With baseball’s trading deadline less than a week away, we’re enduring the last of the offers and counteroffers, feints and pre-emptive strikes that fill the sports sections’ baseball pages throughout July. The right move is supposed to give contenders an upper hand in a tight race and help pretenders rebuild their franchises for the future. This story line is compelling, but it is also deeply misleading. Midseason trades have less of an effect on the standings than most people think, and even less impact on the farm systems.
Take, for instance, the trade of Denny Neagle from the Reds to the Yankees. Peter Gammons wrote in early July that by acquiring Neagle “the Yankees have stopped their bleeding and thrown down the gauntlet in front of the Red Sox and Blue Jays with an eye toward playing in October.”
No doubt Neagle has been great for the Yankees in his first two starts. But how much can a pitcher like Neagle actually do for the Yankees? Michael Wolverton of BaseballProspectus.com (the best source of baseball knowledge on the Web) has compiled a complicated metric for evaluating the value of pitchers independent of matters pitchers can’t control (such as run support, the performance of relief pitchers, and so forth). Called “Support-Neutral Wins,” it measures pitchers’ relative success against a replacement-caliber norm (not the standard of an average pitcher, but rather the standard of a generic fourth or fifth starter, which, of course, is somewhat below average). By this measurement, Neagle has been very, very good this year. He ranks fourth among all pitchers. How much does that mean in terms of “Support-Neutral Wins” above the replacement level? Roughly three and a half games. Over the time the Yankees will have Neagle—which projects roughly to 15 starts—he may give them about three extra wins, a solid contribution but hardly enough to give them definitive control over the division.
This is why Jack Sheehan (also of BaseballProspectus.com) calls the midseason trade maneuvering “much ado about nothing.” Three wins will only be the difference between winning and losing the pennant in a close race. Neagle’s arrival isn’t useful because it gives the Yankees a definitive advantage over their rivals. It’s useful because it gives them a narrow edge in case they find themselves in a race in which no team establishes a definitive advantage.
Gammons also blames the failure of Chicago Cubs General Manager Ed Lynch on owners who prevented him from turning his underperforming team into tomorrow’s champions through midseason trades. “Lynch never had the opportunity,” Gammons wrote after Lynch was fired, “to go into the dump mode and rebuild the farm system since they were within view of the wild card at the trading deadline in each of the last two years.” Farm systems, alas, are not so easily rebuilt. There are three largely home-grown young teams competing for playoff spots this year: the Mariners, the A’s, and the White Sox. Shortly before their emergence as competitive teams, all three went into what Gammons calls “the dump mode” and did one of these star-for-prospect deals. The players they picked up in those deals have been helpful in the teams’ recent ascents, but it’s hard to say that they’ve been instrumental. In all three cases, the trades supplemented already functioning player development systems rather than bringing new life to dormant ones. The Cubs didn’t need trades to help their farm system. They needed a farm system to help their trades.
In 1997, the A’s traded Mark McGwire for T. J. Matthews, Blake Stein, and Erick Ludwicke, none of whom is a part of the group of great young players (Tejada, Grieve, Giambi, Hudson, Chavez, Hernandez, Long) who have propelled Oakland into contention and established them as the team of the future in the AL West. The Mariners got a little bit more in their midseason star sweepstakes. They picked up Freddy Garcia, John Halama, and Carlos Guillen for Randy Johnson in a 1998 trade, which, because all three of Houston’s prospects have become functioning major-leaguers for the Mariners, has come to look like a great coup for Seattle. But these three players are hardly at the core of Seattle success: Garcia has been out for most of this year; Halama has been a solid but unspectacular starter, now likely headed to the bullpen (he has nine wins, but by Wolverton’s analysis, the effectiveness of his pitching alone has only been worth about 0.16 wins above replacement level); Guillen has been in and out of the Mariners’ infield.
The White Sox are in some senses the most interesting case, having gotten six players, including their current closer Keith Foulke, in their “rebuilding” trade with the Giants back in 1997. But the critical mass of their young talent—Lee, Ordonez, Simas, Singleton, Sirotka—has arrived from places other than the San Francisco farms. And while it’s likely that Foulke and Bob Howry aren’t the only players from that trade who will be a part of what might be an emerging Chicago dynasty (Lorenzo Barcelo, by all accounts, is also a super prospect), what makes the Sox look like an up-and-coming superpower is precisely the fact that the trade with San Francisco is a very small part of Chicago’s young talent base. For every Barcelo they also have a Mark Buehrle, for every Foulke a Jon Garland.
Sportswriters love midseason trades because they’re fun to write about. But most player development works gradually, revolving around the scouting and acquisition of hundreds of players, of which only a few ultimately pan out. Baseball winning also takes place gradually, day after day, week after week, month after month. Baseball is a game of big numbers—of prospects and of games—and these numbers ultimately override the singular events we like to receive as our sports news. Enjoy the drama of the trade deadline, the up-to-the-minute reports of the latest top-secret management discussions. But remember that the real drama of baseball actually lies somewhere else.