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How Close Are We to Full-On NBA Trades?

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As trade season heats up along with the weather, it’s worth thinking about the landscape as a whole, and at least one of the trends we’ve seen come about recently.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago White Sox Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Trading season is beginning to warm up, as clubs become more and more certain of who and what they are, and the direction they should be heading. The bizarrely stratified nature of the American League this season is complicating things somewhat, as the haves already have, and the have-nots are stuck trying to sell to this group of unmotivated behemoths, but the National League represents a more normal state of affairs, even if there still seems to be a lack of urgency, or at least a lack of desperation, in most cases. (Non-Washington division, anyway.)

We’ve got only twenty days left until the non-waiver deadline, and most of what we as baseball fans consume over those next not-quite three weeks is, by necessity, going to be largely tilted toward coverage of that trade market. It’s simply the nature of baseball fandom this time of year, even if recent seasons have pointed toward our trade-interest glands appearing to be at least somewhat vestigial, given how rarely world-shattering or franchise-altering deals really do get done anymore these days.

Huh. Lots of hyphens so far in this column. Interesting.

Anyhow, I’m not going to go into great depth today about what I’m personally looking for out of the trade market this year (for the record, it’s an Arenado-DeJong-Profar-Carpenter starting infield for the next four-five years, a nice comfy DH gig for Cafecito, and a small handful of top-100 prospects in return for some combination of Gyorko/Wong/Norris/Kelly/Voit/Wacha/Weaver/Possibly-Ozuna/Fowler-plus-half-his-salary, but I digress), but rather, I want to look at how the trade market is evolving, in a fairly specific way.

I’m not sure how many of you know this, but I follow the NBA somewhat closely, and have over the past handful of years. For a long time, I wasn’t a big fan of pro basketball, preferring the more interesting, more varied game at the college level, but over the past decade a revolution has taken place in the NBA and made it a much, much better product. Now, admittedly, the rise of analytics, switch-heavy defenses, and star clustering just led to a Western Conference finals that was, bizarrely, seven games of basically nothing but iso-ball, which wasn’t fun at all, but that was more unintended consequence than the way things have generally been going in the teens.

One of the things I enjoy most about the NBA is the trades. Now, maybe that’s a weird thing to say, but think back over whatever portion of my career writing about baseball here you’re familiar with. Now separate out the chunk of that writing that’s about roster construction and moves. It’s a lot, right? So yeah, I like thinking about the way rosters are built, put together, and modified.

NBA trades are fun, because in a very general sense they’re the most like baseball trades of any other major sport, and baseball trades are, in a very real way, the most fun trades there are. Hockey trades are not quite as common as you might hope, and always a little complicated, particularly because so many of them are based around a very specific need a team has on a given line combination or some other micro issue, and thus are usually a bit of a letdown. There’s basically no such thing as a soccer trade, only transfer windows and contract purchases. Football trades that matter are nearly always about draft picks more than players; my favourite football trade of all time is absolutely the Herschel Walker trade, about which there’s a really great 30 for 30 short, and that trade was basically zero percent about the players the Cowboys got in return for their franchise running back, and one hundred percent about the picks they got attached and turned into that early 90s dynasty under Jimmy Johnson. So NFL trades can be fun, but they’re basically only made around the draft, and I’m just not that much of an NFL fan anyway.

Basketball trades, though, are close to baseball trades, in that you often see very young players, essentially prospects, dealt for established stars, but you also see, for lack of a better word, challenge trades, when two franchises swap valuable assets either to find better fits for their respective rosters, or to move overly expensive deals or unhappy players, or dozens of other permutations of needs and wants and future and present. There’s meat on the bones of NBA trades one can really dig into, is what I’m saying. Sometimes there are picks involved — usually some sort of pick, that is, but not always — and usually the words ‘window of contention’ pop up, which is almost always a guarantee that something interesting is happening. Of all the major sports, baseball and basketball have the best, most interesting trades.

There’s one area in which the NBA has MLB cleanly beaten, in terms of trades, and that’s the sheer level of complication involved in many of their deals. Where baseball deals, even when more than two teams get involved, are always about teams swapping assets they want or need for assets somebody else might want or need more, NBA deals are often more complicated than that. Most of us understand, I think, that baseball teams trade contracts as much as they do players, with a player’s contractual situation having as much to do with his value as his actual quality of play. In basketball, however, they’ve taken the idea of trading contracts to the nth degree, far beyond what we’ve seen up until this point in baseball.

