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June 11, 2009

TA Special

The Untradeable?

by Christina Kahrl

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The few, the proud, the... untradeable? When the Padres' Jake Peavy exercised his right to torpedo a deal that would have sent him to Chicago's South Side to try and help keep the White Sox' bid for a successful title defense going, there was plenty of gnashing of teeth. That said, with a deal on the table, it was Peavy himself who elected to make himself untradeable. While that doesn't make him less desirable to add for an aspiring contender looking for an ace, it does provide a gateway to the question of which players might be even more deeply rooted in place on their rosters. Who's truly untradeable?

As much as we might start off with a group of names driven entirely by salary considerations alone, we've already seen Alex Rodriguez, then as now the most expensive player in baseball, dealt once, and that was while he was in possession of a no-trade clause. We can also probably count out equally obvious fan favorites, whether that's Ichiro Suzuki in Seattle or Derek Jeter in the Bronx or Albert Pujols in St. Louis. Were any of those men traded, the subsequent riots would probably make tearing down the Bastille look like a tea party. No, if we want to talk about who's untradeable, we should talk about the players who their employers might wish they could deal, but effectively cannot.

We can start with the truly obvious answer: the Rockies' Todd Helton, whether as a matter of his already-achieved 10-and-5 rights and his full no-trade clause, his increasingly checkered track record as far as his health, or the dodgy performance record that has seen him decline from one of the best pure hitters in baseball in any environment to a relatively power-less platoonable player at a power position. All of that comes before we get into the sheer expense involved with employing him. He has three years left to run on a deal that still rates as one of the ten largest ever inked in major league history. Through 2011, the nine-year deal's final third will pay him $52.3 million (not to mention the $4.3 million it will cost to buy out a $23 million club option for 2012). When you consider that PECOTA's valuation metric, MORP (for Marginal value Over Replacement Player) says that Helton's projected production at first base might be worth only $3.6 million over the annual minimum salary for the remainder of his career, you can see that the team paid a heavy price to retain Helton as the face of the franchise when they gave him that nine-year extension back in 2003. They got value through 2007, but now they'll have to pay the piper barring another monstrously complicated money-munching swap like the deal that made Mike Hampton go away in November of 2002. With that feat to his credit, Dan O'Dowd may be able to never say never, but it's a lot easier for teams to find an effective first baseman than an altitude-battered starting pitcher.

Hampton's unhappy past brings us to another formerly famous lefty turned white elephant-the Giants' Barry Zito. When Zito signed his seven-year, $126 million deal, he passed Hampton's former landmark for the biggest contract ever handed out to a hurler (a record since broken by CC Sabathia and Johan Santana). If he'd managed to at least hold up his end, the Giants wouldn't be feeling their current regret, but not even a move to the DH-less league could mask a pitcher with strikeout and walk rates headed in the wrong directions. His Support-Neutral Winning Percentage has bounced from .529 to .466 in 2008 to this year's employable .546-the kind of performance you can use in a big-league rotation, but when you're paying somebody $18.5 million this year, and owe him at least $83 million for the next four, and that's tied to a full no-trade clause that has no sunset rider, the Giants can take cold comfort that they're employing history's most expensive fourth starter. Add in that he's a native Californian, and the odds that he'll ever leave that city by the bay drop from unlikely to near impossibility.

Positional value and market forces usually combine to create some hard-driven deals, but how do you explain the Astros' predicament with Carlos Lee? A left fielder who was already looking very DH-y when he was inked to a surprising six-year, $100 million deal, the slugger's locked in place with a no-trade window that extends through 2010. The deal will still have two more years (and $37 million) to run once that clause winks out of existence, but how many teams can you expect will want to trade for a 35-year-old big man to park at DH or kill grass with his shadow after planting him in left, let alone invest in the hope he won't lose too much of his power leaving the Crawford Boxes behind him?

After that, we can get into a few lamentable add-ons. Take Vernon Wells' situation in Toronto; signed through 2014, whatever Wells' merits as a defender and as an occasionally good hitter, and however willing he might someday be to waive his full no-trade clause, he's owed $98.5 million from 2010 to the deal's conclusion. Nobody was going to afford that before the economy imploded, and the Jays might be allergic to swallowing the kind of money it could take to ever make the deal go down. Or the A's deal with Eric Chavez-inked at a time when people were bandying about comparisons to Barry Bonds, but at third base, his subsequent, sad litany of injuries probably makes any willingness in Oakland to eat a chunk of the $11 million he's owed this year, or the $12 million due next, completely besides the point. Challenged with a different problem altogether would be someone like the Royals' Jose Guillen-having alienated so many of his former employers, the list of teams willing to put up with his short fuse is already abbreviated; add in his salary of $12 million per annum this season and next, and nobody might be interested. And then we may have a special wing set aside for the Cubs-if Milton Bradley melts down or it turns out he can't really handle right field, will anyone want to take on those risks when they come attached to $21 million for the next two season? Bradley might not even be the most untradeable Cub. that would probably be Kosuke Fukudome, whose now-you-see-it/now-you-don't production reinvents the concept of what it means to go streaking, and with his no-trade clause and salaries of $11.5 million, $13 million, and $13.5 million through 2011, Cubs fans can expect to buckle in for an especially lengthy roller coaster ride.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

Related Content:  No-Trade Clause,  Deal,  The Who

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