The beauty & anxiety of the trade deadline

Next week, baseball will bask in the glow of the Midsummer Classic. The best players in baseball will gather in Cincinnati, including a few wearing the hometown Red uniform. For example, Reds starter Johnny Cueto has had a good year for the Reds and Bruce Bochy will probably pick Cueto as an "injury replacement" (or for a guy who starts the Sunday before) and let him take a turn on the hill in the middle of Great American Ballpark so that the fans can give him a big round of applause. And maybe see him one last time in a Reds uniform.

Cueto will be a free agent at the end of the season, and the Reds are a sub-.500 team who seem more likely to be fighting Milwaukee for last place in the NL Central than St. Louis for first. Cueto, however, is still a good starting pitcher. He’d likely be an All-Star even without the hometown appeal. And once the warm glow of the All-Star game has faded, we will enter the two weeks before the July 31st trade deadline, and Cueto ticks all the boxes of a guy who should probably keep a “Go” bag by his dresser.  There will be plenty of suitors for Cueto’s services. There should be. Cueto is a very good pitcher and the nice thing about acquiring a starter for the stretch run is that he really replaces your team’s fifth starter in the rotation. If you cheer for a contending team, do that comparison really quick. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Ah, but then we enter the dread phase of the trading deadline. The Reds, and any of the other teams who will be selling pieces in a few weeks (see, Phillies, Philadelphia), will be asking for your team’s best prospects in return. It’s the classic “my present for your future” trade that we see around this time of the year. But of course, when it’s your team trading away that prospect, the anxiety level goes up. What if he becomes the next John Smoltz (traded by Detroit in a deadline deal to the Braves for a rental of Doyle Alexander.) Or perhaps the next Jeff Bagwell (traded from Boston to Houston for Larry Andersen). Or maybe the next Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, and Brandon Phillips (traded from Montreal to Cleveland for Bartolo Colon in the same trade!)

Baseball players are an altricial species. In basketball and football, players come out of the college ranks directly to the pros and start playing right away. They may not be completely finished products, but teams usually have a good idea of what they’re getting. In baseball, we know that when you look at the relationship between where a player is picked (or an even better proxy for how much a team believes in a player, his signing bonus) there’s very little correlation with his eventual performance for First Rounders and none at all once you get into the second round. It’s like trying to pick the high school valedictorian using only kindergarten grades. You might have some idea, but it’s not an easy task. Consider this list: Luke Hochevar, Greg Reynolds, Brad Lincoln, Brandon Morrow, and Andrew Miller. What do these five men have in common? They were all pitchers taken in the first round of the 2006 draft. The three pitchers taken after that were some guys named Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, and Max Scherzer.

But go on any message board dedicated to a team considering acquiring Johnny Cueto and you’ll see approximately 2,139,080 posts which say “I’d love to have Cueto, just as long as we don’t give up (list of ten prospects, including all the guys that the Reds would actually want and a couple guys who may or may not ever see a big league stadium).” This is the time of the year when every single minor leaguer is a future Hall of Famer, at least in the eyes of his team’s fans, despite the fact that the evidence shows otherwise. There are some future Hall of Famers in the minors right now (not that we can really tell who they are). There are some future reasonably good guys who will have a 7-8 year career as a regular player in MLB. How many are there?

Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!

The first thing to remember about a team’s minor league system is that for a team with seven affiliated teams (AAA, AA, high-A, low-A, rookie league, and a couple of summer league teams), they have 175 players below the Major League roster. The majority of them will never play in the Major Leagues. There are two types of players in a team’s system. There are prospects and there are “org guys,” mostly guys who are there to make up numbers. It’s not that an “org guy” can’t suddenly develop into a prospect. It happens, but it’s the exception, rather than the rule. But, of course, teams who are shopping in another team’s minor league bin are aware of who the real prospects are. Teams are usually looking at the guys who are at least capable of playing on an MLB roster.

