Trading Places: MLB Needs a Player Loan SystemDavid Zalubowski/AP
With the MLB trade deadline fast approaching, fans can expect to see a bevy of starting pitchers moved around baseball. Johnny Cueto is going somewhere. Jeff Samardzija is almost definitely going to be dealt for the third time in 12 months. Scott Kazmir is likely heading east, even if the A’s manage to claw their way back into contention. And hey, the Phillies might even decide that they’re out of the playoff hunt and move on from Cole Hamels, who has seemingly been in trade rumors for the better part of three seasons by now.
None of those pitchers can hold a candle to White Sox ace Chris Sale. Despite its offseason spending, Chicago’s playoff hopes have basically been extinguished, having fallen to 7.8 percent, according to FanGraphs. Dave Cameron suggested in June that the White Sox should consider blowing up their team and rebuilding, and if Sox GM Rick Hahn shared those sentiments, he could extract a massive haul for his star pitcher. Sale’s contract — three years, $27.2 million, with two club options for a combined $26 million — makes him one of the most valuable pitching properties in baseball, and the Sox could rightly expect to extract an Addison Russellesque prospect as the basis of a Sale deal.
The alternative is to keep Sale and retool around him. The White Sox surely want to keep Sale around for the years to come, but in 2015, he’s basically useless. In fact, if they’re not going to make the playoffs or be competitive in the American League, the best thing for the White Sox is almost surely to finish with a middling record and secure both a higher draft pick and a larger financial draft pool to work with in 2016. While Sale is going to be in the Cy Young running and surely wants to continue performing at a high level, he’s also realistically wasting the next 70-80 innings in his arm over the remainder of the season, pitching incredibly well for a team that will derive virtually no benefit from that brilliance.
Right now, there’s no middle ground between those two scenarios. The White Sox either trade Sale and have to find their next ace on a team-friendly contract in the years to come, or they keep him and he spends the rest of the year toiling away in uncompetitive situations. What if there were an alternative where Sale could pitch in meaningful spots for a playoff team in 2015 without the White Sox losing a valuable asset for good?
There’s one way to serve all of these different masters, and while it’s not a legal strategy in baseball, we’ve seen how it can be useful in soccer. The loan system permits clubs to temporarily send one of their players away to another team for anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of seasons, providing benefits for both sides. The loaning team often receives a fee, has some or all of the player’s wages taken off its books, and gets to see what a player who might not make it into the first team would do in competitive action elsewhere. And the loaning team gets to add an asset without committing long-term or paying a significant transfer fee. Done right, it can be a win-win for both sides.
The most typical type of loan in soccer involves young players being sent to lesser teams, often in lower divisions, to try to get them first-team action before returning to their parent clubs. That wouldn’t be the case in baseball. Instead, imagine a variation on the loan process in which an out-of-contention team could send a useful veteran away to a club in the thick of a playoff race while receiving a prospect in return permanently. The team in last place would get a young player for the future and its veteran back for what one would hope to be a more promising season in 2016. The playoff team would be able to fill a short-term hole without having to give up the same sort of prospect haul it would normally consider in a traditional trade, and that impact would come at a particularly high-leverage moment in its season.
As teams continue to realize just how valuable top-100 prospects can be, this could be a way to facilitate trades that make for more exciting postseasons while getting rebuilding teams more young talent. That said, there would need to be safeguards: To prevent teams from exploiting the loan system, MLB would undoubtedly have to implement several rules and processes. I wouldn’t trust certain managers with my ace pitcher, either. Let’s run through some concepts that would make sense as part of a baseball loan system, using Sale as our test case:
• Every player has a no-loan clause. No player should be forced to move to another team for three months because his team isn’t interested in keeping him around. If Sale wants to stick around in Chicago and chase his Cy Young Award there, he should have every right to do so.
• The loan period shares the same deadline as traditional trades. Players shouldn’t be forced to move in the middle of September, and it would be ridiculous for a team to acquire a loanee for what amounts to a play-in game at the end of the season. While you can make the case that the current trade deadline should be later in the MLB campaign, the loan deadline should be tied to the deadline for permanent trades.
