Imagining an MLB Trade Deadline with Soccer-Like Transfer Fees

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Imagining an MLB Trade Deadline with Soccer-Like Transfer Fees
Steve Mitchell/Getty Images
Would the Marlins be more inclined to move Giancarlo Stanton if they got a boat load of money in return?

The trade deadline in Major League Baseball is fairly straightforward and, at times, exciting to follow. But imagine a system in which a team trying to acquire a player didn't have to sacrifice a prospect or on-field asset and was able to just open its wallet. 

Basically, imagine if the transfer system used by soccer leagues around the world applied to the MLB trade deadline. 

It would create a system of great drama and intrigue, as well as drive Bud Selig insane. One of the best and worst parts about baseball in recent years has been the way teams value the draft and young players. 

On the plus side, if a team can draft and develop its own players, it doesn't have to play the always-risky and much more expensive game of free agency.

However, as great as it is to see the evolution of the draft and prospects in baseball, it can also be very aggravating when a team won't make a move to better the big league club and make a run at the World Series just to hang on to all of its assets. 

Most rational people can understand the value of young talent to a franchise—it is cost effective and presents more upside than any other way of acquiring players—but at times the way these prospects get valued is out of control. 

One reason a team builds a good/great farm system with controllable assets is to trade those assets for the betterment of the big league club. At least it used to be in the past. Now, things have gotten so out of control that teams won't make a move just to hang onto every possible piece. 

That is a sound strategy if you are a franchise in a full-blown rebuild, like Houston or Miami, but makes little sense for virtually anyone else. 

Rany Jazayerli wrote about the overvalued nature of prospects in a piece for Grantland in December 2011, and things have only gotten worse since then. 

To put this in terms that Billy Beane can understand: We've reached a point where trading away prospects is the new market inefficiency.

--snip--

...For that reason, an ambitious team with a deep farm system — the Royals, for instance, or the Nationals — should take advantage of MLB general managers' prospect fetish to cash in some of their lottery tickets for established players who might help them win in 2012.

But what if the system was flipped on itself. Instead of having to trade players, what if all you had to do was write a check to acquire any player from any team? Would that work for teams?

 

Defining the transfer system

Jason Szenes/Getty Images
How much would the Yankees love a transfer-like system?

For those that aren't aware of how the transfer system works, we are going to use Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins as an example. (Keep in mind, this is completely hypothetical. I am not saying or speculating that the Marlins are even taking real trade offers for Stanton right now.)

The Marlins have Stanton under contract for this season and hold his rights through the 2016 season. 

We know that the Marlins aren't afraid to trade players making a salary in the seven-figure range, which Stanton will be when he hits arbitration next season, so they could look to move him now. 

In this hypothetical scenario, teams would place financial bids on Stanton's rights for the next three seasons. The Marlins would then go over the offers and decide which one they liked the best (most expensive). 

Let's say that the New York Yankees, currently desperate for young talent and anyone capable of hitting home runs, made an offer to give the Marlins $60 million for Stanton. If the team and player sign off on it, Stanton would move to New York and Miami would receive the money in return. 

There are factors that can negate a deal, like the player saying he doesn't want to move to a certain team, forcing the original club to accept a deal from a team that made an offer that the player does want to go to. 

Let's say Stanton didn't want to play in New York and wanted to move to Los Angeles. If the Dodgers made an offer to Miami's liking, Stanton would become LA's property even if its bid wasn't the highest. 

Stanton's new team would then have to negotiate a new contract with Stanton since, per the rules, his old contract/rights with the Marlins would be void. 

There is also a loan system used in soccer, which means a team will simply loan out a player for a specific amount of time before moving back to his old club. Soccer clubs use it as a way to get playing time for a young player at a lower level, but for the purposes of our discussion we will just keep things simple and discuss it as simply a way for a team to temporarily upgrade its roster. 

The system does have a few other variations, like a player signing a pre-contract with his new club while still under control with his old team, but we will just keep things simple enough by looking at the basics of the transfer system. 

 

How this changes the MLB trade landscape

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July 31 would have a completely different look and feel in Major League Baseball if this system was used. First, the fact that one team wouldn't necessarily have to give up a package of prospects to acquire an impact player for the stretch run would open things up. 

