If you’ve ever debated someone online or in person about trading a player coming off a bad year, you probably have heard the phrase “You don’t sell when the stock is down”. I certainly have. It’s nice and short, easy to understand and sounds authoritative. But as is the case with many of life’s other simple truths, when put into practice as an all-encompassing rule we find that it just doesn’t work. For starters, this argument has always struck me as too dogmatic. Next, it assumes an upward long term trajectory that often doesn’t exist, especially when dealing with prospects or young players.
The annals of baseball are littered with players who were highly thought of, had brief success and wound up released by the age most people graduate medical school. Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes once could have been centerpieces in deals to acquire some of the best players in baseball. Both are now at points in their careers where you can draw up likely scenarios where one or both of them could be non-tendered by the end of this year. Two of the players they were linked to, Johan Santana and Dan Haren, have blown them away in terms of production since being connected in trade talk. Santana (10.9 WAR since 08) has outproduced Hughes (6.1 WAR 08-11) despite missing the entire 2011 season. Haren’s 09 campaign alone (6.4 WAR) was greater than what Joba has done from 09-11 (3.7 WAR). Hughes value may have been down after a middling, injury riddled 2008 season. But in hindsight, doesn’t the admonition to ‘never sell low’ seem foolish?
While a player’s value may be down from a previous high, it may still be higher than it will ever be again going forward. To use a Wall St analogy, a stock that was $50 a year ago that is worth $10 today may seem to have lost much value, but selling that stock at $10 may be the best move to make if you believe it’s heading to zero. What’s worse, in baseball teams often have to PAY someone to take the non-performing asset off their hands. When you’re dealing in equities, at least you can only lose the money you invested. Can you imagine paying Warren Buffett to take some Monster.com stock off your hands? The Yanks are currently engaged in negotiations to make a this type of deal for AJ Burnett. If you thought selling low coming off his bad 2010 season was a bad idea, consider the fact that they’re now looking at paying the vast majority of his salary to pitch for another team.
Carlos Zambrano is another example. If the Cubs had taken a package for him in 2010, you might have heard the refrain “His stock is down, dumb move”. Certainly his value was down, in 2009 he posted a 3.6 WAR season and was coming off a 2.3 WAR effort in 2010. If you traded him to a contender after 2010 he certainly wouldn’t have fetched as much as he would have the year prior. Yet we all know what happened to his stock in 2011. He posted a 0.9 WAR season, was a constant clubhouse distraction, even quit baseball at one point, and was subsequently traded for the proverbial bag of balls to the Florida Marlins AND Theo Epstien had to pick up $15M of the $18M owed to the Big Z for the privilege of having him pitch for somebody else. In hindsight, selling low would have been a far, far preferable move.
In my view, if one side is advocating to trade the player off a down year it is incumbent on them to establish that there’s little reason to expect the player to improve. This is the ‘stock is heading down further’ argument. But for those advocating NOT to deal the player, they have to establish why they think his performance is likely to improve going forward. The problem is trying to ascertain which stock is poised for the rebound and which one is heading down the drain. It’s easy give more rope to young players in their years under team control, since they’re relatively cheap and yet to hit their prime. But age alone certainly isn’t enough to be decisive. Some players enjoy some early success and are never able to make the adjustments and develop the repertoire necessary to keep MLB hitters off balance. There’s a reason why teams pay hundreds of millions of dollars for free agents who are proven performers. It’s because they know the upward career trajectory that fans assume in most cases simply doesn’t exist.
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