• Each season, teams are allowed to either loan only one player or receive only one player via loan. We don’t want to encourage a sell-happy team like Miami to sign a bunch of free agents and then loan all of them if things don’t work out. Likewise, a big-market team like the Cubs or Yankees shouldn’t be allowed to obtain an entire rotation’s worth of loanees if they’re struck by injuries. Teams should be allowed to deal multiple prospects or veteran players for a loanee, but they shouldn’t be able to acquire more than one player on short-term loan.
• No money is allowed to change hands as part of a loan deal. Teams would be disallowed from using the loan system to dump salary late in the season. If the White Sox loaned Sale to another team, they would still pay the prorated remainder of the $6 million left on his contract in 2015. Likewise, players wouldn’t be able to ask for additional money to agree to a loan.
• Teams can set limits on player usage. There’s no way the White Sox are going to send Sale to Houston for three months without being terrified that the Astros will (smartly) use him as much as possible. As part of these loan trades, teams would be allowed to negotiate terms of usage. With Sale, for example, the White Sox could specify that he would be limited to 70 innings pitched over the remainder of the season, couldn’t be used on short rest, and couldn’t begin to throw to a batter in any game after reaching 110 pitches.
• Conditional compensation/usage should be available. Let’s say the Astros trade for Sale and agree to use him for no more than 60 innings over the remainder of the regular season, giving up a prospect like J.D. Davis in the process. It would benefit both teams to have a clause dependent upon the Astros making the playoffs that would, for example, allow Sale to pitch up to 30 additional innings while sending the White Sox a secondary prospect like Reymin Guduan.
• Teams should have medical access to their players and be able to recall their loanee in case of injury. The White Sox should be able to have their medical staff examine Sale at any time. If Sale were to get injured, either team would have the option of canceling the loan agreement, with any/all players involved returning to their original clubs. If the loan deadline hasn’t passed, the teams involved would then be allowed to make another loan deal with any other eligible organization.1
Sale stands out as the most obvious example of a player who could benefit from a short-term loan. And while every single playoff contender would love to have Sale at the top of their rotation, the landing spot where Sale would probably have the most impact would be within the AL Central. The Royals have defied preseason expectations for the second year in a row and currently possess an 83.6 percent chance of playing into the postseason. What they don’t have is much starting pitching. Kansas City is second-to-last in baseball with 34 quality starts, and its nominal ace in line to start Game 1 of a playoff series would probably be Edinson Volquez, which isn’t very promising.
Sale would give the Royals a true no. 1 starter over the final two months of the season and into the playoffs, and while Kansas City probably can’t mortgage its entire farm system to get Sale and his team-friendly contract over the next five years, it could certainly justify sending one upper-level prospect (Brandon Finnegan?) to the White Sox for three free months of Sale. And the Chicago ace isn’t the only player who would fit this list. In fact, if the White Sox wanted to hold on to Sale, there’s another logical loan target on their roster. Let’s run through five plausible candidates if loans were legal, starting with one hulking slugger …
1. Jose Abreu: The mammoth White Sox first baseman hasn’t been quite as powerful during his second season in the majors, but his 152 wRC+ since joining Chicago last season is the eighth-best figure in baseball. And since the 28-year-old Abreu is signed to a bargain six-year, $68 million deal, the White Sox shouldn’t deal their best hitter unless they get blown away with a trade offer.
That’s probably not coming. If they could loan Abreu out for the remainder of the 2015 campaign, there would be an obvious fit in St. Louis. The Cardinals are already virtual locks to make the playoffs, but they have one glaring weakness: a notable lack of power. The Cardinals are 25th in the league in home runs (with 69), and they badly miss first baseman Matt Adams, who is likely done for the season with a torn quadriceps. Abreu would be a comfortable upgrade on Mark Reynolds and give the Cards a right-handed power bat in the core of a lineup that normally includes three lefties (Kolten Wong, Matt Carpenter, and Jason Heyward) among the first four slots.
2. Sonny Gray: Want another pitcher? I can’t imagine that many general managers would be willing to send a young pitcher out on a short-term loan under any circumstances, but if there’s anybody aggressive enough to do just that, it’s Billy Beane. The A’s are essentially out of the playoff picture, with bad luck having felled them to the extent that their postseason odds have dipped down to 5.8 percent. And while they will likely trade impending free agents like Kazmir, Ben Zobrist, and Tyler Clippard, they could help rebuild their farm system by shipping out Gray for a run into October.
