The Trouble with Trading

Denard Span

is unimpressed with my apples theory. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

If you have two apples and your friend has some peanut butter, you make a trade, right?  Apples and peanut butter taste great in tandem!  But, what if your other friend (you only have two friends) rides by on a unicycle with a handful of caramel?  Now what do you do?  You should also consider what people will think if they see you dipping an apple into someone else’s handful of caramel?  What if your friend is secretly a huge prankster and laces his peanut butter with something awful like Miracle Whip?  Do you want that tangy zip in your peanut butter?  Do you really want to commit your extra apple to these clowns?

Trade is as old as humanity.  From the very start of civilization, groups have traded with each other.  From the very start of baseball, teams have traded with each other.  As well-known as the Silk Road and Columbian Exchange are, the Babe Ruth for cash and Johan Santana for water garbage trades might be equally famous.  If trading is such an ingrained part of human society, why is trading in baseball so difficult?  The concept is simple but the practice is a challenge.  When a team has a surplus, they have the ability to trade and/or sell.  When a team has a deficit, they have the need to trade and/or buy.

The Twins need starting pitching.  The Twins have good depth in the outfield.  The obvious solution:  trade excess outfielders for another team’s excess starting pitching.  This is simple economics.  The Twins have a relative surplus of outfielders and a major deficit in the area of starting pitching.  There are other teams in the league who need outfielders and have extra starting pitching.  A trade makes sense.

Unfortunately, baseball trades do not always make sense.  There have been two giant trades in the last few months (Red Sox/Dodgers and Blue Jays/Marlins).  From a pure talent standpoint, neither of those trades make a lot of sense.  You look at each trade on paper and they look uneven.  In each trade, one team got far more MLB talent and neither team had to give up anything too substantial to get it.  They just had to be willing to take on some long-term contracts.  Boston and Miami wanted to get rid of a lot of salary, not really considering getting fair market value in return.  Toronto and Los Angeles wanted to acquire a lot of talent, not really considering the price it cost in personnel and money.  So, in some ways, these trades make a lot of sense, just for different reasons than one might think.

Most trades are very difficult to make.  There are many problems that hold up trades.  One of the problems comes with each side seeking a “good deal” or at the very least a “square deal.”  Another problem is that two trade partners are likely not the only trade partners involved.  One final problem is that there are other factors in play that make an otherwise fair trade look unfair or unbalanced, including money, fans and other personnel. Let’s use an example:

Minnesota trades Denard Span to Tampa Bay for James Shields

This trade is fair-ish.  Span has had a 7.1 WAR the past two seasons, Shields 6.9.  Span is a great defensive center fielder, has good on-base skills, and some extra base power.  Shields throws a lot of innings, has good ratio stats and can be dominant at times.  Span is 28 and Shields is 30.  In addition, Shields will make about 4 million dollars more in 2013, and 5.5 million more in 2014.  Span is signed until 2015 (team option).  On the other hand, Shields has been extremely durable, throwing over 200 innings in six straight seasons.  Span has had some issues with injuries.  When you add all these factors together, you get a fair trade.  You can argue who would come out ahead with this trade, and a few little things might need to be added, but it is basically fair.

This trade makes sense.  Shields would be the best starter in Minnesota.  He fits the Twins’ mold, in that he keeps his walks low and gets outs on the ground.  Span fits in Tampa Bay because they are losing B.J. Upton, who has been their starting center fielder for years.  In addition, he fits their on-base heavy offensive philosophy.  Span could lead-off for Tampa, a spot in the lineup that many teams covet.  Each team would be addressing an area of need while giving up a player from a place of strength.  The logic is almost too strong.  Again, one can argue who “wins” this trade, but realistically, both teams would get better and that would have nothing to do with who they are giving up.

James would literally drive to Minnesota to help us win a World Series, right? Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Why this deal is unlikely

The reality is that pretty much every deal is unlikely.  All the factors involved have to add up to something that two teams agree upon. There are some specific obstacles that would need to be overcome.

What if Tampa Bay or Minnesota can get a better deal?  This trade is certainly fair, or at least one could make that case.  However, why wouldn’t a team want to find a good deal instead of a fair deal?  What if the Twins can get a pitcher better than Shields (they can’t)?  What if Tampa Bay can find a better player than Span (they probably can)?  Doesn’t it make sense to look around?  All it takes is one other team.  If Tampa Bay finds out that they can get Andrew McCutchen from the Pirates, they will take that deal.  If Tampa Bay finds out that they can get Peter Bourjos from the Angels for Wade Davis, they might make that deal and keep Shields.  So, while the Span/Shields trade makes sense, it might not be the best deal for a variety of reasons.

The Twins might decide that trading for James Shields is a bad financial investment long-term.  That doesn’t make the trade unfair or any less logical, but it can make it one that they decide not to pursue.  For instance, Shields makes it very clear that he wants 15 million per season to re-sign long-term.  The Twins are unlikely to want to commit that much money long-term, especially when Shields will be 32 when his contract expires.  A two year, 21 million dollar deal isn’t so bad, especially when they unload Span’s roughly 5 million dollar average salary.  But, if the long term investment is closer to 90 million, and they have to give up Span, they might seek out a cheaper deal.  Perhaps they trade Span to the Braves for Mike Minor.  Minor is under team control for a few years, will be cheaper in the long and short term, but is not as established or accomplished as Shields.

The fans play a role as well.  Span is a pretty popular player in Minnesota.  James Shields is referred to as “big-game James.”  Each player is far more popular in their own market than the other market.  What is the public relations hit for making this deal?  James Shields has a longer track record of excellence when compared to RA Dickey.  However, RA Dickey played for the Twins in the past and we as fans remember him.  The fans might prefer a trade for Dickey over Shields, even if the numbers point toward Shields being a better return.  On the other hand, the Twins may prefer to trade Span for prospects, with the promise to fans that they are building for the future while unloading an expendable (although popular) piece.

Trading is never as easy as it seems on the surface.  You don’t want to end up eating half of a caramel apple out of your only friend’s hand, right?  We see two teams with holes that seem to match up and we start playing matchmaker.  The reality is that trades take a lot of thought, a lot of consideration and most trades do not end up happening at all.  They sure are fun to think about though!

Let me know how you feel about caramel apples and trades on Twitter – @bridman77 or in the comments below.