Where have all the fungibles gone?

Since the trading deadline was extended from June 15 to July 31 sometime in the mid-’80s (either 1985 or 1986), trading season has undergone a number of changes. Rick Sutcliffe‘s Cy Young in 1984 was the product of a deadline deal. He was traded on June 15 and would be a free agent after the season, but because of the date of the deadline, he made 20 starts for the Cubs, went 16-1, and got a Cy Young out of it. Give him only 12 starts, like he had after July 31, and it’s likely the Cubs don’t win the NL East, as Chuck Rainey, solid denizen though he was, was not of the same caliber as the bearded right hander who replaced him in the Cubs rotation.

The Cubs had to make the bold decision to get Sutcliffe only about 60 games into the season in hopes they could use the move to contend for the final 100. Now, with seasons starting about a week earlier than they did in the ’80s and the extended trading deadline, teams have 100 games to decide where their season is going in the final 60. That 40 games makes a huge difference in terms of season evaluation and risk/reward analysis, never mind how long a team has to work with a player on contract extensions.

Ask the A’s and Brewers if they were buyers or sellers on June 15 and you’d likely get a different answer than yesterday; that 40 games was key to them deciding where they stood, seemingly the primary factor. Despite the clear differences in 60 and 100 games, however, it only seems to be recently that teams overtly have factored length of remaining control over the impact player, whether just for that season or later on, as a true negotiable value. Call it the Dan Haren Effect if you will; a team is more willing to sell the farm over a player that’s staying for a few years rather than just one. Most would take the package the Diamondbacks traded for Haren over the Mets’ package for Johan Santana, even though to a person they would prefer Santana to Haren in their rotation (at least at the time of the trades). This sort of valuation is making for more reasonable deadline trades than in previous years, and franchise stability and industry health is probably better for it.

While the impact of player valuations and the difference of 40 games is a series of economic studies out of my realm of competency, what’s struck me as odd is how this year’s trading season (which I’m defining as June 16 to July 31, aka the extension period) lacked the typical shuffling of fungible parts that you see at this time of year. From 1995-2007, when the trading deadline meshed with the wild card to make July 31 suddenly very important for a lot of teams, trading seasons have averaged approximately 25 trades of consequence, ie those where at least one side wants to trade for a player to use him on this year’s roster. This could be as big as a megastar for prospects, or as simple as a swapping of bench parts; regardless, the team is trading for somebody so they can be a better team in the year in which they trade for him. In that sense, they are playing for “now,” so it’s worth analyzing as a deadline deal. (My definition of consequence only eliminated 10 percent of all trades in that time, at the most; I have included about 430 trades since 1986, where the total amount of trades was probably around 450.)

This year, there were only 16 such trades—the lowest amount since the 1994 strike ended, and only one of two years under 20. On top of that, most of the trades actually matter; they’re not just shuffling around middle infield reserves or the usual headline filler. Sure, maybe you don’t remember that Denny Bautista is a middle reliever for the Pirates instead of the Tigers, but you could probably name at least half the other trades without trying too hard. Trades have been below average in frequency for the past few years, stabilizing around 21 or 22 trades per trading season since 2004 (with a typical ’90s total of 30 in 2006), but 16 is very low indeed. There’s still the right amount of blockbusters, but no one was looking for Rob Mackowiaks or Jose Molinas like they did last year. Why is this true for the first time in the wild card era?

For starters, a lot of those fungible pieces weren’t signed this year. Tony Graffanino, who seems to be signed just so teams can trade him at the deadline, hasn’t played this year; the same goes for Kenny Lofton and Mike Stanton. Could it be that roster space, particularly in terms of bench players, is getting so tight that there’s no room for these sorts anymore? The tendency toward carrying 12 and sometimes 13 pitchers may squeeze out the Graffaninos from getting roster spots, and it could be that with so many pitchers in the bullpen, everybody has a spare bullpen arm and they don’t need to trade for one.

It could also be that major league teams are trusting increasingly in their minor leagues to supply answers. Why trade for a Terry Mulholland or a Jesse Orosco when you have a lefty reliever in Triple-A who could do the same job? How hard is it to find a middle infielder who can play defense to the extent that you need to trade for one? The more teams understand just how fungible such parts are, the less we’ll see these types of trades, and this year may have shown the beginning of that conservatism.

Increased competitive balance is another plausible theory, but there were plenty of open divisions or wild card races in the ’90s, and they didn’t seem to suppress moves at all. Even when it seemed that the entire NL Central was up for grabs to any team who could string together four wins, they still made moves here and there. Increased competitive balance would do a decent job of explaining a lack of splashy trades if there were such a lack, but it’s the dinky trades that we’re trying to figure out.

I think what’s happened is a combination of increased trust in minor league systems and a greater understanding of how a team can get burned very easily by trading young bodies for veteran parts who don’t have enough impact to be worth it. Heathcliff Slocumb for Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek is a nice example from 1997, but the same day’s trade of Paul Spoljaric and Mike Timlin for Jose Cruz says a lot of the same thing. (Sorry, Mariners fans, for the painful reminders, but sometimes we must feel the scars to know how to heal, or some new age phrase like that.)

Matt Karchner for Jon Garland in 1998 is a fine example as well, but my current favorite is one that wasn’t even important enough to count it as a deadline deal: Kimera Bartee for Chone Figgins in 2001. Sure, Figgins was raw and had no good numbers to speak of when he was traded, but he completely blossomed the next year to the extent that the trade looked idiotic less than a year after it was done. The thing about young players is there’s always that chance for upside, and why trade for known mediocrities when that young player might wind up being better? These are the types of things savvy fans have been trying to say for a long time, but they seem to have taken hold for once, and the result is fewer trades overall, but ones that at least make some sense.

Of course, this is open to a bunch of theories, and I’m just throwing out ideas; I don’t really know why these things are so. In any event, you can fairly well rest assured from this trading season that you won’t want to throttle your GM in a few years for trading the next superstar for a veteran lefty reliever. (And Mariners fans, since Arthur Rhodes was the only veteran lefty reliever traded this season, you may actually avenge Slocumb, Timlin, and Spoljaric one day if Gaby Hernandez becomes the “other” Hernandez ace by 2011. Well, maybe not quite, but there’s always hope, eh?)

References & Resources
The Reference of Baseball,, Retrosheet’s Transactions lists, and MLB’s transactions page for this year.

Also, thanks to my best friend (Non-Wife Division) and baseball aficionado Nathan Brown for brainstorming on theories and article direction.

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