Should More Clubs Buy and Sell?

To make sense of things, to organize, to help create narratives, we, as humans, like to put labels on things. We like to place people and items in specific bins. And at trade deadline time, we typically categorize teams as either buyers or sellers. I am guilty of this and it does serve a practical purpose. Generally by the end of July, teams have a pretty good idea if they are contenders or looking ahead to next season.

But things are more complicated than they once were as the two wild cards — in addition to five-team divisions — have muddied the waters of the deadline market.

While the second wild card did place more importance on winning a division, it also better allowed for mediocrity to make its way into the one major North American pro sport that has done the best job of keeping its ‘meh’ teams out of its postseason tournament. The deadline has become more complicated.

And this was an unusual trade deadline.

Of the 30 players traded from July 26 to 4 p.m. eastern Monday, 16 were relief pitchers if you count Francisco Liriano, who will be moved to the bullpen by the Astros.

As we saw with the return for J.D. Martinez and the market for bats — even Yonder Alonso wasn’t able to be moved — there was a general lack of interest in position players. It was a deadline when Liriano, owner of a 5.02 xFIP netted a greater return than Martinez who has a 158 wRC+ this season, according to Eric Longenhagen’s ranking of prospects moved at the deadline.

There was something else unusual that happened, which occurred for the second consecutive deadline: the Pirates began as sellers — moving Tony Watson to the Los Angeles Dodgers — but they also added on deadline day, bringing in another reliever in Joaquin Benoit.

The Pirates again bought and sold. While they are hardly the first team to do so, they have done it in consecutive years in this new Wild Card era. Perhaps it can be something of a model, particularly for teams in no man’s land.

During the 2016 deadline day, the Pirates sent Liriano along with prospects Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez to the Blue Jays for Drew Hutchison in an apparent salary dump, but also added Ivan Nova for prospects Tito Polo and Stephen Tarpley.

Nova continued his strike-throwing magic this year after signing an extension with the Pirates. The deals look like a net positive for the club. Last July, the Pirates also traded Mark Melancon for a young major league reliever in Felipe Rivero — who has broken out this season — and prospect Taylor Hearn.

The Pirates were on the outskirts of the playoff picture a year ago and the Pirates have an unlikely path to the postseason (4.4% playoff odds). But they do have a plausible if slim path to the postseason thanks to a mediocre division and a second wild card should one of the NL West contenders fade badly down the stretch. I suggested in late June that the Pirates ought to be soft sellers, that they might be best served by moving secondary assets like Watson but holding core pieces like Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole. It was not even an ideal market to move a front-line pitcher.

The Pirates did sell softly Monday, but they also bought softly.

They swapped similar major league relief pitchers, but ended up with a plus-one net gain in similarly rated prospects. Longenhagen ranked Seth McGarry, a right-handed pitcher the Pirates sent to Philadelphia, as the No. 45 overall prospect moved prior to the deadline.

The Pirates acquired Longenhagen’s No. 46 (Angel German, RHP) and No. 49 (outfielder Oneil Cruz) prospects. Cruz is particularly interesting, a massive hitter whom Pirates general manager Neal Huntington says contacts the ball as well as anyone in their system. Wrote Eric:

Cruz measured in at 6-foot-8 this spring and was literally too big to get his glove down to the ground in time to field some hot shots hit toward him at third base during extended. He’s likely to end up in the outfield or at first base, but if he can close the holes his his enormous swing, he’ll likely have the power to profile there as he continues to grow into his body.

All the prospect exchanged have 45 future values.

Benoit and Watson are essentially equals. Benoit has a 15.8% K-BB mark and a 4.60 xFIP. Watson has a 4.61 xFIP and a 10.1% K-BB mark. Both are in the last year of their contracts. If anything, Benoit has been the slightly more effective pitcher this year. And the Pirates were able to gain a prospect out of the net exchange.

While this is probably not the type of deal that is going to alter a franchise, unless Cruz turns out to be Aaron Judge II, add up enough of these net gains and a club will improve its position.

Perhaps more teams should be buying and selling at the deadline, looking for opportunity in both the buying and sellers markets, particularly if they are in the increasingly gray area between contending or retooling. For instance, the market for bats was so depressed it was perhaps undervalued. Perhaps there were more opportunities to buy and sell and pick up marginal upgrades and value.

Perhaps we need a third bucket to place teams into at the deadline.

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Third bucket: Neal Huntington.