Buster Olney: trade market

Notes from the MLB awards dinner 

January, 25, 2015
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Clayton Kershaw and Sandy KoufaxGetty Images, USA Today SportsClayton Kershaw has dominated his era, just like former Dodger great Sandy Koufax.
Our colleague Willie Weinbaum filed this from Saturday night’s annual baseball soiree.

On a night of transitions and tributes, the 92nd annual awards dinner of the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America began with a moment of silence in memory of Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks. The evening concluded with the remarks of obscure former Cub Bob Hendley, who pitched a one-hitter nearly 50 years ago in the same game that the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax achieved perfection.

Koufax, who sat on the dais between one commissioner whose term was about to begin and another whose tenure was about to end, fulfilled the wish he articulated at the event a year ago -- to present Los Angeles' Clayton Kershaw with another National League Cy Young Award. Kershaw’s three awards equal Koufax’s career total, and he also received the NL MVP Award from Koufax, so the dominating lefties of eras a half-century apart each have one MVP too.

About 24 hours before Kershaw traveled to the banquet, his wife Ellen gave birth to their first child. In an emotional speech citing his family, Kershaw gave thanks by name to every Dodgers player and staffer he said he encountered daily last season. Surprisingly, he also expressed gratitude to the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that eliminated him and the Dodgers from the postseason.

Oakland's unique problems, advantages 

January, 11, 2015
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Josh DonaldsonBob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsSome teams wouldn't dare trade a young star like Josh Donaldson. The A's are not in that cohort.
The occasional sewage overflow is the worst part of the Oakland Athletics' existence, probably. Every time there’s an extended period of rain or the Oakland Raiders play a home game, or some combination of those factors, the pipes in the O.co Coliseum are overwhelmed and the coaches are left to tiptoe through a river of human production for which no sabermetric analysis is needed.

Then there are the limitations of the Athletics' strategic position in their market, which is a little like being vice president of the United States. Oakland operates in the shadow of the San Francisco Giants and in the midst of territory controlled by the Giants; in short, the Athletics are at the mercy of the Giants and the inaction of the commissioner’s office. The Giants have more financial power, they have an iconic ballpark (without flushing problems), their seats are filled, they have won three titles in five years, and, oh by the way, they have the Athletics under their thumb.

If there is one significant upside to being the Athletics, it’s that they can do stuff without really worrying about fan fallout, such as the nearly complete overhaul of a team that had the best record in the majors for a lot of last summer

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The future of MLB in Cuba 

December, 18, 2014
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 President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro AP Photo/SABC PoolBarack Obama and Raul Castro are seeking to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
There is a temptation to say that the possible normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States could lead to rapid and significant changes in professional baseball, because we've all heard the harrowing stories of escape from the island of players from Orlando Hernandez to Yasiel Puig. We've seen the talent of players, such as Jose Abreu, who is widely regarded as one of the three or four best hitters in baseball after just one season of Major League Baseball.

But while there is general relief in the industry that change in the politics between two countries so close to each other geographically is imminent, there is also skepticism among executives familiar with baseball in Cuba that the landscape of baseball will see a marked shift anytime soon.

The inevitable first domino, some executives say, is that the incredible prices being paid to defectors from Cuba -- most recently, the Diamondbacks' signing of Yasmany Tomas to a $68.5 million deal -- will plummet. Maybe this won't affect the bidding on Yoan Moncada, the infielder who worked out for scouts last month in Guatemala, but some club officials believe that eventually the market will be undercut by the prospect of change.

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Top 10 third basemen in MLB 

November, 23, 2014
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Josh DonaldsonBob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsJosh Donaldson leads a stacked ranking of baseball's top third basemen.

In keeping with our recent theme of ranking the top 10 players at each position in baseball, today we tackle third basemen.

Unlike second base and shortstop, two other positions we've recently rated, third base is stacked. (We've also gone through first basemen and catchers thus far.)

The top 10 third basemen in MLB:


1. Josh Donaldson, Oakland Athletics

It’s not clear yet whether Oakland can contend in 2015, or whether the Athletics will soon go through another round of rebuilding. But they have told other teams that Donaldson is not being traded this winter -- and who could blame them, based on his performance the past two seasons?

