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Trading Within Your Own Division: Yea or Nay?

In which the author takes a not-so-quick look at some of the reasons teams might be hesitant to move players to direct competitiors.

This was fun.
This was fun.
Dilip Vishwanat

I was in the grocery store on Saturday afternoon, doing the thing people normally do in a grocery store; which is to say, I was buying groceries. It was one of those Saturdays where everyone I know had something else to do; some combination of people in town for the holiday, leaving town for the holiday, or just having somewhere else they need ed to be, so I had no plans to speak of. Hence, the grocery shopping.

Nearly done; on my way down to the far end of the store to the frozen cases. I needed Cool Whip to make Watergate Salad, frozen corn for a black bean salad, and spumoni because...well, because I like spumoni. I don't have to explain my iced cream purchases to you, nameless internet reader!

Anyhow, as I was rounding the corner into the frozen aisle, I glanced to my left and noticed there were pizza rolls on sale. Perhaps that should be Pizza Rolls; I'm not sure if the Totino's corporation has the term 'pizza roll' under copyright or not. It's also probably not important.

I stopped short at the sight of the pizza rolls; not because of the sale price, though I have to admit I probably wouldn't have given them a second look if not for the large yellow sale sign on the glass door of the freezer case. You know, I thought to myself, I don't remember the last time I had pizza rolls. Which is absolutely true, by the way; it's been I'd say at least fifteen years, and probably closer to twenty. I had a girlfriend in high school who made the pepperoni ones all the time, but I'm not sure I've had them since then. That was 1996 ish, sophomore year, I think. After that, bupkes so far as pizza rolls are concerned.

What the hell, I thought, I went to the gym this morning (and had the sore trapezius muscles to prove it); I deserve to eat something really terrible if I want. So I bought a box of pizza rolls, supreme flavour. When I got home, I almost couldn't wait to eat them, so I popped them into my fancy convection oven so they would crisp up properly. I retired to the sofa with my pizza/egg roll hybrids, pulled out my laptop, and queued up the WWE Network. I watched part of a Saturday Night's Main Event special from 1989 (old wrestling is really the only wrestling I watch); when I got bored of watching Dusty Rhodes and the Big Boss Man go at it (kind of a crap match, by the way), I turned on my Wii U, fired up Virtual Console, and played some Super Castlevania IV. In other words, I leveraged all the space age technology the 21st century has brought us, not to mention to unparalleled freedom being a gainfully employed adult human has afforded me, to enjoy essentially everything I possessed when I was ten years old.

On the whole, it wasn't a terrible night. I don't really have a point to this story; I just thought I would share it with you all this morning.

Also, the Pizza Rolls were delicious.

I do have a topic today; a real topic, baseball related and everything, no less. It's sort of a thought exercise; or, at least, it's a scenario I've been thinking about myself quite a bit lately, and I thought it might make a good discussion topic this morning, since we're smack dab in the thick of the trading season.

I'm an avid podcast listener. Mostly sports, with the occasional miscellaneous thing thrown in. Of course, at some point in time I realised -- and was promptly depressed by said realisation -- that podcasts are really just a new generation of talk radio, and I've sort of turned into my father. But anyway, one of the podcasts I listen to is Effectively Wild, put out by the Baseball Prospectus guys, hosted by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller. It's really good, and I would recommend it to pretty much anyone who likes baseball enough to be reading a blog post about it, even if said blog post seems, to this point, to be more about snack nostalgia and old-school wrestling shows.

Just last week, on Effectively Wild, the topic of the day was trading within one's own division, and whether there was a stigma surrounding doing so. (And, more importantly, whether or not there should be a stigma around it, and perhaps some sort of tax or surcharge for a divisional rival; after all, one would not typically wish to trade away a player only to watch him score victory after demoralizing victory over your team for the next however many years. It just looks bad, and the public relations aspect could certainly get pretty ugly. We hear it all the time, that teams don't want to trade within their own divisions. It comes specifically into play right now in the case of David Price; one could argue that three of the teams most likely to check in on Price's availability are all in the AL East, and the only reason I don't see the Orioles as a legit contender for Price's services has to due with financials of carrying Price one more season, or the risk of being unable to deal him over the winter for a relatively equivalent package.

Even so, after a bit of debate, the hosts of the podcast came to the conclusion that, while it is somewhat true that large moves rarely happen in-division (smaller, more marginal moves are a bit more commonplace), the stigma is really fairly pointless and at least somewhat silly. After all, the line of reasoning went, in spite of the fact you're likely improving a direct rival, in the long run you're making yourself better, while also possibly weakening the competition by taking their future resources for your own.

I wasn't particularly surprised by the conclusion; after all, the default setting in most saber-y circles is to always try and tear down conventional wisdom, simply because that's the way things go. In this case, though, I thought there were some real, salient points to be made about why the practice doesn't make sense. After all, even if you aren't going for a trade that screws one of the parties involved, you have to believe in the players you're picking up. Otherwise, why would you make the trade, right?

However, admitting I mostly agree with the train of thought, here's my thought on the matter: you don't know the players you receive in return for a superstar are going to work out. Conversely, you can't be completely sure of what you're getting, even when buying a star at the trade deadline. Injuries happen, age happens, stuff just goes wrong sometimes.

This is really my thought, from the perspective of either team: what if my side of it doesn't work out as well as their side?

Of course you believe in the player or players you're acquiring at the trade deadline; if you didn't, it would seem there's very little reason to be making the deal in the first place. But as we have seen, time and time and time again over the years, it's really hard to figure out who is going to be good, or even who is going to stay good. Or stay healthy, which is probably the more pertinent consideration. Sure, if you could send away your star player to a division rival, improving them this year, but receiving back prospects you believe will ultimately make you the better team in the long term, then you could consider that a balance, a win-win trade where both teams get what they want and come away happy. But what happens if the return isn't nearly as good as you expect? What if the young pitching prospect you acquire just happens to come down to with the ol' Ulnar Collateral Blues, or the hyper-athletic but raw outfielder you pick up never quite manages to get that strikeout rate down into acceptable territory?

My point is this: if the return you're receiving in a trade doesn't work out as you had planned, there's a decent chance you're actually increasing the inequality present, and making a team you're going to see fifteen or eighteen times a season a whole lot better. You could be making yourself actively worse, not only concretely by giving up a fantastic player, but relatively, as well, since the team you made the deal with can now use your quality player or players against you. There's a certain amount of uncertainty that has to be factored in to any trade with a foe you're going to have to consistently play over and over every season.

Given all that, here's my question: are teams right to be risk-averse in trading within their divisions, or do they need to just take a leap of faith and believe their scouts are much better than the other teams scouts, to the point they should be able to "win" any trade thrown in?

In other words, how do you feel about strengthening an opponent, when there's really no guarantee you'll be able to extract the value you think you have in the package you're asking for? Is the risk of improving your opponent more than you can improve your own team enough of a risk as to function as a deterrent? Or do you come down more on the side of the risk, of feeling like you feel it's a zero-sum game at worst, and at best could potentially change your franchise significantly enough to justify the move?

I guess what I'm asking is this, VEBers: if the Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox went to the Tampa Bay Rays with offers for David Price which were roughly equivalent, which should the Rays choose? What if the Sawx's package is actually a little better? How much better would it take? And, of course, the big question: Why? If talent is talent, then should the game theory-ish aspect of not wanting to strengthen your direct competition even enter in consideration?

So what do you all think?