No One Ever Really Wins a Trade

Last Thursday night, as Chicago Cubs ace Jake Arrieta carved up a moribund Reds lineup on his way to his second no-hitter in the last eight months, the only non-Cincinnati fans rooting for a hit resided in the greater Baltimore-area. As the former Baltimore Oriole put away batter after batter, I texted a friend of mine whose annual winter mantra since 2004 has been “O’s in ‘0-(insert next season here).”[1]

I began chiding him about the July 2, 2013 trade that shipped Arrieta and reliever Pedro Strop to Chicago for starting pitcher Scott Feldman and catcher Steve Clevenger. I deftly pointed out Arrieta’s 26-6 won-loss record since the start of 2015. I mentioned Feldman’s pedestrian 5-6 record and 4.27 ERA over 90 mediocre innings in 2013. And Steve Clevenger? Does he even play anymore? (I didn’t even get to Strop’s sturdy sub-3.00 ERA as a Cubs reliever).

When the no-hitter was complete, I received a response: “So what? The trade isn’t done yet.”

After having a good laugh, I thought it was only appropriate to call his house, just so his wife knew he’d gone mental. Instead, my friend and I had a conversation about the absurdity of “winners” and “losers” in trades. The reality is that if you judge a trade by pure analytic value, sure, the Orioles got CRUSHED by giving up on Arrieta. However, it wasn’t clear the Orioles had necessarily suffered for their move.

His reasoning:

Yes, Arrieta and Strop are key pieces to a 2016 Cubs team destined for October. But the Orioles had seen almost 70 starts from Arrieta by 2013 and the results were pretty mediocre. Feldman was a key part of a stretch-drive that put the Orioles in position to clinch their second straight playoff appearance, the first time they’d accomplished such a thing since the late 90’s (they failed, but won the division in 2014). While Clevenger was a dud, he was exchanged last offseason for Mark Trumbo, who just so happens to lead the American League in hitting (and is third in RBIs, for those so inclined).

Despite the Mike Powell-like leaps my friend took to make his point, I began considering the amount of time spent adjudicating who wins and loses a trade. As baseball (and pro sports in general) have become more analytical, fans want players and situations to fit in a well-defined box. A player is either a star or he sucks. In a trade, one team gets robbed and the other hit the jackpot. Sometimes, it’s not that easy.

The Kansas City Royals ended the 2012 season with 90 losses, 16 games out of first place. That December they gave Tampa Bay three of their top prospects for two seasons of James Shields and a failed starter recently demoted to the bullpen. The trade was not received well in KC or outside of Missouri:

ESPN’s Keith Law called it a “heist” for Tampa.

Dave Cameron of Fangraphs said the Royals sacrificed their future for mediocrity.

Rob Neyer called the Royals “desperate.”

Joe Posnanski “despised” the move for Kansas City.

In 2013, Shields had a solid year with an ERA+ of 131, leading the Royals to 86 wins. The failed starter was given another chance to lock down a rotation spot and responded with a 5.32 ERA. The Royals missed the playoffs by six games. Wil Myers, one of the top prospects KC sent to Tampa Bay, won the 2013 AL Rookie of the Year award and the Rays won the AL Wild Card Game. The cries for Royals GM Dayton Moore’s job grew louder and louder.

But in 2014, things started clicking for the Royals. That failed starter? His name was Wade Davis (BOOM — see what I did there?) and he turned into one of the game’s most dominant relievers. Davis continued shining as a late-inning weapon and Shields provided his typical 200+ innings of above average pitching. The Royals made it to Game 7 of the World Series, losing to the Giants. Wil Myers struggled, hitting .222 for a Tampa team that finished 4th. In 2015, Shields was gone, but Davis solidified his position as the best relief pitcher in baseball, helping the Royals beat the Mets in five games for their first World Series title in 30 years.

Three and a half-years later, the Royals have two pennants and are the defending world champion. The Rays have one playoff win and Jake Odorizzi. It’s tempting, but trades can’t always be viewed in a vacuum.

In 2014, Arrieta was the best pitcher on a 73-win Cubs team. The O’s won 96 games and took a trip to the ALCS. In 2015, the O’s could only muster 81 wins, while the Cubs began their ascent to the top of the NL with 97 wins and a NLCS appearance. If we’re to judge teams based on their wins and losses, is this outcome so bad for the O’s?

Arrieta was never going to be a star in Baltimore, so maybe the Orioles couldn’t convert his potential, but there’s still a chance Trumbo could turn into something. If Trumbo is a part of a Baltimore team that plays its way to the World Series and the Cubs falter in the NLCS, will it even matter?

Present value is fleeting, but flags fly forever.

[1] Somehow, “O’s in 0-16” doesn’t have the same ring to it, but I respect his dedication to the cause, as well as the joke.

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