The Selling Process: Trade Deadline Season

Earlier this week, we took a look at the thought process of a club that opened the season with thoughts of contention might go through when deciding whether to shift gears and sell off assets. Today, let’s take a look some of the organizational processes that lead up to the final product – a significant deal that helps set such a club up for the future.

The single most important task of any organization looking to make a significant transaction, whether they are a buyer or seller, is most often overlooked or at the very least underrated. Rule one is to know you own players, in the majors and minors, and value them properly. This may seem obvious or self-evident, but it is absolutely vital. In most cases, and almost all of them at the minor league level, these are players you drafted and developed, and you know them far, far better than any other organization, both on and off the field. Every player must be evaluated from all angles, from their on-field performance utilizing both traditional scouting and analytical methods, to their off-field makeup and how it might enhance or hamper their ability to translate their natural tools to skills at the game’s highest level.

This is a year-round process, and a great deal of it, especially with regard to a team’s minor league prospects, takes place during spring training. I’m not talking about performance in major spring training games, which is just about the least predictive indicator out there. It takes place on the back fields, in the early morning hours. A scout can literally accomplish the same amount of work in a few days in Arizona or Florida that he could in weeks once the minor league season begins. You see who put the work in during the offseason. You get a feel for players’ ability to handle the daily grind and deal with failure as they compete daily with talented organization-mates. I would always come out of spring training with an excellent feel for my club’s minor league talent, organizational strengths and weaknesses, and would always have a working mental list of players who I liked more – and less – than the industry consensus. All of the other club personnel were doing the same thing, and this information would be shared and then updated once the minor league seasons began, and put to good use when trades were being considered.

A more daunting logistical problem is the evaluation of the other 29 clubs’ major and minor league personnel. This is where a club’s pro scouting department comes into play. All major league clubs have at least six state-side minor league affiliates, and many have seven. This doesn’t include Dominican and Venezuelan Summer League affiliates. Each club must have a process in place that will enable them to bring up the right players for discussion when trade talks progress.

Clubs will break down pro scouting responsibilities in a number of different ways. Clubs might employ a pro scouting director who supervises a group of scouts in the field, and is responsible for organizing and merging their work to compile an ordered list of targets in each organization. The pro scouting director may cross-check some of the top prospects in targeted organizations, might have coverage responsibilities of his own, and in many cases works directly with an assistant GM or special assistant who has direct pro scouting responsibilities.

Pro scouts may cover specific organizations, or leagues, or parts of the country. Any of these methods of work distribution can work – it comes down to the quality of the individuals doing the work, be it the scout in the field, or the supervisor or support personnel back in the office.

Usage of analytics in the pro scouting process varies widely throughout the game, but it can be safely said that all clubs implement them, at least to some extent. The goal of analytics at any level is to separate the true talent of the player from the context surrounding him. At the major league level, this is done in an extremely granular manner these days, with the introduction of batted-ball data via pitch and hit f(x). This isn’t quite the case at the minor league level, though the implementation of batted-ball systems like Trackman in some minor league ballparks have allowed some clubs to make positive strides. At this stage, however, you’re just not going to get a 100% batted-ball sample in the minors, so such data must be used carefully.

The individual ultimately responsible for each club’s pro scouting effort, be it the director or the AGM/special assistant, is responsible for bringing all of the scouting and analytical data together, and reconciling the sometime large gaps between them on key prospects. The scouts may love the toolsy, raw-power swing-and-miss outfielder or the hard thrower with the poor results, while the analysts do not. The analysts might love the high-OBP “ballplayer” type, or the pitcher who pitches above his tools, while the scouts are unimpressed. The responsible individual needs to be very well versed in both scouting and analytics, as neither side is right 100% of the time. The numbers sometimes lead you to something important on the scouting side, and the scouting data might lead you to something important on the analytical side. An organization that exclusively relies on one side or the other is going to make mistakes a high percentage of the time. The GM obviously has the final call, but he has many responsibilities to juggle on a daily basis, and he relies heavily on the findings and opinions of those who report to him. Good process and good people often but not always leads to good results.

Let’s take a step back and apply some of this to an ongoing real-world situation – the Rays’ potential shopping of David Price. The club very likely had offseason discussions with multiple clubs regarding their ace lefty, who had two years of team control left entering this season. The Rays obviously did not receive an offer that met their deservedly high standards – they rightly fancied themselves a contender entering this season – and held on to Price to have him lead their potential playoff run. The season has obviously not gone the way the Rays had hoped, to say the least. What type of thought process might an organization in their shoes go through at this point with a player as valuable as Price?

