What determines which prospect gets included in trade packages for mid-season deals? A common misconception is that it is directly related to the quality of the impact player being acquired. In reality, there are many other factors that go into the decision to include a specific prospect in a trade, including needs of the trade partner, their rating of the prospect, the amount of salary of the acquired player, and the length of time the acquired player is under team control. An interesting historical example of the value of an extra year of control is Cliff Lee. He was traded twice near the trade deadline in successive years, as his contract was moving toward expiration. He was traded from Cleveland to Philadelphia in July of 2009, and traded again from Seattle to Texas in July of 2010, as he inched closer to his free agency at the end of the 2010 season. (Note: Cliff Lee was traded a third time in this one-year window, following the 2009 offseason, from Philadelphia to Seattle. I left this trade out of the comparison to create more of an apple-to-apples, mid-season trade match up)
For the first half of the 2009 season in Cleveland, Lee turned in a solid performance as it would have been unreasonable to expect him to sustain his Cy Young Award winning level of 2008. With an expected 40 to 45 regular season starts remaining until his free agency, the Indians traded him to Philadelphia, acquiring the #2 (Carrasco), 3 (Marson), 4 (Donald) and 10 (Knapp) top ranked prospects (according to Baseball America) in the Phillies system. When Lee was traded 345 days later from Seattle to Texas, with an expected 15 regular season starts remaining before free agency, the Mariners acquired the #2 (Smoak), and 17 (Beaven) rated prospects in the Rangers system, plus two unranked minor leaguers—Josh Lueke, who was pitching in Low A and infielder Matt Lawson in AA ball. (Mark Lowe was also sent to the Rangers along with Lee in this deal)
Based on Baseball America’s rankings, the contrast between the two prospect packages is dramatic. The 2009 trade that left the Phillies with three times as much time under team control yielded the far more impressive package. Lee’s performance was relatively stable over the window of these two trades, as there was no major injury or dramatic deviation in his performance expectations. It’s fair to say one major factor that differentiated the two groups of prospects was the amount of time the star player had under team control.
As the next few days wind down it will be interesting to see how “length of time under team control” figures into the trade market for starting pitchers. Below I’ve listed five names that are frequently mentioned as trade candidates and their remaining salary and length of time under team control. I’ve also added where they rank (for this season only) on my Starting Pitcher Rankings (SPR). I’ll discuss this metric further in a future post, but think of it as their ranking among the top 140 starting pitchers in MLB for this season. I like to think of the top 20 ranked pitchers as performing like staff aces this year, 21 to 45 as pitching like #2’s, and 46-75 as pitching like #3’s.