I restricted my sample to guys who were good enough to play in the Major Leagues, as evidenced by the fact that they eventually played in the Major Leagues, even for the proverbial “cup of coffee.” I looked at all players who made their MLB debut in 2000 and looked to see how many of them made it to an All-Star game during their careers at any point. I did the same for 2001 and 2002 and 2003…

Of course, making the All-Star team doesn’t necessarily make one a good player. Every team gets at least one “pity All-Star.” Sometimes you’re just the best player on a bad team. (Still, there’s value in that.) But of course, people are worried about giving up a guy who will be dominant for years to come. I also looked at how many debutants from each year eventually made three All-Star teams. Here’s a lovely graph!

We see that in most years, only 10-15 percent of debutants eventually make an All-Star team at any point and fewer than 5 percent make it three times. The numbers go down as time goes along, mostly because guys who debuted in 2008 and 2009 may not have had time to fully realize their potential.

Not only that, but not all teams have an All-Star caliber player in their system. This graph shows how many teams in each year had a debutant who eventually made 1 (the upper line in blue) or 3 (the lower line in green) All-Star teams. We see that about 15-20 teams have someone around who might make an All-Star game (pity selection or not), but normally, fewer than 10 who have a three-time All-Star in their system. Some of those teams might not want to trade their prospects at all, and some might not want to buy what you’re selling. So, if you’re a GM looking to trade away a soon-to-be-free-agent veteran, you have to hope that one of those teams comes a-knockin’ and that you can somehow figure out which one is which.

Still, if you aren’t a fan of All-Star game appearances as an indicator of success, let’s try using Wins Above Replacement. In general, the kind of player whom most would describe as “pretty good” is generally a 2-win player. An actual All-Star level player usually puts up about 5 wins over the course of a season.

How many guys making their debut go on to hit those milestones even once in their careers? Again, starting in 2000, we see that about 25 percent of guys making their debuts in a given year ever have even one year in which they could be considered to be reasonably average. Only 5 or 6 percent ever have even one year in which they are All-Star level.

How many sustain it? I looked for the number of debutants who would eventually claim three (or more) seasons at each marker (2 WAR or 5 WAR). About one in eight will have a multi-year run of being at least decently good and only one in forty will have a multi-year run in which he can say that hey now, he’s an All-Star (or at least that he should have been an All-Star but wasn’t because he’ll never be Royals.)

The Reality of Prospects

Nothing ever looks as good as the thing you are holding in your hand. “Prospects” have the allure of everything that might be, and yes, it’s true that one of them might be the one. And yes, your favorite team might be considering trading him away to get a guy who may or may not push you to a playoff appearance. You plays your games and you takes your chances. But before you begin to believe that all of your team’s prospects are Hall of Famers in waiting, consider the evidence. Yes, it is possible that the next John Smoltz trade just happened and in 10 years, everyone will be chuckling at your favorite team for being so short-sighted. But chances are that it’s not.

Now, it’s not that every prospects-for-rental-veterans trade is a smart idea. Even if a player doesn’t reach All-Star status, remember that there’s value – sometimes a lot of value – in just being a reasonably good-but-not-great player. Good teams do need superstars, but good teams also need to have good, solid guys in the third spot in the rotation and manning second base (or whatever). If they can do that with cheap guys acquired from other teams for a couple years, it’s one less $10 million free agent that they have to go get to fill a hole. Even if the guys who a team nets turn out to be replacement level guys, just having enough warm bodies on a team can turn a pretender into a contender.

On the other side, don’t take this to say that a team should never ever trade prospects, especially when victory could be so close at hand. It’s hard to find talent in baseball, and if a guy who is already pitching or hitting at a major-league level is available mid-season, you have to consider that. Think about how hard (and expensive!) those are to get in the offseason in free agency. The prospect that you trade away today might become the next Johnny Cueto, but you know that you need Johnny Cueto today. Tomorrow, it may rain.

The beauty (and the anxiety) of the trade deadline is that baseball is so hard to predict. At least, as you ponder over the moves that your favorite teams might make (or by this point, already has made). If nothing else, now you have some facts to help you decide whether the people running your team are complete geniuses, complete idiots, or just smart people competing against other smart people in a game that is complex and filled with uncertainty.