We ponder many things when Major League Baseball's trade season comes around. Buyers and sellers. Available players. Expendable prospects. Ken Rosenthal's bow ties. Et cetera.
What we think about less—or seem to, anyway—is timing. We have it branded onto our minds that everything revolves around the July 31 non-waiver deadline, but that's not necessarily true. Trades can and do happen well before then.
So let us all stop to ponder this: If a team is going to move a player, should it wait for the deadline or jump the gun and set things in motion sooner?
Now, I'm a big believer in finding the truth through numbers, but that's not so simple when it comes to trades. In Ned Flanders-ese, this question is something of a honey doodle of a melon-scratcher.
But numbers can tell us one thing that shouldn't come as a surprise: There are certainly more opportunities to deal as July 31 gets closer.
Using MLBTradeRumors.com's transaction tracker, I went back and looked at the last 10 (2004-2013) trade seasons and broke things down like so: trades that happened between June 1 and July 15 and trades that happened from July 16 to July 31. Arbitrary endpoints and all, but splitting things up between a six-week "early" trade season and a two-week "late" trade season struck me as reasonably sensible.
Now follows a breakdown of how many players were moved in these "early" and "late" trade seasons:
|Year||Players Moved in Early Trades||Players Moved in Late Trades|
The only year in the last 10 in which more players were moved in early deals than late deals was last year. There has otherwise been significantly more movement closer to the deadline.
Why do the scales tip so definitively in the direction of late trades? It's pretty straightforward, and Chicago Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer summed it up well earlier this month.
"Ultimately, sometimes it takes a deadline to make deals," Hoyer told the Chicago Tribune's Mark Gonzales back on July 2. "People get a lot more serious with each day that gets closer to the deadline."
Hoyer's right. To make the tough decisions that come with the trade season, oftentimes two things are required: enough time for teams to assess what they need, and pressure to act before it's too late. In June and early July, these forces are much less pressing.
But here's where we grant that early action can and does happen. And on occasion, it can be big action.
"I don't think you ever go into July thinking you're going to make deals early, but sometimes it can come together," said Hoyer.
And he would know.
A few days after Hoyer offered his comments, he and Cubs boss Theo Epstein made a trade that sent right-handed starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland A's for three young players: shortstop prospect Addison Russell, outfield prospect Billy McKinney and right-hander Dan Straily.
Make no mistake about it: Given the players involved, this has the look of an early trade that could go down in history.
If it does, it will have company. While early trades may be relatively infrequent, Grantland's Jonah Keri noted how some of them are hard to forget:
For decades, teams have been slow to consummate early deals, so much so that when a trade actually does go through in early July (or June, or — GASP — May), we remember it forever. Not only can I vividly recall the exact details of the CC Sabathia trade (July 7, 2008), the Bartolo Colon trade (June 27, 2002), and the Mark Langston trade (May 25, 1989), I can also remember where I was, what I was doing, and which utensil I was using to eat poutine at the time.
The '08 Sabathia trade netted the Cleveland Indians Michael Brantley. The '02 Colon trade did even better, netting them Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore. And for the Seattle Mariners in '89, all the Langston trade did was net them Randy Johnson.
Trades like these show how possible it is to get huge returns on early trades, and the why of that is also fairly straightforward.
The earlier a team puts a player on the block, the more games of that player's services it has to sell. That increases the player's value and appeal, and any team desperate enough to talk could also be desperate enough to deal.
It makes you wonder why we don't see more early trades involving big-name players.
You know, right up until you remember that game-changing trades can happen in the shadow of the trade deadline too.
The biggest one in recent memory is the deal that saw the Texas Rangers send Mark Teixeira to the Atlanta Braves on July 31, 2007, for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison and Neftali Feliz.
By Baseball America's reckoning, the Rangers got Atlanta's three best prospects (Salty, Andrus and Harrison) and the guy with the organization's best fastball (Feliz). The only one who didn't play a role in the Rangers' championship runs in 2010 and 2011 was Salty.
The Rangers added another centerpiece to those teams with a deadline trade the year before, dealing Kevin Mench, Francisco Cordero and Laynce Nix to the Milwaukee Brewers for two sluggers: an established guy in Carlos Lee and a less established guy named Nelson Cruz.
Elsewhere, you can recall the Tampa Bay Devil Rays turning the wildly mediocre Victor Zambrano into top prospect Scott Kazmir in 2004. In 2009, the Indians turned a year and a half of Victor Martinez into several years of Justin Masterson. In 2011, the Houston Astros turned Hunter Pence into Jarred Cosart and Jonathan Singleton, who are now both locked in as parts of a budding collection of young talent.
In Lou Marson, Carlos Carrasco and Jason Donald, the '09 Lee trade netted the Indians three of the Phillies' top four prospects in the eyes of Baseball America. In Alex White, Joe Gardner and Drew Pomeranz, the '11 Jimenez trade netted the Colorado Rockies three of Cleveland's top nine prospects.
It's true the Lee deal didn't work out for the Indians, nor did the Jimenez deal work out for the Rockies. At the time, though, there was little question that both clubs had scored big.
That such trades can and do happen in the shadow of the trade deadline makes sense. While sellers have fewer games of their assets' services to sell, the trade-off is more buyers with which to dance. That means opportunities to hold a bidding war, and teams can be just as desperate close to the deadline as they can be far away from it.
True, you can look at some deadline deals and wonder if a team didn't get enough. Perhaps the Braves could have gotten more for Teixeira in 2008 if they'd flipped him sooner. Perhaps the A's could have gotten more for Matt Holliday in 2009. Perhaps the Cubs could have gotten more for Ryan Dempster in 2012.
But to play this guessing game is to assume that early trades always net an appropriately big return, and that's not clearly the case.
When the Kansas City Royals dealt Carlos Beltran to the Astros in June of 2004, they received Mark Teahen, Mike Wood and John Buck in return. Of the three, the only guy Baseball America had down as an organizational top-10 prospect coming into 2004 was Buck.
It's even possible to question the Sabathia trade. Since Brantley ended up being the player to be named later, the only top prospect the Indians landed at the time was Matt LaPorta. Nobody else in Baseball America's preseason top 10 for the Brewers was included.
The Lee trade of 2010, which went down on July 9, is another iffy one. Of the four prospects the Mariners got from the Rangers, only Justin Smoak had a place in Baseball America's preseason top 10 for Texas.
Point being: Trades that happen in late July may not be foolproof, but neither are trades that happen before late July.
Which is something that I consider to be a bummer. When I embarked on this thought experiment/research piece/general thingamajig, I was hoping there'd be enough to conclude definitively that early trades are the way to go.
The reality that early trades can net big returns is a reason for clubs to remain open to them, but the reality that late trades can also net big returns is an equalizer on that front. If a team is looking at the likelihood of any business happening, there's clearly more of an advantage with late trades on that front.
In so many words: You may continue looking forward to late July. It's when good times are had.
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