Why Teams Wait To Make Trades

Completing a trade before July — a real player-for-player deal that improves one’s playoff chances or prospect depth — can be exceptionally difficult. Sometimes the stars align, as they did in late May when the Rays sent Willy Adames to the Brewers in a deal that included three relievers swapping jerseys, but for the most part, things are quiet until the final weeks before the deadline.

That’s despite the fact that it makes sense for teams to address their needs early. An acquisition to help a team get into the playoffs has a much greater impact if he’s on the roster for 90 games instead of 60; you don’t need to be a quant genius to tell you that’s 50% more games. Buyers want to address their needs yesterday, and obvious sellers have players available immediately. For most, however, the waiting game just makes good business sense in terms of market dynamics. And there’s a new wrinkle to this year’s market that clubs are still figuring out how to navigate — one that will surely add to the delays in getting that stove truly hot.

Why Buyers Wait

Teams looking to make a playoff push are waiting for the market to expand. Depending on how you look at it, there are only six to eight obvious sellers right now, and many of them don’t have much of interest on the available menu. There are an equal amount of teams on the bubble in late June, and these are teams with better rosters full of plenty of players that winning clubs would like to have. The Cubs and Giants, who were seen as two of those bubble teams entering the year, are loaded with excellent players on expiring contracts, but at this point, they’re buyers.

But even with those options off the table, there are plenty of very good players who are not available today but might be two to four weeks from now. What if the Angels go cold and are suddenly willing to talk about Alex Cobb and Andrew Heaney? Are there scenarios where another losing streak for the Nationals makes (gulp) Max Scherzer available?

Even while trying to remain patient to see if more players become available, buyers stay in close contact with those already in sell mode to try to ensure that if they miss out on an early deal, they won’t be taken by surprise. “Hey, we’re not ready to move now, but if you are getting ready to deal the player, please check in with us first,” is a consistent message relayed to selling teams. That allows a buying team to hold off on making a decision about ending their waiting game until absolutely necessary. Sellers are usually more than happy to comply; if they have an acceptable offer on the table and are ready to move, why not shop it around to see if you can get something better before logging into eBIS and submitting the deal?

Why Sellers Wait

Much like buyers, sellers are waiting for their own market expansion, as more teams in buying mode means more potential suitors for your players. From the beginning of the season until mid-July, sellers set high prices for their players, and understandably so. If you want that extra month or months from a player, and you want a team to act now and eliminate multiple potential suitors, you need to pay a premium. Instead, sellers will often find an acceptable offer and sit on it, hoping for something better elsewhere or an improved offer as time-based desperation sets in.

Just like buyers have big league trade targets, sellers have lined up prospect trade targets. Let’s say Buyer X offers Seller Y their No. 15 prospect for a good reliever who is a free agent at the end of the year. It might be a good deal, but the player that Seller Y really wants is Buyer X’s No. 12 prospect, a draft pick from a couple of years ago that Seller Y really coveted. For now, Seller Y is going to ask for that player and sit on the good deal in the hope that by the end of July, they make the deal great and get the player they really want. It’s a risky game of chicken, as Buyer X might find another reliever elsewhere. But Seller Y’s thinking is that while waiting might get Buyer X to up their offer, it will also result in more teams contacting them about the reliever, thus increasing their chances of finding that better deal elsewhere should Buyer X bow out.

The New Wrinkle

This season presents a new challenge for teams looking to add depth to their pitching staffs, as the recent crackdown on foreign substances has caused teams to pause in terms of their trade target evaluations. Target identification for many buyers began during spring training, and players have been tracked via data/video and scouted for months. But sources from multiple organizations have indicated that they are setting a new line beginning this week to see how pitchers change with the enforcement policy in effect. For many relievers who rely on big-spin breaking balls, the quality of their pitches will be closely monitored, which could dramatically re-configure the order of many target lists.

Trades Take Time

I’m often asked what’s the fastest a deal has ever gotten done. I don’t have an answer to that, but the quickest deal I was ever a part of took place on July 31, 2013. With 30 minutes to go before the deadline, the Royals contacted the Astros to see if Justin Maxwell was available. The team responded yes, but obviously, there wasn’t much time to act. Kansas City texted over a list of players, right-handed pitcher Kyle Smith was chosen, and after the briefest of medical reviews, the deal was done in about 20 minutes.

That is not the norm. Some deals take days, others weeks, and some months. There will be trades completed next month that began with discussions that happened during the off-season. There are offers on the table right now that are the best a team is going to see, but the trigger won’t be pulled until the approaching deadline makes that a reality. Teams are always hoping for something better, in terms of both acquisition cost and prospects, as well as potential big league roster adds. Until that bell rings at 4:00 PM ET on July 30, many are just going to keep waiting.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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Joe Joemember
2 years ago

Do buyers ever reduce their offers if the seller waits solely based on less of the season left?