There are a few reasons for this, but the big reason is just how complex and multifaceted the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement is, and all the various ins and outs of the salary cap/luxury tax/whatever you want to call it. If you’re an NBA fan like me, chances are you know exactly what an Expiring Contract means, and why it’s valuable, and what the mid-level Exemption represents, and maybe even why certain teams have one to offer and others do not in a given year. Suffice it to say, the NBA has a maximum player salary, along with a whole book of rules as to who can offer more or less to a player in a sign-and-trade or offer sheet situation or whatever else, but they don’t have a hard salary cap like the NHL or NFL. You can’t pay any individual player more than a certain amount, but you can technically spend as much on your team as you like, so long as you’re willing to pony up for the luxury tax bill. In that way, it’s a whole lot like the current iteration of major league baseball.

There is a difference, though: the penalties for NBA clubs that bust the cap are much steeper, in terms of the tax bill, and that makes the luxury tax much closer to a cap than what MLB has. In reality, the NBA tax threshold is somewhere between MLB’s luxury tax and that $40 million over spot, where teams start losing first round picks, in terms of draconianishness. No MLB team has ever sacrificed a first round pick to break the barrier of that $40 million over the tax threshold, but a pretty large number of clubs don’t really seem to give a shit about the actual threshold itself, at least until the repeat offender escalators start to kick in. The NBA’s threshold is tougher than the MLB tax threshold, but less of a no, can’t go there barrier than MLB’s draft-pick-sacrifice point.

The rules of the NBA’s luxury tax are byzantine in nature, and the whole Escher-esque structure has led to a lot of deals where contracts are moved, money is moved, and even players are moved, but it’s really all just an enormous shell game to swap around some numbers on the financial reports. Bad teams in tank mode will take on big, expensive contracts of aging, underperforming stars all the time, so long as that aging, underperforming star comes packaged with an attractive asset, to make it worth the acquiring team’s while to help out the seller in getting out from under an onerous contract. I’ve got two years left of a near-max contract on a 36 year old power forward with bad knees; what kind of draft pick to I have to attach to that contract to get you to take on all that money, is essentially the question. Bad clubs in the down cycle of things generally have huge swaths of cap room, and so will take on that money in order to buy assets, whether in draft picks or young, future-focused talent. (Mostly draft picks, but not always.)

Up until fairly recently in baseball, we didn’t see a whole lot of similar deals. In an entirely uncapped sport, there’s really no huge benefit to moving a big contract, other than the satisfaction of not having to pay it, but if not having to pay off a bad contract means sacrificing real assets, most owners of the past have just gritted their teeth and written the check themselves. You don’t throw good assets after bad money, essentially.

We’re in a new era now, though, where this sort of thing is starting to become not only more reasonable in theory, but occasionally in practice as well. I said earlier baseball teams already trade contracts as much as players, but the players have still always been an essential part of that package. However, there have been a few recent deals that stretch our traditional concept of trade value, and where we might be heading is a really interesting hypothetical to consider as the trade season heats up around us.

Over this past offseason, we saw the Braves and Dodgers execute a swap of bad contracts, with Atlanta sending Matt Kemp back to L.A. in exchange for Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, and Charlie Culberson. There was cash that went from the Dodgers to the Braves as well, and the result of the whole byzantine deal was basically money-neutral in the end. The difference was that the Braves took on a chunk of money to be paid off in just one year, while passing a similarly-sized chunk of money committed over two years to the Dodgers. The reason for this paper trading? It helped the Dodgers get under the luxury tax for this season, allowing them to reset their penalty, while the Braves essentially didn’t care they had an enormous bill to be paid this season, since they’re nowhere near the cap, and will be out from under all of that money before the 2019 season, when they’ll be looking to ramp up their club to solidify their opening window.

All in all, it was a really smart, albeit complicated, little bit of accounting shenaniganry, as two clubs in very different places moved assets with essentially zero real value around in such a way as to avoid the luxury tax. Now, of course, Matt Kemp has also gone and had himself a very nice half-season in Dodger blue again, getting himself back into top shape a la Lance Berkman 2011, thus making the deal look a little different than it might otherwise have. However, don’t be fooled; the whole thing was still an accounting cup and ball routine, with an unusually motivated late-30s ex-star helping to make it look like there was real baseball value being moved as well.

