The Lopsided Trade is Dead
Trade season is almost officially over. The bulk of player movement occurred in the days leading up to the non-waiver trade deadline at the end of July, and as August ends, the waiver trade deadline will pass. With it will pass the opportunity for any team to acquire a player that they can subsequently add to their postseason roster.
Seeing players move every which way is one of this sport’s delights. Picking up their lives and heading to a brand-new city, with hardly any agency to choose that new city, is surely difficult for the players as people. But for us as fans, it gives us endless fodder to shamelessly discuss. Which team got the best of each deal? What does each deal signal about a particular team’s intentions or hopes?
Something’s changed in recent years, however; the lopsided trade has died. Now, this isn’t to say there aren’t trades that end up lopsided, as there will always be trades that teams regret in retrospect. What we no longer have these days are trades in which one team clearly got the upper-hand from the get-go.
Instead, nearly every trade can be summed up with the same response: “Well, sure, I can see why each team would do that. This makes sense from both sides”. It’s increasingly uncommon for a trade to be consummated and for one team to look like it just got taken to the cleaners. Every trade has its merits for each partner.
Look at some of the higher profile trades in the past year. The Red Sox got Chris Sale, the best pitcher in the American League, but they had to surrender Yoan Moncada, the best prospect in baseball at the time, along with several other quality prospects. In order to reel in Jose Quintana, the Cubs too had to sacrifice an elite hitting prospect in Eloy Jimenez, a top-100 pitching prospect in Dylan Cease, and lottery tickets. The Yankees were able to get Sonny Gray while sacrificing next to no present value, but the combination of Jorge Mateo, Dustin Fowler, and James Kaprelian provide the A’s the kind of high-risk/high-upside return they are looking for at this point in their rebuild.
The Yankees also shored up their bullpen last month in bringing in David Roberston and Tommy Kahnle, but had to let go of their first round pick from 2016, Blake Rutherford. It cost them Zack Litell, a pop-up arm with an ERA of 2.15 in the minors, for a couple months of Jaime Garcia. Perhaps some of these deals will look like heists in the future, but from our vantage point here, they look reasonable for everyone involved.
A theme arises when looking down the lists of recently consummated trades: teams appear to be increasingly aware of their spot on the win-curve. Teams don’t foolishly sacrifice prospects for veterans when they aren’t in contention, and the teams that are flipping future value for current production make sure that they are legitimate playoff contenders before mortgaging their farm system. With teams across the board acting realistically about their own chances and own prospects, they are making more responsible decisions about where to allocate their resources.
The White Sox knew they were not likely to compete now, so they overhauled their farm system at the cost of their best veteran contributors. The Nationals know they have a window with Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, Daniel Murphy and company that could close with a potential Harper departure next year, and funneled future resources to bring in reinforcements. The Yankees wisely rebuilt at last year’s deadline when the team was mired at .500, and then just as quickly and wisely switched to buying this season when the team unexpectedly over-performed.
As long as most teams are aware of what they’re trying to do at each given moment and are realistic about their odds and their resources, it will be harder for teams to swindle each other. There are no teams flailing about without a plan in place as to when and how they intend to compete. There will always be teams in the middle that have relatively tough decisions about whether to buy or sell at a particular trade deadline, such as this year’s Rangers, Twins, or Royals, but there are no longer teams that will haphazardly choose to commit to the wrong side.
Why does seemingly every trade look reasonable on paper on both sides? For one, the democratization of analytics across baseball helps. Every team has a team of quants on their side, to go along with their squadron of coaches and scouts and general baseball-men. There aren’t any more teams that are completely in the dark with regards to more advanced ways of evaluating and projecting players, and of evaluating and projecting prospects.
All 30 teams have a decent grasp of how to value their current players, their future players, and the players and prospects of other teams. That grasp, coupled with each team’s general awareness of their place in the contention-cycle, leads to an environment where every front office can enter trade negotiations lucidly. This limits the potential for a heist, such as the one the Indians conducted when they brought in Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, and Grady Sizemore for a Bartolo Colon rental 15 years ago, or when the Tigers fleeced the Marlins for Miguel Cabrera in 2007.
The relative parity among front offices is the best explanation we have for why trades seem sensible these days. The Diamondbacks’ trade for Shelby Miller two years ago may stand as the final example of a team that simply wasn’t aware of their own chances of contending or of their own prospects’ value making a severely damaging trade that everyone could see as disastrous from the outset. With a new, more competent front office in Arizona, not even the D-Backs can be taken advantage of anymore.
This is all probably for the better, even if it is fun to harp on a team making a boneheaded trade. For now, trades are going to be consummated with generally fair reasons provided by all parties. That is, at least, until this parity among management is broken, when some new advantage is found, some new inefficiency to exploit. It’s impossible to tell what those inefficiencies could be ten years from now, but at the moment, we are in the golden age of fair trades.