Probably every day of every year, baseball fans wonder out loud whether it’s possible and allowed to trade players while they’re injured and on the disabled list. Every year, for a few years, we’ve been able to cite the Jake Peavy trade to Chicago as evidence that, yeah, you can trade players, even if they’re on the DL. There would be no reason to prevent such an exchange, provided the team getting the injured player was aware that the injured player was an injured player. Now we have a newer, fresher example, since the old one was getting beat to death. Jesse Crain, right now, is on the DL with a shoulder strain. And Jesse Crain just got traded from the White Sox to the Rays. It’s a trade deemed perfectly acceptable by the people whose permission is necessary for a deal to go through.
There was building talk that Crain would get moved to Tampa Bay. Actually, let’s go back, first. Crain was a goner. He was a good reliever on a bad team in a contract season. Dave wrote about him as a Jonathan Papelbon alternative. Crain was sure to get traded, until he injured his shoulder and had to sit out. The assumption was that his value was destroyed, and the White Sox even tried to rush him back to the bigs without a rehab assignment, just to get him to pitch before the deadline. It didn’t work, but still Crain had the Rays intrigued, and still this trade wound up being made. The return is conditional, as Crain and cash considerations have been traded for players to be named later or cash considerations.
Probably the less interesting angle here is Crain himself. Here’s the big enlightening analysis: if Crain is healthy, he’ll help the Rays’ bullpen. If he’s below 100 percent, he might not help the Rays’ bullpen. And there’s a chance he doesn’t pitch at all, just remaining on the DL into free agency. This year, 160 relievers have thrown at least 30 innings. By ERA-, Crain ranks second. By FIP-, he ranks second, also. By xFIP-, he ranks 24th. When he’s going well, Crain slashes through righties while getting the job done against lefties without too much problem. Over the years he’s upped his strikeouts while reducing his walks, and Crain could help a bullpen that’s already big on raw talent. The Rays are thinking about the playoffs, and in the playoffs it’s extremely helpful to have a strong, deep group of relievers. Crain could help down the stretch, but he could really help in October, when the games mean the most.
That’s all that really needs to be said there. If Crain’s good, he’ll help a little; if he isn’t, he won’t. It’s the conditional part that’s really fascinating. Presumably, the conditions will be Crain’s number of appearances. Appearances will be used as a proxy for health and effectiveness. The better Crain is for Tampa Bay, the better the return for Chicago. In theory, Tampa Bay could’ve been scared off by Crain’s health issues. In theory, Chicago could’ve sold Crain for less than they wanted. With a conditional trade, everybody wins. If Crain busts, the Rays won’t be on the hook for a lot. If he thrives, they probably won’t mind paying a higher price.
Conditional trades are rare, but they make you wonder why there aren’t more of them that take place. Teams tend to operate in a conservative fashion, and they’re all about trying to minimize risk. I don’t know if there are rules about conditional trades that prevent them from happening all the time, but this seems like something teams might want to explore.
In an email exchange with Dave Cameron, he drew a slight parallel to the new “John Lackey clause” that’s showing up in contracts for pitchers. That’s the one that says, if a pitcher misses a certain amount of time due to a certain injury, the team gets another year of control at a low price. It’s a compromise, as are conditional trades, and at least for trades like the Crain deal, conditional seems like the way to go.
Relievers aren’t going to fetch huge prices, presuming they’re somewhere below elite. Prices reflect a balance between potential upside and potential risk. Teams selling relievers usually don’t get back major long-term assets, because they’re not giving the other team that much certain value. Teams would be more willing to give up young talent for relievers if they could be assured that the reliever would pitch and pitch well. This is where we get the idea of conditional exchanges.
You set it up so the team giving away the reliever gets back more, the better the reliever does. If the reliever stinks, the team hardly gets anything, but the reality is they probably weren’t going to get much anyway. If the reliever thrives, the team might get a legitimate prospect. On the other end, the risk of trading for a reliever is reduced, because the buying team would only pay a significant price if the asset did what he was supposed to. Buying teams are willing to surrender long-term value for short-term value, and with greater assurance of the latter, there would be more of the former.
In a way, both teams are incentivized to do things conditionally. The seller has a shot at good talent while the buyer only loses good talent if it gets what it wants. Of course, sometimes the seller would come away with practically nothing, and that’s the downside, but right now teams aren’t getting a whole lot for relievers, and sellers would benefit from these trades having higher risks and higher rewards. Occasionally, they might hit a prospect home run and get a guy who can help for years. That’s more difficult to do with ordinary trades.
There are limits on how conditional trades can be structured, given that there are limits on who’s eligible to be a PTBNL. And there’s a handful of questions and legitimate concerns when you start thinking about the details. But the White Sox traded an injured Jesse Crain to the Rays in a conditional exchange, and from where I sit, there probably ought to be more of these, even with players who aren’t hurt or on the DL. Maybe the reason we don’t see more of these is because there’s a rule. Or maybe it’s because teams just haven’t thought of it yet.
Print This Post