Tim Marchman
Thursday May 28th, 2009

Most baseball trades are ridiculous, the equivalent on one end of paying someone to take your money. The wonder is that so many teams make them.

Take the sad case of the Cleveland Indians, who have won more than they've lost just twice since 2001, mysteriously pulling the neat trick of drawing praise as a model franchise all the while. This year they're lousy again. Happily, they have two quite marketable players: Cliff Lee, the defending Cy Young Award winner who has run up a 2.66 ERA and averaged more than seven innings per start since the beginning of last season, and catcher Victor Martinez, who's hitting .362/.438/.564 on the year. Both are 30, both are signed to cheap contracts through next season and, together, they're worth something like a pair of decent minor leaguers. Maybe.

The problem is less the players than the money. As Dave Cameron shows here, teams paid about $4.5 million for an expected win on the free-agent market this past winter. This makes Lee and Martinez, who will, between them, earn about $26 million between now and the end of 2010, fantastic bargains. According to WAR, the metric underlying Cameron's research, the two have been worth 4.5 wins so far this year. Assume that they'll finish out the season as strong as they've started, but that next year they'll decline a bit, and you'll end up with a value of something like 16 wins for the two between now and the end of 2010. That's what a team that traded for them could optimistically expect, and it's worth nearly $50 million more than they're being paid.

By the same math, though, a random minor leaguer of the sort who might be part of a deal for two such players is far more valuable than you might think. An average player is worth two wins in a year. A prospect who struggles in his first two years, giving the team just one win in each, and then settles in at dead average for the next four before leaving the team as a free agent, will have been worth about $45 million -- and he'll likely have been paid somewhere between $15 and $20 million, given baseball's idiosyncratic pay scale. Two such players would thus be a reasonable return on Lee and Martinez.

Of course wins are worth more at some times than others, which is why if the Indians move these two they could command a premium in the deal. And real life is nowhere near so neat as these numbers. Factoring the odds that a prospect will give the team six years of more or less average play against those that he'll do nothing at all against the odds that the veteran for whom he's traded will just stop being good, while taking into account that one of them is a drunk and the other spends his spare time watching old Jerry Koosman game films, is complicated work.

Still, if you keep the basic math in mind, you'll see that most actual trades, let alone those that exist only in the minds of baseball writers, make absolutely no sense. If two legitimate stars at the tail end of their primes are in some real sense worth a couple of solid prospects and little more, what does that say about everyone else?

Even leaving money out of it, the summer trade is an especially sketchy idea for the simple reason that a lot of the season has passed by the time it's made. Say, for instance, that San Diego's Jake Peavy were to decide tomorrow that his love for the vibrant art scene in the Bridgeport and Pilsen neighborhoods of Chicago's South Side had overcome his reluctance to pitch in the American League, and that he would, therefore, accept the trade to the White Sox that he turned down last week. Leave aside the nearly $60 million that his new team would be liable for and just focus on the wins column.

Peavy, were he to pitch as well as he has so far, would be worth perhaps 3.5 wins more than the flotsam that Chicago has been running out in the back end of its rotation. Through 46 games the White Sox had played .457 baseball. All else being equal, then, Peavy -- a real live ace in his prime (he turns 28 this week) -- might take them from 74 wins to 78. There are circumstances where four wins count for a lot, to be sure. But just because a player is good doesn't mean that a given team needs him.

This so, it's still easy to pick out some trades that might make sense. Ideally, you'll have one team in a tight race that's been getting really terrible production from some spot or other, and one team that's out of it. Match the two and you just might be able to squint at the numbers long enough to forget what a rotten idea a trade usually is.

Returning to Lee and Martinez, one has to think that they would look spectacular in Texas Rangers uniforms right now. (Texas has plenty of young catching, but there's no team that couldn't make room for a bat like Martinez's, especially as he can handle first base.) It's been a decade since the Rangers have played in October, but they've played well enough, and are in a weak enough division, that they have a real chance at it this year. They also have the deepest farm system in baseball. Catcher Max Ramirez, arguably not one of their 10 best prospects, is a seemingly good bet to put up several years of average play, and they have lots of other goods to accompany him, from control pitchers such as Blake Beavan to the riskier but potentially more rewarding likes of Kasey Kiker, who has already hit 10 batters in Double-A ball.

