First Pitch: Why I Don’t Like the Trade Deadline

Earlier today I did a sort of trade deadline preview, although there’s not much to work with this year. The only player that the Pittsburgh Pirates have been connected to was traded tonight when the Angels acquired Huston Street. That’s not something I’d lose sleep over, as the price was very high, as it usually is for closers.

In less than two weeks, the trade deadline will have passed. I think it’s going to be a relatively quiet one, similar to last year, for a lot of reasons I listed in my preview. The short of it is that the second Wild Card spot keeps so many teams in contention that you have too many buyers, not enough sellers, and too many people on both sides who can’t really figure out where they stand. As a result, expect another busy month of August.

Whether the deadline is in July or August, it’s something I don’t like. And I’m not speaking as a web site owner here, who makes a living off page views, and who sees those page views sky-rocket during trade deadline season. I’m talking about as a fan of the game, and as someone who hates to see artificial needs created.

That’s what the trade deadline is. It’s an event which creates the idea that teams have to make an upgrade, and that they have to make a move. It’s an arms race, where teams have to respond to a move by a competitor with their own move to keep the balance. It’s borderline a reflection of American society today, where no one is ever satisfied with what they have, and are always looking for more, because the idea that you’ve got enough of something is just out of the question.

The trade deadline leads to some of the absolute laziest analysis I’ve ever seen in baseball. Every year the teams that made moves and added names are the winners. The teams that didn’t make any moves are the losers. There’s no digging in to see how a player might upgrade a team, and whether the cost of that upgrade in the long-term really justified the short-term gain.

Some of this is because there are two economic systems in baseball. Historically, the buyers at the deadline are usually big market teams. The sellers are small market teams. Big market teams don’t need to worry about prospects, because free agency is a viable option for them. So they deal those prospects to small market teams, who need to get something from their soon-to-be-departing stars. This is an approach only big market teams can take, without repercussions.

Over the last few years, it seems like more small market teams have been “buyers” at the deadline, with some of them showing a resistance to giving up top prospects. The Rays hardly ever do this. The Pirates haven’t given up any impact guys, but have parted with some good prospects. I think the reason that teams are hesitant to deal top prospects is the same reason why we’re seeing more small market teams contending. These teams have been on the other side of this equation. They know just how much a trade can build up the system. They know that small market teams become competitors by building with young talent that is cost-controlled for many years. Once you start trading that young talent away for older players under control for a small amount of time, you reach the top of your ascent in the MLB standings, and gradually start making your way back down to the next rebuild.

Then there’s the question of how much is enough? The Pirates have the makings of the best outfield in baseball. Over the next two years they will be adding a lot of talented pitchers, and could have one of the best young pitching staffs in the game. They’re contenders now, and they’re only going to get stronger moving forward. In the next year we could see Jameson Taillon, Nick Kingham, and/or Adrian Sampson making the jump to the majors. On an optimistic timeline, Josh Bell could also make that jump. If Bell doesn’t make it by then, he could arrive in 2016, and he’d probably be joined by Tyler Glasnow. Alen Hanson could be in the mix somewhere, depending on whether he can add consistency to the defensive side of the game. This isn’t considering any outside help, or any prospects who could emerge as surprises between now and then.

The Pirates are a good team now, and they’re only projected to get stronger moving forward. I think they’ve got some needs now. There are positions that could be upgraded, but I think most of those positions are better left to the guys currently in the system, with the hope that certain players play better in the second half. The moves they need to make this year are minor. And as the team improves, there will be less of a need for in-season moves. Yet the pressure to make a deadline deal will always be there, and the only way for the Pirates to appear competent is to deal their future for a rental, ignoring the fact that such a trade could look like a disaster a year or two later. And if the deal did look bad at that point, the people calling for the deal in the first place would just be calling for a similar deal later, and ignoring how the last one turned out in the long run.

Then there’s my other big issue with the trade deadline — trades are the only upgrade that count. The Pirates may have already upgraded their team this year. They added Jeff Locke to the rotation in early June. They added Gregory Polanco to the outfield around the same time. Vance Worley stepped up as a depth starter, and will be their number five starter until Gerrit Cole returns. They added Ernesto Frieri, who seems like a reclamation project where you hope the fix comes quick. They also added Rafael Perez, who is two years removed from being a solid reliever, and has a little more time to rebound than Frieri. Going forward they could add players from their farm system, including Nick Kingham if they need rotation help.

