Imagine, for a second, that the New York Yankees wanted to trade Robinson Cano.
Sure, Cano is a superstar in the prime of his career and the best player on a franchise that considers itself a contender every year. So maybe the Yanks wouldn't exactly want to trade him, but they might need to.
Fact is, the 30-year-old Cano is a free agent at the end of the 2013 season, and while there's been some talk of an extension to keep the second baseman in the Bronx, it's certainly possible that Cano simply could walk away at the end of the year. For the Yankees—or any team, for that matter—losing a player of Cano's caliber and getting mere draft-pick compensation in return would be devastating from both a baseball operations and a PR standpoint.
Factoring in all of the offseason free-agent losses (Nick Swisher, Rafael Soriano, Russell Martin, etc.) and injuries (Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson) that New York has endured in the past several months, the time for a roster makeover is nigh.
Dealing Cano, one of baseball's legitimate superstars, for a haul of young big leaguers or big-name prospects could help solve some of these problems. But what's the blueprint for such an endeavor?
A team has to weigh several factors related to leverage when considering the possibility of trading a superstar. Some are common sense, while others are a bit more complex, fluid and depend on the timing. Let's go over these, and bring in some recent examples along the way.
The better a player has played overall, especially in more recent seasons, the more value he would bring on the trade market. We're already dealing with a superstar-type talent, so the bar is high.
Recent Example: After a poor 2010 season, if James Shields hadn't pitched as well as he had in 2011 and 2012, the Rays wouldn't have gotten nearly as much as they did this December. In need of solidifying their rotation, the Royals landed Shields and fellow righty Wade Davis, but they surrendered Wil Myers, one of baseball's best hitting prospects, along with young arms Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery.
A team is much more likely to get more quality and/or quantity in return if the player is still in his prime years of ages 27 to 32.
Recent Example: At the deadline in 2007, the Rangers had plenty of suitors for first baseman Mark Teixeira, because even though he only had a year-and-a-half before hitting the open market, the slugger was a difference-making bat in his age-27 season.
That type of player doesn't become available often, so Texas was able to get a bounty back in Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, among others.
Injury History or Injured Relationship
If the player is known for missing time due to nagging health and injury issues, other teams won't be willing to pay as much. Same goes for when a player and team don't see eye to eye on certain issues, especially if other teams can sniff it out.
Recent Example: Look no further than the Diamondbacks' decision to deal Justin Upton this past January. It had been widely reported that the two sides were at odds for quite a while, so when push came to shove, Arizona pushed Upton out and, many believe, didn't get enough back. While Martin Prado's a very good player, he was the biggest get by far.
This is where things start to get interesting, because a player with a massive contract is not necessarily seen as an attractive commodity, even a superstar. A team willing to take on salary to bring in an elite player via trade has to be able to fit the incoming dollars into payroll feasibly, especially if the contract extends beyond the current or upcoming season.
Recent Example: At the July 2009 trade deadline, the Padres were itching to unload Jake Peavy, primarily because a three-year, $52 million extension they'd inked him to back in 2007 was about to kick in starting in 2010. That was a price San Diego's front office decided it couldn't—or didn't want to—pay, so they jettisoned their Cy Young-winning righty to the White Sox for a relative pittance of pitching prospects: Clayton Richard, Aaron Poreda, Adam Russell and Dexter Carter.
Generally, teams don't actively look to trade any player who is productive and worth holding on to while he is still under team control—in most cases, his first six years in the majors—and the odds that a superstar would even be considered as trade bait within years one through four are remote.
But once a superstar player reaches arbitration years, which typically encompass his fourth, fifth and sixth seasons in the majors, he'll start to earn in the high seven-figures or even upwards of $12-15 million annually.
As his salary increases, his value to his own team decreases, as does his trade value to other teams.
Recent Example: More Padres. Mat Latos was traded to the Reds in December of 2011 after spending only two-and-a-half really good seasons in San Diego. Because Latos was just 24 and still had multiple years of team control, the Reds sent quite a package back: right-hander Edinson Volquez, along with a trio of prospects in Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal and Brad Boxberger.
Financial State of the Franchise
Recent Example: The Dodgers, fresh off an ownership change, on the verge of a new TV deal and in the Los Angeles market, were in a unique position to take on hundreds of millions in salary by acquiring Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett as the three primary players in last August's waiver deadline blockbuster-slash-salary-dump by the Red Sox.
It's not a secret that there are big-market and small-market organizations in baseball (as in any sport). The difference with baseball is that there's no salary cap, so teams with more revenue, due to bigger television broadcast deals or simply being in a major city, can have an advantage.
Competitive State of the Franchise
...a team is in a win-now mode. In such a case, a contending club is much less likely to trade away a superstar player who can help the team win now. Essentially, money takes a back seat to success.
When a team is rebuilding, though, it's much more likely to cash in its biggest trade chip(s) to try all over again.
Recent Example: The first time Zack Greinke was moved, back in December of 2010, the Royals were starting to maybe begin to approach the idea of rebuilding. Greinke, meanwhile, was a year removed from winning the Cy Young and still two full seasons from free agency, so getting Alcides Escobar, Jake Odorizzi, Lorenzo Cain and Jeremy Jeffress from Milwaukee was a quality and quantity return at the time.
The bottom line in all of this?
If a team is really looking to trade a superstar player, the best bet is to do so sooner rather than later, before service time starts ratcheting up, salary gets pricey and age creeps higher.
It's easier said than done, though. Just because a club decides to do this kind of deal early doesn't mean it will work out. Sometimes, it's better not to rush such a major decision, even if it may back the organization into a corner down the line. Put another way: There's no right or wrong answer, no perfect formula, no easy-to-follow blueprint.
But back to Cano and our little premise above.
Perhaps GM Brian Cashman could learn a lesson or two from his crosstown counterpart. Since taking over as Mets GM after the 2010 campaign, Sandy Alderson has been tasked with rebuilding a franchise struggling with roster problems as well as financial difficulties. While Alderson certainly hasn't been perfect, he's made two key moves in which he traded away superstars and brought back high-end young players—and some hope—to Flushing.
The first trade, at the 2011 deadline, sent six-time All-Star outfielder Carlos Beltran, who had just months left on his contract, to the Giants for top right-handed pitching prospect Zack Wheeler. The second was just this offseason, when Alderson landed Travis d'Arnaud, one of the best catching prospects around, and Noah Syndergaard, another right-hander another with upside, from the Blue Jays in exchange for reigning NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey.
If there was one common aspect to both deals, it was that Alderson exercised prudence and patience in order to drive up interest, create a market and get what he wanted in the end.
That's as good a blueprint as any.