Blood Meridian: Baseball’s Trade Deadline in the 21st Century

The trade deadline was once a thing of beauty, a concentrated dose of the Hot Stove League in the middle of the summer. A time in which you could fantasize about new and exciting players wearing your team’s colors, while you were actually watching games. “Hey, Tony Gwynn’s up — Christ, can you imagine if we got Bobby Bonilla to hit behind him?”

Every year, we could rely on 48 hours in July when pennants were won and lost, when five-year plans crumbled, and when franchises’ entire futures could change with a phone call. There was a Christmas-morning feel to the day of the deadline.

Now, it feels more like a family party that you attend out of obligation, knowing that there’s about a 10% chance that you’ll have an OK time if you drink enough.

I’m hesitant to write anything negative about baseball, for fear of feeding the arguments of this guy or this guy. But my job is my job — and my job is to tell the truth in the harsh face of indifference and obfuscation. Ha ha ha. Just kidding. Actually, I’m just mad that the Yankees didn’t get Prince Fielder.

The trade deadline has mutated over the last decade, and it’s become something ugly and unrecognizable. A time of deception instead of hope. Ennui instead of excitement.

The phenomenon that was the deadline has fallen victim to the ineptitude of two collectives: baseball front offices and the sports media.

1) Baseball Front Offices

Baseball fans of America, here are two inexorable truths: Most general managers are stupid; and most of them think that you’re sub-moronic.

The very nature of most deadline trades involves contending teams trying to upgrade for the stretch run, and losing teams trying to add pieces with which to rebuild. It’s been that way since time immemorial, and despite what Bud Selig and others would have us believe, money has always been a factor in these moves. Since even before the Babe Ruth trade, teams have been desperate to shed big salaries, particularly when they don’t have a chance to win in the near future. And good teams have always been waiting at the curb to swoop in and pick up a good, high-priced player for less value than his talent demands.

But something’s changed recently. The non-contending teams involved in this equation haven’t been holding up their end of the deal. Most recent trades completed by these sad sacks haven’t been with one eye on rebuilding and one eye on cost savings — they’ve completely ignored even the possibility of rebuilding.

To be fair, any time you trade a proven player for prospects, the team getting the proven player will very likely “win” the trade, both in terms of wins and money. The goal of the non-contending team was always to get as close as possible to the long-term value of the player they were giving up: to stock up on players who might help in the future while saving on short-term costs.

But things have shifted to the point where it’s become a shell game, as GMs and team presidents and owners try to sell fans a bill of goods, to try to minimize attendance damage over the final two months of the season. Sure, we’re trading away our stars and beloved fan favorites, but we’re rebuilding! We’ll get ’em next year!

They almost never get ’em next year. In part, that’s because a good number of general managers and scouts have not kept up with the times, sabermetrically speaking. So while Theo Epstein and Andrew Freidman may view certain prospects as fair-to-middling because data tells them they don’t have a great track record, old-timey GMs may consider them great gets because they’ve “got tools.” And in part, it’s because GMs flat-out lie to their fans and the press. They claim to be building for the future when all they care about is the $3 million in pro-rated salary they’ve just saved their miserly owner, so they can keep their jobs until the next trade deadline.

Small-market owners have never been more flush with cash, between TV and Internet wealth, and the revenue sharing and luxury taxes put in place in the last collective bargaining agreement. Yet look at some of the ridiculous swindles that took place in the last couple weeks:

Arizona traded Dan Haren to Anaheim for Joe Saunders, Rafael Rodriguez, Patrick Corbin and Tyler Skaggs. Haren is one of the best pitchers in baseball despite pitching in some bad luck this year. Saunders is a little worse than league average, with no potential to get batter, and he’s not all that cheap. The prospects in the deal are unlikely to make a significant big-league impact. Haren was signed for a reasonable price through 2012. If Arizona was convinced they can’t contend the next two years, they needed to get players in return who will help them when they do content. They failed. Dbacks interim GM Jerry Dipoto had the audacity to defend the deal by pointing to Saunders’ win-loss record (“I think he trails only Roy Halladay among major leaguers in total wins [the last three years].”), neglecting the fact that pitcher wins and losses have as much to do with the team the pitcher’s on as with the pitcher’s performance. Dipoto (or Arizona ownership) made the same mistake Cleveland made twice in the last two years — trading a legitimate ace pitcher for far less than the sum of his parts. You don’t build a contender by trading C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, or Dan Haren. When you have a star in their prime, you lock him into a long-term deal at a fair rate, like Minnesota did with Joe Mauer. Like Cleveland did with its young stars in the late ’90s. You make that star the centerpiece of your rebuilding plan, while you trade away aging spare parts like Scott Podsednik and Kyle Farnsworth. The Haren trade was short-sighted and ill-considered to the point of being malpractice. Diamondbacks fans should file a lawsuit. It’s Curt Schilling to the Red Sox redux.

