The Problem With Trades

Dave · October 31, 2012 at 11:14 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

After I released my offseason plan post, one of the most common questions I got was why it relied so heavily on free agency, rather than using the team’s stock of minor league talent to swing a trade instead. I actually got asked that question in my chat over at FanGraphs again today, and so I figured it’s probably time that I actually explain why I don’t see making a trade as the realistic solution that a lot of people seem to be rooting for.

Let’s start with the primary reason – to get something, you have to give something up. The Mariners don’t have a ton of Major League talent, which is why they keep having losing seasons. The goal is to add Major League talent, not move it around. Besides Jesus Montero — who I’m pretty sure the organization is higher on than I am, and almost certainly not going anywhere — there really aren’t too many pieces on the big league roster that you could feasibly trade in a deal that gets you a legitimate improvement.

Trading Kyle Seager doesn’t help you do anything, because the organization has a giant black hole at third base, and it’s a barren wasteland in free agency, so you’d just be creating one hole to fill another. Selling low on Dustin Ackley doesn’t make any sense. Justin Smoak has basically nuked his trade value. It says something that the team’s best MLB non-Felix trade chip is probably Tom Wilhelmsen. I like Wilhelmsen and all, but you’re not turning him into any kind of impact bat.

So, if the M’s are going to make a significant improvement via trade this winter, they’re going to have to build the package around prospects. And they do have some good prospects, with most of the speculation centering around Nick Franklin and James Paxton, both of whom are easily Top 100 prospects and could be considered Top 50 guys, depending on who you talk to. They do have real trade value, because they’re talented kids who aren’t that far from the big leagues.

But, they’re not elite prospects, and neither one is likely going to be able to make a Major League club out of spring training. So, if you’re building a package of talent around Paxton and Franklin, you’re essentially limited to dealing with teams who are looking to move present talent for future talent. And that eliminates pretty much every popular trade target from the shopping list.

Alex Gordon? There’s no real reason for the Royals to move him for prospects. They’ve spent years getting a core of players to the big leagues, and resetting the clock by a year or two while they wait for two more prospects to get back to the big leagues is counterproductive. They’re trying to do the same thing the Mariners are doing this winter – use their perceived excess of young talent to add wins to their big league roster. There’s a reason they just traded for Ervin Santana. They’re trying to make their 2013 team better, not worse.

Allan Craig? St. Louis isn’t trading away their starting first baseman, especially not for minor leaguers. They’re in full on win-now mode. Paxton and Franklin would be of marginal interest to a contender.

Justin Upton? Arizona just took their step backwards, and they now want to step back into the NL West race. Even in trading away Chris Young, they made sure they got back two Major League players in the deal, filling a hole at shortstop and hoping for a bounce back from Heath Bell to strengthen their bullpen. If they trade Upton, it will be as part of a deal for an established big league player at another position, probably SP or 3B. In other words, you want to talk Upton, they’ll want to talk Felix or Seager+. And Jack will hang up the phone. Beyond some kind of three way trade, I just don’t see Arizona being a good trade partner for the M’s.

I’m not trying to be Debbie Downer here, but there’s just no reason to think that the teams that have these good young cost controlled hitters are going to want to trade them for Paxton and Franklin, no matter how many extra things you throw in. If you’re selling prospects, you’re limited to teams that aren’t trying to win any time soon, and thanks to the second wild card and the surprising success of teams like the Orioles, that’s now a pretty short list.

Realistically, here are the clubs that I’d say you can expect to be moving present talent for future talent this winter.

Houston Astros
Chicago Cubs
Cleveland Indians
Minnesota Twins
Colorado Rockies

All of those teams lost at least 94 games last year, and they’re all in some sort of transition process. The Astros and Cubs are in full scale rebuilding mode, and they don’t have a lot of interesting assets to sell to begin with. The Indians, Twins, and Rockies aren’t necessarily planning to sell off everything with a pulse, but they’re all far enough away from contention that they’d probably be interested in moving one of their players with only a few years of club control (or less) for a couple of good prospects. These five, I can see Paxton and Franklin generating a return phone call.

