The offseason trade market got an official start on Monday and someone should call Michael Lewis because I think Billy Beane is looking to have another book written about him.
In a turn-baseball-logic-on-its-head type of move, Beane ponied up the one remaining established (and valuable) chip he had (Huston Street) along with two young pieces (Greg Smith and Carlos Gonzalez) for the premiere hitter on the market, Matt Holliday
. I spent most of the day scratching my head and looking for someone, anyone, who would question Beane for this move. I found a lot of people who couldn't figure out the move and a couple who thought Beane was looking to compete this year, with this being the first of several moves. I'm leaning in a different direction altogether.
In the past 13 months or so, Beane has traded away Danny Haren, Rich Harden, Joe Blanton and Chad Gaudin for a slew of prospects of varying talent levels. It seems as though cherry picking other teams' farm system sits well with Beane, so much so he's turned it into his overall strategy. In fact, I think that was the entire reason for this trade. Adding Holliday will not make the A's a contender, and I truly doubt the A's will go out and get the type of bats they need to make them one this season. Not unless he's willing to shell out some money in long-term deals.
No, this trade isn't about this season. Billy Beane just turned Matt Holliday into a $9M lottery ticket. That's about how much money the A's will pay to Holliday between now and the trade deadline, roughly. If Holliday remains productive, any number of teams will be interested in his services for the stretch run. If Beane can land one blue chip prospect, he'll come out a winner, I suppose. If the gamble fails, then he gets 2 picks as compensation when Holliday walks and the price tag goes up to $13.5M. Further complicating things is the inclusion of Huston Street in the package. Street was a big chip for Beane, and he could've been parlayed into a few prospects on his own.
The only other trade of this type that I can come up with is the deal the Marlins struck for Mike Piazza
in 1998, but the motives were entirely different. The Marlins were in pure payroll-slashing mode. They sent Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, Charles Johnson and two others to L.A. for Piazza and Todd Zeile. One week later they sent Piazza to the Mets for three prospects, including Preston Wilson. They got Piazza out of Florida before paying any of his salary, and cleared tens of millions off their books in the process. This Holliday trade is not that.
I'm sure Beane and his assistant GM's ran all the numbers, and again, this is only my take on the trade, but here's the best formula I can come up with.
For Holliday, Beane gave up a guy who can close (although he lost the job last season), a valuable commodity. A pitcher with mediocre success as a starter last year, and a talented young outfielder who may or may not be able to hit at the major league level. He also took on $13.5M in salary, which he can afford after slashing so much payroll with the trades he made in the past 13 months. Worst-case, he's got a premier corner outfielder for this season, which could help sell some tickets and maybe even keep the A's close to the top of the division in a weak West. Then Holliday walks at the end of the year and Beane gets 2 compensatory picks (either a 1st round pick and a sandwich pick, or a 2nd rounder and a sandwich). Personally, I think this is a steep price to pay for one year of Holliday without a real hope that he'll help you win a championship. If it winds up going down like this, Beane will be a loser on the deal.
But, if he can flip Holliday for a quality package any time between now and the trade deadline, it could wind up being a great deal. In a nutshell, whoever he gets will have to trump Carlos Gonzalez, Greg Smith and whomever he could've gotten for Huston Street.
If I'm right, and this is Beane's motivation for the deal, what does it say about the game itself and the valuation of talent? Is this futures trading something that's going to become more common in baseball? Will it eliminate the notion of buyers and sellers in the trade market?
I'm not sure. Beane is in a unique position among general managers of small-to-mid-market teams. For one, he's shaved an insane amount of payroll from the team's books and second, he's proven he can, at the very least, put a competitive team on the field with a limited budget. He's probably got more leeway than most GMs do. If this gamble blows up in his face, he's left holding a $13.5M bag, but really, the team isn't that much worse for the wear. If another team, without the extra money laying around were to make a similar gamble, the consequences could be much more dire. Then again, is there really more risk in gambling on a player like Holliday in the short term than signing a guy like Gil Meche to a big contract, or trading for someone like Matt Morris with another year left on his deal at $10M (both moves made by small market teams in recent years).
All told, I think it would be a good thing for the game if more teams were willing to take risks like this. If you have 29 teams as legitimate bidders when a player is on the block you're going to see less lopsided deals, and you may even see rejuvenated fan bases if small market teams start landing big fish, if only for a couple of months.
This type of deal could bring a whole new meaning to the term player rental. In fact, this would probably be a better use of the term. Small market teams rent players, the big markets lease-to-own.