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August 1, 2012

Sobsequy

What We Learned About the Deadline

by Adam Sobsey

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What do this year’s trade deadline deals tell us about the brave new world of July 31sts to come? Will the expanded playoff format and CBA changes turn out to have made an impact on the way front offices do their non-waiver trading? To an extent, some of the new factors would seem to encourage trading, while others would seem to discourage it. If on balance the amount of activity stays the same, we’re tasked with assessing whether its quality changes.

A few teams are doing what they must do. Sellers like the Astros and Cubs, fighting it out for the coveted no. 1 pick in the draft, are unloading anyone they can unload—drat you, Matt Garza (injury) and Alfonso Soriano (refused trade)!—in exchange for warm young bodies and/or Ben Francisco Cordero. Legit contenders have upgraded further (Angels/Greinke, Tigers/Infante-Sanchez, Dodgers/Ramirez-Victorino-League, etc.).

Beyond that, to be honest, I’m having trouble really assessing what’s been happening. It seems almost as if each team is reacting not only to its own circumstances, but also to different aspects of the new July 31 landscape.

A few notes, then, in the spirit of getting some talk going.

1) Maury Brown devoted his most recent BP column to the new market inefficiency: long-term contracts for stars. (Over at Grantland, Jonah Keri’s thoughts on the post-Victorino—and now post-Pence—Phillies complements Brown’s article nicely.) If behemoth deals (Hamels, Pujols, etc.) become more common, will they seem less cumbersome to trade to another team? I have always thought that part of the so-called immovability of certain mega-contracts owed at least a little to their scarcity, and to how that perception made them look like holy entrenchments on a team’s roster. (This is not to ignore that many of these contracts have no-trade clauses built into them.) At the level of psychology, how could a team consider letting go of a (probably famous) player it had invested so much in signing?

But if there turn out to be more white-whale contracts out there, there’s less weight of attention attached to any single one of them. And with more playoff berths out there, there will, going forward, be more teams in contention on July 31. Why not take the plunge and deal for a $20-plus-million-per-year player owed tens of millions more in upcoming seasons? The thinking, probably, is that you’ll be able to flip him again next year, to another team in need of a stretch-run boost. If not, maybe he’ll actually keep producing and make the contract look at least acceptable, if not better. Would such a trend simply reflect teams’ collective efforts to make something workable of the long-term-contract market inefficiency? Having unwisely sunk piles of money into players like Vernon Wells and Carlos Lee, do teams just start a roundelay of partially subsidizing one another to pay and play these guys for a little while, restocking their farm systems with mid-level prospects as consolation for the end of the old and generous Type A/B compensation rules?

Perhaps there will be some internal front office betting on whether certain players are worth $13.4 million (the amount teams are expected to have to offer next year to receive compensation picks from departing players), but without the incentive to use attention-grabbing impending-free-agent signings as a means to score high draft picks, some GMs could start to regard top-dollar guys in mid-contract as temporary vehicles to drive to the playoffs. The teams trading those players away might find it appealing to throw a whole lot of cash at the recipient, too, just to be free of further pain. As a result, more cash is going around, generally, and so are more minor-leaguers. Clinging to prospects, often seen as a dubious strategy when proven major leaguers are available, may abate.

2) If some of the above is true, then more players will be more swappable than ever. I’m tempted to like what the Padres are doing, extending Huston Street and Carlos Quentin on fairly short terms at reasonable rates. In the future, will the pretty-good-but-not-great 30-year-old making $7-$10 million per year be the best type of asset you can have? (Other than, you know, Mike Trout.)

3) It seems like all anyone ever wants to do with Cliff Lee is trade him. Are we going to find out someday that it’s because he’s a bad teammate?

4) In a thought-provoking piece for FanGraphs, Dave Cameron argued that teams on the fringes of contention shouldn’t pay big trade-deadline prices for rental-type players in an effort to make the playoffs. Why bet the farm on the promise of scraping through the wild-card playoff, all so your worst starters can get punked by, say, Greinke and Jered Weaver?

That logic is sound in a lot of ways, but should teams follow it? Making the playoffs is a huge boost in status—at least, it is for now, until we begin an appropriate devaluation of merely making the post-season as a measure of quality. (That is unless MLB decides to sweeten the pot by upping the payday just for getting there.) Nonetheless, the cachet of being a playoff team is usable. Players do care whether they play for good teams. If the Diamondbacks can squeeze into October, it could help them sign players later on.

It’s interesting to observe the characters of different GMs right about now. Alex Anthopolous is out there mixing it up with the virtually single-minded goal of improving his bullpen. He has taken a fair amount of flak for that, given that the Blue Jays have about a three percent chance of making the playoffs, according to BP. But in fact I don’t think the risks he’s taking are that big. Moving Travis Snider seemed iffy if looked at one way, but the first round does not itself mark a player out as special once he’s moved past draft day. There comes a time when a prospect simply isn’t going to succeed in your organization anymore, for whatever mysterious reason(s), and perhaps Anthopolous decided that that time had come for Snider. Also, Snider was going to be out of options at the end of the season. Might as well move him, especially given that Anthopoulos was also in the process of shipping out the guy who beat out Snider for a big-league job in Spring Training, Eric Thames, as well as Ben Francisco.

Meanwhile, Chris Antonetti is sitting quietly in Cleveland, rumored more to be a seller than a buyer. He seems to have his sights set farther out on the horizon, not biting on the phantom bait of his Indians’ 6.1 percent playoff chances—about double those of Toronto’s. (Trading for Brent Lillibridge doesn’t count.)

5) The optimist in me thinks: Maybe the expanded playoffs and the effects of the new CBA will help force all but the lowliest teams in baseball to call their own bluffs in late July. Possibly, they will no longer think of the deadline in strict terms of buying versus selling, just as they no longer need to consider themselves only as either contenders or also-rans. The line between good and bad teams is getting smudgier; competitiveness into August may acquire more value regardless of whether you make the playoffs. Maybe the new postseason format and the more equivocal off-season compensation structure will help encourage front offices to think more holistically in terms of overall mid-season improvement, regardless of playoff hopes, as more and more of their rivals throw their doors open for business. Maybe that is how this new world could turn out to be brave, after all: not only by encouraging more middling teams to do deals with each other, but by getting them to deal a little more honestly with themselves.

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

Related Content:  CBA,  Playoffs,  Wild Card,  Trade Deadline,  Deadline

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