The Time for “Reach Out” Calls Is Here

As the calendar flips to June, it means just one thing to big league teams: there’s activity on the horizon. July means trade season, and June is the month to get ready for it. It can be a complicated process, but it starts with some old school front office work, as teams get in touch with each other to lay the groundwork for the insanity to come through what are commonly referred to as reach out calls.

Before such calls occur, teams prepare by assessing their 29 potential trade partners. For each team, needs and surpluses are identified. When I was with Houston, a group of people created matrices for each club, showing what those teams might need and which players might be available, as well as a snapshot of their payroll and any anticipated flexibility in that regard. For teams seen as buyers, did we have a player who fit their needs? For those likely to sell, did they have targets to help get us into the playoffs, or who could help us win a playoff series? For those on the bubble, both possible scenarios need to be prepared for.

The calls themselves are made by a variety of people, ranging from general managers to assistant GMs to other top lieutenants at the director level or higher. During my Astros tenure, assignments were based on relationships. I generally did somewhere between six and 10 of these calls because I knew the person on the other end of the phone best.

Prior to the call, a general outgoing message is agreed upon internally. If you are already in buying mode, you make that clear and let other teams know what part of the roster you are looking to fortify. A desire for more pitching, both in terms of starters and relievers, is nearly universal but sometimes specific needs, such as a backup catcher or a lefty bench bat, have been created by injuries and/or ineffectiveness. Sellers sometimes discuss specific rental-type players who are available right now. Sometimes, they simply let other teams know that they are open for business and receptive to ideas. For teams on the bubble, calls are received more than they are made, as those clubs use the next four to six weeks to decide which direction they are heading.

As of June 1, here is how I would conservatively categorize the 30 teams heading into call season:

Major League Teams After Two Months
Buyers Bubble Sellers
Astros Blue Jays Angels
Athletics Cubs Diamondbacks
Braves Giants Orioles
Brewers Indians Pirates
Cardinals Mariners Rangers
Dodgers Marlins Rockies
Mets Nationals Tigers
Padres Phillies
Rays Reds
Red Sox Royals
White Sox Twins

That’s nearly two-thirds of the league getting ready to make their reach out calls and let other clubs know either what they are looking for or who is available. Meanwhile, the bubble teams are in receiving mode, ready to discuss both buying and selling scenarios, while the conversations themselves can help steer the future direction of those clubs as they begin to get a better understanding of both acquisition costs and what their potential trade chips might generate in return.

The calls can vary in length. In general, one tries to connect with every club in the name of due diligence. A call between two future buyers can end with a quick mutual agreement that they don’t match up and an understanding to get in touch should either party have a creative flight of fancy that helps both teams. For others, it will be a longer talk. This year, I would guess few calls are likely to be longer than those held with the Cubs and Giants, who, depending on how the next month plays out, could be making a playoff push or could be in possession of some of the most attractive trade targets on the market.

In addition to the more official and organized reach out calls, there are the back-channel conversations. Some teams frown upon them, while others encourage them. These are between contacts, often below the executive level, who friendly with each other. These talks often also end up being wildly off message, though they can have the effect of sparking real discussions once their details are communicated upward. But more often than not they simply feed the rumor mill and lead to wasted follow-up calls as GMs and AGMs inform potential partners that the deal an underling said was open for discussion is actually a non-starter.

Reach out calls are a time for honesty. If the conversation leads to an idea that you would pursue further, you say so. The same applies if something is clearly in the no-go zone. If you don’t know, “I’ll take that to the group and get back to you,” is a perfectly acceptable response. It’s also time to reach for the stars. This is when teams will let Washington know that if the Nationals decide to move Max Scherzer, they would have considerable interest and indicate the level of prospect they’d be willing to discuss in such a deal. There’s nothing wrong with asking about players who on paper might seem unattainable; you never know what the response will be. During the reach out calls I did for the Astros in 2020, multiple teams asked me about impending free agents George Springer and Michael Brantley. Despite scuffling for a postseason spot at the time, the team wasn’t going to trade them. I told the person on the other end of the call just that, but I certainly couldn’t blame them for asking. Unfortunately, these kinds of conversations can also lead to bad rumors from those with looser lips, and all of a sudden, you see the headline “Team X discusses Max Scherzer with the Nationals.” That might be true, but it might also be part of conversation that was quickly shut down, making the headline misleading to fans of both teams.

While reach out calls themselves aren’t productive in a vacuum, they can set the tone for the conversations that begin to really heat up a month from now. They generate new ideas and help clubs on the bubble decide whether they are going for it or kick-starting a re-build. They’re also a lot of fun. Who wouldn’t want to play a little bit of the real-life version of fantasy baseball?

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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Jason Bmember
2 years ago

Really appreciate this sort of “behind the scenes” look. I guess I had always considered the “calling to inquire” part of the equation, but not the “let’s mutually agree on the path of our franchise” discussion that needs to take place beforehand, so that everyone internally is singing from the same sheet music. You don’t want half indicating a buying stance and half indicating a sell stance depending on who you talk to. (Parents probably better understand this dynamic)