But those moves don’t seem to count. The Pirates had some of those guys in the system already, or they signed someone, or acquired someone who was having a down year. They should count though. They should factor in to the trade deadline analysis. The Pirates have already upgraded their rotation this year. There were calls for someone like David Price before that upgrade, and thus the need for Price should go down now that the Pirates have strengthened their rotation. I’m not saying that there is zero need for Price. What I am saying is that the need for Price is much lower now than it was at the end of May, and it might be to the point where the short-term need isn’t worth the long-term cost. This is all because the Pirates have already upgraded their rotation in-season, despite the fact that the upgrade didn’t come via trade.

I know how the Pirates got here. They got to this point by building from within, making trades as “sellers”, and building with young talent. They were sellers in 2009, dealing Nate McLouth. That got them two of their five starting pitchers this year. They dealt a successful Sean Burnett for a struggling Joel Hanrahan, who was later dealt for their current closer and one other bullpen arm. They got Vance Worley in a deal for cash, Edinson Volquez was signed as a reclamation project, and most of the rest of the roster was home-grown.

You don’t win a prize by spending the least to build a contender, or by having the most shrewd moves. That said, when you’re a small market team with a limited budget, you kind of need this approach to contend for the long-term. Once you start making big market moves — dealing a lot of young talent for one older rental — then you start moving away from what got you to contender status in the first place. You start making moves that will hurt you more in the future than they help you in the present. You do this because that’s the only way you can be a “winner” at the trade deadline.

Winning the trade deadline doesn’t matter at all. Winning games is the only thing that matters. Rather than being a trade deadline winner for a few years, I’d rather be an annual trade deadline loser, while keeping a strong organization, sticking to the approach that led to contending in the first place, and providing the opportunity to be a trade deadline “loser” for a lot more years to come.

Links and Notes

**Looking at the Pirates Trade Needs on a Quiet Market; Should the Deadline Be Moved?

**Prospect Watch: Looking at Adrian Sampson’s Path to the Majors

**Huston Street Traded to the Angels; Shows Overpriced Market For Closers

**Adrian Sampson Just Misses a Complete Game No Hitter

**Minor Moves: Pirates Release Two Minor League Pitchers

**Prospect Highlights: Throw From Garcia, Homer From Broxton, Cumpton Finishes Off Gem

**Minor League Schedule: Nick Kingham Gets His First Start Since the All-Star Break

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Scott Kliesen

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see MLB address the trade deadline by moving it back to Aug 15 b/c of 2nd WC during the next negotiations w MLBPA.

    As for philosophy of not trading prospects for rentals, it is generally wise to stay on this course for small market teams. However, it isn’t smart to be locked into this mindset. I would submit, if NH believes he has quality depth of Prospects in a certain area, SP for example, and he can acquire an Ace, David Price for example, to give the team a legitimate shot to win the WS by trading away some of this depth, he should make this deal. Additionally, they can trade Price away next summer for prospects to mitigate the loss.

    This is the type of move Billy Beane would make. If you recall, he did it before w Matt Holliday. IMO, Oakland is a better team to model a franchise after than TB.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/ Tim Williams

      They traded Carlos Gonzalez for one year of Matt Holliday. The return they got for Holliday didn’t come close to CarGo.

      Holliday was worth a 2.8 WAR in the half season that he was with Oakland, and was traded at the deadline because the move didn’t work. CarGo came up that year and posted a 2.0 WAR in the second half. His numbers by year after that: 5.7 WAR, 3.6, 2.3, 4.8, -0.2

      The last one is the current year, which isn’t going so well. But the A’s would have been better off just keeping CarGo.

      I like the A’s, and like Billy Beane. But the Holliday trade is an example of a move that didn’t work. The A’s are definitely a franchise to follow, but not for that reason. They’ve had their success doing the same thing that TB, the Pirates, and other small market teams have done. The one difference is that they spent big on Cespedes. Other than that, their roster is heavily made up of reclamation projects, prospects acquired in trades, and drafted players.

