Who Says MLB Teams Shouldn’t Keep Their Stars?

David PriceThe Tampa Bay Rays desperately needed a win Tuesday night to stay on the fringes of wild-card contention. Luckily they had their ace, David Price, going at Fenway Park. After running into some early trouble, Price started mowing down Red Sox hitters. Facing Mauro Gomez with two outs in the ninth, Price blew a fastball by him. The pitch marked Price’s 13th strikeout of the game and 201st of the season. It ran his record to an AL-best 19-5, with a league-leading 2.56 ERA, setting him up as one of the leading candidates for AL Cy Young. As his teammates poured onto the field to congratulate the big lefty, the radar gun reading lingered on the scoreboard: 112th pitch of the night, 96 miles per hour.

Minutes later, the MLB Network studio crew broke down the Rays’ win and Price’s start. There were plenty of kind words for Tampa Bay’s ace, who successfully mixed his curveball and changeup to keep Boston’s hitters off-balance all night. Then Harold Reynolds dropped the hammer.

Reynolds: “They’re talking about trading him at the end of the year.”

Al Leiter: “Whaaaat?!”

Reynolds: “Lotta talk.”

It’s that time of year, when writers and talking heads start advising teams to trade their best players. David Price is about to get expensive … time to field offers. Chase Headley’s career year’s being wasted in San Diego … better explore the trade market. Making up Felix Hernandez rumors has become a cottage industry; even highly rational writers with Mariners ties are prone to TradeFelixitis, with the Yankees most often the beneficiary of such hypothetical largesse.

All these people might mean well when proffering trade scenarios, and sometimes the rumors are in fact more than mere speculation. Smallish-revenue team X has a star player with a rising salary who’s going to hit free agency in a year, or two years, or three years. Rich team Y has a package of nifty prospects and all the money in the world to pay for a contract extension. Let’s make a deal!

But here’s the thing. Every team in baseball has seen its valuation soar over the past few years. Profits are streaming into owners’ pockets, led by a new wave of exploding TV rights deals, both national and local. The latest round of national TV contracts from ESPN, Fox, and TBS is expected to yield $1.55 billion a year for baseball’s 30 clubs starting in 2014, more than doubling the previous payments and amounting to an increase of more than $25 million per team. That’s the absolute low end of the estimated gains.

All of which is to say, the Rays can easily afford to give Price a big contract extension, or just ride out the three years of team control they have left before he can test the open market. Ditto for the just-purchased-for-$800-million Padres and a Headley extension (or two more years), the Mariners with a new Felix deal or two more years, and plenty of other young stars on teams not named the Yankees, Red Sox, or Dodgers. Claiming otherwise amounts to concern-trolling. It offers a bullshit excuse for teams to cry poor as they sell off their best players. And as history has shown, the prospects who poor-mouthing teams acquire when they unload star players often turn out to be little more than magic beans with a pulse.

ESPN Stats & Info found 39 players who loosely fit the David Price mold — in the majors for three or more years and coming off a strong season — who were traded in the offseason after said big year some time between 2001 and 2011. Granted, the majority of these players weren’t in Price’s class as a true superstar. Still, they provide at least some framework for comparison, having all accomplished one or more of the following right before slapping on a new uniform:

• Hit .300 or better (batting title qualifiers)
• Or hit 20-plus home runs
• Or drove in 90-plus runs
• Or won at least 14 games
• Or qualified for the ERA title with a sub-4.00 ERA
• Or saved 25-plus games

Here’s the full list, starting with hitters:

That’s 19 hitter trades in all. Let’s break down the prospect hauls that worked, the ones that failed, and the ones that were more or less neutral.

Worked (5)

A.J. Pierzynski: Traded by the Twins to the Giants for Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser. Perfect example of this kind of deal working perfectly for the selling team, only without the pain of losing someone of Price’s caliber.

Nick Swisher (2007): Classic win-win. Swisher has blasted 148 homers over the past five seasons. But Oakland gets the edge, having reaped multiple productive seasons from Gio Gonzalez (one of three young players acquired in the deal), then parlayed Gonzalez into lots more talent from the Nationals. Bonus points for the Swisher trade indirectly leading to Josh Reddick coming to town years later, even if Ryan Sweeney was just a throw-in for the Red Sox four years after being a more significant part of the Swisher swap.

Matt Holliday: Holliday has proved the doubters wrong by remaining an elite player, even a borderline MVP candidate, since leaving the thin air of Colorado. Given the combination of skill, youth, and service time the Rockies got back in Carlos Gonzalez, Huston Street, and Greg Smith, you’ll never hear anyone complain for a second at 20th and Blake.

