Behind The Scenes Of An MLB Trade

Andy MacPhail and Jed Hoyer tell MLBTR what happens before a trade becomes official.

In late July, when trading is at its busiest and multiple deals are completed each day, headlines like this one don’t captivate us for long.

Padres Acquire Miguel Tejada.” 

It’s a familiar story: a veteran on the brink of free agency is exchanged for a prospect (but not a blue-chipper). In the frenzied week leading up to the July 31st trade deadline, when so many established players are heading to contenders and so many minor leaguers are on the move, no single deal preoccupies baseball fans for more than a few hours.

But it takes substantially longer than that to orchestrate the trades. Before the Padres sent 24-year-old pitching prospect Wynn Pelzer to Baltimore for Tejada, both Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail and Padres GM Jed Hoyer had to take everything possible into consideration. And whether you’re in the AL or the NL, whether you’re selling or buying, whether you were a major league general manager before Wynn Pelzer was born, like MacPhail, or you’re a rookie GM, like Hoyer, there's no shortage of angles to consider.

“You go down a mental checklist starting with the player’s recent performance from a scouting standpoint, going through their health background, going through their future earnings,” Hoyer said. 

But before teams start looking at scouting reports, medical records and contract language, it all has to start somewhere. So where do the ideas come from?

“I think like any idea, it starts with a need,” MacPhail said. “What do they say? Necessity is the mother of invention.”

In Conversation

Once a team has established its needs, the front office is that much closer to engaging other clubs. And since teams are constantly connected to one another each summer and again each winter, it isn’t hard to spark trade talks.

“You’re always in contact, whether it’s through a friendly conversation or bumping into guys at the ballpark,” Hoyer said. “But those specific times of year, there’s a lot of frequency and you try to be in touch with clubs as many times as you can within a given week.”

‘Being in touch’ can mean a lot of things, and it’s not always GM to GM. But whether it’s a conversation between general managers, front office employees or scouts, baseball people generally use the same methods as fans.

“Different GMs are comfortable with different mediums,” MacPhail said. ”There’s some GMs that like to talk over the phone, or some that will generally text and there are others that will e-mail and others that will do a combination of the three.”

MacPhail uses e-mail and text messaging regularly, but, like Hoyer, he relies on the phone.

“You can learn a lot about their tone, how they say it, what they don’t say,” MacPhail said. “I think in most cases, you’re better off exploring things over the phone with a GM.”

If MacPhail doesn’t glean everything he needs to know from a phone conversation, he can always check the local papers or go online to read about the latest news and rumors.

“One of the things that your website has done, in my view, is sort of changed the GM’s job,” MacPhail said. “You have a better idea of supply today than maybe we did before that technology existed.”

The Background Work

When the GM has an idea for a possible deal, other members of the front office get involved. Assistant GMs will discuss potential trades, pro scouts will go watch players, others will examine video and consider stats and medical history.

Clubs can work their way down that checklist within a couple of days for a player in the last year of his contract, like Tejada. The stakes aren’t as high when a player only has to stay healthy for two months. But when discussing a trade for someone who doesn’t hit free agency for a while, the process slows down.

“For example,” MacPhail said, “if it’s a young player that someone’s going to have control over for four of five years, I mean that’s something we’re going to completely vet.”

Since the Orioles play in the American League East, they work to determine how trade targets will perform against the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays and Blue Jays. MacPhail admits it might be hubris on his part, but the AL East is no ordinary division.

The Padres acquired Tejada and Ryan Ludwick for the same reason: to provide enough thump to emerge from the NL West and reach the playoffs. But Ludwick’s under team control through 2011, so the Padres approached that acquisition knowing that any deal would impact next year’s team, too.

“Theoretically the shorter amount of time you have the player, the more likely teams are to take on all that risk,” Hoyer said. “The more you’re making a deal for the long-term, the more it complicates things because you want to be that much more sure.”

It can all come down to an economic principle for MacPhail.

“It’s really just a simple case of supply and demand,” he said. “What your demand is, what you think that supply is and then make an evaluation whether you’re better off making that deal or not.”

And, though dozens of deals do happen, they’re the exception, not the rule.

“There are so many ways things can fall apart that only a very, very small amount of the total number of ideas actually come to fruition,” Hoyer said.