Nobody takes the brunt of trade deadline season like the fungible minor-leaguer.
As of the moment I’m writing this article, the hot stove is still largely simmering. Outside of the Cubs’ trade for Aroldis Chapman—which, let’s be clear, is fraught and distressing and weird and better handled by a bunch of women online than by me—the trade deadline has approached with more anticipation than action. Yes, Melvin Upton went to the Jays, and yes, we’ve seen the annual Struggling Reliever Swap happen as Drew Storen and Joaquin Benoit switched places, but so far none of the prospects that we cherish—pace, Gleyber Torres—have moved away, and most of the stars remain in place. And so we’re set to receive approximately 8,000 articles debating the relative merits of trading or keeping prospects, about the nature of team development, and about whether veteran rentals are overrated or not.
Thankfully, this is not one of those articles, though I’m sure that if you find any of those debates that break new ground, they’ll be here at Baseball Prospectus. What I’m mostly interested in here is breaking down what makes prospects such valuable chips, why elite prospects and non-elite prospects alike are treated like poker chips at this time of year. As far as I can tell, there are three reasons for why prospects are treated as fungible value: 1) They are largely forgotten by the players’ union; 2) They are out of sight and out of mind for a major-league club; and 3) They have no real say in where or when they are employed. All of these factors combine to make minor leaguers what Karl Marx might call the surplus labor army of Major League Baseball, the collection of underpaid, talented workers that help maintain management’s profitability. So, yes, before you ask, this is a bit of a polemic.
The polemic quality of this article was probably predicted by the first point in my list above, the critique of the Players Association. I actually think that the MLBPA is one of, if not the best player unions in the big four sports, if only for two provisos that make baseball its own unique animal when it comes to player salaries: the lack of a salary cap and guaranteed contracts. That’s huge, and only the NHL really comes close to getting as good a deal for its players. But the dark secret of the MLBPA is that it is a veterans-first organization. Minor leaguers have long lobbied for better working conditions and more competitive salaries, and in response MLB has scuttled their class action lawsuits and defined them as seasonal interns as opposed to employees (largely in contradiction to their own press on MiLB websites, but that’s another issue). And the union has stayed silent. The union that has successfully defended 5-and-10 rights, that has embedded the DH so fully as to be all-but-eventually translated to the NL, and the union that has spit in the face of reports of reduced team profit has refused to speak up for its most roundly trampled members. And, so, minor leaguers are paid relatively nothing past their bonuses, and are set to make relatively nothing for their first six minor-league years.
And let’s be clear, major-league baseball teams can afford to pay their high priced vets and their minor leaguers fairly; I find claims to the contrary laughable. But minor leaguers are just not considered a priority for the union, and, fittingly perhaps, they are not considered a priority for the big-league club either. Recall the then-panned James Shields for Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi trade: the veterans in the Royals clubhouse didn’t know Wil Myers from Adam, and they knew James Shields was an (at that time) ace. Maybe Eric Hosmer or some of the very young players who remembered him from the minors shed a tear for their friend leaving, but by and large, any major-league clubhouse will trade any number of minor leaguers for a shot at a pennant or a World Series. The larger issues of abuse aside, I expect that no one in the Cubs’ clubhouse is mourning even the deeply talented Gleyber Torres now that they have a stronger bullpen. And this is natural, of course—minor leaguers are developing while you’re playing a game a day and trying desperately to keep up with the grind of the season. You’re of course not going to relate easily with them.
This leads to the third point, that both the union’s disinterest in and the players’ distance from minor-leaguers plays to management in general, and ownership in particular. Because for the team itself, minor leaguers represent a unique win-win scenario: keep them, and you have cheap talent even if they just fill a spot on your bench or even if they fill a spot on your Triple-A team; trade them and you can add to a playoff run without really losing anything that will impact you until a year or more down the pike. And no minor-league player has the ability to say no to a trade; you won’t hear about Yoan Moncada or Julio Urias holding up trade talks because they need to be convinced to drop their no-trade clause. And even if a prospect is traded into a worse situation—a hitter traded to San Diego, or a pitcher traded to Colorado—they simply have to suck it up and try to succeed in a worse spot. Prospects are truly fungible, from a financial standpoint and from a personnel standpoint.
Ownership depends on this flexibility of labor to maintain its profit margins. While I still maintain that ownership could pay minor leaguers what they deserve and still pull a profit, it’s undeniable that whatever profit they would pull would be less than it is now. And as MLB is run to be profitable first and foremost—though the exceptions to that would make for an interesting article themselves—there’s no real incentive for ownership to make things more comfortable for minor leaguers. Even management has little incentive, as flexibility in the labor pool allows them to make moves to win now and win later. And even major-league players are conditioned into thinking of the minor-league group of players as other than them, non-veterans, or even as unwanted competition. And so minor leaguers remain as the remainder in the system that helps grease the wheels of MLB; spare a thought for them this trade deadline. As fans, we probably owe them that much at least.
Voting your conscience is awfully difficult as a baseball fan.
There’s a freedom in helplessness. Sometimes, the act of choosing gets in the way of life. Imagine the burden of infinite possibilities: the information cost of picking a new breakfast cereal each morning, scrolling through a Netflix queue that never folds back on itself. The burden of deciding which people you help (and which you don’t) with your charity foundation, the way you allocate your infinite resources during your still-finite time on this earth.
It’s that time of year again. That last week in July when we swear that teams lose all sense of things big and small and ship otherwise valuable prospects in exchange for late-inning relievers who will pitch a few dozen innings over the balance of the season. It’s a formula that the sabermetric community sometimes finds difficult to rationalize. Relievers pitch so few innings and are so volatile that their value is almost certainly lower than that of the prospects dealt for them.
It’s difficult to look at the trade returns for late-game specialists and understand the thought process. The Cubs seemingly traded a king’s ransom to acquire Aroldis Chapman, a pitcher whose performance is only marred by the domestic violence charges that hang over him. Let’s not mince words either; that marring very real and deserved. For the purposes of this article, though, we're be ignoring that component of this trade, not because it doesn’t matter—it matters immensely—but because it didn’t dramatically diminish his value in the baseball world, which is what this article is about.
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 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.
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.