But, realistically, what are you targeting here? Getting the Cubs to kick in enough of Alfonso Soriano‘s contract to make him interesting? One year of Shin-Soo Choo before Scott Boras takes him to free agency? Dexter Fowler‘s massive home/road splits, average power, and contact problems? Josh Willingham, who turns 34 in February and is coming off a career year?

This is probably what you’re looking at if you’re selling Paxton and Franklin as the centerpieces of a deal. The teams who seem likely to be interested in acquiring that kind of package don’t really have what everyone wants the Mariners to get. Sure, Willingham makes the offense better, but do you really want to give up two of the better young talents in the organization to get a guy who is at the tail end of his career, and certainly isn’t any kind of long term building piece? Or, to get a guy like Choo who is going to test the market next winter, and has an agent who doesn’t know what “home town discount” means?

I don’t. None of those guys are really the kind of player I think the Mariners should be overly interested in. Willingham and Choo should end up on a team like the Rangers or Braves – contenders who can justify giving up significant future value to help get them in the playoffs next year. The Mariners just aren’t there yet, so if they’re trading from the farm, they need to look young. And the teams with those younger bats just aren’t going to want to trade them for a package of prospects.

Beyond that, the entire idea that the Mariners have this excess pitching depth is essentially a myth. Right now, the organization has one great pitcher, one pretty interesting young Major Leaguer, one back-end starter whose salaries are making him a marginal value, and a bunch of guys who might not even be ready to get PCL hitters out on a regular basis. Yes, the Hultzen/Walker/Paxton trio each have talent, but they also each have significant strides that need to be made before they are big league ready, and of course there’s the ever present injury risk hanging over every pitcher that we simply can’t ignore.

The reality is that the Mariners will probably only get one good big league starter out of that group. If they get two, that’s a huge win. Three would be a miracle, and no one should build a plan around a miracle. Pitching prospects are extremely fickle, and even with three guys as talented as the ones the Mariners have — and heck, throw in Brandon Maurer too — there’s just a strong likelihood that the team is going to end up with a couple of busts out of the bunch, whether due to injury or just a lack of development. The minors are littered with guys who had good arms, good strikeout rates, and then just stopped pitching well.

You add two MLB starters to Felix and Erasmo Ramirez at some point in 2014, and you’re still a starter shy of a full rotation. Hopefully Iwakmua is that guy, but even if he re-signs, you basically need two of those arms to pan out just so you’re not left a starter short.

The Mariners don’t really have a pitching surplus. Despite all the talk about this team just needing offense, they also need better starting pitching. They don’t have so many good starters that they’re holding MLB ready players down in Triple-A past the point where their development warrants it. Trading one of them away simply means that the team is even more likely to have to go spend on pitching, either this winter or next, and so it’s back to robbing Peter to pay Paul. This is a team that had to rely on Kevin Millwood and Blake Beavan for most of the year. This is not a team that has extra pitching to spare.

They do have an extra second baseman, since no one seems to think Franklin has much of a future at shortstop, so I don’t expect him to still be a Mariner when spring training starts. And it is possible that Jack figures out a three way deal to build a trade around Franklin and one of the pitchers that gets them a hitter from a team outside of the obvious rebuilding organizations. And, of course, there could be a guy who is available that no one is talking about, much like how no one knew Cliff Lee was available until the Phillies landed Roy Halladay.

But, from just looking at the landscape of the league, there just don’t seem to be many obvious fits for this kind of Paxton/Franklin/stuff for a young hitter trade that seems to be such a popular idea at the moment. If the Mariners could turn those guys into a 25-30 year old thumper, they’d probably have done it already. There just aren’t that many young hitters in baseball who are available, and there definitely aren’t that many who are on teams that would want to trade them for prospects.