Donaldson shocked rival evaluators with his adept defensive transition from catcher to third, and during the past two seasons, Donaldson has 53 homers, 152 walks and 191 RBIs. He turns 29 in December, and if the Athletics ever decide to move him, they could get a whole lot of value in return

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Offseason dominoes begin to fall 

November, 18, 2014
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Giancarlo StantonRob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesGiancarlo Stanton is no doubt smiling today after agreeing to a 13-year, $325 million deal with Miami.
In one day, Major League Baseball served as the backdrop to a major trade, the second-biggest contract ever doled out by a team from Canada and the finalization of the largest contract in the history of North American professional sports.

Offseason, indeed.

Because of those deals, dominoes are falling all over the place.

A domino tumbles on … Giancarlo Stanton. He is well-liked and regarded within the sport as a really good person, which is certainly part of the reason the Marlins decided to invest in him. MLB is lucky to have Stanton, Andrew McCutchen, Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout as the best of its best.

But while having the largest contract in history guarantees Stanton the accumulated wealth of a small nation, the sheer size of the deal will carry with it additional pressures no person could ever be truly prepared for.

As Darren Rovell tweeted on Monday, Stanton will now make about $68,000 a day for the next 13 years, an income that will separate him from the fans who will pay to see the outsized slugger with the outsized contract for years to come. When he goes through the inevitable slumps that happen to every player, the response will sometimes have a layer of venom he has not experienced before. Because of the contract, there will be an expectation for him to get five hits in every four at-bats, to hit 600-foot homers nightly. Some fans will be like the folks who would go to a Vegas show wanting to hear Sinatra do his best-ever version of "My Way," in a way he had never done it before.

It will be impossible for Stanton to live up to the contract, and the sooner he embraces that reality, the easier it will be for him to function.

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PED suspicions still cloud free agency 

November, 7, 2014
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Nelson CruzLeon Halip/Getty ImagesNelson Cruz led the majors in HRs, but his past suspension for PED use still worries some when it comes to a deal.
More than a decade ago, general managers elaborated on the murky business of investing in players who may or may not be using performance-enhancing drugs. Within that 2002 New York Times article, a couple of GMs from that time gave voice to the importance and the challenge of speculating:
"It's a fairly routine topic when discussing a player who suddenly is a lot bigger," said Randy Smith, general manager of the Detroit Tigers. "To me, you've got guys who look to enhance their performance and get a contract, and become much different than they were in the past. It's very hard to evaluate. You see guys with slider bat speed all of a sudden become good hitters with tremendous power potential.

"I think it's all over the industry, and I think with all the money that's out there it becomes more relevant."

When a player is acquired, San Diego General Manager Kevin Towers said, "you have to be very cautious if you feel the player is a user."

He added, "You are cautious about doing a long-term deal if he's had one or maybe two big years."

Penalties for drug testing began two years later, and by 2006, even the players' association bought into the idea of strengthening the penalties and working to create a level playing field for a silent union majority that didn’t want to have to think about using drugs to keep up.

But more than a decade after Smith and Towers elaborated on the guessing game that general managers faced, the newest generation of GMs continues to guess, to speculate, to wonder.

Major League Baseball teams are starved for power, and for right-handed hitting particularly

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Nine free-agent bargains to consider 

November, 5, 2014
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Edinson Volquez and Torii HunterUSA TODAY SportsBoth Edinson Volquez (left) and Torii Hunter could play useful roles for winning teams.
Plenty of free agents available now, but here are nine free-agent bargains worth exploring:

1. Edinson Volquez, starting pitcher

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He is way down the pecking order of available starting pitchers in the market, far behind the likes of Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, James Shields, Francisco Liriano and Cole Hamels, a standing which will likely knock down his price tag. And his history of erratic performance will scare away teams from making a long-term commitment to him.

But Volquez did excellent work for the Pirates in 2014. From June 23 on, he had a 1.85 ERA, allowing just six homers in 111 2/3 innings. Is some of that due to PNC Park? Absolutely. The great defensive outfield behind him? Unquestionably. The pitcher whisperer, Pirates coach Ray Searage? Of course. But Volquez demonstrated last season that a short-term investment in him can pay off. He could merit a decent two-year deal for a team such as the Mariners or White Sox.

2. Rickie Weeks, second baseman

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When he was with the Brewers, he was always measured against the perception of his potential, and he sometimes did not live up to that due to injuries or too many missed swings.

But if you forget all that and consider only what he is right now at age 32, he is an interesting player as a reduced-role option: He had a .357 on-base percentage last year, with some pop (28 extra-base hits in 286 plate appearances), and he had an .865 OPS against left-handers.

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Sizing up offseason salary-dump market 

September, 1, 2014
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B. J. Upton Leon Halip/Getty ImagesIt's been another long season for B.J. Upton. Could he be on his way out of Atlanta?
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- August may be over but these are the dog days of player evaluations, the time of year when teams are ready to turn the page, ready to say something hasn’t worked and isn’t going to work. They’re looking for something different.

