The trade deadline has passed, but that does not, of course, mean that trading season has completely left us. There are still August trades to be made; those somewhat strange swaps of often-damaged or overpriced or simply not entirely desirable goods, only slightly complicated by baseball’s waiver claim process.
It was a fascinating late July trade market, as well; we saw more value moved by WAR than at any other trade deadline in history, as a matter of fact. (Hat tip to the Effectively Wild podcast for that stat/fun fact, or blame if it’s incorrect.) I personally love trade season; nearly as much as I love draft season, in fact. I find it endlessly entertaining and interesting, watching teams make the decisions that will shape not only their rest of season rosters, but affect their club compositions and the state of their respective farm systems for years to come.
I never really tire or writing about potential trades, either, nor the trade market itself. Not that I understand it much at all, I have to say; after all, I did write at one point last year that I felt like the trade market was being choked out by the newest iteration of the wild card, and postulated I could see nearly complete paralysis coming, with teams unable to move at all due to the dearth of sellers, with so many clubs in the race so late, parity creating market gridlock.
Instead, however, the exact opposite seems to have happened; we’ve seen two straight extraordinarily busy deadlines, and I’m feeling more and more foolish every day for so badly misreading the market. The sheer number of clubs in contention has swung the incentives toward teams going for it, and the unintended consequences I thought would crop up have, instead, failed to show up in favour of the entirely intended consequences MLB was likely shooting for with the new format. I still have lots and lots of issues with the playoff format, and the extra teams, and a lot of other stuff in general, but I have to admit: MLB read the direction the incentives would go much better than I did. Too many buyers and not enough sellers has, rather than lead to paralysis and clubs standing pat, pushed the market returns for what players are on the market higher, to the point that the increased demand has actually created more supply, with teams being more willing to sell because they can expect large returns, it seems. It’s really fascinating to watch. There’s also an element of teams simply becoming more creative, particularly those with decidedly new-school front offices, in the way they’re putting together deals these days. Rather than the balance between buyers and sellers becoming completely unbalanced, the two have simply become harder to distinguish, it would seem.
However, I’m not interested in writing about the trade market in general this morning, much as I enjoy the subject. Rather, there is a specific subset of trades, a type we have seen crop up more and more of late, that really stepped to the fore for me just the other day. And that particular type of trade is what I’m thinking about right now.
The particular trade I’m talking about was, in fact, the first major post-waiver deadline deal made this year, between the league’s two semi-offensively named Native American-themed clubs, the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves. (At least we don’t have Redskins to deal with in baseball.)
Has anyone ever noticed the Malwarebytes logo and the Wu-Tang Clan logo are really similar? That seems weird.
Anyway, the Indians and the Braves completed a trade just the other day which saw the Indians acquire the Braves’ current disappointment at third base, Chris Johnson and his amazing invisible
walk rate skillset in exchange for the respective ghosts of Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher. It was the rare trade in which neither team seemed to get any better, and it would be relatively easy to simply leave it at that.
However, much as the clubs in question might try to spin the deal as having been made for baseball reasons — the Braves talked about how good both of their acquisitions are in the clubhouse, how much they love Michael Bourn, and how Nick Swisher will help fill in at first base while Freddie Freeman is on the disabled list, while the Indians, um, I’m not sure what they would say if asked. As mediocre as Lonnie Chisenhall has been this season, and as durable as he hasn’t, Chris Johnson is a much, much, much worse player. In fact, there are very few players in baseball worse than Chris Johnson at this point, and his contract is one of the best proofs we have in the game today that, no matter how smart baseball teams seem to be getting, there’s always the chance some club is going to offer someone a really, really stupid contract based on a full season of a .394 BABIP.
The point is this: neither of these clubs got better in this deal, because the deal was not about getting better, for either club. Or at least, it wasn’t about getting better in the way we typically think of it.
Rather, this deal was about two clubs exchanging contracts. Nothing more, nothing less. Actually, a little more; it was also about clubs moving around roster spots.
The Indians sent along some cash to the Braves, to help offset the contracts of Swisher and Bourn. Overall, however, they appear to be saving money in the short to medium term, as Johnson alone is much less expensive that Swisher and Bourn were. The Braves, for their part, were looking to clear third base for their new Cuban acquisition Hector Olivera, which made getting rid of Johnson a priority, and are in a position to not care about contending in the short term, as they seem to be shooting for a 2017 window opening that coincides with their new Cobb County ballpark opening. (Anyone else always hear Big Boss Man’s theme music whenever ‘Cobb County’ comes up? No? Just me? Sigh.)
What’s interesting about this deal is that I see a clear benefit to the Indians, as they’re trying to clear salary space by dumping their two biggest contractual boners of recent memory, but from Atlanta’s perspective they’re also sort of saving money, as Johnson is signed through 2017, with an option for 2018 that comes with a buyout, while neither Swisher nor Bourn are slgned beyond next year. Both have possible vesting options for 2017 based on plate appearances, but let’s face it: that’s easily managed, and neither player will likely get anywhere near those benchmarks.
