Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
Missing "Our Guy for Your Guy"
2007-12-12 13:51
by Mark T.R. Donohue

For whatever reason blockbuster trades never entered much into the culture of the NHL or the NFL; basketball's current financial model has assured that in any given trade there will be four or five teams involved and some nine of the fourteen or more names changing rosters will not have played any more for their prior organization than they will for their new one. So for transaction hounds everywhere, there's only baseball left... and the days of the position-for-position, comparable player-for-comparable player "challenge trade" are mostly long behind us. Now the relevant statistics whenever a player under contract changes teams aren't his RBI's and average or ERA and saves, but rather the years remaining on his current deal, the dollars per year, and whether there's incentives, options, or trade-limiting clauses involved. MLB hasn't quite gotten to the NBA phase where there's at least one player if not a couple of players on every roster whose only value is tied up in a soon-to-expire contract, but hang on a few years here and watch what happens.

I thought for a while that writing about LaTroy Hawkins' signing with New York was something that could be dealt with in a mere addendum to an earlier post. Then I changed my mind and started thinking that maybe there was a larger lesson to be drawn from the whole story -- the Yankees got Hawkins for $3.75 million, which was the exact amount in 2008 salary that Colorado would have paid the righthander had they exercised the team option in the free-agent deal they gave LaTroy before the 2007 season began. In order to decline that option, the Rockies had to pay Hawkins a $200,000 bonus. They had every intention of bringing Hawkins back, but for a team like Colorado, the numbers to the right of the decimal point matter -- for a team like the Yankees, who will pay Carl Pavano $11 million to either not play or play minor league ball in 2008, it's not even worth calling the brain trust in Tampa to double-check over such an amount. Colorado had a good idea that Hawkins' value for 2007 wouldn't be more than $4 million, they took a measured risk in assuming they could decline the option and get him back for the same figure he made in 2007 ($3.25m), and even with the option save... let's see, $300,000. If you're the GM of the Rockies and you have a chance to save three hundred thousand bucks, or a couple million as will be the case with Kazuo Matsui and whomever replaces him at second, you have to take it.

This small point about the Hawkins deal, I realize, comes around to a larger point about the Miguel Cabrera-Dontrelle Willis deal of a few days ago that I think I missed making when I first glossed over that deal. Why wasn't that trade a slam-dunk for Detroit, as most sources have declared without even thinking deeply? Well, not to compare the quality of Miguel Tejada, a player deep into his decline phase with both steroid and attitude yellow flags about him, to Miguel Cabrera, who's a stud (and I never said he wasn't), but look what the Astros just gave up for Tejada (basically nothing) in comparison to what the Tigers gave up for Cabrera (two star minor leaguers, guys whose names even folks like me who completely disregard the minor leagues knew off the top of their heads). Yeah, the Orioles held on to Tejada for too long. Yes, Houston will look even dumber than they already do if the shortstop is one of the star named names in the Mitchell Report, which is to be released tomorrow. But... Tejada is a former MVP and a valuable player who's only 31 and gets paid less than many players he's demonstrably better than. Not a single one of the five guys Baltimore got in the trade will ever be an everyday position player or a legitimate rotation member for a competitive team.

No one should be surprised that the Twins haven't dealt Johan Santana yet, and might not at all. No one should be outraged that the Angels and Dodgers haven't made massive trades to this point, despite the fact that they have lots of prospects and money to spend (and therefore, in the minds of many old-line columnists out there, they must trade those prospects and must spend that money, because they can). The fact is that making a trade isn't just about thinking your roster would be better off without this handful of players and with this other handful there in their places instead; it's about all these scary terms that belong in business schools and not baseball fields: cost certainty, payroll flexibility, marginal utility. You can't add a star without being willing to pay superstar money, now, later, and quite possibly for years after said star's retirement. And you can't add a superstar without the okay of your insurance guys, your marketing guys, the league office, the local papers, Nike, Scott Boras, and Tony Kornheiser.

How many teams are there even left that can deal with this hassle? Not many. And while it's not being as clearly reported as it could be, as a result of the huge array of costs that come handcuffed to any trade that brings in more salary than it sends out, the degree to which this offseason has really become a buyers' market is clear. The Marlins were such motivated sellers that they gave Detroit Dontrelle Willis for practically nothing (the part of the deal which I really don't like -- Willis could be disastrous for a Tigers team whose pitching strength has been in freefall since midseason, 2006). If there had been some team that wanted to give up a prospect for Willis, as opposed to mostly just take his salary and give Florida some warm bodies in return, Cabrera could have been had in that deal too. Likewise, the Orioles couldn't get anything for Tejada anywhere, and they finally tried to save face with a deal that has quantity of return going for it if nothing else.

Since this list of teams that can first make the trade, and then go into a meeting with an agent to talk extension without being laughed at or ignored, is so tiny, we're seeing a lot more gamesmanship and a lot less action than we're used to this offseason. If this was supposed to be such a great atmosphere for trades -- well, what happened to all of them? Denny Bautista for Jose Capellan really get your engine going? The Red Sox and the Yankees both want Santana a good deal, but what they really want -- what stalks their very nightmares -- is for the other team to not get him. The Orioles can't get a reasonable market going for Erik Bedard because their stupid, evil owner won't let Boston and New York -- the two teams you always want in on the bidding, no matter what -- in on the bidding.

This is why I think the Tigers gave up too much to get Cabrera. Who were they really bidding against? Boston and the Yankees have third basemen. If the Angels really wanted him, they would have had him. Ditto the Dodgers. Detroit could have waited until midseason, given Willis a chance to show he could get things back on track, and maybe made the same deal only hanging on to one or the other of Miller and Maybin and perhaps one of the other dudes as well. Also, acquiring a guy at midseason, there's less pressure to sign him to an extension immediately, so the Tigers could have gotten a free chance to see how Cabrera responded to their conditioning suggestions for half a season. As it is now, they might feel the need to lock him up this moment to justify/guarantee the trade, and bad things might come of that.

So maybe the Tigers' deal for Willis/Cabrera wasn't great, wasn't them maximizing their assets, and we'll see how that plays out in the next few years. If they win it all this year or next, obviously, all is forgiven. However, I don't think they will... I think Cleveland and Boston and the Yankees and Anaheim are all still better, and Detroit has sacrificed all of its flexibility going forward for the next few years. They have to win with the guys they have now. The other AL powers I listed all have the capability to retool, whether it's because of deeper farm systems, larger pocketbooks, or both.

Hey, you know who's really, really dumb? Whomever is calling the shots in Houston these days. You're not a playoff team! Stop signing guys like Carlos Lee to medium-term deals and trading for guys like Tejada! You're going to suck for three or four years no matter what you do, so take your medicine and deal with it. If nothing else, you can sell tickets by having Roger Clemens come back multiple times in the next few seasons to pitch to his various K-named progeny.

2007-12-12 14:54:38
1.   Mark T.R. Donohue
As I was editing this the news broke that the Giants have signed Aaron Rowand for 5 years, $60 million, which really drives my point home -- Tejada is a 60 VORP player, Rowand is a 20 VORP player, and now for the next three seasons they will be making almost the exact same amount of money. That's crazy.

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