We live in an age of rising homogeneity among MLB front offices. Increasingly, every team’s general manager looks basically the same — white, youngish, Ivy League-educated, comfortable with advanced statistics — and, correspondingly, thinks in basically the same way. One of the last true outliers was Arizona’s front office under Dave Stewart, but after he was summarily dismissed at the end of this season, there aren’t many people running teams with a truly distinct approach. Dayton Moore of the Royals sometimes zigs when others would zag, and A.J. Preller also has some unique qualities (both legitimate and shady), but for the most part, teams in the modern era agree about the basic quality of most players.
In this environment, most trades look one of two ways. The most common is when a team that’s not good sends away present value in exchange for future value from a team that is good. These are the kind of trades you see every year at the trade deadline, usually involving big contracts on the one side and a few prospects on the other. The trade isn’t happening because the teams believe different things about the players involved, but because the teams have different priorities in the short and long term. The other archetype is when teams have matching needs and surpluses; a team with five good outfielders but an ailing rotation finds someone with an overflowing rotation and a hole in the outfield. Again, there’s no disagreement between the teams, just different needs.
Those trades are boring. I mean, in a couple of months, when the offseason will be mostly over with Opening Day still weeks away, I will probably agree to give up some number of toes for one of those trades. But they’re boring relative to the kind of trades that result when teams don’t agree on player values. If I’ve got a player I think is bad but you think is good, and you’ve got a player you think is bad but I think is good, we’ll both be happy to swap them one-for-one. They don’t need to fill different needs on our teams; they can both be prospects, or both veterans, and they can even play the exact same position. In this kind of trade, colloquially known as “challenge trades,” the two GMs are essentially betting that their own player evaluation skills are superior to the other’s. They’re infinitely more interesting than the other types of trades, thanks to what they reveal the tendencies of different GMs and the fault lines within the game.
They used to happen more often than they have recently. But if everyone is working off the same information, and drawing the same conclusions from that information — if there are no fault lines within the game — challenge trades can’t happen. In the last decade, as every front office has converged toward the stat-savvy norm, they’ve nearly vanished.
Then, last week, the Mariners traded Taijuan Walker and Ketel Marte to the Diamondbacks, who sent Jean Segura, Mitch Haniger, and Zac Curtis up to Seattle. And while I wouldn’t describe it as a full-on challenge trade — the Mariners filled a gaping hole at shortstop, while the Diamondbacks traded present value for future — there seem to be some disagreements about player value undergirding the exchange.
Taijuan Walker is the biggest name involved, a former blue-chip pitching prospect who hasn’t yet broken through since making his major-league debut in 2014, and this trade could be a sign that the Mariners think less of his future than the Diamondbacks do. Similarly, Mitch Haniger is the kind of player you might expect Arizona to be holding onto, and even collecting from other teams: a 25-year-old who can play a passable center field and who had a great year at AA and AAA. That Arizona was willing to send him to Seattle might mean it doesn’t believe in his brief breakthrough, and that Seattle was willing to take him might mean that it does.
The real challenge trade, however, came just a few days later, when the Mariners and Braves exchanged a group of prospects. There was no short-term/long-term divide here; the Mariners gave up Alex Jackson, a 20-year-old outfielder who finished the year at A-ball, while the Braves sent back two pitchers, the 23-year-old Max Povse and the 22-year-old Rob Whalen, neither of whom have any substantial major league experience.
Admittedly, the pitchers will probably contribute in some form to the Mariners in 2017, while Jackson is still a ways away from the majors, but this trade is primarily about Jackson’s disappointing lack of development, and whether it’s merely a hiccup or a sign of a disappointing career. The Mariners selected him sixth in the 2014 draft after a fantastic high school career, but he didn’t acclimate quickly to full-season ball, and although he hit better in 2016, he also ran a 27.0 percent strikeout rate. He’s exactly the kind of player whom two GMs could value completely differently, depending on how they interpret his scouting reports, high school track record, and minor league statistics, all of which diverge greatly in their conclusions.
Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any reason to think we’re going to see some kind of resurgence in the number of challenge trades. The broader trend of convergence is still in full effect, and all the data being added to the game via Statcast will likely only accelerate it. But that means it’s more important than ever to appreciate and watch the challenge trades we do get. If Jackson turns out to be a late bloomer, or if Walker capitalizes on his sizable promise, or if Mitch Haniger really did have a breakthrough this year, it’ll give one GM a notch on their belt and give us one more way to judge how good all the various executives really are.
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Henry Druschel is a Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.