Houston traded Roy Oswalt to Philadelpha for J.A. Happ, Anthony Gose and Jonathan Villar. Happ is 28. He’s not a prospect. He’s also not very good. The prospects are not prospects. Did I mention that Houston also gave Philadelphia cash to pay part of Oswalt’s remaining salary? Well, they did. The Astros are in full abandon-ship mode, after many seasons of trying to contend when they weren’t good enough. But rebuilding doesn’t mean you must get rid of all your decent players, especially when you’re not getting anything worthwhile in the exchange. Houston’s farm system is barren, and they absolutely needed to get decent prospects who could contribute in 2013 and beyond. They failed.

St. Louis traded Ryan Ludwick for Jake Westbrook. Here’s where incompetence comes into play, whereas the above trades were egregious examples of GMs deceiving their fan bases. The Cardinals’ rotation is already a strength, and their lineup already a weakness despite the presence of Albert Pujols. So they traded a quality, above-average bat for an aging, pitch-to-contact starter. If Cincinnati wins the Central, or if the Cardinals flame out in the first round as usual, we’ll know why.

Minnesota traded Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps. And now we see the flip side of the Oswalt and Haren trades, as the Twins traded one of their top prospects for a mediocre veteran they don’t even need. Ramos is a legitimate all-around catching prospect, who is seemingly blocked by Joe Mauer for the foreseeable future. Trading him was the right idea — but the Twins need a starter, or a power hitter (Adam Dunn), or a third baseman. What they don’t need is a decent reliever whose value is inflated just because he carries the label of “closer,” and who will probably do no better than Jon Rauch has done all season for Minnesota.

The trade deadline has become a sad contest of guess-which-fanbase-is-about-to-get-fleeced. Teams like the Royals, Pirates and Orioles bungle the deadline year after year (although, shockingly, both Kansas City and Pittsburgh did OK for themselves this year), and that, more than any other reason, explains their remarkable run of losing seasons.

Greedy owners hide behind the mantle of eternal rebuilding processes, and sacrifice years of their teams future to further pad their pocketbooks. They force, or more generously, allow their general managers to tell bald-faced lies to the public and the press. Which brings us to…

2) The Sports Media

The composition of sports media should provide us with an abundance of riches during the trade deadline. The Internet, and Twitter in particular, allow beat reporters to provide news and updates faster and more directly than ever before. In the early ’90s, you’d have to wait for the special edition of SportsCenter that aired right after the trade deadline to find out who did and didn’t get dealt.

But the immediacy of information has brought with it a decline in actual news reporting.

Beginning with the great Peter Gammons degeneration of the late ’90s, legitimate sports news has been replaced by unsourced rumor-mongering.

Every conceivable player is linked to every conceivable team, and it’s impossible to suss out the real leads from gossip and speculation. Articles, blog posts and Tweets are filled with unreliable, meaningless reports like, “Some have said the Yankees are in on Adam Dunn,” and “Don’t be surprised if the Giants make a move for a hitter.”

There’s no accountability, and because of that, less than 1% of speculated trades actually come to pass. Reporters simply pass on every tidbit anyone tells them, from GMs to bat boys, to an unsuspecting and news-starved public.

As a result, not only is most of the so-called deadline news blatantly false, much of it has been planted. Front offices use reporters like Republican politicians use Fox News.

If a front office wants to plant a false rumor to misdirect other teams, or make fans think their team is being more active than it actually is, they simply have one of the GM’s assistants place a call or e-mail to Jon Heyman, Ken Rosenthal or Buster Olney, and the lie will be published within minutes. Reporters allow themselves to serve as puppets, beholden to the whims and schemes of executives. They don’t stop to think if the rumor makes sense. They don’t verify it with multiple sources. They just throw it out to the world.

Reporting unsubstantiated rumors is irresponsible, but reporting planted information without verification is dereliction of duty.

It’s beyond cliché to claim that sports journalism is dead, so I won’t. But the trade deadline is the best time of year to come out and view the corpse.

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Filed under Sports Has AIDS, The Dilemma

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