Curtis Granderson: It’s almost impossible to win a trade when you chuck Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson overboard at the same time. But the combination of Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer, Phil Coke, and Daniel Schlereth also produced a delicious cocktail of skill, youth, and service time that in turn freed up resources for big moves such as the signing of Prince Fielder.

Mark Reynolds: Reynolds has hit 59 homers in the two years since the trade. But he’s such a colossal minus on defense (and a strikeout machine on offense) that even if the D-backs get no lasting value other than David Hernandez’s reliable setup work, it’s still worth it.

Didn’t Work (5)

Shea Hillenbrand: Hardly a star, but the player the Diamondbacks got back for trading him, Adam Peterson, pitched just 2⅔ innings in the majors for his career.

Alfonso Soriano: The haul Texas got back for Soriano turned sour in a hurry: Brad Wilkerson was never the same after a 32-homer season in the Expos’ final year in Montreal, Terrmel Sledge couldn’t carry his solid minor league numbers to the show, and Armando Galarraga will always be remembered for … well, you know. Meanwhile, Soriano might be royally overpaid, but he’s still mashing to this day.

Adam LaRoche: He was actually in the majors a little less than three full seasons when the Braves flipped him to Pittsburgh for two players believed to be dynamic young talents: left-hander Mike Gonzalez and infielder Brent Lillibridge. Gonzalez has had a few bouts of success, but is better known for his frequent trips to the DL; Lillibridge has hung around as a utility player, but never reached his potential. Meanwhile, LaRoche has hit 131 home runs since the trade, and counting.

Miguel Cabrera: This deal alone should make the Rays think long and hard before trading Price, and likewise for other smaller-revenue teams pondering similar trades. All Cabrera’s done since moving from Miami to Detroit is evolved into the best hitter on Earth. Dontrelle Willis’s flameout doesn’t do much to diminish the gigantic disappointment for the Marlins, given the modest to nonexistent contributions of Dallas Trahern, Burke Badenhop, Eulogio De La Cruz, Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller, and Mike Rabelo in South Florida. If you ever wanted a perfect case study for why you pay the big bucks to keep your own stars rather than trying to win a trade by quantity, this is it.

Nick Swisher (2008): A much less successful haul than the one garnered by the A’s a year earlier, Swisher brought back a trio of disappointing players to the White Sox in Wilson Betemit, Jeff Marquez, and Jhonny Nunez.

Neutral/Not Applicable (9)

Dmitri Young: Traded for Juan Encarnacion, who had similar service time and thus doesn’t fit the mold of the star-for-prospects deal.

Randall Simon: Played just 216 more games after the Tigers dealt him away, but Detroit got negligible talent back. Everyone knew what they were getting in Randall Simon: sausage-related violence.

Jeremy Giambi: Fits the Simon class of trade. Billy Beane–angering table-dancing and other cringe-inducing habits presumably known by all.

Preston Wilson: Part of a five-player, veteran-laden trade; did hit 36 homers and drive in a league-leading 141 runs the year after the deal, albeit while playing at Coors Field.

Alfonso Soriano: The A-Rod deal.

Ramon Hernandez: Traded with Terrence Long to the Padres for Mark Kotsay. Veterans all around, so it doesn’t count, though it’s interesting that the burly catcher has offered more lasting value over the years than the athletic outfielders.

Mike Jacobs: Not a prospect-related deal, though you could call this a modest win otherwise: Jacobs flamed out in a hurry and was busted for HGH use along the way. Leo Nunez was an occasionally useful closer who turned out to be a guy named Juan Carlos Oviedo who wasn’t nearly as good as his save numbers would suggest.

Mike Napoli: No prospects changed hands in the three-team trade that followed the 2010 season. If even one had, we could have called this the worst trade on this entire list save for the Cabrera heist. Napoli was the best per-at-bat hitter in baseball last year; the lack of a website counting down the seconds until Vernon Wells’s all-time albatross contract expires remains one of life’s greatest mysteries.

Dan Uggla: Not a prospect-related trade. Also, the Braves would like their $62 million back, please.

That’s 20 pitcher trades in all. Again, let’s break down the prospect hauls that worked, the ones that didn’t work, and the ones that were more or less neutral.

Worked (11)

Billy Koch (2001): Eric Hinske peaked as a rookie, hitting .279/.365/.481 in his first season with Toronto after coming over from the A’s. But he’s remained a useful player to this day. Koch was the guy pumping his fist repeatedly in Moneyball; 2002 was also his only full season as a closer after the Jays shipped him out of town.

