other hand, the Cubs don't have to trade Sosa, and they need to recognize that. Somewhere along the line, the time to make a decision on a player who could be lost to free agency was moved up from the trade deadline of his walk season to the winter before his walk season to, now, a season-and-a-half before his walk season. The line runs from Randy Johnson through Ken Griffey and Shawn Green and now to Sosa, and it's a silly trend that is easily stopped by baseball front offices.

The Cubs have Sosa signed at below market value through 2001. He's a hot property now, but this winter they can get more teams involved and make a trade that really helps the organization. The sudden rush to move him has more to do with a silly personality dispute than with any sound baseball judgment. Recognizing that and backing away from a panic trade would be the best thing they could do.

If either player is dealt, he won't be the difference in the AL East race or push the Mets into a wild-card slot. Over three months, he might be worth a game or two over and above what his new team would have played in his spot, while receiving credit well in excess of that for any success his new team has. Keep that in mind when reading about the latest thing whispered in the ear of a sportswriter.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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