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One of the biggest reasons that these moves we hear about for weeks don't get made is because teams don't want to pay the price another team wants. By removing that aspect from the equation, you could see teams more inclined to make a move. 

In addition to not having to sacrifice its own talent, a team can better position itself in free agency by acquiring a lump sum of money now. 

Just think about a team like the Tampa Bay Rays, who boast one of the best front office and talent evaluating staffs in baseball while playing in one of the worst parks and markets in baseball. They don't have the luxury of spending much in free agency or trading away assets to make themselves better now. 

Say there was a year when everything went wrong for the Rays. Evan Longoria gets hurt, Wil Myers struggles as pitchers figure out his flaws, Ben Zobrist has a down year, Chris Archer is on the disabled list for an extended period of time, Matt Moore's command falters, and the bullpen collapses on itself. 

Let's also say that David Price is going to be a free agent at the end of the year and the Rays know they will have a hard time re-signing him as things currently stand. Teams would line up at the deadline to pay a huge sum of money to get him, even if it is just for 10-15 starts, knowing he is a difference-making starter who can carry a rotation to a World Series. 

The Rays can bite the bullet and accept this isn't their year, collect the money (and any trade chips teams might be inclined to include) and position themselves to test the free-agent waters more than they are usually able to. 

But you could have a lot more teams in the mix to acquire a talent like that at the deadline if they don't have to give up future assets AND worry about trying to sign him in the offseason. 

The onus would fall on the acquiring team to make Price an offer that he wants (and hoping he wants to play for that team). 

There is also a situation with the loan where the Rays could put Archer, a young, cost-controlled starter having a brilliant rookie season in 2013, on the market to see how many teams would bite. 

Since his track record isn't as impressive as Price's, not to mention the Rays would just be loaning him instead of transferring him outright, Archer wouldn't command the same kind of money Price would/could. 

 

Flaws with the system

Doug Benc/Getty Images
We don't need another reason for Jeffrey Loria to start selling off assets.

One of the big reasons that teams like the trade deadline is because it gives them a chance to plan their future and move their window to contend up faster than originally planned. 

If the Rays were to sell Price, as much as they would like cashing the check some team pays for him, they would only get financial help and not any talent in return. They depend on their system to keep them competitive, and every year we see the damage that teams do to themselves playing the free-agent game. 

Also, as poorly as some teams spend money right now, things could get substantially worse if they have more money from other clubs to use. 

Then there is the flip side of that, where teams (most notably Miami) will sell off any assets they can and take the profit they get from the transfer fee without doing anything to help the big league club.

I am not someone who says that there should be a salary floor that teams have to meet, but I also don't like the idea of a franchise that is notoriously cheap for no reason other than ownership doesn't want to spend money. 

Trades can be the lifeblood of a franchise. Take for instance the Cleveland Indians of the mid-2000s. They never drafted particularly well, with CC Sabathia in 1998 being their one successful big leaguer, but were able to churn out consistently contending teams because they fleeced Montreal for Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore. (Brandon Phillips was also in that deal but was traded to Cincinnati before becoming a star.)

They also got Carlos Santana for Casey Blake, Asdrubal Cabrera for Eduardo Perez and Shin-Soo Choo for Ben Broussard during that period as well. 

With the transfer system in place, who knows what the fate of the Indians during that period would have been? And the fate of so many teams who have been able to use trades to turn their franchise around. 

 

Would the system be better or worse?

In the end, while it would be intriguing to see how the system would work for baseball teams (and there certainly may be a way to make it work so that there is more to it than just exchanging funds in order to acquire talent), the current system that we have is better than that. 

Sure, July 31 can be filled with a lot more talk than action, as it probably will be this season, but there is a heightened sense of drama around it because there is so much that we don't know. Reports will come flooding out over the next 48 hours about teams looking at a certain player, or a bad team deciding to go in a different direction and putting all its desirable talent on the market. 

But the only side that would get excited about a transfer is the one acquiring the talent. Baseball fans love seeing a trade and jumping online to read the analysis about what they got in return. Sometimes they will be happy, most of the time they will spend hours complaining on Internet forums. 

The soccer system can be fun, especially if it is just a loan, but it can also be unfair and exploitative of the have-nots. Baseball isn't perfect in terms of financial sharing, but it is a lot better than that. 

 

If you want to talk baseball, feel free to hit me on Twitter with questions or comments. 

 

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