It’s the time of year when executives are beginning to mull over the possible salary dump in the offseason, and some are scanning other rosters for matches. “Your trash contracts for somebody else’s trash contracts,” as one official noted the other day.

Here are 16 players (and contracts) who figure to be analyzed and perhaps discussed in deals after this season ends.

1. B.J. Upton | Atlanta Braves
Owed: $46.35 million over the next three seasons

He’s batting .205 this season after hitting .184 in 2013, and he’s already posted his sixth straight season of 150-plus strikeouts. The Cubs could again have interest after trade talks that involved Edwin Jackson crumbled earlier this season. There might be a match with the Indians, as well.


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Jon LesterJared Wickerham/Getty ImagesJon Lester was scratched from his scheduled start Wednesday, indicating he could be traded soon.
Memo to John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino:
I hope you have a Plan B. In fact, make sure you have a Plan B.

Because if there is no Plan B to Jon Lester for next season, you could have a whole lot of angry fans and players by Opening Day, and the narrative won't be about your team's farm system and promise or past glories. Fairly or not, the narrative in New England will be about cheap ownership. Fairly or not, the narrative will be about you.

If there is no Plan B, 2015 might make everybody pine for the warm and fuzzy days of the Bobby Valentine era.

Lester was scratched from today's scheduled start in anticipation of a possible deal, and trading Lester today or Thursday makes sense considering where you and the Boston Red Sox stand with the left-hander. He doesn't want to talk about a contract extension until the season is over, which is a polite way of saying he's going to become a free agent to solicit the highest possible offers, which is happening because it seems as if your organization has taken a semi-rigid stand against giving really long-term deals to pitchers. Trading Lester now will get the organization more value than what you would get in a compensatory draft pick. Given that you are closer to having the No. 1 pick in next year's draft than to the teams at the top of the American League East, sure, trading Lester now is the logical move.

But there cannot be any doubt: An opportunity to sign Lester was missed.

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Jeffery LoriaSteve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsOwner Jeffrey Loria and the Marlins are only six games behind the Nationals in the NL East.
Before you dismiss the notion that the Miami Marlins could be serious players in the market over the next few days, it's worth noting that, after their wild comeback win over Washington on Monday, they are closer to the leader in their division -- six games behind -- than the Tampa Bay Rays, who are seven games behind the Baltimore Orioles, are.

Remember, too, that for all of his quirks and odd ballpark colors and home run sculpture, Miami owner Jeffrey Loria is an optimist at heart. And despite fielding teams with minimal payrolls, his expectations have always been high for his baseball operations employees. In 2003, he watched a bunch of youngsters named Josh Beckett, Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis and Juan Pierre revive themselves in midseason and go on to win the World Series. After it was over, Loria ran around the bases at Yankee Stadium. Loria is a dreamer, and staffers past and present talk about meetings in which they thought they would be told to rebuild and cut their losses. Instead, they walk away having been ordered, in so many words, to find a way to win.

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Pat GillickL Redkoles/Getty ImagesPat Gillick and other former execs and players are looking into ways to shorten game times.
Pat Gillick reminisced the other day about an amateur baseball tournament in Kansas, in which games were started from morning until midnight, the schedule pushed along by the clock. If the hitter wasn't in the box 90 seconds from the last pitch of an inning to the first pitch of the next half-inning, well, everybody understood a strike would be called.

There was a lot of baseball to be played in a confined time frame, and the coaches and players understood that the pace needed to be pushed for the sake of the event. "Unless they got inclement weather," Gillick recalled, "they'd get off eight, 10 games in a day," with the games averaging two hours to perhaps two hours and 15 minutes.

Game times like that almost never occur anymore in professional baseball, but in the independent Atlantic League, rule changes will go into effect Aug. 1 that will push the pace and move the game along faster. Gillick, who was elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 2011, is part of a committee that agreed on these measures. Among them:

• The defensive team will be limited to three "timeouts" per game, in which mound visits or on-field conferences take place with the current pitcher. Pitching changes will not be counted as timeouts, and in the case of extra innings, one additional timeout will be permitted at the start of the 10th inning and every three innings thereafter. Umpires will enforce a strict 45-second time limit on said timeouts. If the umpire's warning is disregarded by the defensive team and play continues to be delayed, the umpire shall declare a "ball" for the batter at the plate.

