Why Aren’t There More Early-Season Trades?

Last week, the Rockies traded catcher Ramon Hernandez to the Dodgers for starting pitcher Aaron Harang. It was a minor deal involving two aging players, and it essentially amounted to an exchange of contracts — the Rockies designated Harang for assignment right after they received him. But it was still an unusual deal, in that it was an April trade involving two Major Leaguers.

Let's look at the biggest April trades in Major League Baseball since 2008.

That's not much. Even the De La Rosa deal, which appears to be the most significant one, occurred after a season in which De La Rosa posted a 5.82 ERA.

The list of recent May trades isn't much more titillating. Last May, the Padres shipped Ernesto Frieri to the Angels for Alexi Amarista and Donn Roach. In 2009, the Padres sent Jody Gerut to the Brewers for Tony Gwynn Jr. In 2008, the Padres — the kings of May trades, clearly — sent Jared Wells to the Mariners for pitcher Cha-Seung Baek.

There have, historically, been some big early-season trades, like the then-controversial May 2003 deal in which the Diamondbacks sent Byung-Hyun Kim to the Red Sox for Shea Hillenbrand. But recently, such trades have been rare.

The reasons why are worth exploring, because some circumstances might suggest early-season trades would be somewhat more likely. It isn't as if GMs are inactive in April — waiver claims abound, for example. And the longer into a season a team waits to make a big trade, the less impact, in an absolute sense, that trade will have.

In general, trade-deadline deals just don't have the impact we imagine they do, at least not in a straightforward, arithmetical sense. There are exceptions, like the Dodgers' trade for Manny Ramirez in 2008, which produced 2.9 wins above replacement. And as long as teams make their big trades before the end of August, they're able to use their new acquisitions in the playoffs. But think about the July 31 trading deadline, and how important it seems when it's happening. Now let's review some of the major trades last July.

  • The Dodgers acquired Shane Victorino from the Phillies; Victorino produced one win above replacement for Los Angeles, then left via free agency.
  • The Giants acquired Hunter Pence from the Phillies; Pence had a big hit in the NLCS but otherwise did not hit particularly well in the postseason, and he produced 0.5 WAR for the Giants in the regular season.
  • The Rangers acquired Ryan Dempster from the Cubs; he produced 1.2 WAR in Texas before leaving via free agency.
  • After arriving from the Brewers, Zack Greinke produced 1.2 WAR for the Angels before leaving via free agency.
  • Wandy Rodriguez had 0.6 WAR down the stretch after going from the Astros to the Pirates.

These are not huge numbers. It is, of course, possible to find examples of deadline acquisitions who made an impact in the postseason, since stars are disproportionately traded to what become playoff teams. But their absolute impact, particularly in the regular season, is smaller than the average fan probably imagines, mostly because there simply isn't much time for them to produce. The July 31 non-waiver trade deadline is only two months before the end of the regular season. And yet contending teams routinely wait until late in the summer to make splashy moves for stars.

There are several reasons why this happens. First, GMs attempt to build their teams in the offseason, and unless there's an injury, it takes awhile for teams to diagnose their problems. Teams that appear well-positioned to contend usually have some degree of confidence in themselves, and it's rarely wise to radically change one's viewpoint in April or May, when there are, at most, only a couple months' worth of new data. For example, the Pirates, though they certainly couldn't have been described as "well-positioned to contend," began the 2012 season with several weeks of strong pitching performances, but had the worst offense in baseball in April and May. The Pittsburgh media blasted the Bucs for not making an immediate move for a hitter, sparking debate among Pirates fans about the rarity of early-season deals. But, despite not making a major move, the Pirates' offense was the best in baseball in June, and fifth-best in July.

Also, it can be difficult to make big trades in April and May because non-contending teams usually aren't yet ready to completely cut bait on their seasons. In fact, it's too early to say for sure who the contenders even are. For example, the Rockies were 11-16 and in last place on May 1, 2007, but they ended up going to the World Series. The Padres were 10-15 at the same date the previous year, and they won the NL West.

There clearly are some teams who know with near-certainty, before the season even starts, that they won't be contending — the 2013 Astros and Marlins fall into this category (and both have shown so little interest in hiding their rebuilding plans that it's possible to imagine them bucking the trend and making significant trades this month or next). But such teams rarely have much to offer contenders. And even for bad teams, there's value in waiting until summer before making trades. An in-season veteran-for-prospects trade can deflate a fanbase, and most teams probably don't want to raise a white flag just before they sail into what are generally the best-attended games of the year in early summer.

It's unclear when — or whether — the trend of waiting until midsummer to make big trades will change. By making big deals earlier in the season, contending teams could get more absolute value out of their acquisitions, and gain a bigger edge on other contenders. And non-contending teams should, at least theoretically, be able to extract more value in prospects, since, if the player they're trading is a rental, they're trading four or five months of that player rather than two.

It's doubtful many teams will avail themselves of those advantages, however, mainly because, later in the season, it's clearer what trades actually mean. I use the word "absolute" above to mean value that can be assessed using a statistic like WAR, where a September solo homer for a contending team has essentially the same value as a September solo homer for a non-contending team. Obviously, if a team's primary goal is to make the playoffs, the relative values of the two home runs could be dramatically different.

Imagine your team has a one-run lead in the second inning, and now imagine it has a one-run lead in the eighth. The former situation is far less urgent, because most aspects of the outcome of the game remain undecided. Your opponent could easily score five runs in the third, or the fourth, or any other inning, and make that one-run lead irrelevant. Or, your own team could score five, and suddenly be in the midst of a blowout. But if your team has a one-run lead in the eighth, you're close to securing a victory, and the likelihood of one team or the other posting a big inning and dramatically changing the outcome of the game is greatly reduced, and any run either team does score has a big impact on its chances of winning.

The standings work the same way. A two-game lead or deficit in a division race means little in mid-April, and substantially more in late July. (On Saturday, the Cincinnati Enquirer's John Fay sarcastically responded via Twitter to a fan who asked if that evening's game was a must-win for the Reds: "Absolutely. Could be 2 out with 151 to play. Tough to come back from that.") That's one reason teams continue to wait until then to deal for stars — they may get less value from them in an absolute sense, but they help make up for that by getting more value in relation to their situations. They get fewer WAR, but they increase the chances that the WAR they do get will be meaningful.

Someday, a couple of creative organizations at opposite ends of the talent spectrum will make a big trade in the early part of the season — this year's Blue Jays and Marlins would have been perfect, if that Josh Johnson / Jose Reyes / Mark Buehrle blockbuster hadn't already happened. It's still possible the Marlins could trade Giancarlo Stanton in the next month or so. The Astros could also make a deal early on. If not, though, it's unlikely there will be many big trades until the summer. Early-season trades simply don't happen very often.

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