      • Andrew

        I’m pretty sure that Sonny Gray and Sean Doolittle are the only players drafted by A’s that are contributors this season. They don’t have a single position player contributing that was acquired through the draft. I think best position players they’ve had, who came from their system are Cliff Pennington, then Kirk Suzsuki. There were a couple good pitchers, Bailey, Street, Cahill, but they traded them all after a few seasons. Last season Straily and A.J. Griffin joined Gray as drafted players in the rotation. The year before only Griffin.

        The As are a demonstration that there are different ways to build a team.

        • freddylang

          Tim Hudson is still going too. That was another mostly poor A’s trade. Juan Cruz, Dan Meyer and Charles Thomas is what they got.

          • Andrew

            I was looking more at their recent run of success, so last five teams, last 10 drafts, which have been somewhat barren, as they have only two contributors of this season’s team who they drafted. A’s drafted Either in 2003 and traded him before he had a major league at-bat, the 2002 draft had an incredible return, even though Jeremy Brown never panned out.

        • piraddict

          If the quote from Moneyball is an accurate reflection of Beane’s attitude then he really doesn’t believe in the draft because of his own personal experience of being over evaluated. As a result he probably doesn’t spend as much resources and efforts scouting for the draft as he does scouting players in the upper minors and other teams’ rosters.

      • Scott Kliesen

        Even though this particular trade didn’t work out for A’s as well as they had hoped, it illustrates my point that a small market team can acquire a high profile, soon to be FA in order to propel them to the next level of success.

        Maybe one of the primary reasons the A’s haven’t enjoyed post-season success is the lack of true difference makers needed to win in playoffs. Hence the acquisition of Smardjia for their best prospect last month.

  • NorCalBuc

    “It’s borderline a reflection of American society today, where no one is ever satisfied with what they have, and are always looking for more, because the idea that you’ve got enough of something is just out of the question.”

    Brilliant observation, Tim; simply brilliant.

    Well, the Royals gave up Will Meyers (akin to Gregory Polanco) for two years of James Shields from Tampa Bay. No one here would have done that move. Now, what is the “price” for David Price? Certainly, the price will be higher. Polanco and who else? Not worth this cost.

    I agree with Tim that the club has improved their starting pitching; to the point that we saw a string of Quality Starts immediately before the break. Now, the back end of the rotation stands as Jeff Locke and Edinson Volquez, with better talent on the way (Kingham). Cole, Liriano and Morton at the front end provide a solid five.

  • mam995

    Scott, I would be hesitant to emulate Oakland entirely, although, from a farm system, player development standpoint, they have been superb. In the Matt Holiday trade, they gave away MVP candidate Carlos Gonzalez (along with the Angel’s Huston Street). Gonzales was in his PRIME.That would be like giving away Cutch in his prime. That was a TERRIBLE trade. Billy Beane has made as many bad trades as he has made good ones. But bad ones are really stinkers. He gave away Nelson Cruz in his PRIME. The Pirates could never afford to do this. They couldn’t handle the fallout. The closest thing that the Pirates have ever done like that is the dumping of Aramis Ramires in HIS prime. That bad trade STILL hurts. It turned the fan base off for 10 years. By the way, Bob Nutting FORCED that trade. In hindsight, I don’t believe that he would make that trade today. I agree with Tim, the Pirates should take a more conservative approach to the managing of their prospects, similiar to what Tampa Bay does. That approach got them to the WS in 2008. So we know that it does work. Like the Rays, if you have to make a trade…do a James Shield trade, where you get a Wil Meyers back. Oakland initially tried to make a trade for Tampa’s David Price (which ultimately, became the Samardjiza deal).Tampa wanted even MORE than Chicago got…and the Cubs got a haul. I hope that the Pirates never give up the top 4 or 5 players in their system for one player. Not worth it. The Pirates supposedly offered Cole,Taillon and Polanco for Miami’s GianCarlos Stanton and the Marlin’s GM was set to take the deal, but Marlin’s owner Jeffrey Loria blocked it. Not a bad deal, but too much talent to give up. Not worth it. For all of his managerial baseball savy, Billy Beane has never been to a WS. This year, we’ll see…but he gave up a lot.

    • leadoff

      How do you know that Bob Nutting forced that trade?

      • Andrew

        McClatchy needed a loan from Nutting to fund operations in 2003. Maybe he means if Nutting would have increased the size of the loan the Pirates wouldn’t have had to make the trade to get in line with the MLB’s debt to equity ratio.

