Late last week, Dave Cameron of Fangraphs and Jon Morosi of Fox Sports both suggested that the San Francisco Giants should consider improving their club by trading ace Tim Lincecum. Cameron roped the Yankees into his argument by suggesting a swap of Lincecum and Aubrey Huff to the Bombers for a package of Jesus Montero and Eduardo Nunez. He argued that the deal would clear plenty of salary, thus allowing the Giants to improve their offense with free agents as well as through contributions from Montero and Nunez, and would provide the Giants more long-term value that Lincecum’s two remaining contract years would. While the idea sounds interesting in theory and certainly caught the eyes of many Yankees fans, a look at the incentives and motivations involved when trading an ace for a package of highly regarded prospects suggests that this proposed trade, as well as others like it, is extremely unlikely.
One extremely important factor to look at when evaluating the trade value of an ace pitcher is service time. A pitcher that has more than 2 years of team control remaining obviously has more value than one with 2 or fewer relatively cheap seasons remaining, but quantifying that value in terms of prospects can be quite tricky. This issue makes it very difficult for teams to agree upon fair value in an ace-for-prospects trade. A general manager holding a pitcher with a lot of service time remaining is unlikely to accept fair market value for him, because there are a number of factors that incentivize him to hold onto his pitcher unless he is offered a massive package of prospects in return. For example, the ace is often the face of the franchise, and trading him can lead to disillusionment in the fanbase. Regarding a young star in particular, the fans have just enjoyed watching the pitcher bloom into ace-hood, and would react poorly to seeing him dealt. Take a look at Giants blogger Grant Brisbee’s reaction to Cameron’s suggestion:
How about instead of trading him to afford other good players, how about you just buy the other good players? In the short-term, it might put them overbudget, but when the wretched contracts come off the books in the next two years, the Giants will look for ways to spend that money. Spend it now while Lincecum’s here, and hope that they’re all still effective in the future when you have to stick to the budget.
Or don’t. Subsist on the David DeJesuses and Coco Crispix of the world because of a self-imposed budget. Whatever. But don’t trade Lincecum to chase after an extra win or two, especially if all it would take is money to get those wins. That’s an easy way to make some disillusioned fans.
The thread continues for about 1000 comments that largely agree with Grant, and is illustrative of the sort of reaction that comes with trading homegrown aces. Trading Lincecum, or pitchers like Lincecum, come with an added cost of upsetting the fanbase, which makes getting an enormous return an imperative.
Additionally, while the ace pitcher’s performance is reasonably predictable (assuming he is not an extreme injury risk), prospects are significantly more volatile. As such, there is always the risk that a number of the acquired prospects bust while the ace is winning regularly for the other club, which might look incredibly bad for the general manager as it plays out over a number of seasons. Again, this incentivizes the general manager to push for as many high-end prospects as possible in the deal, even if the prospects sought exceed “fair market value,” so as to increase to the probability that he has something of value to show from the trade.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the general manager holding a pitcher with plenty of service time remaining does not have to make a deal at all. Those pitchers are relatively cheap, and the GM can usually afford to sit back and allow the pitcher to rack up wins while he waits for an above market deal to come along. Unless the team is in serious financial trouble, they have little reason to even consider trading a young ace.
Taking all of these factors together suggests that a trade for an ace with more than two seasons of control remaining would usually require the acquiring team to “blow away” the trading club, making such deals fairly unlikely. In fact, the only two trades over the last 5 seasons that meet the criteria are those of Erik Bedard to the Mariners and Dan Haren to the Diamondbacks (the second Haren trade occurred when he had a 4.60 ERA and was not perceived as an ace on the market), and both of those trades were perceived in the baseball world as overpayments by the acquiring clubs. These trades do not happen because GM’s are incentivized to avoid them, and the only way to complete one is by emptying your farm system to allow the trading GM a perceived “win.”
Conversely, as a player drops below two seasons of contract time remaining, the incentives swing in the other direction. The trading GM can tell his fanbase that he needs to trade the pitcher before he reaches free agency, thus freeing the GM to make a deal without quite the same backlash as he would encounter under different circumstances. He is now incentivized to move his player rather than lose him for nothing, and is willing to accept a “fair” deal. However, as the player inches closer to free agency, the acquiring team has competing incentives that can often impact what sort of deal gets made.
On one hand, the GM does not want to relinquish top level prospects while only getting a few months of the star in return. There is little that looks worse for a GM than giving up a major prospect for a few months of a player, the player not carrying the club to any sort of success, and then seeing the prospect star in another city. Furthermore, the acquiring club knows that the other club is desperate to receive some sort of return from the player before he hits free agency, which further pushes them to refrain from giving up their best prospects. On the other hand, clubs that seem to be on the cusp of winning are often desperate in their own right, and that could lead to them setting aside the factors mentioned above and bringing a fair offer to the table. This sort of trade happens more frequently (I counted 8 over the last 5 seasons, and the return tends to be a mixed bag), but is fairly unpredictable and requires a very specific set of circumstances.
This brings us back to Lincecum and the Yankees. Lincecum, as a pitcher who has exactly two seasons of contract time remaining, could go into either category, but probably belongs in the first because the Giants have no real desperate need to move him. As such, the only way the Yankees could acquire him is to blow the Giants away, and that is simply not how Brian Cashman operates. He would likely offer Montero and Nunez for Lincecum, but it is doubtful that he would add more top prospects, and this trade is unlikely to happen without them. Any similar trade would likely run into the same problem, as Cashman’s unwillingness to include multiple top prospects in a single trade would prevent him from constructing a “blow me away” package.
This leaves those clamoring for another top arm looking to the second category of pitcher, those aces with two or fewer seasons of contract time remaining who are on teams that are motivated to move them. The problem is that unlike in past seasons, when pitchers such as Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, and Cliff Lee fit into that category, there is no obvious candidate to target. As I noted above, a very specific set of circumstances is required to make such a deal, and the first of those is that such a pitcher has to actually be made available. At this point, none are on the market, and it does not seem like any are on the horizon either. The only possibility seems to be Zack Greinke, and the Yankees have already shown an unwillingness to part with a representative package for him in the past.
All of this is a long way of saying that it is unlikely that the Yankees make a deal for an ace this offseason. However, there are a bevy of second-tier pitchers nearing the end of their contracts, all of whom could likely be had for the right price. Such pitchers make for fantastic trade speculation, because most of the incentives discussed above diminish greatly when shifted to a lower quality pitcher. Teams are more willing to relinquish such arms, and the lower cost makes them more attractive to acquiring general managers. The Giants actually have one such pitcher, with Matt Cain being a year closer to free agency than Lincecum and not quite as talented as Timmy is. John Danks and Francisco Liriano fit into this category as well, as do a handful of other pitchers who could become available in the coming months. Over the next few weeks, RAB will profile a number of these pitchers in a series that will look at trade targets who are 1) not quite aces but are still talented pitchers and 2) are in the final year of their contracts.