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The Continuing-to-Contend Trade Trend, Friends

Teams seem to be moving away from some of the more traditional ideas of buying and selling in a trade market defined by an enormous numbers of clubs still in contention. What does that mean for the future of deadline deals, and the concept of rebuilding in general?

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So, how's everyone feeling this morning? Yeah, me too. That game....not so good. And this team right now....eeshk. Tough times for the Redbirds.

You know, I don't really have much to say about that game. So, let's talk about something else, shall we? Oh, good! I'm delighted to see we're all in agreement.

It's July. And this is a baseball blog. So it's July on a baseball blog, and that can really only mean one thing: it's that time of year when rampant trade speculation, mostly unfounded, takes over completely, and you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a rumour. Though why one would wish to swing a dead cat at all is really quite beyond me; our feline friends deserve more respect than that. Also seems plain unhygienic.

Yes, it's July, and that means the trade deadline -- the one that really matters, when most of the trades we care about happen -- is less than a month off, and the season by now is old enough to know a thing or two about what it is and what it wants and where it's going with its life. And so, in years past around this time, we could look around baseball and see who the buyers were, and who the sellers were. It was a nice, cleanly binary system we had going; if you're not buying, you're selling. If you're not selling, you're buying. And if you don't have anything to sell that anyone wants but are in no position to make the investment in buying, then you're the Phillies. (rimshot)

With the expansion of the playoffs, though, more and more teams each year, it seems, are at least close enough to being in a real race that they can fool themselves into either a) buying or b) even worse, sitting in a holding pattern, when in reality they should probably be selling. I say even worse for the holding pattern because, even if a team buys when they should sell, at least there's a chance they might improve enough to make a real run. In contrast, a team that holds when they should sell doesn't get better, and also either misses the window to meaningfully improve or passes on their best opportunity to extract maximum value for what they're selling. Buying is fine, selling is fine. But waiting to see is perhaps the most frustrating place to be.

Along with this dangerous position teams can find themselves in, though, there has also been another development in the trade market the last couple years, one that blurs the lines between buyer and seller just as effectively as indecision or an in-between record. What we've seen in recent years is an interesting new angle on the sell, wherein the club doing the selling attempts to bring back assets for the near term, even for the immediate, because they either are currently contending in spite of being in a position to sell (and that's not as paradoxical as it sounds), or because they believe themselves to be close enough that win-now assets are more valuable than the longer-term and further-off and farther-off value clubs have traditionally sought to bring in when selling off their current commodities.

Last year, we had two prime examples of this somewhat new and interesting paradigm, when the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays both sold off valuable pieces while trying to net near-term assets to keep them in contention in the immediate future, rather than casting an eye toward a rebuilding plan. In the offseason, we saw the Oakland Athletics, so often a bellwether of where the industry will be looking in the future, trade away their best player -- and one of the best players period -- while deliberately bringing in mostly 2015 assets, with the notable exception of one far-off shortstop prospect. All three situations were relatively unique, at least in certain ways, but nonetheless there just might be something to be learned here.

The Rays couldn't afford David Price, that much was clear. We had all known it for years, and when Tampa finally gave in to the inevitable and pulled the trigger on a Price deal, it came as absolutely no shock to anyone, other than perhaps the fact it had taken so long. What was a little surprising, however, was that the return felt lighter than maybe we thought it should, given how valuable Price was and is, and the fact he still had nearly a year and a half left on his contract. The Rays received Drew Smyly from the Tigers and Nick Franklin from the Mariners, who were involved by way of the Tigers sending Austin Jackson to Seattle. They also pulled Willy Adames from the Tigers' system, who is very much the long-term project/lottery ticket of the bunch.

Now, be honest: looking back at that package, you're thinking to yourself, "Holy shit. The Tigers got David F. Price for the last two months of 2014 and all of 2015 for that?! The hell?" And, honestly, you wouldn't be completely wrong for thinking that. Nick Franklin hasn't hit at all, continuing a theme of his early major league days in Seattle, and looks at this point like a complete bust. Drew Smyly pitched well for the Rays last year, and started off this season well, but he's now on the shelf with a shoulder injury and his future is very, very cloudy. Adames is nineteen. He's playing fine, but he's nineteen. It's going to be a bit still.

