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Making sense of the Howie Kendrick trade

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It was almost certain that the flexible veteran would be traded. It’s the team he was traded to that’s a surprise.

MLB: NLCS-Chicago Cubs at Los Angeles Dodgers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

First, the trade: The Dodgers get Darin Ruf and Darnell Sweeney, and the Phillies get Howie Kendrick. Rumors had been floating for a while that Kendrick was likely to be traded, since he didn’t have a regular position to fill with Los Angeles. Expecting some kind of trade, however, didn’t mean that this kind of trade was expected. Even with the Phillies having come up in prior rumors, the base-level conception of this trade doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense for either team.

The Dodgers are very good (coming off a season as a top-2 NL team and an appearance in the League Championship) and very rich (with the largest payroll in the league by a large margin for three consecutive years). While Kendrick is coming off a down year, he’s still a talented player, and rich, competitive teams are usually in the market for talented players. So why send him away in what looks like a salary dump, and trade him for two minor pieces? On the other side, the Phillies are emphatically not competitive, and while they might not be that far off, Kendrick’s deal has only one year left on it. The reports are citing the Phillies desire to improve their lineup as the rationale behind this trade, but it doesn’t do a team much good to go from say, 68 wins to 70.

So that’s the Occam’s Razor conception of this trade, and it’s important to at least entertain the possibility that it’s the correct conception. Teams do weird things plenty often, and this isn’t the kind of blockbuster move that is going to earn a lot of focus and double-checking. It’s totally possible that both teams just made a small, weird move, and that’s the end of it.

But by the same token, it’s also worthwhile to see if there’s a way for moves like this to make more sense. More today than ever before, teams don’t make very many truly foolish moves, so if there’s a set of beliefs or assumptions that make a trade or signing seem logical instead of illogical, they’re worth identifying. In this specific case, there are a number of factors that push against the simple explanation.

1- Kendrick wasn’t happy in Los Angeles, or at least wasn’t happy not getting regular plate appearances. He’s not terrible, but for a competitive team, he’s not appealing either as a subpar starting 2B or LF, nor as a particularly unhappy utility guy. While a salary dump might not be a particularly attractive option, maybe the Dodgers didn’t have many alternatives.

2- The Dodgers, despite being way richer than any other team, including the super-rich Yankees and Red Sox, do actually care about payroll. They’ve got limits, too; those limits just happen to be a few tens of thousands above every other team. Their payroll in 2016 was lower than it was in 2015, and that almost certainly was the product of a conscious plan, not coincidence. By trading Kendrick, they’ve possibly cut $10m from their eventual 2017 payroll, or, more likely in my opinion, freed up $10m to spend elsewhere. In either case, the money has some value to the Dodgers.

3- The Phillies, on the other hand, are also pretty rich, but until they decide to spend on free agents, they can't use their money for much. Team (and owner) finances don’t seem to work like more traditional businesses; they don’t build surpluses in years of low payroll that they can use when they’re ready. Instead, they have to use their budget each year or forget about it. In many offseasons, rebuilding teams have the option of spending some of that budget on a multi-year deal for a free agent who will still be good once you're ready to compete, but not with this year's thin free agent market. From that perspective, this expenditure on Kendrick isn't really much of an expenditure at all, since the money wasn't ever going to be spent on something else.

4- Kendrick has been good within the last couple of years, and his positional flexibility means that, if he rebounds, he will fit into the plans of a lot of teams at the 2017 trade deadline. We've seen teams do this with relievers – sign them at offseason prices and hope you can cash in on a good or great first half, as the Phillies themselves tried with David Hernandez in 2016 – and it makes sense to use that strategy for other positions, too. Kendrick’s 2016 was the worst season of his career offensively, and as a 33-year-old, it’s possible that’s just who he is now. But if he rebounds even partially back to his pre-2016 numbers, he’ll be quite desirable in July, and the Phillies will be well-positioned to profit.

5) The “prospects” Philadelphia gave up aren't really prospects. Darin Ruf is a 30-year-old first basement who hasn't been an above-average hitter since 2013, and that's by the standards of any position, not just the offensively demanding 1B. Darnell Sweeney is a toolsy former Dodgers prospect who once had some sheen, but he's 25 and coming off his second consecutive year as a below-average hitter at AAA. It's a little weird to see the Phillies sending away a player who could be described as a lottery ticket, the kind of long-shot prospect rebuilding teams usually hoard, but even in that framework he's a pretty low-value ticket. If you squint, you can see why the Dodgers might be interested in both of them – Ruf is a righty who can platoon the aging Adrian Gonzalez when he needs a day off, and maybe Sweeney can regain some of his earlier promise by returning to his original organization – but the Phillies can’t be too torn up to see the two of them go.

Eric Hartline – USA TODAY Sports

If we accept all those conclusions, none of which are too unintuitive, we’re left with a more logical deal. The Dodgers are dumping salary, as weird as that sounds, and in exchange are getting a couple of pieces that aren’t entirely without value. The Phillies are gambling, hoping to turn two low-value players and $10m into something better at the trade deadline, but they're gambling with house money, since that $10m was never going to be spent on anything else anyway.

At the end of the day, this is a pretty minor deal under both interpretations, and it's not worth exalting or ripping either front office over it. If there's anything notable, it's seeing a rebuilding team find a way to use its payroll space that doesn't involve free agents, and seeing the Dodgers apparently respond to payroll constraints. But that’s only true under one interpretation of this trade; it could always just be a dumb little deal.