Trades taking on added importance as teams remake rosters

Thursday December 5th, 2013

Craig Gentry is on his way from Texas to Oakland as part of another trade involving established players.
Jim Mone/AP

Major League Baseball's official website extended the Cyber Monday sale for its merchandise store an extra day, but the shopping extravaganza that apparently includes club front offices has continued all week long.

It began with Monday evening's deals of Doug Fister to the Nationals and Jim Johnson to the Athletics, continued Tuesday with a bevy of trades and signings and kept going Thursday morning, when the Brewers dealt outfielder Norichika Aoki to the Kansas City Royals.

While the biggest news of Tuesday's flurry of activity -- Chico Salmon Day, as dubbed by SI's Tom Verducci -- was that the Yankees had reportedly agreed to terms with free-agent centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, there were also eight trades in just over 24 hours. Those moves could signal a more fundamental shift in roster-building strategy.

The Athletics pulled the trigger on three of them. In addition to the aforementioned Johnson deal, they shipped outfielder Seth Smith to the Padres for reliever Luke Gregerson and sent outfield prospect Michael Choice and a minor league second baseman to the Rangers for centerfielder Craig Gentry and reliever Josh Lindblom. The preparation for those deals kept Oakland's top executives busy for a number of discussions before Thanksgiving, continued with conversations over the holiday week and mostly culminated in a very late night at the office.

"It was, as you can imagine, a pretty frenetic pace," A's general manager Beane said, "and a lot of satisfaction that we were able to pull everything together."

Beane noted that the timing of his club's recent transactions -- which also includes the signing of free agent starter Scott Kazmir -- is "more coincidence than anything" but the method was certainly not. The A's have long had one of the game's lowest payrolls and, as Beane said, "We're not overly active, historically in the free-agent market," adding that trades have "always been our main source for acquiring players."

The most efficient and cost-effective way of doing business in baseball is, of course, through scouting and then developing homegrown players. Increasingly, however, trades are becoming a more appealing avenue for a team to supplement its roster, even for clubs with the financial might to sign big free agents. The trade market has become especially active seemingly because of the inflationary prices and diminished supply of free agents. Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said he has observed this trend and, quite clearly, has been a part of it.

Texas paired with another big-market team, Detroit, to consummate last month's rare star-for-star trade involving Ian Kinsler and Prince Fielder. The Rangers needed a power-hitting first baseman when there was no such commodity on the open market; the Tigers needed a star second baseman without wanting to meet Robinson Cano's steep price tag, which is likely to approach or even exceed $200 million.

There are many genres of trades -- among them a proven player for a package of prospects, a salary dump and a big leaguer for a big leaguer -- and the early returns of this winter suggest that the latter is on the rise as a prudent way to fill a need. With fewer affordable free agents and more demand for roster upgrades, it's only natural for clubs to utilize the trade market for talent distribution. It helps explain why we've already seen several trades like it this winter, including Kinsler for Fielder, Smith for Gregerson, Gentry for Choice, Peter Bourjos for David Freese and Dexter Fowler for Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes.

After acquiring Fielder, Texas owes him seven years and $138 million, a sum less than the seven years and $153 million that New York will reportedly pay Ellsbury. Fielder is also eight months younger and boasts a superlative tool -- power -- that is more coveted in today's game. And despite their physical appearances, Fielder has proven to be much more durable than Ellsbury. Which player on which contract would you prefer to have?

Projecting human performance is a capricious craft, of course, and trades are at least twice as tricky given the involvement of two or more players rather than, say, one free agent. But some executives either feel more comfortable comparing player assets than assigning monetary values in a market with escalating prices or at least are trying to feel more comfortable making trades than signing free agents.

The Padres have made three trades in a little over a week. The first two were minor, though Tuesday's Smith-for-Gregerson deal was a good ol' fashioned player-for-player swap. GM Josh Byrnes said his club's depth at several positions, especially the outfield, could facilitate another trade to fill a hole, such as a lefthanded pitcher for the bullpen.

"For us, the first two trades were really drive by the 40-man roster decision, and today was kind of a baseball trade, one-for-one, no real salary implications with it," Byrnes said. "In general, trades might happen because they have a chance to be more cash-neutral, or a team might have a surplus and might trade out of it to fill a need."

Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Tower told SI in an interview last spring that, given his background with smaller markets like Arizona and San Diego, he has always felt more comfortable making trades than signing free agents. And he repeated that sentiment to reporters in a conference call on Tuesday.

"We're also looking to add depth to our starting pitching, preferably a No. 1, No. 2," Towers said, adding, "more than likely that would probably come via trade, although there are some free agents we have some interest in. I would say that we'll probably be a little bit more aggressive on the trade front."

Admittedly, trading isn't for everyone, as the few big league clubs going through full-fledged rebuilding try not to strip away any talent from their rosters, at least not any young talent. That's why Terry Ryan, GM of a Twins organization that has signed free-agent starters Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press, "I don't want to give up players."

There have even been several intra-divisional trades, a move some organizations have been reluctant to make given the potential for helping a rival. Because of his small payroll, Oakland's Beane can't be choosy and has traded with three of his four Al West cohorts within the last year.

"There aren't enough guys to trade with to begin with, so to cut four more off just doesn't seem to make sense to me," he said.

Added Daniels, "We're not hesitant to do it. You always try to understand the deal -- what the other team is trying to accomplish, but the big thing is getting what fits for your club. We feel [Tuesday's trade with the A's] accomplishes something for us that we were trying to do, adding a now-and-future corner run-producing bat.

"Obviously Oakland wouldn't be doing it if Craig and Josh didn't fit for them too, and you have to acknowledge that, 'Hey, we're getting better but they obviously wouldn't be doing it if they weren't getting better as well.' You can get paralyzed if you spend too much time on that, though."

That so many trades were completed on Tuesday was surely the coincidence Beane said it was, but the rash of deals early in the offseason may not be, as front offices try to plug holes through trades before dipping too deep into their budgets for free agents.

"It's been a very active week, and obviously the prices have been fairly high on the [free-agent] market so, probably more than most offseasons, there has been a pretty good balance of free agency and trades," Byrnes said. "It's hard to tell which type of transaction will lead the way in the next week or so."

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