The Art of the Sell

The draft is now behind us and the summer will soon be in full swing. For more than two-thirds of the population of baseball clubs, participation in a pennant race is currently a legitimate consideration, thanks both to general parity and the presence of a second wild card club in both leagues. What about the other teams? Some, like the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, likely suspected that this would be their fate, and likely long ago put summer roster management plans in place. Others, however, like the Tampa Bay Rays and – in their minds, at least – the Philadelphia Phillies expected to contend, and now find their reality to be much different. How might the summer progress for unexpected sellers such as these?

It is a very difficult thing psychologically for an organization to pull the plug early in the season. Tickets have been sold with great expectation for the summer months. There comes a point, however, when a team must look in the mirror and see who they are, rather than what they wanted to be. A poor-starting team always believes they are one good streak away from getting back into it. In truth, as long as the calendar still says “May”, they’re probably right. Start moving into June, however, and bottom-feeders need to realistically assess their predicament.

So many teams can look at the current standings right now and say, “Hey, we’re 5-6 games out of a wild card spot, let’s do this.” Realistically, however, they need to look at how many cumulative games they stand behind the leading club. For instance, the Rays woke up Sunday morning and found themselves 14 games behind the Blue Jays. Well, before they can even dream about catching them, they have to make up four games on the Red Sox and eight or so games on the Yankees and Orioles. The Rays found themselves a cumulative 34 1/2 games behind the division-leading Jays. Pretty daunting, when you look at it that way. Now they don’t have to win their division to make the playoffs, obviously, but they still have to jump 10 clubs to get a wild card spot, making up a cumulative 67 1/2 games over those clubs as of Monday AM. To put it still another way: to get from 24-39 to 87-75, a realistic record for a second wild card club, the Rays had to go 63-36 – not going to happen. It’s time for the Rays to sell.

Now let’s look at the Phillies. They woke up on Sunday AM at 25-35, “only” seven games behind the Braves, who were leading NL East with a humble 32-28 record. Looking at it in terms of a cumulative deficit, however, the Phils were a total of 21 games behind – two behind the Mets, six each behind the Marlins and Nationals, plus those seven behind the Braves. Like the Rays, they also have 10 clubs ahead of them in the wild card race, though they are “only” a cumulative 32 games behind them. If it was three or four years ago and the Phils’ core players were in their prime, they might legitimately consider riding it out and trying to make a run. Instead, their core is old and fading, they’re 10th in the NL in runs scored and 13th in ERA, their farm is relatively barren – it’s a very easy call to sell.

Once you’ve made the decision to sell, the question quickly turns to the identity of players being put on the market. Most of the time, the marketplace will tell you where the interest is – if you have to make calls to other clubs to put a particular player on the market, the player likely isn’t worth very much. Each and every club in major league baseball possesses valuable trade assets on their major league roster. Value, obviously, is not solely determined by a player’s talent and/or production. It is based upon that talent and/or production relative to their contract and years of control.

If a player is significantly productive or legitimately projects to be so, and has many years of control remaining at a low and predictable level of cost — i.e., the Rays’ Wil Myers — then he isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be available for trade, except in the most unique trade scenario. Evan Longoria’s salary is finally beginning to creep upward, but he still is an immense bargain relative to his contract status, and would also appear to be untouchable. The Phillies, at this point, likely lack such an untouchable player, as their best, most productive players are very well compensated.

Just because a player should be untouchable, however, doesn’t mean that other clubs won’t call to ask about him. Though this would appear to be obvious and self-evident, a club must clearly tell suitors that such players are off-limits. Though every player has a price in theory, even beginning to entertain mega-offers for such players is generally not a good idea. It leads to what I call “hare-brained schemes” in which a club spends significant time, resource and energy on trade concepts that are, A) very unlikely to be consummated, and B) are unlikely to result in a return commensurate with the value of the untouchable player you are considering dealing. While working for one of my previous employers, we annually received multiple inquiries on such a player, whom we had zero intention of ultimately moving. The distraction and time-consuming nature of this situation likely prevented us from cashing in on other opportunities that could have moved us forward.

The Rays currently are in a very strong selling position with regard to David Price. You can rest assured that many clubs have checked in with the Rays regarding his availability, and will continue to do so. He rates at the top of the current production/talent scale, but his contract status will become more of a factor, decreasing his value as we head toward the offseason. A team trading for Price now will pay top dollar for his ability to affect two pennant races, this season and in 2015. That is worth a pretty penny. Once 2014 is over, his value and price both come down.

The Phillies’ best lefthanded starter, Cliff Lee, has a similar track record and talent level compared to Price, but his contract and health situations are obviously much dicier. He’s on the DL with a strained elbow, and is locked into a $25M/year salary through at least next season. Lee is 35 years old, Price is 28. A team might look at Lee’s talent/production/health/contract equation and conclude that Lee isn’t worth his contract, and might offer little to nothing for him. Ryan Howard is totally, utterly worthless when his contract is taken into account. Ditto Jonathan Papelbon. Cole Hamels is currently healthy and effective, but is guaranteed $110M from 2015 through 2019. Chase Utley has some value, but has a full no-trade clause. The Phils have chances for modest returns for the likes of Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz, A.J. Burnett, and Marlon Byrd; each are mid-priced veterans who might catch the eye of clubs with very specific needs.

