On Aristotle and the ethics of the trade deadline.
I’m in the middle of a move this week, and almost to the half-dreaded, half-anticipated moment where I unbox all of my books and get them back on their shelves. Unlike a lot of the staff at BP, my background is less in baseball and more in literature, so while I have the requisite classics—Cobb, Moneyball—on my shelves, much of my collection is literature, philosophy, and weird ephemera. And it was during the sorting of a lot of the ephemera of the ancient Greeks that I started thinking about the upcoming trade deadline. How, I wondered aloud likely to the shock and dismay of my cats and anyone else awake at 1:30 a.m., would the ancient Greeks judge the value of MLB trades?
It sounds like a silly question until you remember that the Greeks judged most everything on whether or not it was edifying and appropriate. While Gorgias, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Patrick Dubuque would all be quick to remind us that the Greeks had their weird side as well, the staid evaluative practicality of Aristotle looms over their philosophical tradition, particularly over the aesthetic side of things. Aristotle’s Poetics, for instance, takes a typically Platonic view of art, arguing that art’s value lies primarily in its ability to imitate life honestly. To narrow down what could be a seminar on early aesthetic theory: Plato exiled the poets from the Republic because of their ability to convincingly lie; Aristotle argues that only bad poets would do such a thing in the first place. Both philosophers agree on what makes art good and bad, but Plato would legislate art while Aristotle is content in judging its quality.
In a way, Plato’s position must have been pretty similar to the writers who had to deal with the Wild West of early baseball. The deadline itself was instituted in 1923 as a response to teams’ attempts to game competition by buying and selling players up until the World Series. And one can imagine that watching the New York Yankees and Giants buying up talent before World Series runs would make anyone hostile to the very idea of player mobility, even if one could still imagine a “good” or “bad” trade. But after the implementation and finessing of the modern trade deadline, coupled with the modernization of player salaries and contracts, the balance of trade has shifted to the point where judgment trumps legislation. No one is trading anyone of any moment without giving up something more fungible than cash, namely talent. Now the question isn’t “how do we stop all of this?” but “how do we know if the trade was good or bad?”
Let’s get this out of the way here: All trades are kind of bad for the minor-league talent moving. The fact that minor leaguers are attractive to teams because they’re affordable for many years, regardless of their talent, is a bit of a kick in the pants to any young player. Teams know they don’t have to pay you fairly for six years, and you can be moved from city to city without much if any warning. But that’s another column (maybe next week’s column!). And true, the veterans traded are often happy to move on to a team in contention, but there are many who would rather not leave and who haven’t earned the five and 10 rights that would let them choose to stay. So there are trades that are bad for all involved, regardless of fairness or agreeability.
For anyone who isn’t a minor leaguer or a frustrated veteran, though, trades have complex criteria for their quality. Fans, as we know, are bad analysts of trades, as they are too attached to their team’s prospects or overvalue their veterans: Every fan thinks its front office sold too low on their future stars or didn’t get enough for its star players. But outside of fan circles, (relatively) dispassionate observers are seemingly more concerned with something close to what Aristotle was: the imitation of expected reality. No one likes, say, when a Shelby Miller nets a huge package after a decent-but-not-elite season; and similarly people are perplexed when top prospects are sold low, as in the Mark Appel deal of last winter. Not that the teams were wrong to make these trades or simply blinkered, but that the fans did not see the trades as pleasing. They were wrong, dissonant or confounding.
And why? Well, I’d suggest it’s because they don’t look like trades we as fans would propose ourselves hypothetically. They seem unfair one way or another, or they seem otherwise unsuited to the players involved, at least as we as fans understand them and their value. What we want to see are deals like the recent Drew Pomeranz-for-Anderson Espinoza deal. We see a high-performing young starter with question marks traded for a high-upside, risky pitching prospect and we all kind of nod and say “That’s probably what I’d have asked for/what I’d have offered.” We can go back and forth about whether or not one team overpaid or underasked, but we don’t find the concept of the trade dissonant. It makes sense within the genre of the form.
The Outcomes discuss the ideal baseball simulation, take reader Scoresheet questions, and more.
This Week’s Podcast
This week, the Three True Outcomes continue our discussion of the ideal baseball simulation. We take reader questions about players, trades and simulations and we go even deeper into the nuances of random, stochastic and deterministic. We also talk about the futures game--well, Ian does--and of course the best things we saw this week.
