Properly Evaluating Trades: A Look At One Famous Deadline Deal

When reading analyses of trades past, it is very common to see the analyst insert the caveat that "we'll really know who won this trade in 3 years," or something along those lines.  Of course, it's obvious that the Yankees won that famous "trade" in which they bought Babe Ruth from the Red Sox.  Consider, though, that if Ruth had suffered a career ending injury in the first year following the trade, we'd never talk about it.  That wouldn't make it a smart deal for the Red Sox.  This is only the most obvious of examples, but the point is that we base far too much of how we evaluate trades on results, both in the immediate aftermath and in retrospective look-backs, as opposed to process.

Let us consider the following trade.  For the sake of the exercise, only the relevant information of the players involved will be presented.  No names, no teams.  This trade occurred with free agency rules in place, and arbitration rules were as they are today.  Minimum salary was roughly 140,000, and one marginal win cost roughly 750,000 dollars overall.  A free agent win cost roughly 1.5 million.  Here is the deal:

 

TEAM A (NL 7.5 GB OF PLAYOFF SPOT) TRADES
------------------------
PLAYER 1 - AGE: 27 POS: RP ML SEASONS: 2.5 ML IP: 159.3 CAREER WAR: 3.1 CONTRACT STATUS: PRE-ARB
AGE 25: 8.5 K/9 3.4 BB/9 29.2 IP
AGE 26: 8.6 K/9 3.5 BB/9 83.2 IP
AGE 27: 9.0 K/9 3.5 BB/9 46.0 IP
---
PLAYER 2 - AGE: 25 POS: SP/RP ML SEASONS: 1 ML IP 16.2 CAREER WAR: -0.8 CONTRACT STATUS: PRE-ARB
MINORS -
AGE 23: 7.7 K/9 4.1 BB/9 163.1 IP between AA/AAA
AGE 24: 10.9 K/9 3.6 BB/9 60.1 IP AAA
AGE 25: 9.6 K/9 2.9 BB/9 80 IP AAA
---
PLAYER 3 - AGE: 23 POS: SP ML SEASONS: 0 ML IP: 0.0 CAREER WAR: 0.0 CONTRACT STATUS: PRE-ARB
AGE 21: 8.6 K/9 3.9 BB/9 139.2 IP A
AGE 22: 8.3 K/9 2.8 BB/9 172.0 IP A+
AGE 23: 7.7 K/9 3.3 BB/9 133.2 IP AA

-----------------------------------------------------------

TEAM B (AL, 19.5 GB) TRADES

-----------------------------------------------------------
PLAYER 4 - AGE: 33 POS: 1B/DH ML SEASONS: 11 ML PA: 5409 CAREER WAR: 43.3 CONTRACT STATUS: SIGNED THROUGH AGE 33 SEASON AT 2.40MM REMAINING
AGE 31: +55 bRAA, -2 TZ, 5.5 WAR
AGE 32: +67 bRAA, -3 TZ, 6.5 WAR
AGE 33: +30 bRAA, -7 TZ, 2.7 WAR

DO NOT CLICK "CONTINUE READING THIS POST" OR READ PAST THE JUMP ("***") BEFORE VOTING IN THE POLL, OR IF YOU FIGURE OUT WHICH TRADE THIS POST IS REFERRING TO.

The point of this is to evaluate a trade without the bias that comes from the names, and knowing what happened in their careers.  Let me know who you think wins this deal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This deal was ranked among the top 10 worst deadline deals ever by the vaunted baseball analysts over at ESPN's Page 2.  The year was 1997.  Team A is St. Louis, and Team B is Oakland.  In this deal, the Cardinals sent over T.J. Mathews (player A), Eric Ludwick (player B), brother of current cardinal Ryan Ludwick, and Blake Stein (player C), and received a player who would go on to break one of the most important and long-lasting records in baseball history, and according to some, revive baseball alongside Sammy Sosa.  Player D is, of course, Mark McGwire.  The luster is certainly gone from the McGwire name after his run-ins with steroids, but nobody can say that he didn't help the Cardinals during his time there.  Big Mac would put up 2 more wins in the last 2 months of the season.  All told, McGwire's mammoth power provided the Cardinals with 19.8 wins in 4 ⅓ seasons, certainly an impressive number.

Of course, the Cardinals really only received 2.2 of those wins as a result of the trade.  Although you can certainly make an argument that the last two months McGwire spent as a Cardinal influenced his signing, he was still a free agent after that time.  Really, what we see in this trade is the Cardinals trading a very solid reliever in Mathews, who had already posted 120 impressive innings as a ML reliever, as well as two young pitchers in Ludwick and Stein who had shown decent minor league peripherals.  And you certainly can't pin any blame on the A's here, who likely had no shot to sign McGwire to a long term deal. 

If any of the three players received by Oakland in this deal had panned out, this entire article wouldn't be necessary.  Mathews' K/9 plummeted below 7 immediately after the trade, as did Ludwick's.  Stein never posted a K/BB above 1.25 with either the A's or the Royals, whom he played for after his brief stint with the Athletics.  Still, I think the process here was correct for the A's.  They traded an asset that was essentially worthless to them as a team 20 games back of the playoffs, and received three pieces making the league minimum, each with a chance to contribute at a major league level.  Mathews, especially, had already shown the ability to contribute at a very high level.  Unfortunately for the A's, this one just didn't work.  Chalk one up for "Good Process, Bad Result."

On the Cardinals side, I'm actually kind of baffled that they'd do this deal.  Mathews had been very productive for his age and contract, while Ludwick and Stein weren't throwaway pieces.  At 7.5 games behind, they would've needed about 5 or 6 McGwire's, if not more, to catch the leaders, and 2.4 million dollars certainly wasn't chump change in 1997.  I don't know if they had some sort of inside information that suggested that McGwire would sign with them, or if this is just Tony La Russa's meddling, or what, but this deal didn't figure into the long term for a team that had an insignifcant chance at making the playoffs.  This one goes into "Bad Process, Good Result" for me, and that's only if you include his time after the '97 season in the result.  I suppose 2.2 wins are always good, especially for the fans, but it doesn't really help your team long term and I think it's unfair to count the free agent signing as part of the trade.

Still, because McGwire hit 70 HRs and many other memorable shots with the Cards from 1998-2001, this trade will always be seen as a win for St. Louis, despite the fact that it was a questionable trade given what was known at the time.

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