So from the Braves perspective, they took on shorter, more expensive contracts, with a bit of cash to help out, and will be completely free and clear by the time 2017 rolls around. In the meantime, they clear third base for Olivera and, possibly, accrue a bit of a future solid from the Cleveland organisation. The Indians get rid of their onerous contracts, allowing them to potentially upgrade this very offseason as they attempt to take the next step forward, and don’t mind the extra year on Johnson’s deal, particularly as I think they’ll probably deal him as soon as possible, offering to pay a chunk of his deal to make him affordable to some other club, thus ridding themselves of all the players they didn’t want for a fraction of the total owed. They won’t get any talent back, but they got rid of what they don’t want.
It’s a slightly complicated way of getting rid of your baggage, but it works. And it works because the clubs with different windows of contention and different current objectives both see there’s a benefit to shuffling those deck chairs around.
What I find interesting about this deal, and others like it, is it falls squarely within the description of a type of trade we see far more often in the NBA than in baseball. The NBA, being a capped league with guaranteed contracts and an insanely complicated CBA, is constantly seeing teams move dead money around, trading expiring contracts with draft picks attached, and just generally performing accounting tricks left and right, all for the purpose of freeing up money and trying to create windows. Obviously, that’s less of a concern in baseball, since a club that wants to spend money can just…spend money. But in the new era of front office wrangling, we’re seeing more and of these moves, where assets are moved as much as players, and it’s less present talent for future talent, or pitching talent for hitting talent, and more talent for talent and a bad contract and cash considerations.
We saw the Dogers do this a couple times this year. They took on the Michael Morse contract from the Marlins. They took on Bronson Arroyo from the Braves. And just to prove money means absolutely nothing to them, the also just wrote off the signing bonus they paid to Hector Olivera, making him extraordinarily affordable for the Braves. In return, they got Latos for basically nothing in terms of talent, Alex Wood, who has been nothing short of brilliant, from the Braves, and a couple very nice prospects, as well, all because they have no qualms whatsoever about paying off other clubs’ bad contracts, or paying players to play for other teams.
The Dogers-Red Sox blockbuster of a few years ago was mostly about the Red Sox moving all their bad contracts; the Dodgers paid virtually nothing in return for what they received, relatively speaking, because they were willing to absorb all the money. The Sawx cleared payroll space, cleared roster spots, and moved on from their ill-considered spending spree. The Dodgers got Adrian Gonzalez, which is what they really wanted, and some decent mileage out of Josh Beckett. Paying Carl Crawford was basically the shipping charges.
The Rockies–Blue Jays swap of Troy Tulowitzki saw the Rockies agreeing to take on the shorter-term commitment of Jose Reyes in order to pull more value from the Jays. If they had purely dumped the salary and not taken Reyes, I have a feeling the prospect return would have been much less.
When the Phillies finally dealt Cole Hamels just before the deadline, one of the players they got in return was Matt Harrison. They got a big package of prospects and…Matt Harrison, veteran lefty. Oft-injured veteran lefty, I suppose I should say. But make no mistake: getting back Matt Harrison was not the Phillies once again failing to properly assess their needs; taking Matt Harrison and his bad contract off the hands of the Rangers was a way for Philadelphia to actually extract more value in prospects from Texas, by easing their payroll burden.
The Hamels deal is the other big one for me, in that moving Harrison along with the prospect package was so transparent. It was reported as simply helping to balance the money, but the fact is the Phillies took on Harrison’s deal and sent cash to the Rangers, basically paying down Cole Hamels’s contract to something resembling that of a mediocre fourth starter type. And they did it to try and pry away more talent from Texas. Turning cash into players. It’s exactly what I’ve been talking about around here for quite a while now. Talent is limited in the game; money, much less so.
It’s not exactly a new thing in sports, baseball included, for a big money team to use their financial muscle to sweeten a deal in one way or another. But this new breed of trade, of moving bad contracts of differing lengths, or taking on a bad contract attached to a thing you want, is somewhat new, at least for baseball. We don’t see these deals in the NFL because contracts aren’t guaranteed. We didn’t used to see them in baseball because money is, at least theoretically, unlimited.
It is a new era, though. Organisations are not only seemingly becoming more aggressive about making moves; they’re also looking for more creative solutions. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before we hear some baseball player’s deal referred to as an expiring contract when he’s moved, attached to another player or a competitive balance pick, from a Cleveland to a Cubs.
In the end, it’s all part of trying to acquire talent, of course; it’s the same thing baseball teams have been trying to do pretty much since their inception. After all, Babe Ruth was once sold. Not traded, but sold, from a club with financial troubles (or at least a club with an owner with financial troubles, which amounts to the same thing), to a club swimming in money that needed a star.
Given that baseball prohibits players from being sold nowadays, it seems unbelievably quaint and kind of dirty to think of Babe Ruth being sent to New York for a hundred grand. But then, if you stop and think about it, what was the point of this column? Players are still being bought and sold all the time, perhaps more now than at any time in recent memory. It’s just that it takes an extra move or two to get the sale done.
Or, if you’re the Dodgers, several dozen extra moves.