Jack And The Tradestalk

National League All-Star Hunter Pence of the Houston Astros reacts during the 82nd MLB All-Star Game at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Sure, the Astros were smart to trade Hunter Pence to the Phillies in a deadline deal last year. But how much value can teams really expect when they make deals like that?

In the British fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack executes a classic trade-deadline, veteran-for-prospects deal. Like a general manager commanded to purge his roster by Jeff Loria, Jack is ordered by his mother to sell his aging, cow-gone-dry Milky White for as much money as he can get.

How much cash one can realistically expect to get in trade for an arid senior bovine whose only functional existence is to symbolize the motherly breast from which Jack is being forcibly weaned is addressed neither in the story nor in the reality-starved trade proposals offered on sports-talk radio at this time of year.

Nevertheless, Jack and his breast/cow bundle off down the road where they meet a man -- possibly Ned Colletti, although he is never identified -- who offers Jack a handful of magic beans in exchange for Milky White. Jack accepts the proposal, for which he is thoroughly excoriated by his mother. Later, of course, the beans sprout into a huge phallic symbol that spurs Jack to further adventures involving Oedipal cuddling with a giant's wife and then stealing his comic-book collection which, upon appraisal, proves to be far less valuable than initially thought.

Jack is the story of almost every veteran-for-prospects trade ever made, at least up until the point that the magic beans sprout, because usually the beans general managers obtain in exchange for their desiccated cows don't grow. Or if they do, they don't provide value equal to that even of the half-gone beast they dealt away. In truth, this is the fate of nearly all trades, which in the long view tend to go down in history as "Who? for What?"

Open the trade annals to a page at random:

  • March 30, 1968: Indians trade pitcher Rob Gardner to the Cubs for pitcher Bobby Tiefenauer.
  • May 5, 1987: Tigers trade catcher Orlando Mercado to the Dodgers for pitcher Balvino Galvez.
  • December 14, 1995: Mets traded infielder Mike Benjamin to the Phillies for outfielder Phil Geisler.
  • December 18, 1997: Marlins trade infielder Kurt Abbott to the A's for pitcher Eric Ludwick.
  • August 4, 2000: Phillies trade infielder Desi Relaford to the San Diego Padres for INF/OF David Newhan.

Now, you may recall some or even all of these players, but as baseball moves they don't really signify. Contracts were swapped, players changed uniforms, but in terms of impact that altered the resolution of a team-season they are nonexistent, like the 1994 pennant race or the invasion of Panama.

In 1913, Yankees manager Frank Chance traded star first baseman Hal Chase to the White Sox for Babe Borton and Rollie Zeider, the latter of whom was suffering from a foot injury. A sportswriter wrote, "The Yankees traded Chase to the White Sox for an onion and a bunion." A great many trades can be described similarly, even when one of the players, like Chase, has established value (Chase's value tended to fluctuate depending on his bets, but lack of established value was part of his established value). In fact, that one of the players has established himself makes the lack of an even exchange even more likely.

Veteran-for-prospect deals carry with them the hope of significance: the acquiring contender is hoping that the veteran they receive will turn a divisional race or postseason series in their favor. The divesting non-contender wants to receive players that will transform them back into contenders. There have been some notable successes in which the deadline deal worked in favor of both teams, such as the August 12, 1987 deal that sent kid pitcher John Smoltz from the Tigers to the Braves for old man Doyle Alexander. Smoltz developed into a likely Hall of Famer with the Braves, while Alexander went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA down the stretch for a team locked in a down-to-the-wire divisional race. In Jack terms, the Tigers got their cow, and the Braves saw their magic beans grow into a mighty vegetable (no characterization of Smoltz's stated political views intended).

That kind of mutual happy ending is highly unusual in these kinds of exchanges. In addition to the whole-lotta-nothin' that characterizes most trades, there are also some famously lopsided deals, such as 1964's Lou Brock-for-Ernie Broglio deal between the Cubs and Cardinals, probably still the most unbalanced deadline-period trade of all time in terms of both short- and long-term value. Broglio did little for the Cubs, while Brock hit .348/.387/.527 in 103 games for the Cardinals, who went from 28-31 at the time of the trade to winning the World Series; Brock spent a further 15 years in Cardinals togs and went to the Hall of Fame.

We know these deals by their shorthand: "Len Barker for Brett Butler and Brook Jacoby" ... "Slocumb for Lowe and Varitek" ... "Steve Trout." In each of these deals, the trade was won by the rebuilding team. However, in the majority of cases the advantage goes to the contenders because of the very nature of prospects. Think of all the players who are taken into baseball in the course of a single year through the draft, as amateur free agents, and international signings. Now follow those players up through the farm systems. Many of them fail to perform and leave to take jobs in the international-finance industry. The remainder gradually go through the process of sorting themselves into fringe players, role players, standard-issue regulars, and stars, with the last group being the least populous by far.

When a team trades a player in the last two categories for prospects, no matter how promising they seem, they are taking a property in which the sorting process has already rendered its judgment and exchanging it for players who are still unknown quantities. It's trading down the evolutionary scale, going from man to monkey in the hopes of getting another man. You have to go through a whole lot of bonobos before you get Bryce Harper, and for all their missing-link potentialities, no bonobo has ever won a batting title. Hunter Pence is not a top-tier ballplayer and Jonathan Singleton is a highly regarded prospect who may one day exceed Pence's production in the majors, but when the Astros dealt one for the other they took on the very real risk that they would never receive even the equal of Pence's .290/.339/.479 rates. This risk is particularly acute when trading for young pitchers, any of whom might go Scott Ruffcorn or simply have their arms fall off due to one of a half-dozen most-likely injuries.

Return for a moment to the famous Smoltz-for-Alexander deal. Approximately one year ago, the Tigers traded four players to the Mariners in return for pitcher Doug Fister and reliever David Pauley. From the perspective of the results received by the Tigers, the trade was an almost exact replay of the Alexander acquisition, with Fister going 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA down the stretch and the team reaching the postseason. However, the Mariners' return is likely to be much more typical. It is safe to say that none of Francisco Martinez, Chance Ruffin, Casper Wells, and Charlie Furbush have a Smoltzian future. Indeed, none may even be part of the next good Mariners team, whenever that long-sought beast finally arrives.

It is for this reason that it is easy to conflate deadline-period trades with fairy tales. The latter is a story often containing a cautionary moral. The former often result in a negligible payoff for the seller that will later serve as a cautionary moral in an article like this one. In their original coarse forms, fairy tales rarely ended in "And they lived happily ever after"; these reassuring finishes were appended by later writers who sought to render them "safe" for children, thus muddying their original purpose, often beyond recognition. We can make the same pretense about deadline-period trades, that they end happily, but this too would be a bowdlerization. We can get very excited about all the changes that might come on or about July 31, but in most cases we'll merely be getting ourselves worked up about a big pile of impotent beans.

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