Even more recently, as in, like, Sunday, the Texas Rangers and San Francisco Giants made an even more intriguing deal that hews even closer to the type of full-on NBA deal I referenced in the title of this piece.

Here’s how it breaks down: the San Francisco Giants sent outfielder Austin Jackson, reliever Cory Gearrin, and pitching prospect Jason Bahr to the Texas Rangers, in exchange for....a player to be named later, or cash considerations.

Um...what?

That’s right; the Giants traded three players to the Rangers for either a lottery ticket or just straight cash. How does that break down, exactly?

Well, Austin Jackson has been one of the worst players in baseball this year, riding a ~36% strikeout rate to a 68 wRC+, and adding in terrible defense to get all the way down to a -0.8 fWAR in just 165 plate appearances. Jackson was one of the better part-time players in baseball in 2017, signed a two-year deal with the Giants over the offseason, and has fallen completely off a cliff this year. Austin Jackson has big time negative value, even at a very moderate salary.

Cory Gearrin has himself been below replacement level as a reliever as well, getting slammed for a huge home run rate just one year after posting an admittedly fluky sub-2.00 ERA in 2017. So Gearrin, who is still in just his second year of arbitration, has been very bad, but isn’t expensive, and has another year of control. He might be worth something, but not much.

Jason Bahr, on the other hand, is a pretty damned solid pitching prospect. He was a college senior draftee in 2017 by the Giants, and posted sub-3.00 ERA and FIP numbers this season in Low A ball. He’s been bitten by the home run bug so far in High A, but it’s also over just sixteen innings or so, and he’s avoiding walks at a Mikolasian pace. He’s not a future star, in all likelihood, but looks like one of those solid, big-bodied back of the rotation arms the Cardinals crank out with such ease. So there’s definite value there.

So, to recap, one very useful looking pitching prospect, albeit one who’s slightly older and doesn’t have an extremely high ceiling, one bad-this-year reliever with another year of control, who might be marginally useful in 2019, and one horrendous, though modestly paid, outfielder. All of that for a PTBNL or cash.

What we have here is the most NBA trade I think I can ever recall seeing in baseball. That’s one really bad asset the Giants just wanted to move, packaged alongside a non-valuable but non-offensive asset, and a possible future asset with moderate value. Essentially, the Giants gave the Rangers Jason Bahr and a maybe-okay year of Cory Gearrin just to make Austin Jackson go away.

Now, the interesting thing is just how little Austin Jackson is actually making this year; he’s only owed $6 million total between 2018 and ‘19, which is literal peanuts in the land of MLB teams. There are some escalators built in for playing time, but he’s probably not going to hit them. Simply put, one would not think Austin Jackson is making enough money for the Giants to give away assets to make him go away. Just tell him to go home. (Which, funnily enough, is what the Rangers did; Jon Daniels basically told Jackson just not to bother reporting to the club.) Then again, the Giants basically limboed under the luxury tax threshold this year, I believe, and have absolutely no room to try and make any moves this July that require them to take on money. Or maybe they didn’t successfully limbo under, and this is about getting rid of just enough next year they aren’t repeat offenders? I lost track of exactly where the Giants were in relation to the tax this offseason in the Giancarlo Stanton hullabaloo, but it’s very strange to see a club go to this kind of effort to move something like 2% of their payroll off the books.

It’s a fascinating deal, and continues some of the trends we’ve seen the last few years. The Cardinals basically paid the freight on Mike Leake to Seattle last year in exchange for a nothing prospect just because they wanted to free up rotation spots to not be used by Mike Leake. Salary dumps have become, if not more common, then at least more explicit, as front offices have calcified more and more into a monolithic thinking block, lacking the rogue elements of earlier eras that could always net a positive outcome for a club looking to move a star name, a star contract, and scrub production. The Omar Minayas of the world are just...gone.