When the Red Sox dealt John Lackey to the Cardinals last year, they didn't target a player in the low minors with a monstrous ceiling, hoping he might develop into something special. Instead, they targeted Joe Kelly, with an eye toward some tweaks they thought might help him take the next step, and contending this year. It hasn't worked out for them; Kelly has been wildly inconsistent this season and was actually sent back to Triple A in June. Boston as a whole has been disappointing as well, although they've made a mighty push back toward respectability here of late.

The Athletics moved deck chairs like crazy in the offseason, moving Josh Donaldson and Jeff Samardzija, and bringing in mostly Brett Lawrie and Yunel Escobar and Ben Zobrist and Marcus Semien and, well, it's really complicated what all they did. But notice how many of those names are right now sort of players; the Donaldson deal brought back four players, only one of whom qualifies as what you might typically think of as a super prospect: minor league shortstop Franklin Barreto. Brett Lawrie and Kendall Graveman were both plug and play solutions; Graveman has been pretty okay in the A's rotation, while Lawrie has been pretty okay playing third base. On balance, it would probably be better if the A's still had Donaldson. But, maybe not.

The Tampa and Oakland deals are very similar; in both cases we see teams who are likely unable to afford their most expensive assets long-term choosing to deal those assets rather than simply letting them leave. The approaches were also somewhat different; the Rays were attempting to extract solid near-term value from David Price at probably the last time they would have a real chance to do so, while the Athletics and Billy Beane were dealing Donaldson far ahead of that point and hoping the big value package Alex Anthopolous was offering would pay off for them. Again, though, it's important to note that both of these teams expected to be good, to be contending, in 2015. The Rays because they believed their rotation, even sans Price, would be amazing, and they've mostly been right. The A's because they believed they would be able to shuffle things around once again, and come up with a bunch of assets that maybe didn't fit perfectly elsewhere but would look might fine in the green and gold. They haven't been as right, though in their defense the peripheral numbers suggest Oakland should be winning more games than they have so far this year.

The Red Sox' situation was slightly different, in that they could certainly have afforded John Lackey, particularly considering his contract only pays him league minimum this year. They chose to move him for what they saw as a potentially short- to medium-term upgrade in Joe Kelly, though, hoping the excess value of Lackey for half a million in 2015 would be offset by the club controlled years Kelly has left, while the Sawx are trying to contend.

What is fascinating about all of this, at least to me, is how counter this thinking runs to our typical binary notion of buying and selling. Here are teams selling off assets while either contending or looking to do so in the very near future, and focusing on return packages in which the payoff is much more immediate. It's a world in which 'deadline seller' and 'contender' are not mutually exclusive states of being.

For a practical application, let us consider a team like the Detroit Tigers, and a pitcher like...David Price. I use this example not only because Price is my second-favourite pitcher in all of baseball (behind a certain newly-minted fowl-nicknamed Cardinals), but also because the Tigers are in a weird position. Detroit is as win-now a team as you can imagine, both due to the contracts they already have on the books and the fact their owner is nearing the end of his life (and also looks weirdly like Phil Spector), and has essentially mandated a go-for-broke doctrine for as long as he can still hold a pen to sign the checks. Even so, the Tigers are on what I like to think of as The Phillie Plan, and that plan does not end well, as we have seen from the namesake.

Dave Dombrowski is a smart guy. He knows where this is going. And yet, if a team like, say, the Cardinals were to call up Dombrowski and ask what it would take to bring in Price, he would likely respond that Price isn't for sale for anything less than an appallingly high cost. After all, the Tigers are trying to win, RIGHT NOW, and that basically precludes them from selling off their undisputed ace, even if the club is wobbling badly and now have an injured Miguel Cabrera adding even more wobble.

But then what if John Mozeliak answered back to Dombrowski, "Oh, I know, Dave, but what if I made you an offer that would only hurt you a little, and only right this very second, when you're hurting anyway, and would probably help you get back on track faster than the single draft pick you're going to gain whenever Price leaves town?"

As I see it, the beginning point of such a deal would require one of those negotiating windows, in which Price and the Cardinals could talk, privately, for five or seven days about a long-term contract extension before any deal was struck. If a contract is signed, the deal goes through. If the seven years and $168 or $175 million the Cardinals offer isn't enough, the deal is shelved and everyone goes their separate ways.

