The Thing All the Trades Had in Common

The non-waiver trade period wrapped up yesterday with teams pushing 18 trades through on a frantic final day. The Giants and Dodgers both paid high prices to load up for a dogfight in the NL West, the Rangers filled some big holes to prepare for a hopeful postseason run, the Indians pushed in with a big bullpen upgrade, and the Mets put the finishing touch on their defense-doesn’t-matter roster in an attempt to slug their way back to the playoffs.

But while the types of veteran upgrades acquired by contenders were quite different, there was one central theme that seemed to run through almost every trade; buyers giving up on previously well-regarded players currently in the midst of devaluing themselves. Or, if you want to look at it from a more optimistic viewpoint, sellers targeting buy-low young talents who might have a chance to prove that their current struggles are just a blip on the radar.

This theme even showed itself in the two biggest deals yesterday.

To give up Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress, the Brewers landed center fielder Lewis Brinson, a high-end athlete currently running just a 99 wRC+ in Double-A, a step back from what he did at the same level last year. After rating him as the #16 overall prospect heading into 2016, Baseball America put Brinson at #30 on their midseason update, even though many of the guys ahead of him in March had graduated from the list. There’s certainly nothing wrong with still being ranked as a top-30 prospect, but Brinson’s stock is down some from where it was a few months ago.

In the other big deal, the Giants landed Matt Moore from the Rays to upgrade their rotation, but to get a controllable young lefty, the team surrendered Matt Duffy along with a pair of low-level prospects. Duffy was a +5 WAR player for the Giants as their starting third baseman last year, but hadn’t managed to repeat last year’s success this year before an achilles problem forced him to the DL, and he got displaced by new-acquisition Eduardo Nunez before he could make his return. As I wrote yesterday, Duffy looks like a good buy-low guy for the Rays, as there was almost no chance the Giants would have flipped him for Moore — and given up two other prospects to sweeten the deal — over the winter.

In most every other deal completed yesterday, we can find this same trend; organizations spent most of the day giving up prospects who were well thought of previously but might be trending the wrong way.

Dillon Tate, who the Rangers took with the #4 pick in last year’s draft, was shipped to New York for a half-season rental of Carlos Beltran. Phil Bickford was shipped to Milwaukee as one of two players traded for reliever Will Smith because the reports on him up-and-down. Dilson Herrera was shipped to the Reds for Jay Bruce even though Neil Walker will be a free agent at years end; the Mets were apparently not convinced that Herrera would be able to take over at second base next year, given his underwhelming performance in Triple-A. Alex Meyer went from the Twins to the Angels in a swap of back-end starters, continuing his long fall from peak value several years ago, when he was seen as seen as one of the game’s best pitching prospects.

And then there’s that Blue Jays-Pirates trade, a deal in which every player in the swap represented one of the two teams trying to buy low on the other team’s struggling talent. Francisco Liriano was one of the best starting pitchers in the National League the last few years, but the wheels have fallen off the bus this season, and the Pirates were happy to dump the remainder of his contract on the Blue Jays rather than hope he figures out how to fix his command again.

In the Pirates end of the deal, they got former-top-prospect-turned-Triple-A-depth-arm Drew Hutchison, the kind of classic arm Ray Searage and his staff have had success turning around once they get to Pittsburgh. But to get Hutchison and dump Liriano’s salary, the Pirates had to throw in two prospects who were considered to be among the organization’s most promising talents heading into the season, Reese Mcguire and Harold Ramirez. The Pirates agreed to give both up because they just weren’t really hitting this season; both in Double-A, McGuire had a 94 wRC+ and Ramirez had a 112 wRC+ based on a .363 BABIP, but neither was showing any semblance of power.

And the trend even wound into deals that gone done at the trade deadline. To land Andrew Cashner, the Marlins gave up their 2015 first round pick Josh Naylor, who didn’t help his value at all by struggling to hit in A-ball or by stabbing a teammate earlier in the year.

For all the talk of deals built around Yoan Moncada or Julio Urias, the results of the July trading season suggest that the young players teams are actually willing to trade away this time of year are guys who they feel are losing value, and they want to get off the ride before it crashes into a tree. And there’s probably a decent amount of wisdom in that approach.

A couple of months ago, I noted that recent “buy low” trades for aging star players hadn’t worked out very well for the acquiring teams. And as Matt Swartz noted back in 2012, teams have historically gotten poor return on investments when signing free agents from other teams, relative to the return they’ve gotten when they’ve re-signed their own players; this suggests that perhaps there’s enough information asymmetry in player evaluations that we should downgrade our expectations for players who are allowed to leave by another organization.

While we don’t want to just appeal to authority on every transaction, it’s also true that the teams giving up these young players know more about them than anyone else, and while they are still susceptible to recency bias, the fact that these teams are willing to sell while their value is diminished is perhaps telling. It doesn’t mean these guys can’t succeed, but their odds of making it are likely even less than we would estimate given public information, given that the organization with the most information wasn’t willing to wait around for their value to rebound.

In almost every situation where they had a choice, the teams giving up young talent chose to keep players whose stock is on the rise and sell players for less than what they would have been valued at recently, eschewing the buy-low/sell-high philosophy that is often espoused as the way to build value. This was more like selling-medium, attempting to salvage some kind of value from an asset in perceived decline before it can go to zero.

Some of these guys will rebound, of course. I’m betting on Duffy bouncing back, and I think the Rays are going to be quite pleased with that trade long-term. Given that Brinson’s core skills still appear to be in tact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he still turned into a very nice player for the Brewers. But most of these guys? I’m betting they go the way of Touki Toussaint, and a year from now, we see that the buyer ended up extracting some value from a prospect while they still had a little shine left. I know Pirates fans are freaking out this morning, but McGuire and Ramirez don’t look like pieces worth freaking out about.

This was the week of selling off disappointing prospects. Perhaps this is what we get when there aren’t any David Prices or Johnny Cuetos on the market. But at a time when teams are placing higher and higher values on young talent, it’s probably worth noting that teams were willing to give up on this particular type of prospect. Given what we thought about the players six months ago, these prices might seem high, but for most of them, the trajectory of their stock has been a straight line down, and we might end up realizing not too long from now that these teams got out while the getting was still at least kind of good.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

19 Comments
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HarryLives
6 years ago

Touki Toussaint’s going to bean you, Dave, and he’s so wild you won’t know whether it was intentional. He throws 95, so it’s going to hurt.

Josermember
6 years ago
Reply to  HarryLives

“Throw it at the mascot”