        However a lot of this post is incorrect, the As traded Cruz in 2004 before he even had a major league at bat, to Brewers, who then traded him to the Rangers. Cruz didn’t establish himself until his age 28 power surge in 2009.

        • http://www.piratesprospects.com/ Tim Williams

          If he would have increased the loan, that would have created more debt, and would have made the situation worse.

          • Andrew

            Yeah that makes much more sense, I was just trying to be charitable to that statement.

        • leadoff

          Andrew, what I think he meant was that Nutting was running the show and too cheap to pay players.

          People write a lot on these blog sites because they don’t like someone even though what they write is not correct, such silly things as MLB’s debt to equity ration never enter their minds, they just want to get their cheap shots in against someone.

        • leowalter

          And after he had gone through waivers and been sent to AAA.

        • piraddict

          So McClatchy’s poor cash management forced the trade, right?

          • Andrew

            “We’ve lost too much money. You can only lose so much before this has to change.” – Kevin McClatchy

            http://old.post-gazette.com/pirates/20030724rebuildbuc2.asp

            • piraddict

              If only the PIrates had dropped Benson instead of Ramirez and not added the worthless bunch of add ons for $6MM in 2012. That was only some of the many blunders that ownership/management team concocted. Giving away Ramirez for nothing was one of the worst baseball oves ever!

              • Andrew

                Benson was on the DL so he couldn’t be traded, also remember the Pirates failed to protect Joe Randa in the 1997 expansion draft which lead to Ramirez coming up early and becoming expensive quickly. Tomes could be written about the Pirate’s past mistakes.

    • db33

      Oakland gets almost all its players from trades not player development. STL is more player development based organization. Trading a player in his prime means his best season so you’d get the best return on selling on a player in their prime which would make sense for a losing team to do. Oakland is a good example to follow as they search for value and don’t handicap themselves with “untouchables.” If they see a trade that they believe they will receive more talent in return they do it. Just like a business Oakland is trying to maximize its assets. They take advantage of inefficiencies in the market

    • szielinski

      There is no evidence whatsoever showing Bob Nutting forced McClatchyfield to dump Aram.

  • Lee Young

    excellent analysis of why I hope NH doesn’t get “stupid” or “insane” at the trading deadline.

    Although I love what Byrd did for us, I’d love to have Herrera at 2b. We could move Walker to 3b, Pedro to 1b and ditch Ike.

    And Vic Black would look nice in our ‘pen.

    • bucsws2014

      And I love that I got to attend the WC game at PNC – which might be the most electric game I’ve personally attended ever – then watch the Bucs take the Cards to a full five games before bowing out of the NLDS. Likely that doesn’t happen w/o Byrd.

      Black is OK, nothing special at this point (1.31 WHIP, 3.78 xFIP, 0.1 WAR). Herrera’s value was at SS, where the Mets have found his arm to be substandard. Bucs still have Hanson to play 2b, allowing the same moves as you suggest. Plus Harrison as a backup at either 2b or 3b if Hanson isn’t the answer out of the gate in 2015.

      I can live with that.

    • leowalter

      Alen Hanson is a better middle infield prospect than Dilson Herrera,particularly due to his offense,and Vic Black has the mechanics of an injury waiting to happen.

  • leadoff

    I don’t like the trade deadline at all, IMO trading should be done anytime with anyone, that way their is no pressure to move someone or buy someone at a certain time. The Pirates IMO, need a closer to deal with the NL Central, this is not something that I think they should get at the trade deadline, this is something they should have acquired when they knew that Grilli was not going to get the job done as a closer in Pittsburgh. If they thought Melancon was the long term answer as a closer they would not have stuck Grilli in as soon as he came back from injury and they would not have inquired at all about Street, they don’t inquire just to inquire, if the Padres would have said Street was available at an affordable price, he would be closing in Pitt today.

    • leowalter

      One word : wrong !

  • db33

    will lambo get another chance this year? possibly in a couple weeks if the first base platoon is still struggling and he can continue his success at Indy this year post injury. If not will he ever get another chance with the Pirates?

    • leadoff

      He is playing right field at Indy!

      • db33

        So basically no chance? haha How was his 1st base defense?

    • freddylang

      I am guessing he will soon be ready to be called up at either the next injury or if there are no injuries he will be in Pittsburgh during the Sept 1 callus.