Antonio Alfonseca: Both he and Matt Clement had some useful years after leaving Miami. But Dontrelle Willis was a steal who delivered huge value at bargain-basement prices, even if he did flame out quickly.

Elmer Dessens: Part of a four-team trade that didn’t nearly live up to its hype, but the young player the Reds eventually got back for Dessens, Felipe Lopez, had the best career from that point on.

Mark Mulder: Megascore. After one big year in St. Louis, injuries torpedoed Mulder’s career. On the other side, Dan Haren matured into a very good young pitcher with the A’s, then brought back an obscene amount of young talent when the A’s flipped him to Arizona three years later. And that’s before we touch the moderate value Daric Barton and Kiko Calero gave Oakland after he Mulder deal.

Josh Beckett: One of the great what-ifs of our time. Would the Red Sox have been as successful had they kept Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez rather than trade them for Beckett and Mike Lowell? Maybe even more successful? From the Marlins’ standpoint, massive production at a low price means you don’t sweat what you gave up, as good as Lowell and as great as Beckett were in their post-Florida primes.

Danys Baez: One of the first heists of Andrew Friedman’s career remains one of the best to this day. Baez was a pedestrian reliever who carried disproportionate market value because he was a Capital-C Closer, which seduced the Dodgers years after smarter teams had learned better. Though lefty prospect Chuck Tiffany didn’t pan out, Edwin Jackson did. Jackson’s best years came after he subsequently got traded again, but the Rays brass have to be thrilled with the Jackson years plus the ongoing Matt Joyce era in exchange for Baez and fellow fungible bullpen guy Lance Carter.

Jason Jennings: Tough to win a trade when your haul is Willy Taveras, Jason Hirsh, and Taylor Buchholz, but take one look at Jennings’s post-Colorado numbers and you’ll know the Rockies still did fine here.

Erik Bedard: There were extenuating circumstances, such as Bill Bavasi and company royally overrating the talent of a Mariners team that wasn’t as talented as its record suggested; we might never see a trade quite like this again in our lifetimes. But outlier or not, this trade happened, and the Orioles will forever be grateful. The four other players Baltimore got in the deal have had varying degrees of success (or non-success). But Erik Bedard for Adam Jones will eventually go down as one of the most lopsided trades in history … if it hasn’t already.

Dan Haren: Part two of the Mulder robbery. Haren’s had a terrific half-decade since leaving Oakland. But Brett Anderson, Chris Carter, Aaron Cunningham, Dana Eveland, Greg Smith, and Carlos Gonzalez (even though Gonzalez would have his best years in Colorado)? That’s the kind of return you dream of when you trade your arbitration-eligible young pitching star.

Edwin Jackson (2009): See Curtis Granderson. A lot to give up, but more than worth it.

Shaun Marcum: Brett Lawrie. Still a little early but … yes.

Didn’t Work (5)

Cory Lidle: Lidle was a below-average pitcher after leaving Oakland, but he did eat 759⅓ innings over the next four seasons; prospects Mike Rouse and Christopher Mowday never panned out. RIP, Cory.

Russ Ortiz: Led the league with 21 wins the year after the Giants dealt him to Atlanta, then logged 200-plus innings with a slightly-better-than-average ERA the next season. Ortiz’s career nosedived from there, but he still delivered a lot more value post-trade than Merkin Valdez and Damian Moss did in their entire careers combined.

Jose Valverde: He got expensive, and you don’t generally want to pay non–Mariano Rivera relief pitchers much in the way of years or dollars given how fickle they are as a species. But the disappointing combined contributions of Chad Qualls, Chris Burke, and Juan Gutierrez still make this a net loss for Arizona.

Kevin Gregg: Nominally didn’t work since Jose Ceda never amounted to anything, but Gregg was basically a (justified) salary dump by the Marlins. He’s racked up some saves and innings since the deal, but no one in Miami is up at night lamenting the one that got away.

Gio Gonzalez: I’m fine putting the potential 2012 NL Cy Young winner in the Didn’t Work category for now, even though it could take half a decade before the A’s fully know what they got in Derek Norris, A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock, and Tommy Milone.

Neutral/Not Applicable (4)

Billy Koch (2002): Several prospects did change hands in this second Koch deal, but the trade mostly boiled down to a trade of veteran relievers, so this doesn’t quite count. Keith Foulke delivered way, way more value than Koch did thereafter, though.