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Cliff Lee and A.J. BurnettMitchell Leff/Getty ImagesThe complex contracts of Cliff Lee and A.J. Burnett make them tough to value on the trade market.
The trade deadline of July 31 won't apply to Cliff Lee, some officials believe, because he's so expensive and there are enough questions about his elbow that nobody would claim him if he were to be placed on waivers in August. "He'll get through waivers," one executive said. "Nobody's going to want to take that contract."

Lee is guaranteed to make $48 million through the end of the 2015 season -- that's $48 million for the next 14 months -- because of the $12.5 million buyout attached to a vesting option for 2016.

Beyond that, rival officials are wary of some of the red flags raised with Lee's time lost to an elbow injury this summer. He has been a horse throughout his career, all but free of arm problems, but with him having spent more than two months on the disabled list and having mentioned along the way that he didn't feel completely right, some evaluators are wary of a persistent problem.

But with or without arm trouble, Lee's value is much affected by his contract.

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Cliff LeeMitchell Leff/Getty ImagesTeams in the playoff hunt are evaluating whether Cliff Lee would help their starting pitching needs.
There are two windows in every baseball calendar year in which small sample size really matters. In October, of course; as Bucky Dent, Aaron Boone and Dave Roberts can attest, bits and pieces of success can live forever.

The other time frame in which one game or one week can make a difference -- really good or really bad -- is just before the trade deadline. Multiple scouts were dispatched to watch Cliff Lee in his return to the rotation Monday, the 322nd regular-season start of his career. Rival executives are well aware of all that Lee had accomplished before Monday’s game, with the Cy Young Award and the four All-Star appearances and the postseason dominance, but all they wanted to know was how Lee is throwing the ball right now, in this moment of his career, as they assess whether to pursue a deal with the Phillies.

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Ryan Braun's power outage 

July, 22, 2014
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Ryan Braun AP Photo/Morry GashRyan Braun ranks 146th out of 163 qualified batters in percent of hits pulled (30.8).
An experienced and smart evaluator who has seen Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun a couple of times this year noted all the twists in his career in a conversation on Monday.

“Wins the Most Valuable Player Award [in 2011] hitting with all kinds of power,” he said. “Tests positive, [but] wins his appeal. Has another big year, with power, second in the MVP. Then, Biogenesis.”

Yes. He was suspended.

“He’s had a lot of injuries. Now he’s completely different.”

How so?

“Takes the ball to the opposite field a lot,” said the evaluator. “I think he’s more of an opposite-field hitter than almost anybody in baseball. He doesn’t really pull the ball anymore, and I don’t think he hits the ball as far as he used to.”

On home runs?

“No, in general. I don’t think the ball goes nearly as far.”

Braun is having a good season, without question, with a .354 on-base percentage. He’s on track to accumulate a respectable 63 extra-base hits -- but with 19 homers and 37 walks, very different from his 2012 totals of 41 homers and 63 walks.

The observations were interesting, so I asked “Baseball Tonight” senior researcher Justin Havens, half of the podcast Fireball Express, to look more deeply into Braun’s performance, to see how close the evaluator’s eye test is to reality.

What Justin found was amazing.

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David PriceKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsDavid Price has fired 16 consecutive scoreless innings for the Rays.
ST. LOUIS -- The Tampa Bay Rays keep complicating an already wrenching decision -- by winning.

Their sweep of the Minnesota Twins over the weekend cut their deficit in the American League East to 7½ games and in the wild-card race to six games, gaps they have overcome in past seasons.

There are 10 days until the July 31 trade deadline. Ten days to mull over the trade options of their franchise pitcher, David Price. Ten days to decide whether to buy, sell or both. Ten days for other teams to try to make the same aggressive play that Oakland did when it swapped star prospect Addison Russell, among others, for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.

The Rays will factor many things into their decision as to whether to trade Price, including their place in the standings, how well they are playing, their need for prospects and Price's trade value, which gradually slides downward as he nears free agency. But one executive involved in the conversations with Tampa Bay believes that, ultimately, it's the potential buyers that will clarify the choice for the Rays with the quality of their offers.

"It all comes down to which team decides to be aggressive, the Dodgers, Cardinals or Mariners," said the rival official. "Maybe none of them will be."

Other teams are monitoring Price's situation, but some rival officials view the Dodgers, Cardinals and Mariners as the teams best positioned to make a deal. There are lots of pros and cons for each of those teams as they assess the possibilities.

For the Dodgers, here are the pros: Adding Price would increase the club's chances of winning the World Series, which is the working order from the top down.

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