If that was agreed to, then I wonder about a starting point of Lance Lynn for Price. Lynn is signed for the next two seasons after this one, at quite a reasonable rate considering the quality of pitcher he is, and would then be a slam-dunk candidate for a qualifying offer and the resulting draft pick. So there's lots of value there.

Would that be enough for Price, though? I don't know. Certainly it would be more than enough for just two months of David Price, but the calculus feels a little different if you're doing the long-term contract thing immediately. So perhaps you have to add. The Tigers have a severe need at third base both now and in the future, and will need a new left fielder in 2016 after Yoenis Cespedes leaves. Which is kind of lucky, considering the Cardinals have a glut of productive yet flawed outfielders. Perhaps one of Jon Jay or Peter Bourjos would balance the scales. Bourjos has very little value to the Cardinals, simply because he isn't playing, and Jon Jay is eminently replaceable on this roster. Would Randal Grichuk be too much? It certainly feels like an awful lot, considering the level of excitement Grichuk is capable of creating, but he's still striking out more than 30% of the time, walking right around 5% of the time, and is leaning on a near-.360 BABIP to maintain any kind of on-base percentage at all. Power is wonderful, but there still comes a point where the lack of OBP is just too much of a stumbling block.

I don't know if I would pay that, honestly, as much as I adore Price. After all, the upgrade from Lynn to Price is big, but not enormous. And it would necessitate a sudden expansion of the payroll, even beyond whatever offer the Cardinals are planning on making to Jason Heyward.

Now, the question of whether the Tigers would go for that is a much more interesting one. One would have to think that, given the amount of value being offered, they would have to. And that, perhaps, means it would be a terrible idea from the other side.

But then again, when you look at what each team would be getting, it might make more sense than you think. The Tigers are not a rebuilding club, and would probably balk at the idea of selling off their ace. On the other hand, if you look at what their rotation could potentially be in 2016 and beyond when Price walks, it's a pretty dark picture being painted. The opportunity to add an anchor immediately would have to appealing. The Cardinals, on the other hand, would acquire one of the best pitchers in baseball, keep him out of the hands of a division rival, and improve the club markedly in one fell swoop. Lance Lynn is a very good pitcher, after all, but he is not David Price.

I also wonder how much less you could offer than that. What about Marco Gonzales and Grichuk? Again, immediate help for an aging, win-now roster, plus cost relief and more long-term options than what currently exists. Perhaps not, as Gonzales is too much of an unknown quantity right now to have that level of value.

I honestly don't know if I would want the Cardinals to make a deal like that, or if even I would in the shoes of the GM. But I find it fascinating to look at a club like the Tigers and see them in such a similar situation to some very unusual ones from the very recent past. The lower bar for playoff qualification -- and the anecdotal evidence of what can happen when you Just Get In provided by last year's World Series matchup -- is keeping more and more teams in the playoff race for longer and longer. Last year at this time, I believed that fact might shut down the trade market entirely. A year later, I no longer fear that. Instead, I find myself fascinated by this whole new category of dealings we rarely saw in the past, yet suddenly seem so possible and so rational in at least a handful of cases.

In the past, buyers were on one side, and sellers were on the other. They were defined largely by where they were in that life cycle of contention. Now, the market seems so much more fluid and dynamic, and the possibilities for reordering your roster on the fly seem nearly endless. I can't wait to see what happens this trade season.

Then again, considering how the deals I talked about look in the short term (and remember, the short term is far more important in this kind of deal than the old style deals for pure prospects we're more traditionally used to seeing), perhaps it would behoove general managers to keep in mind the old axiom about trading in sports: that 99% of the time, the team that got the best player in the deal wins the deal, period.

The other side of the cautionary tale, however, would probably have to be the Padres and A.J. Preller, their first-year general manager who believe he could build a contender on the fly using just the parts the friars already had on hand as trade chips. And what we've seen there is that the club would likely be much, much better off with the mass of players they traded away, rather than the names they tried to bring in to instantly build relevance. The Padres should have stuck with the program and continued rebuilding. Instead, times look even darker now in San Diego than before, where at least the Padres were cheap and flexible while being terrible.