Step 1 might be to consider whether a player might be an ongoing fit with the organization on a long-term deal. Unfortunately for the Rays, this does not appear to be a viable consideration for them. Given their limited budget and ongoing stadium situation, the Rays simply can’t play ball in the deep end of the free agent market. Price, on the low-end, should get a Cole Hamels deal, and more realistically toward the high end, a Felix Hernandez/Zack Greinke-type deal. It’s time to move on to Step 2, which is where the Rays are now. Let the season play out, see if contention is in the cards, and if not, allow the trade talks to begin and eventually intensify.

When you have a player as good as Price who is, on paper, as sure a bet to be moved as Price is, you don’t have to call other clubs to kindle interest – they call you. There are many clubs out there who would love to have David Price in their rotation, but who simply lack the goods to get a deal done. As poor a season as the Rays are having, they are not a total teardown and rebuild – they possess a roster that, if healthy, can be good to go and contend in the AL East as soon as next year. They are not going to move Price for a package of A-ball prospects, unless one of those guys is named Buxton. The Rays are going to desire quality and quantity. Quality, in that at least one of the players received is projected as an above-average MLB player with below average risk. Quantity, in that just that one guy isn’t going to get it done. There will need to be one or more high-ceiling, potentially high-risk prospects behind the leading talent received, and perhaps even an established, lower-ceiling current MLB regular.

This might sound like a lot, but this is David Price, who with the possible exception of Jeff Samardzija, is a different animal than anything else on the market this summer. The Rays likely already have in mind what would be a satisfactory return for Price. If they are offered such a package, they must decide whether to pull the trigger, or roll the dice and see if the July 31 trading deadline creates a feeding frenzy of sorts and raises the bar on their potential return.

And oh, that deadline. Human nature being what it is, deadlines attract activity like light attracts insects. Trade talks often evolve over long periods of time, with clubs reluctant to put their best foot forward until the deadline forces their hand. That one high-ceiling prospect or incumbent MLB regular that the Rays may be eyeing might be off of the table until right before the deadline. The Rays are clearly in a commanding position with regard to the Price situation – they possess an asset that just about anyone would want, that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the market. They’ll either get a very good return now, or potentially an even better one just before the July 31 deadline. What of the other, somewhat lesser lights that could be “sold off” as the summer progresses?

The Phillies are another club that had playoff aspirations once the season began, only to find abject disappointment not too far down the road. They don’t possess a David Price to kickstart what needs to be a fairly significant overhaul at the major league level. They possess some mid-market tradeable assets, such as Carlos Ruiz, A.J. Burnett, Marlon Byrd and possibly Jimmy Rollins, if he waives his 10-and-5 rights. They may not get an avalanche calls on these guys, as they all carry fairly significant salaries that aren’t too far out of whack with their production. One could argue that there are more attractive deadline targets than these players, but once the dust settles after July 31, some teams that didn’t get what they wanted could target them as August trade targets.

Yes, you can make a trade after the July 31 deadline, provided a player clears trade waivers. At some point during the month of August, virtually every player in baseball – with the possible exceptions of the Mike Trouts and Felix Hernandezes of this world – will be placed on trade waivers. Then the gamesmanship begins. A waiver claim is awarded to the claiming club with the worst record in that player’s league. (If no team in a waived player’s league claims him, the process is repeated with the clubs from the other league.) That team may actually have an interest in trading for that player – it is the only club that may do so – or it may just be interested in blocking a trade to a club with a better record. The risk of making a claim is that you may wind up stuck with the player – and his contract – as the White Sox were when they claimed Alex Rios a few years back. If a player goes unclaimed, he may be traded to anyone, just as he could have been prior to the July deadline. So let’s say a contending NL club loses their shortstop to injury in early August. They are faced with a decision – fill the hole from within from a list of unappetizing options, or claim Jimmy Rollins on trade waivers and try to make a deal. Rest assured that other contending clubs ahead of them in the waiver order would be on top of this situation as well, and might make a blocking claim of their own.

Before too long, the summer hot stove will surely heat up. For every one or two deals that go down, there are a hundred deals that are discussed but not eventually consummated. Each team must be ready to provide a wish list of MLB players and minor league prospects from any other organization at a moment’s notice. The work of a diverse group of scouts, analysts and administrators must be integrated at a moment’s notice, as organization-defining moves are made. The best process in the world can lead to less than stellar results, and the exact opposite can also occur, but over time the organizations with the best info, the best people and the best instincts and sense of timing can use this key portion of the baseball calendar to propel themselves forward.

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