Edwin Jackson (2008): Probably have to call this a push right now. Jackson got better after leaving Tampa Bay, and pitchers in their mid-to-late 20s who toss 200 innings a year with better-than-average results are an incredibly valuable commodity. Matt Joyce was younger and much cheaper, but his development has stalled a bit, making him a merely good player right now instead of the very good player the Rays hoped he’d become.

Matt Garza: This could turn into a huge check mark on the Worked ledger given the potential of young right-hander Chris Archer and shortstop Hak-Ju Lee in particular, but for right now it’s still too soon to tell.

Mat Latos: Pitcher-friendly San Diego or not, Edinson Volquez still can’t find the plate. It’ll take some time to sort out how Yasmani Grandal, Yonder Alonso, and Brad Boxberger develop from here, and Latos hasn’t been quite as dominant as Gio Gonzalez this year, so we’ll file this in the need-to-see-more bracket.

There’s a clear split here. Acknowledging the relatively small sample of players examined, it’s clear that teams have in the past found more success trading successful pitchers before free agency than they have in doing the same with hitters.

On the hitting side, the Miguel Cabrera deal in particular is a nightmare scenario for a team that imagines a financial crisis, then follows through by cutting its nose off in an ill-advised attempt to save its face. Young position players are much more likely to remain healthy and productive over the life of a long-term deal than are pitchers. The Pirates, for instance, made the right decision in locking up Andrew McCutchen and avoiding a potential Cabrera situation, one that threatened to escalate quickly given the rumors that had started swirling around him before Pittsburgh finally locked him up.

Conversely, trading pitchers in the same category can and has often paid big dividends. Long-term deals for pitchers fail far more often than teams would like to admit, whether due to injuries or the general loss of performance that happens all too often even to supposed blue-chippers. Shipping a pitcher out of town certainly makes sense if your trade bait is of the Elmer Dessens variety. Dealing away young, front-line starters like Josh Beckett, Mark Mulder, and Dan Haren has worked out well too, and teams like San Diego and Tampa Bay might one day celebrate their Latos and Garza flip-jobs with similar zeal.

Problem is, for the most part the biggest scores came five or more years ago, with the Haren and Bedard trades being the most recent examples of clear home runs. Teams have gotten much stingier about the caliber of prospect or young player they’re willing to give up, even when an ace is on the table. Occasionally you’ll see a deadline deal entice teams with World Series ambitions to spend a highly rated prospect or two on a short rental, though even then, the rental can prove more valuable than the supposed pillar of the future; see CC Sabathia for Matt LaPorta. The Garza trade, which brought two high-ceiling but not quite super-elite prospects, along with three potentially useful second-tier players, looks close to a best-case scenario at this point. It’s true that it only takes one needy team to set the market. The Dodgers showed the lengths to which a desperate team would go to upgrade a roster … but they paid through the nose in dollars, not all-world prospects, to get the guy they wanted. It’s all well and good to speculate that the Rays or Mariners could land a prospect of, say, Jurickson Profar’s caliber were Price or Hernandez put up for sale. But the next time a prospect that highly rated goes in a trade for a veteran star would be the first time we’ll have seen it in half a decade.

So sure, put out feelers if you must. But if you’re the Rays with Price or Mariners with Felix (and to a lesser extent the Padres with Headley), think about how hard it is to find and develop players that good. Remember that even if the trade might pay off in the long haul, it’s a nearly guaranteed loss shorter term. And that we’re not going to buy your thinly veiled rants about affordability and roster flexibility, nor the pleas for frugality the media make on your behalf. Not when even the most attendance-starved clubs still rake in revenue-sharing funds, as well as an orgy of TV money both national and eventually local.

The Rays can afford David Price. The Mariners can re-sign Felix Hernandez and destroy the argument that they won’t be good again until after he hits free agency. The Padres can afford Chase Headley, whether in his last two arbitration years or in a contract extension that would address that same Felix issue. There’s no harm in exploring trade possibilities, given all we know about pitchers’ breakdown rates and teams’ success in trading them in the past. But the landscape has changed. Teams have more money to work with, and that money’s about to get much more plentiful. Meanwhile, potential trade-partner general managers have grown less gullible, or at least less willing to put their jobs on the line by trading top prospects, seeing them pan out, then getting reminded of it for the rest of their careers. Unloading one of the five best pitchers in the galaxy means you’ll have to buck some heavy odds to get proper value in return.

If you do end up trading a player this good, it should be to make your team better. Any other reason is just a convenient excuse.

Filed Under: MLB

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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