Unless you’ve been living in a hole for the past couple weeks, you know that the Twins are a possible trade destination for Mariners starting pitcher Cliff Lee. Since no one knows for sure what the Mariners want in return for Lee, many of us have started speculating on what the Twins should give up. It’s clear that catcher Wilson Ramos will be included, simply because he has enough talent to be a starting catcher in the majors, and barring an injury to Joe Mauer, that starting spot won’t be in Minnesota.
What does it take to make a trade? To me, it seems like there are two guidelines when making a trade. When running a business, you may have heard the phrase, “You need to spend money to make money.” Likewise, this phrase relates to making a trade. You have to give up something of value in order to receive something of value. It’s this first guideline that I think many people seem to ignore. A couple days ago, a guy on “1,000,000 MINNESOTA TWINS FANS!!!” suggested that the Twins should include Brendan Harris in the trade for Lee. Here’s the problem, though. Harris was outrighted to Triple-A, meaning that he was placed on waivers and no teams claimed him. Basically, the Twins told every team in the majors, “Hey, you want Harris? Just take him and his contract, we don’t want anything in return!” and every single team refused. The Mariners were one of the teams that refused to take Harris. If they didn’t want him off waivers, they likely won’t accept him in a trade, either. His lack of production and his contract give him negative value, and teams will not acquire players that they believe have negative value.
The second guideline is that teams need to believe that they are receiving equal or greater value than what they’re giving up. This doesn’t always happen, but it certainly happens at the beginning of all trade talks. During yesterday’s game, I had a fellow usher about my age say that he believed the Twins should trade just Ramos to Seattle for Lee. I politely told him that the Twins would need to include more in the trade, so he upgraded his proposal to Ramos and Glen Perkins for Lee. This guy’s argument was that Ramos will definitely be a major-league quality catcher, and he will very likely become a very good catcher. I can’t argue against that. However, there’s more than just Lee that would be coming back to Minnesota. Since Lee will be a Type-A free agent at the end of the season, if he signs with another team, the Twins will receive two first round draft picks in the 2011 draft. There’s no guarantee that these future 1st rounders will be any good, but if I remember this correctly, first rounders have the greatest probability of making it to the majors. Therefore, this would make Lee and these draft picks worth much more than Ramos and Perkins. Pretend that you worked in the Mariners front office. You would be offended if Bill Smith tried giving you Ramos and Perkins for Lee.
What many people also don’t know or seem to forget is that there are many players in the major leagues that are just like Brendan Harris and Glen Perkins. It’s the whole concept of the “replacement level” player, where Player X could be replaced by Player Y that is readily available in the minor leagues, but would provide the same level of production. Harris was actually performing below replacement level, and the Twins adjusted by giving more playing time to Matt Tolbert. Now, for a while Tolbert wasn’t much better than Harris, but it shows that it wasn’t difficult for the Twins to find another player that could do exactly what Brendan Harris was (or wasn’t) doing. I don’t know the Mariners minor league system at all, but I can almost guarantee that they have their own infielders that aren’t performing up to par. The same is true with Perkins. He’s not pitching well at Triple-A Rochester (8.25 ERA in 72 innings), but every team has their own lefthanded starting pitchers in the minors that aren’t performing this year. Maybe a team could believe that Perkins and/or Harris have been unlucky this year, but if they believe that this year’s performances are the true talent levels of both of these players, they’re not going to bother acquiring either one of them.
Sometimes, trades appear to be very lopsided, which can skew a fan’s perception of a certain team. A good example is the Carlos Silva – Milton Bradley swap between the Mariners and Cubs this past offseason. When the trade was made, it felt like everyone was congratulating the Mariners on making a steal. These people did know about Bradley’s attitude problems, but in terms of on-field performance, Bradley was almost guaranteed of running laps around Silva.
