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July 23, 2011 / Nat Anacostia

Five trade rumor fallacies

We’re nearing the trade deadline, which means we’re at the peak the summer trade rumor season. It also means there’s lots of misinformation going around in news articles, blogs, and comments. Here are five common fallacies:

  1. Overvaluing our team’s players (and undervaluing the other team’s). When a fan’s been following and rooting for a team, it’s natural to become attached to the team’s players. But the simple fact of the matter is that the skills of players like Jason Marquis, Laynce Nix, and Todd Coffey are not that unique. Part of the reason that other teams may be interested in them is that they would come relatively cheaply. On the other hand, if we’re interest in buying elite, young players to fill some of our gaps, we’ll need to be willing to give up some of our own elite, young talent in exchange.
  2. Overlooking the traded player’s salary. Last winter I saw quite a few comments complaining that we didn’t get enough value in exchange for Josh Willingham. (In retrospect, obtaining Henry Rodríguez and Corey Brown for Willingham’s 2011 season doesn’t look bad at all.) The thing to keep in mind is that a player’s trade value should represent the surplus value—that is, the value of his expected performance minus his salary. Because Willingham was owed $6 million in salary, his surplus value simply wasn’t very large. In trading Willingham, Mike Rizzo was essentially competing against all the free agent outfielders that were on the market.  All things considered, I think Rizzo did quite well with that trade.
  3. Paying too much attention to recent performance. We see this one all the time. Marquis’ trade value is said to have gone up because he pitched well in his last start. Carlos Beltran hit a home run, which supposedly should convince his reluctant suitors to offer their proposals. Now I’ll grant that some of baseball’s GMs aren’t exactly geniuses. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that every GM at least understands that statistics from very small samples, such as the last two or three weeks, don’t mean much. The only real information that they can learn from late-July performances is whether the player is still healthy.
  4. Confusing tradable with likely to be traded. Nats fans are outraged to hear that the team considers Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard to be tradable. Very few players are not tradable, in the sense that the GM will not even listen to another team’s offer. For the Nationals, my guess is that the list currently  comprises Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, and Danny Espinosa, and I’ll throw in Jayson Werth because no other team would make an offer for him. Players like Storen and Clippard are tradable, but because they carry a lot of surplus value, they would only be traded if they were part of a big trade that brought a lot of value in return. For example, Jordan Zimmermann isn’t ordinarily likely to be traded, but he apparently was included in a proposed trade last winter for Zack Greinke. Ben Goessling of MASN has a nice article explaining that although Clippard and Storen are tradable, they aren’t actually likely to be traded.
  5. Treating rumors as reliable, disinterested information. After working in Washington for 25 years, I’ve learned that the unnamed sources for most rumors are the top people in the organization and the leaks are almost always intended to serve a strategic purpose. As far as I can tell, what’s true for politics is also true for private business and for professional sports. In some cases, it’s almost laughably easy to figure out why an organization is leaking certain rumors. For example – the Mets leak the rumor that they might be willing to trade Carlos Beltrán for Domonic Brown. Well, ‘duh’—of course they’d be willing to trade Beltrán for Brown—who wouldn’t? It seems pretty transparent that the purpose of the rumor is to signal to other teams that they’re expecting to get a lot of value for Beltrán and basically want to start the bidding at a high point. Of course, what they’re actually able to get for him may be another thing altogether. It’s not always so easy to figure out why a particular rumor was leaked (and some rumors are probably just inaccurate “noise”), but it’s best to assume that some rumors are intended to misinform rather than to inform.
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