      • freddylang

        Hopefully Ike pulls his hamstring today.

        • bucsws2014

          That’s just awful to think that.

          But you have plenty of company thinking that, lol.

          • freddylang

            Ha! It’s not awful. It’s just a hammy. It’s not like I wished something catastrophic. I just want him out for two weeks.

  • Ben Swogger

    Love this article, Tim. You’re spot on. I think it’s fairly obvious that the Pirates are not a championship contending team this year. I also don’t see that changing, even with the acquisition of a guy like Price.

    I’m not saying we should throw in the towel on this season, but it’s not worth mortgaging the future for a piece that likely won’t get us anywhere.

    For example, Josh Bell. He is our best chance at having an impact first basement with game-changing power and I don’t want to give that away.

    It seems pretty clear that the Pirates’ best chance at winning championships will start in a year or two and extend thoughout the better part of the next decade and hopefully beyond.

    The lineup may look something like this:

    2B Hanson
    RF Polanco
    CF Cutch
    1B Bell
    3B Walker
    LF Marte
    C Sanchez
    SS Mercer

    with a potential rotation of:

    Cole, Taillon, Glasnow, Kingham, Locke/Cumption/etc.

    And the farm system will still be strong, with guys like Meadows, McGuire, Tucker, etc.

    It’s been fun watching the Buccos contend the last couple of years, especially the postseason run last year, and its fun again this season but we’re on the cusp of witnessing some of the best baseball that Pittsburgh has seen in a very, very long time and we just need to be patient and not jeopardize it.

    • freddylang

      Morton is signed through 2017.

    • leowalter

      Looks like you haven’t really been paying close attention to the Minor League starting pitching too closely.

      • Ben Swogger

        What do you mean?

        • leowalter

          Kingham,Glasnow and Cumpton aren’t the only potential MLB pitchers in the organization looking at all the next couple of years.

          • Ben Swogger

            Of course not. I just threw out some of the bigger names for the sake of it but the names themselves are largely irrelevant, the point I’m trying to make is just that the Pirates seem to be coming into a period in which they can be extremely good.

  • unfurious

    Strangely, the trade deadline reminds me of blitzing my apartment for money when I was almost out of smokes. While I technically didn’t need the smokes, every sense was focused on the task of getting them. I would go through all my cushions, pockets and car change in a panic trying to buy some short term well-being. If I had recently been paid, I’d get a carton and then worry about bills. It was always about filling that WANT the I treated like a need and it always left me sifting through my belongings looking for more change. When I got married I started taking my life a little more seriously. I could see wants for what they were. I could balance near and future needs. I quit smoking and invested in a solid car. A car that didn’t need fixed all the time allowed me to buy a house. It took patience and restraint but now I have a family, a solid foundation and decent prospects. Alternatively right now, I could be sitting in my crap apartment alone and bitching about the status quo as a 39 year-old chain smoker!!

  • szielinski

    The Pirates should be rational opportunists. If the Phils want to trade Cliff Lee and cash for Adrian Sampson, that’s a trade the Pirates might want to make. The Pirates would not want to substitute Cole, Taillon, Kingham or Glasnow for Sampson. That would be a poor trade even if Lee enabled the Pirates to advance to the NL Championship game. The Pirates have a strong organization, too strong to go ‘all in’ during one stretch run.

  • piraddict

    Great critique Tim!

  • lfhlaw

    I believe, the Cards sat relatively passive last year right? though they were in the thick of things, they still didn’t make any big moves and look where they ended up.

    • bucsws2014

      But that’s not to say they shouldn’t have. They should’ve done whatever they could have to upgrade from Pete Kozma.

  • smurph

    Yeah, the Cardinals would be the best example to follow. They have had ongoing success, mostly through their farm system. They have some quality starting pitchers whom they will control for quite a few years. And depending on the criteria you use, they can be considered a “small market” team. I am in total agreement with Tim on this article. I do not want David Price, because he will cost you a ton of prospects, and you only get him for a little more than one year. At the end of the 2015 season (unless the Pirates somehow win a WS) everyone will be saying “Oops, now we don’t have David Price, and we don’t all those top prospects.”

  • smurph

    Now if you are talking Troy Tulowitski, that is a whole different subject as he is locked up longterm, and you would have the best SS in the majors for the next 6 years
    .