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Rentals, Processes, and “Flags Fly Forever”

One rumor that has been flying around twitter is that the Twins have offered outfield prospect Aaron Hicks and catcher prospect Wilson Ramos for Cliff Lee, which would be a solid haul for only half a season of Lee, as Aaron Gleeman outlines over at Hardball Talk. Hicks is a top 20 prospect according to Baseball America and Ramos is top 60. Gleeman calls giving both away for merely a rental to be “uncharacteristic” for the Twins.

Dan Wade of TwinsMVB tweeted the following upon hearing the rumor:

Losing Hicks and Ramos in the Lee deal would forever taint my opinion of Bill Smith. Beyond stupid to part with Hicks for a rental.

David Brown of Big League Stew then asked the obvious question: “What if the Twins win the World Series?”

I think the answer would be clear for most Twins fans. “Flags fly forever” – The World Series is the ultimate goal for the organization (outside of the business side, of course), and so a couple of good prospects and some future wins could easily be sacrificed to attain a World Championship. Praise would almost certainly be heaped upon Bill Smith for bringing in that key piece that would bring the Twins up past the level of the Johan Santana teams which simply couldn’t escape the first two rounds of the playoffs.

How should we evaluate Smith’s part of this potential trade and situation, though? His job is to put the Minnesota Twins in the best position to win as many World Series as possible, while working under a certain amount of restraints. I don’t know enough about Hicks and Ramos to say for sure, but given their lofty rankings in prospect circles, there’s a good chance that they could be major contributors for the Twins in the coming seasons. We could potentially run simulations, based on how good Ramos and Hicks project to be, and see how many World Series victories we would expect from the Twins with them and instead how many we would expect if the Twins execute the trade. The attitudes of people like Wade and seemingly Gleeman suggest that the Twins would likely win more World Championships with the two prospects as opposed to obtaining Lee for the 2010 stretch run and playoffs.

Consider that hypothetical situation – a Twins franchise with Ramos and Hicks is likely to win more World Championships than the Twins with Cliff Lee.

If that is indeed the case, even if a Lee trade results in a World Series victory, the trade would be a poor decisions on Bill Smith’s part. It all comes back to the “processes over results” mantra of sabermetrics, and this would be the ultimate result. The trade is still a bad trade, process-wise, despite the fact that the ultimate goal of the franchise for 2010 is reached. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that this trade would be constantly listed among the best deadline deals ever, simply because, as above, flags fly forever.

The heartless mathematician and economist screams at me about the potential loss of utility from this trade. Apart from a mathematician and an economist, however, I’m also a human being, and perhaps more importantly, a baseball fan. I was along for the Brewers ride to the postseason in 2008, largely fueled by a rental of CC Sabathia, which cost the Brewers Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley, and Rob Bryson. The Brewers were eliminated in the first round, and a top-half farm system is now consensus bottom ten. But I don’t care that the Brewers sacrificed a large amount of talent and likely some wins in the future – that playoff ride was a phenomenal emotional experience, especially given the fact that my hometown team had never won anything in my lifetime. Forget the revenue and other tangible benefits that the playoff appearance brought the team – it was fun. Every time I think back to the trade for Sabathia, I always decide, once again, that it was the right move, because I can’t imagine that 2008 season without the magical playoff run, and I certainly give a large part of the credit to Doug Melvin, whether objectively right or wrong, for pulling the trigger.

Wade’s reaction makes logical sense given his estimation of the talent levels of the three players involved in this deal – it appears that it would be a heist for Seattle, despite how supremely good Cliff Lee has been this season. Still, if we see the Twins raising the Commissioner’s Trophy in November and a new World Series Championship banner in Target Field, I’m not sure that his current attitude towards the trade and Bill Smith will remain.