Using my two guidelines, let’s analyze this trade. First, you must give up value in order to receive value. Well, from the Cubs end, it was pretty clear that Milton Bradley was a rather valuable player. On the Mariners end, though, Carlos Silva had become a below-replacement level pitcher, or he had negative value. But, both Silva and Bradley had expensive contracts, which made their separate value more equal. It was your typical “bad contract” swap. Still, the contracts didn’t change the fact that Bradley still had more trade value than Silva…except that the Cubs valued the loss of Bradley as being greater than the gain of Silva. To the Cubs, this pumped up Silva’s value because, simply put, he was not Milton Bradley. Even though Bradley was easily the better player in this trade, Silva’s lack of a negative attitude made his value to be equal to Bradley’s, so both teams were giving up value to receive value. Neither team valued their own players very much, but they saw value coming to them from the other end of the trade.
Here, the second guideline (each team must believe that they are receiving equal or greater value than what they gave up) is very similar to the first. The Mariners believed that Bradley’s performance on the field was far greater than what Carlos Silva could do, and if they provided a caring environment for Bradley (doesn’t that sound cheesy?), they could minimize his personal issues. The Cubs believed that getting rid of Bradley’s attitude would outweigh any negative performance by Silva, and if he did in fact succeed, that would be a wonderful bonus. As it turned out, the Cubs actually got the better end of the deal. Carlos Silva didn’t just return to his past form, but he’s actually been pitching better than any of his seasons with the Twins. Milton Bradley has been falling further and further into mediocrity, and he also spent some time this season on the restricted list while he tried to sort out his problems. To the casual fan, it seemed like the Mariners screwed the Cubs when the trade first happened, but the exact opposite has been true.
I do understand that some teams do make laughable trades (like the Mets acquiring Gary Matthews, Jr.) but we shouldn’t expect all teams to make dumb trades. I know that many people would like to see the Twins dump Brendan Harris or Glen Perkins, but teams won’t take those guys. I feel that Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik is a very smart guy, and he knows what Cliff Lee is worth. He’s going to demand a lot from the Twins, and it will be up to Bill Smith to determine what demands are reasonable and what are ridiculous. If the Mariners only wanted Wilson Ramos, then this trade would have been done already. Again, I don’t know what the Mariners current needs are, or if they’re looking more towards the near or distant future, but here’s what I would propose for Cliff Lee.
C Wilson Ramos, OF Ben Revere, SP Kevin Slowey, and a Single-A or Double-A player
I have no idea if this will be even close to what actually happens, and who knows if the Twins will even get Lee, but if they do, I feel that this proposal is far more reasonable than Ramos, either by himself or with Glen Perkins. I know the Mariners don’t have much in the catching department, but we already assume that Ramos must be included. The Mariners probably don’t need an outfielder since they have Ichiro and Franklin Gutierrez for at least a couple more years, but Revere’s speed would likely play well in Safeco Field, and I just don’t value him highly right now.* Slowey is an extreme flyball pitcher, which also plays well in Safeco Field (ask Jarrod Washburn). I know Twins fans would prefer to ship away Nick Blackburn, but he’s not striking out anyone (even by his standards) and a 5.70 FIP accompanying a 6.01 ERA doesn’t give him much hope on finding a new home via blockbuster trade. Lastly, the Single-A or Double-A player is included just because it seems like every trade for a star player involves at least one of these guys. Well, and because I don’t know the Twins minor league players well enough.
* Even all those comments about how friendly and smiley he was at Twins Fest won’t change my opinion of him as a player, which is too bad. I like his big smile.
Some people might think that my proposal is too much to give up for Lee, but it certainly won’t cripple the team in the future. The Twins have a surplus of starting pitchers and outfielders. Wilson Ramos is a luxury. That Single-A player will be a guy that only Seth Stohs has heard of before. It will still leave Miguel Angel Sano, Aaron Hicks, Kyle Gibson, etc. in the Twins system, and it will hardly put a dent into the major league team.
If you want to see a trade proposal that would put a dent into the Twins system, just read this comment left on FanGraphs. I’ve already talked about fans offering too little, but there’s a guy that’s asking for too much. I’ve said enough here already, so just imagine my comment that I left for that guy typed at the end of this sentence.