All of the players discussed to this point are under contract through at least next season. That’s a good thing from the seller’s perspective, as the days of receiving generous trade packages for “rent-a-players” are pretty much over. This is due in part to the new free agency rules; more specifically the prohibition of the extension of a qualifying offer to a free agent that has not spent the full season in a club’s uniform. I worked for the Brewers when we swung arguably the most notable “rent-a-player” deal of the last decade, acquiring CC Sabathia for a package headlined by then top-prospect Matt LaPorta and player-to-be named-later Michael Brantley. That’s one of the best pitchers in the game at that time, fetching a return containing exactly zero proven major leaguers. And that was a good package. Trading a Sabathia-equivalent at the 2014 deadline would demand a lesser package, as the acquiring team would get no draft pick compensation at the end of the 2014 season, while Sabathia’s departure did net the Brewers a pick after he left for the Yankees following the season. The days of the Rangers getting Neftali Feliz, Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison and Jarrod Saltalamacchia for a couple months of Mark Teixeira are over.

The current environment is thus: more clubs are locking up their homegrown stars, preventing players from getting to free agency, making the few who do get there that much more valuable. Teams are valuing their prospects more highly, perhaps to a fault, as opportunities to improve a club via free agency are drying up. The qualifying offer rules have made it less enticing for a club to make a short-term trade play for a top talent; it’s like being unable to get “insurance” against a dealer’s blackjack when he has an ace showing. The combination of all of these circumstances conspire to make the good old-fashioned blockbuster trading deadline deal less prevalent than in previous eras.

Will they ever disappear totally? Hell no. A good front office is always in “buy” and “sell” mode simultaneously. When a player’s perceived value exceeds his actual value, consider selling him. When the opposite is true, consider buying him. Quality information from an organization’s scouts and analysts, and a decision-making process that values both can put organizations in a position to make hay. Organizations are getting smarter all the time, however, making it more difficult to gain true competitive advantages in that regard. Almost every player and prospect in the game was available for trade at one moment in time – and it might have only been that one moment. He might be in a 5-for-60 slump, or he might have hit a bump in his development as a minor leaguer. The smart organizations pounce at that moment when a still-bright star has very temporarily dimmed.

Next time, we’ll look at the mechanics of how these deals happen. How does an organization evaluate players throughout the game, including its own? What role does the existence of the trade deadline play, and how are trades still made after the deadline? The draft — each club’s best, least expensive means of obtaining impact talent — is now behind us, but opportunities to buttress a playoff charge or kickstart an organizational rebuild will present themselves as potential buyers and sellers pair off in the coming weeks.



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Eric
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Eric

Very interesting. One thing I wonder is if you aren’t slightly over counting a teams games back. In order for a team to gain a game on another team, they have to win and have the other team lose. So that’s a half-game for winning and a half-game for the other team losing. If a team is behind say three other teams, then shouldn’t every game they are behind all 3 be counted as 2 games back (0.5 for the teams win and 0.5*3 for every other teams losses) instead of 3 which would require the team to win 3 times in one game. Obviously this doesn’t change the idea of this piece at all, I was just curious in how is the best way to figure out how far back a team actually is from contention.

Richie
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Richie

Actually, this is a great insight. Of course you shouldn’t double-count your own wins, as each of them gains a half-game on whomever’s ahead of you, be it 1 team or 10 teams. Just factor in half the margin for everyone other than the team everyone’s chasing. So the Phils are really 14 cumulative games back, rather than 21.

rusty
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rusty

While I agree with your math, part of the reason I see for Tony’s formulation is that “# of other teams to catch” is often under-weighted. Think of it like seasonal projections: it’s not a contradiction to predict ~30 HR for Davis, Cabrera, Stanton, et al, but to simultaneously predict that the season leader will finish with 40+. Even if the current division leader falters, it’s unlikely (and may be mathematically impossible, depending on who plays whom) for all the other teams in the division to falter simultaneously. Your team may get hot, but someone else is likely to get hot as well.

MichaelD
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MichaelD

At this point in the season, we should not worry about games back at all. Chances are pretty good that the minimum wins needed to make the playoffs will fall somewhere between 85-90 wins. If that is realistic, then consider yourself a contender, if it is not, then you are not a contender.

Once August arrives, maybe we can start looking at games back in case something weird is going to happen, i.e. an 82-win playoff team or a 92-win team missing the playoffs. However, until then just figure on the high-80s wins as the goal.

Richie
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Richie

Cumulative ‘games back’ is how you assess whether it currently looks more like 86 games or 89 games, or however many for the far more valuable division. Granted that’s more volatile the more games remain. But it’s still valid, and more useful than ‘somewhere between 85-90 games; probably.’

MichaelD
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MichaelD

It is not more valid than somewhere between 85 and 90 games. At this point cumulative games back has almost no predictive power in determining whether it will specifically be 86 or 89 games for the wild card. Almost all games are intra-league, so if you have a particular record and are last in the league, you will have the same cumulative games back regardless of the records of the teams in front of you. The exception would be if a couple of the division leaders are running away with their divisions.

I will concede that it might have some value at this point for the division. The wins for the division winner have a lot more variability.

Richie
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Richie

“86 or 89” or exactly whatever can be forecast/narrowed down some based on how many wins everyone now has. With your win total combined with cumulative games back being a marker of your relationship to that.

And since you don’t want to win ’86 games’ but rather finish ahead of everybody else, yes where your record stands in relation to theirs’ is directly what you’re aiming at. With increasing focus as the finish line draws nearer.

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