On Trade Rumors

Rumors connecting the Phillies to Houston Astros outfielder Hunter Pence have been well-publicized by now. For that, I blame Eric Seidman. ESPN’s Jayson Stark nixed the rumors in his Rumblings & Grumblings column yesterday:

Meanwhile, continuing rumors of the Phillies’ interest in Pence appear to be exaggerated. Clubs that have spoken with the Phillies report they’re doing no more at the moment than compiling a shopping list of potentially available bats. But since their payroll is wedged right up against the luxury-tax threshold, they’ve been telling other teams they can only talk about hitters making no more than about half of Pence’s $6.9 million.

That blurb is a good examples of factors fans don’t consider when they cook up trade hypotheticals. Most trade rumors follow this pattern:

  • Team A is out of contention and have some expensive players they would like to send elsewhere.
  • Team B is in contention, needs one or more of those players, and is willing to spend money

Boom. Match.com‘d.

In reality, there are so many factors that go into a trade that make most hypotheticals uproariously unrealistic. ESPN’s David Schoenfield took a lot of heat for some suggested trade scenarios, but his were no more unrealistic than the rumors that constantly end up in Jon Heyman columns.

If you want to cook up a good trade rumor, you need to account for all of those factors.

  • Team standing. Mentioned above: is the team in question an obvious buyer or seller? If they’re in the middle, what are their contingency plans by July 31?
  • Team financial status. Also mentioned above: does the team need to clear payroll, or does it have the ability to add salary? Is the team at or near the luxury tax threshold?
  • Position(s). Position has a huge impact on the net return on a player as well as his eventual landing spot. Good players at premium positions tend to cost more, meaning they are less likely to end up on teams with lesser payrolls.
  • Service time. Is the player still under team control, earning close to the league minimum? Is he arbitration eligible? How many years of arbitration does he have left? Does he have 10-and-5 rights? Service time affects a player’s trade value significantly. Between two players of equivalent skill, the one earning less money will be a better trade commodity.
  • Contract stipulations. Does the player have performance bonuses (a.k.a. incentives)? Does the player have clauses (player, club, mutual)? Does he have a buy-out? Does he have a no-trade clause? If so, what kind (limited, full)? How many years are left on the contract? Teams with smaller payrolls have to factor in every little thing that could add more salary, so they pass over a perfectly good player simply because he earns an additional $1 million for winning an MVP award. Additionally, players with buy-out clauses give the acquiring team some wiggle room for taking on a risk.
  • Other team’s needs. Does the other team simply need salary relief? Do they need prospects? If so, at what level? Would they take lower-level prospects (higher risk, higher reward)? At what positions is the team weak? Teams that need salary relief tend to be much easier to deal with compared to those that are looking specifically for top-shelf talent at or above Double-A. Factoring in a team’s lack of depth at the Major League level can be a good way to gauge the likelihood of making a deal.
  • Skills. Is he a hitter? Does he have good on-base skills, or does he hit for power (or both)? Can he run the bases well? Can he play multiple positions? Is he left- or right-handed (or a switch-hitter)? Is he a pitcher? Is he a starter? Does he strike out a lot of hitters, or walk hitters infrequently (or both)? Is he a reliever? Is he left- or right-handed? Where has he traditionally pitched (mop-up, middle relief, lefty specialist, set-up, closer)? Can he pitch multiple innings? Does he have the ability to make a spot start if necessary?
  • Agent. Is the agent’s name Scott Boras? Has the agent had previous dealings with the team? Were they positive? For a while, the Phillies refused to deal with Boras as a result of the J.D. Drew fiasco. Agents that have a good rapport with general managers do a better job of making sure each side gets what they want.
  • History. Have the two teams dealt with each other recently? Were both sides vindicated for the transaction(s)? Astros GM Ed Wade may be gun-shy dealing with Ruben Amaro because he did not come out looking great in the Roy Oswalt trade. That may decrease the odds of a Pence/Phillies trade occurring.
  • Minor Leagues. Does the team have depth in the Minor Leagues? If not, for how long should they be expected to have a lack of depth? At what specific positions do they lack depth? Where is the bulk of their talent concentrated? If the team is linked in rumors to an outfielder, but have a glut of outfield depth at Triple-A, they probably will not make a deal for a Major League outfielder.
  • Manager. Does the manager have job security? Has he had past interactions with the other team’s player(s)? Although it wasn’t a trade, Charlie Manuel‘s past dealings with Danys Baez had an influence on the Phillies signing him as a free agent before the 2010 season.

There are numerous other factors to be listed, and the list is really endless, but the above should hit on most of the important ones. Most trade hypotheticals simply miss the target by ignoring these and other factors.