The new playoff structure incentivizes teams to try and become decent, rather than simply aiming to be above 90 or below 70 wins. Now, 80-85 makes you a contender, or at least lets you play meaningful games in September. The reason the Mariners are trying to get better is the same reason why the teams with the players you covet are also trying to get better, and the players you covet probably can’t be had for the players you want to part with.

If the M’s were trading Felix, then these guys would be in play. But they’re not trading Felix, so dreaming of the best young Major League hitters with team friendly contracts is probably unrealistic. Young Major Leaguers have a lot of value – a lot more than prospects who need to start the year in Triple-A. So, I’d rather see the Mariners keep their Triple-A guys around, turn them into Major League players, and then move the excess — if there still is excess — to help fill the needs of the roster.

They can get better this winter through free agency, because the crop of outfielders on the market is actually quite strong. They don’t have any pieces who simply belong in the big leagues and don’t have a spot to play because of an overcrowded roster. There shouldn’t be any pressure to make a trade just because that’s theoretically a better way to build a roster. This winter, you can probably get better prices on free agent outfielders than you can via trade. Next year might be different. But right now, I just don’t see Paxton/Franklin/stuff getting the Mariners the hitter they desire, nor do I think they should just settle and trade them for a guy like Willingham if he’s the best they can do via trade.


54 Responses to “The Problem With Trades”

  1. TomC on November 2nd, 2012 10:51 am

    Dave’s post is spot on. I would add, however, that the other options have problems too.

    The Mariners lack sufficient talent at the major league level to be a contending team. Logically, you can increase your talent level through three methods: 1) free agency; 2) trades; and/or 3) developing your prospects.

    Option 1 requires a commitment to payroll the ownership may be unable or unwilling to make. It is also not guaranteed as the Chone Figgins signing demonstrates. In the absence of top tier revenues (NY, Boston, LA, etc.) a bad FA signing can hamper your club for several years.

    Dave has addressed option 2 but it should be emphasized that trades require cooperation from your competitors.

    Option 3 seems to be the best/safest choice but the Mariners have shown no sign of competency at developing prospects internally. That seems to be the Mariner’s core problem – our prospects (and other team’s prospects that we acquire) don’t pan out. Clement, Moore, Aumont, Triunfel, Smoak, the list of failed prospects seems dismally long.

    It seems to me the Mariners primary focus needs to be on fixing their player development issues. I don’t know why, specifically, they are failing but it is clear they are failing. They are very unlikely to develop a consistently winning team until they address this issue.

  2. heyoka on November 2nd, 2012 11:13 am

    Bedard is still available, right?

    He is! Damn, we can’t trade the farm for him this time around. *sigh*

  3. Mariners35 on November 2nd, 2012 12:39 pm

    TomC: Those aren’t either/or options, there. You can choose a bit from all 3.

    That said, your point about player development is an excellent one. I’m surprised it doesn’t come up more often in the M’s blogosphere in general.

    Although, actually, I probably can guess why it doesn’t come up here or at LL much: it’s really hard to quantify, bordering on unquantifiable. Hard to attach some believable objective stats and metrics to the performance of coaches and instructors, or to measure what difference they made vs. what is up to the player vs. anything else.

    One can find contact rates or OBP or groundball ratios or any number of hitting and pitching stats, and sort of roughly translate them into what major league readiness or major league success might look like. You can’t find similar numbers to explain, at the time they’re being developed, what goes wrong with say Clement, Triunfel, etc. You can really only work out some of it in hindsight, if they figure things out later.

    And even then, how much is on the coach, their teach style, their instruction, the playing time allotted to the player, vs. how much is on the player’s skills, effort, ability to learn, etc.?

  4. Rainiers_fan on November 2nd, 2012 2:59 pm

    Ancient Mariner: I looked at the future forty. Thanks for ruining my day. j/k

    I hope my current optimism about the farm system isn’t misplaced. It feels so different this time but is it really?

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