The rest of this article is restricted to Baseball Prospectus Subscribers.
Not a subscriber?
Click here for more information on Baseball Prospectus subscriptions or use the buttons to the right to subscribe and get access to the best baseball content on the web.
All Seattle does is hit walk-off dingers. Plus: Felix returns, Hanley takes a swing at four bombs in a game, and the Cubs are good again.
The Wednesday Takeaway
Walk-off victories are clearly the most exciting victories there are in baseball, but there are within the category clearly the most exciting walkoffs in baseball. There have been some especially intriguing contenders of late: Josh Harrison hit a Little League home run to send the Pirates to victory last night, and the Padres won a game via walk-off balk this past Saturday. However, nothing beats a walk-off home run for symphonic release, and one team that’s been taking particular joy in ending games via walk-off dongers has been the Seattle Mariners.
The free agent compensation system adds even more uncertainty to the trade deadline.
The current system for free agent compensation incentivizes impending free agents to get themselves traded, as any player dealt during a season is not eligible to receive a qualifying offer the following offseason. For top-level free agents that distinction matters little, since teams are gladly willing to forfeit a draft pick to sign them, but for mid-level free agents, hitting the open market with draft pick compensation attached can suppress their value so much that otherwise interested teams don’t even enter the bidding. It’s a badly flawed system that takes millions of dollars from veteran players looking for their first (and in some cases, only) big payday. Maybe the next collective bargaining agreement will eliminate the flaw; until then, we talk about it.
Not only can the qualifying offer crush a free agent’s market during the offseason, it can influence decisions made by teams at the trade deadline, as front offices look ahead to the offseason. For instance, when asked about Rich Hill thriving on a one-year deal and the perception that Oakland definitively plans to trade the 36-year-old left-hander, with free agency around the corner, A’s front office boss Billy Beane recently told Peter Gammons: “We would have no problem making him a qualifying offer.”
That certainly benefits the A’s, who can now bring additional leverage into trade negotiations by knowing they’d either be able to re-sign Hill to a one-year deal or snag a draft pick if he departs as a free agent. However, it does anything but benefit Hill, who would be forced to pick between accepting the qualifying offer to remain with the A’s on a one-year contract or taking his chances in free agency with the draft pick compensation weighing his market down. For a 36-year-old who has bounced around a ton and is looking for his first multi-year contract, that stinks.
These trades don't and wouldn't happen. But what if they could?
Prospect-for-prospect trades fascinate me. They aren’t common, which makes them all the more fascinating, like a rare comet or a good Ben Stiller movie. They often are “challenge” trades; deals where a team essentially says that they believe in the guy in your system more than you do, and they’re willing to give you something in their system to prove it.
The 2019 World Series might just hinge on what the Yankees do in the next 11 days.
The Yankees have won three games in a row, but they can’t fool us. They’re still no better than the third-best team in their division, and our Playoff Odds Report gives them a seven percent chance of reaching at least the Wild Card Game. There’s no question that this team needs to sell at the deadline, and the charade the team’s front office and ownership group are conducting through the tabloids in New York is just that. They’ll trade Carlos Beltran and Aroldis Chapman this month. It’s just a matter of time.
For my money, though, the team shouldn’t stop there. Andrew Miller is the hottest name on the trade market, but only because it’s so non-controversial to suggest that an elite relief pitcher on a bad team be traded. The Yankees should trade Miller, but they shouldn’t stop there, either. The next good Yankees team, at this moment, is three or four years away. The market is shaping up perfectly, though, to allow Brian Cashman to shorten that term of mediocrity, to push the pedal to the floor and speed his team back to the brink of contention—with an organization full of young talent, this time.
Notes on prospects who stood out yesterday, including Yadier Alvarez, Engelb Vielma, Austin Gomber, and Christin Stewart.
Prospect of the Day: Yadier Alvarez, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers (Single-A Great Lakes): 5 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 10 K.
Alvarez showed he was way too advanced to be facing AZL pitching and earned a promotion to the Midwest League. He’s probably too advanced to be here, too. Alvarez has an easy 80 fastball that will touch triple-digits with life, and he’s showing a plus slider at times to give hitters from both sides of the plate fits. The command still has a long way to go and there’s some effort here that may make him a reliever long term, but outside of Julio Urias, he has the highest upside of any arm in the Dodgers system.