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Pay It Forward
JOE SHEEHAN
August 08, 2011
The big takeaway from a hectic trade deadline: Prospects— and not even the best ones—carry a hefty price tag
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August 08, 2011

Pay It Forward

The big takeaway from a hectic trade deadline: Prospects— and not even the best ones—carry a hefty price tag

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Between the end of the All-Star Game and Sunday's nonwaiver trade deadline there were 24 deals made, including a whopping 16 last weekend. Righthander Ubaldo Jimenez (who went from the Rockies to the Indians) and outfielder Hunter Pence (Astros to Phillies) were the biggest names to change addresses, but expected deals for Padres closer Heath Bell, Rays outfielder B.J. Upton and Astros lefty Wandy Rodriguez never materialized.

Why so little shifting of top-tier talent? It's not that teams are unwilling to trade for veterans—but they are increasingly reluctant to part with elite prospects to do it. The Cardinals certainly could use Bell; there's no way they'd move stud righthander Shelby Miller to get him. Rodriguez could well be the mid-rotation starter the Yankees need, but they weren't dealing young pitchers Manny Banuelos or Dellin Betances. The Jimenez trade—Cleveland gave up highly rated pitchers Drew Pomeranz and Alex White, plus two minor prospects—was a shock because of how rare it is for a team to deal its best minor leaguers. In the 24 postbreak trades only six of the game's top 100 prospects (as ranked by Baseball Prospectus in the preseason) moved.

The game's economics encourage teams to keep young players. The primary way to make a profit on a team's performance is to have players with little salary leverage play well for you. The Rangers got 40 saves from rookie Neftali Feliz in 2010 and will get around 30 more this season; over the two years he will be worth, as these things are measured by sabermetricians, about four wins to Texas—each worth about $4 million to the team. That's $16 million in revenue, for which the Rangers will have paid Feliz less than $1 million. For all the variables mistakenly labeled as Moneyball, thinking of players in this manner—as assets that produce quantifiable on-field value and have a cost tied to their service time—is the signature effect of the practices outlined in the book.

So when the Astros trade away Pence, it's not giving away a young star, it's trading a fourth-year arbitration-eligible player who produces from one to three wins a year and is in line to make at least $9 million in arbitration next year. In exchange Houston received four minor leaguers who will be paid the minimum when they get to the majors, two of whom—first baseman Jonathan Singleton and pitcher Jarred Cosart—have star potential. For the Phillies, who are pursuing a championship, Pence is worth the cost. For the Astros, the worst team in baseball, he is not.

That's how trades get made in 2011. The romance of baseball trades drawn up on cocktail napkins in smoke-filled war rooms has been replaced by WAR calculations and service-time projections, but the principles are no different from what they were when George Weiss was haggling with Branch Rickey: Build the best team, win a championship and make money doing it. In their own ways the Phillies and the Astros did just that last week.

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