Where would he land? The aforementioned Royals desperately need an ace, but if they were out of contention, it wouldn’t be crazy for the A’s to turn to a recent trade partner and send Gray to the Blue Jays. Toronto’s rotation has been held together by duct tape for most of the season after the team lost Marcus Stroman to a torn ACL in spring training, and if the Jays nabbed Gray, they could start him ahead of Mark Buehrle or Marco Estrada in the wild-card game.
3. Craig Kimbrel: It seems safe to say that A.J. Preller’s offseason gambit of acquiring every outfielder has failed, given that the Padres are 41-49 and have just a 3.1 percent chance of making it into the postseason. Preller torched San Diego’s farm system to try to build a competitive offense, and since it hasn’t worked, he would be better off taking one of the few useful major league assets he does have and using it to get a prospect back on the shelf.
Kimbrel hasn’t been quite as lights-out as he was in Atlanta, but given that he’s striking out 13 batters per nine innings and has allowed no earned runs in 12 appearances since the beginning of June, there are plenty of teams that could find a spot for him in the ninth inning. One of those teams would be the Cubs, who have rotated between Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, and Jason Motte at closer. Chicago is obviously not going to give up one of the premium prospects in its system for a short-term closer, but even a post-hype talent like Mike Olt could be useful for the Padres to target as they try to rebuild from their disastrous winter.
4. Aroldis Chapman: Everybody knows that a Reds fire sale is coming after the All-Star break. Johnny Cueto will be gone, and it would hardly be a surprise if Cincinnati’s stud closer followed him out the door. Chapman will hit arbitration after this season and will enter free agency after the 2016 season, and even if the Reds don’t think they can re-sign him, they could double-dip by loaning him out for the remainder of 2015 before trading him in 2016.
There’s another really strong fit for a loanee here. The Tigers have gotten competent closing from Joakim Soria after Joe Nathan hit the DL in April, but Soria’s peripherals haven’t been overwhelming. Chapman is striking out batters more than twice as frequently (15.7 K/9) as Soria (7.8 K/9) this season.
Detroit has also been a mess against left-handed hitting. Opposing lefties have posted a .793 OPS against the Tigers, the fourth-stiffest rate in baseball. After designating the disappointing Tom Gorzelanny for assignment, the Tigers are down to the combination of Blaine Hardy and Ian Krol from the port side in the pen, which doesn’t inspire much confidence. Chapman would attack both concerns while giving the Tigers a weapon in either the eighth or ninth inning.
5. Troy Tulowitzki: No. Oh no. I regret all of this. You can probably figure out where this one is heading. The Rockies don’t want to trade away their franchise player, but after years of losing, it seems unfair that a healthy Tulowitzki is wasting his 2015 on a team whose playoff chances are at a whopping 0.1 percent. The Rockies understandably want to build around a guy who can be one of the three or four best players in baseball when he’s healthy, but that building isn’t happening in 2015.
Now, who needs a shortstop? You don’t have to look very far from Colorado. The Dodgers have one of the best offenses in recent memory, as their 113 wRC+ leads the league. Their Baseball-Reference.com page has that visually pleasant run of starters with three-digit OPS+ figures in every spot but one. That’s at shortstop, where Jimmy Rollins has put up an anemic .213/.266/.338 line.
The Dodgers unquestionably would like to upgrade from Rollins as they enter the postseason, but they also don’t want to block star prospect Corey Seager, who should be the team’s starting shortstop by May 2016. The perfect solution would be a loan of Tulowitzki, who would give the defense-conscious Dodgers a plus glove in the infield and an all-world bat at the game’s toughest position.
Colorado would benefit by getting a prospect from the perennially stocked Los Angeles farm system and further tanking. But I suppose there’s one more risk to consider: What if Tulowitzki likes it in Los Angeles? Or he enjoys the experience of playing competitive baseball in September for the first time since 2009? What if the grass is so much greener on the other side that stars like Tulowitzki and Sale decide they don’t want to go back to their moribund 70-win franchises? There is the possibility that these players being captive on bad teams in August and September is actually good for those organizations. It also seems fair to say that the best players should be playing in the postseason. This is a tweak to the system that would allow that to happen on a far more frequent basis.