Thursday, August 2, 2012

August Trades That Won't Happen

By the end of this month this column will either make me look like a seer or a complete moron. I seem to be okay with that.

Yesterday Buster Olney published an article on ESPN on Ten August trade candidates which really caught my attention. I like Buster Olney but after looking at his list of names he's either lost a step or he wrote the article to drive page clicks. The first two names on his list were Jed Lowrie and Cliff Lee, two players who I can't possibly see getting traded this month. Not only does it make no sense for their respective teams to deal them away, but they aren't remotely close to the type of players that are traded after the non-waiver deadline. In order to trade a player in August that player must pass through waivers, a complicated procedure. Waivers give a chance for any team to make a claim on a player to try and get exclusive access. This isn't just reserved for teams that want the player though. Waiver priority is given to teams with worse records so teams will often put a claim in on a player just to prevent the team they're chasing from winning the claim. This makes it extremely difficult to acquire any good assets in August since the team trying to trade away the player has such limited negotiating options if there's a chance the player might get claimed in waivers. This is why August trades usually suck. Players like Jed Lowrie and Cliff Lee can't pass through waivers, and even if their contracts prevented teams from putting a claim in, any players that the Astros or Phillies would want from other teams would also have to pass through waivers.

I looked through the history of August deals from the last three years to see if there is any precedent for such a good or controllable player being traded. The results aren't promising. The following table shows the most notable August trades from the last three seasons. The WAR is the rWAR accumulated before the trade. Stayed indicates if the player remained on the team he was traded to for the next season. Since August trades are notoriously weak, some of the Players To Be Named Later (PTBNL) may have already been worked out, but at this stage I feel comfortable with the fact that none of them will turn into Cliff Lee within the coming season. The second table shows players that were claimed off waivers and allowed to go to the team that claimed them.

There are some ugly names and performances on these tables. When considering the main pieces of the trades (left column plus Kelly Johnson) the player's average WAR up to the point of their trade was 0.1. Fourteen of the thirty-three players had a negative WAR. Only four players had a WAR over 1, the highest being Jim Edmond's 1.9 in his final season before retirement. Only 10 players stayed with their teams for the season following the trade. Of those 10, 5 re-signed as free agents, 3 were already under contract for the next season, and just two were still arbitration eligible. Of the 5 players either under contract or still under team control, 4 of them only had one year left until free agency. Scott Kazmir was the exception with two years remaining and I don't think anyone wants to emulate his post-trade career. The waived players aren't much more impressive. Cody Ross and Alex Rios were the only players to contribute after their waiver claims and both players were let go in a salary dump by their previous owners (or for yelling at fans, although ones who were clearly goading him).

So how does Cliff Lee fit into all this? Well he doesn't. Cliff Lee hasn't been up to his typical standards this year with only a 2.1 WAR so far after posting 4 straight 5+ WAR seasons including a Cy Young award and another top-3 finish. The 2.1 WAR would still make him the best player traded in August in the last four years though. The main issue for the Phillies right now is his contract. Depending on whether the final year option vests, after this season Cliff Lee is either owed $87.5 M over 3 years or $102.5 M over 4 years. It's expensive and a bit overpriced, but not significantly so. Lee has shown himself to be one of the best pitchers over the last few seasons and is posting numbers this season still very much in line with the last few years. There are more than enough teams out there that could do worse than have Lee in their rotation and have the money to overspend on him that they would risk putting in a waiver claim (Dodgers, Red Sox, Nationals). Teams like the Blue Jays could even put in a claim just to prevent the Yankees or Red Sox from getting him. I highly doubt that the Phillies would let Lee go for just a waiver claim and they will have a lot of trouble if forced to negotiate with just one team. Even if he somehow passed through waivers, if the Phillies were unable to swing a trade in July, they won't be able to do it in August given what their demands would be. On top of all this, I don't see why the Phillies would even want to trade Lee. It's been a bad year in Philadelphia, but with a rotation of Lee, Hamels and a healthy Halladay and Worley next season, with recoveries from Utley and Howard, the team could easily compete for a playoff spot next season. They're now under the luxury tax threshold and with their aging core they are limited in the time that they can still compete for a World Series. Dumping Lee just doesn't make sense for them right now, especially after the massive Hamels extension.

As for Jed Lowrie, he's not going anywhere either. His 2.1 WAR to date this season would also make him the best player traded in August in the last few years, and he's done that while only playing 80 games due to injury, an injury that will also keep him out for the next few weeks and might scare off any team still in playoff contention. More importantly for Lowrie though is that he's a young cost-controlled shortstop who can't hit free agency until 2015. Before his injury he looked great in what was an awful Houston lineup. With the lack of quality shortstops for many teams at the bottom of the league (Minnesota, Seattle, Oakland, Milwaukee) there is no way that Lowrie could get through waivers. A team like Houston needs to hold onto players like that. Have the firesale for guys like Wandy Rodriguez or Brett Myers, but if the Astros want to be competitive in the AL West in the coming years having a quality shortstop will go a long way. Lowrie is as good a candidate as anyone for that post.

With all due respect to Buster Olney, Lee and Lowrie are too good with contracts that run for too long to be traded in August. The fourth name on his list, Jason Giambi, is much closer to the type of player we can expect to see dealt. I'm confident this article won't make me look stupid on September 1.

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