All of this is really pointing toward a very fascinating decision the Cardinals will have to make, if not in the next three weeks, then certainly this offseason, as they consider what to do about Dexter Fowler. Sexy Dexy (who I’m still hoping will steal a base after 12:00 am in some extra-inning game one of these nights so I can call him Dexy, the Midnight Runner), has three more years left on his contract after this season, and his annual salary for each of those seasons is $14.5 million. (I didn’t realise $10 million of Fowler’s contract was in the form of a signing bonus, did you?) That’s not a franchise-breaking amount of money, but it’s certainly not pocket change, either, even when your pockets are of the depth Bill DeWitt’s are.

The Cardinals, in all likelihood, do not want Dexter Fowler to still be playing in their outfield in 2019, much less 2021. Dexter, for his part, I’m sure isn’t feeling all that wanted here, either, considering the recent ballyhoo over John Mozeliak’s probably-ill-considered comments regarding his performance and effort this season. So it would appear a divorce is probably in the cards, no pun intended, with the only real question being how is it going to go down?

I’ve seen some people here — and elsewhere, for that matter — suggest packaging Fowler with a prospect of some sort, in order to entice another team to take on his whole salary, thus getting the Cards out from under that deal and freeing up capital for other purposes. I’ve also seen a very vocal minority of fans who seem equally obsessed with the Cards just spending more money, no matter whether it’s smart or not, as they accuse others of being with the club’s bottom-line efficiency, shout down the idea that you would ever spend good talent on bad money, and there’s no salary cap in baseball, and I don’t give a shit about Bill DeWitt’s pocketbook, and blah, blah, blah. It’s the same old DeWallet talk we got a decade ago when the Cardinals were refusing to just throw money at maintaining a championship club past its expiration date, rather choosing to transition to an internal development model which created the 2009-2015 window.

Despite my obvious disdain for certain tenets of the screaming payroll loonies’ argument, however, there is a very meaningful, and important, question to be answered therein: in an uncapped sport, should you ever spend talent to avoid spending money? Now, we’re all comfortable treating the spending of money and talent as equally valid ways to build and improve a club, I think; you pay Lorenzo Cain or you trade for Marcell Ozuna, and we understand how each of those calculi work, I believe. I’m not trying to make a judgment about each method’s efficacy, by the way, in bringing up those two players specifically, given how their seasons have gone; I’m simply pulling two outfield options from this past offseason that were available to a club looking to upgrade.

So spending money vs spending talent is a fairly well-understood tradeoff most of the time. And in most cases, I’m 100% on the side of spending money over talent, because I feel like the former is in far greater supply than the latter, with the understanding that, no matter how angry you are, money is not limitless either. But what about the concept of using talent to get out from under money? That’s a thing we haven’t seen nearly so much of in baseball, and only recently have we seen it at all. The NBA’s cap structure makes it much more important for a club to avoid going over than it is for an MLB club, at least up until that higher threshold where draft assets begin to be affected, at which point we can essentially call that a hard cap, until such time as a team decides to really and truly cannibalise their future in service of the present. So in basketball, it makes sense, in certain cases, to sell off assets to move money, because the penalties for spending too much money are punitive enough you cannot just do so forever. Until now, though, baseball has never really trafficked in that sort of calculus.

As I think we all understand, though, we are now in a new era. Teams have traded contracts for awhile now, rather than players, and that process doesn’t appear to be reversing itself anytime soon. So far, though, the out-and-out accounting trades and asset flips that populate the NBA offseason have not fully moved into MLB, due to the luxury tax not being so punitive as to force that. We have not, as of yet, seen teams willing to use talent to get rid of money, rather than simply treating them as more or less equal and exchangeable currencies.

That does not, however, mean we will not see exactly that going forward. And the question is, will a team like the Cardinals be willing to do things like that? Would Mo and Co. be willing to send Austin Gomber with Dexter Fowler to avoid paying a chunk of Dex’s salary, the way they’re doing with Mike Leake?

If I were in charge, I would say no, never. But then, I’m just a fan of an analytical bent, rather than an MBA from Harvard or a quant from MIT. I’m also not the guy writing the giant checks for underperforming assets in a market that’s grown increasingly impatient with mediocre baseball over the last couple years. So who knows, really, what will happen in those halls of power.

At the very least, we’ve seen the closest things yet to those true NBA-style paper trades in recent years. It doesn’t seem all that likely we won’t see more.