One doesn't necessarily expect Cleveland to give up the last fraying shreds of its respectability in June, and given the Rangers' recent record of trading off the likes of John Danks and Edinson Volquez, their fans might well prefer them to play their pat hand. But a deal here would make a lot of sense.

Coming back to Peavy, while he has been linked most often to the Cubs, a team that would make even more sense is the Milwaukee Brewers, though of course who knows if Wisconsin would fit Peavy's rarefied sensibilities. They certainly have the need, as starters Jeff Suppan and Braden Looper have been appalling this year. Their trade for CC Sabathia last year showed that they're not afraid of the big risk, and the big offer they made him in the winter showed that they're willing to spend on the right pitcher. Perhaps more importantly, the team is owned by one person who can make decisions on how money is spent.

San Diego can't expect a lot back for Peavy -- because of the way similar pitchers such as Pat Hentgen and Jack McDowell have aged, there's a colorable argument that he has negative value given his enormous contract -- but the Brewers have enough respectable if unexceptional prospects, such as center fielder Lorenzo Cain, to make an offer, and they ought to. Four wins wouldn't help the White Sox all that much, but they might mean a second straight playoff spot for the Brewers, something that could fundamentally change the way baseball is treated in Milwaukee for years to come. This admittedly gets into handwaving territory, and notions like vibe and perception have led to many a bad deal. But sussing out those times when such arguments have some weight to them is the whole art of running a team.

After Lee and Peavy, the sexiest pitcher who might plausibly be traded is Seattle's Erik Bedard, and the team with the biggest need is Philadelphia, which has endured some execrable pitching from Brett Myers and Jamie Moyer. Here you run into a classic problem. Seattle, albeit under previous management, gave up Adam Jones, who increasingly looks like he could be a keystone player for a pennant-winning club, as well as top pitching prospect Chris Tillman for Bedard. It was a lousy deal, and it puts pressure on Seattle to get something valuable in return.

Unfortunately for the Mariners, Bedard isn't worth something really valuable. He would improve the Phillies by perhaps three wins, the value of which would be a fraction of what a mildly dodgy Phillies prospect such as shortstop Jason Donald would be worth if he panned out. This is a good reason why the Phillies wouldn't make such a trade, especially as they would likely have to add parts for appearances's sake. Why should they? Because they have a great core that's in its prime, and they're the defending champions. Don't let the actuarial table blind you to the reality that average players can be replaced.

Not all sensible deals have to involve renowned players. While the St. Louis Cardinals haven't suffered terribly from third baseman Troy Glaus' absence -- he's recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and may not even make it back this season -- they need a bat, and this may be the easiest position for them to fill. Such a good fit exists with the Seattle Mariners that it's hard to believe a deal hasn't been made yet. Adrian Beltre, one of the more underrated players in baseball -- his subpar batting averages and the damping effects of Safeco Field on right-handed power mask some terrific glovework -- isn't having a particularly good year, but hasn't really had a bad one since 2001.

Beltre is a free agent at the end of the season, and just the sort of talented young veteran that Tony La Russa has traditionally had great success with. (Ancient as he may seem, Beltre turned 30 last month.) The Cardinals rightly wouldn't move prime talent for him, but the proverbial live arm -- someone like Francisco Samuel, who may well never make the majors but has struck out 163 batters in 117.1 minor league innings -- would be worth it to solidify what has become a shaky spot in their infield.

Aside from the specifics of these or any other sort of hare-brained trade proposals you might see, it's important to key in on a commonality here: None of the teams getting rid of their veterans would be getting anything at all glamorous in return. That's how it should be, and increasingly that's how it is. Young players with even a decent shot at running up a few good years while making the league minimum or near it are so valuable that any sort of sound methodology will show a deal involving getting rid of them to be a net loser, almost regardless of what's coming back.

Against that, though, you do have to weigh what a playoff run can do for a team like Texas, or what a second one can do to turn a place like Milwaukee into a baseball town, or what it means to wring every last win out of any team featuring a player as transcendent as Albert Pujols. And you also have to weigh just how likely a player is to do his best in the few months you have him. This is where the art comes in, and however the two months leading up to the trade deadline shake down, you can be sure that it will be the artists, and not the mathematicians, who will make the best trades -- or the least ridiculous ones.

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