Sunday, July 25, 2010

Pinching pennies

When a trade occurs in the world of sports, it can only be classified in one of three camps. The first type of trade is an "even" trade. Of course this is rarely the case looking back on deals years later, but there are often deals that seem to help both sides when they are first made. "Even" deals are also referred to as "not pissing off your fans" deals. Some even deals of recent memory include the Champ Bailey for Clinton Portis trade, Mark Teixeira for Elvis Andrus and Neftali Feliz, and when the Clippers traded Zach Randolph's body for Quentin Richardson's. As you can see, not all even deals end up even. Mark Teixeira wasn't a member of the Braves long enough to make up for the two youngsters that were given away. And for some still unexplained reason, Zach Randolph ended up being an all-star last year after getting dealt away in what some described as trading a locker room cancer for a pile of bones.

The important thing to note about an even trade is the fact that it only needs to be even when it is first made. The fans forget about trades within months of them occurring. No one even remembered who the Rangers got in that Teixeira deal until Andrus and Feliz both made the all-star team this month and the story kept being brought up. If fans see a trade as being even when it is made, then they will be happy. In the long haul, for public relations, this is actually more valuable than the alternative. Not making a seemingly even trade at the time, even if the GM was later proved correct, usually results in much less fan credit given. Yankees fans were leaving flaming bags outside GM Brian Cashman's house a few years ago when he refused to pull the trigger on dealing prospect Phil Hughes for proven star Johan Santana. Now, it seems Cashman may have made the right choice to hang on to Hughes, but no one cares to give him credit for this. Yankees fans just remember when we disagreed with him and he sucked for it.

The second type of trade that occurs is a "steal." This is when one side appears to heist the other, getting back way more than they should for a certain player or package. Again, the end result is pretty much irrelevant. If a "steal" ends up being an almost even deal, fans won't remember. They will just remember rejoicing when their GM robbed their opponent blind. As you probably deduced, a "steal" for one side means another team must have been the person getting mugged. Steals are very uncommon because, despite popular belief, most general managers in sports are not idiots. They may have different goals in mind than their fans at certain points of the season, resulting in disagreements, but usually they have some sort of plan in place. Being a part of a steal of a trade is different than one team benefiting from another trying to limit payroll.

Make sure you see the difference between a steal resulting in a team getting mugged and our third type of trade possibility: the salary dump. This is the most popular type of trade done in modern sports. Since sports are a business, and lots of teams fail every year, it makes sense that they will be trying to save money in the process. 98% of all NBA trades are salary dumps. This has to do with the detailed and sometimes screwy rules as far as the salary cap, player contracts, and collective bargaining agreement are concerned. In fact, go ahead and try to think of a trade that isn't. At first you may have thought the Pau Gasol to the Lakers trade was definitely a steal, but it was clearly a salary dump. This current off-season has seen close to a dozen salary dump trades already, and it isn't even August. With Chris Paul clambering to split town, we may be in store for one more.

In the NFL, since contracts are not guaranteed, rather than teams participating in a salary dump deal, veteran players are routinely just cut. Therefore, most NFL trades fall into one of our first two camps. Major League Baseball, on the other hand, has its fair share of all three types. There are plenty of even trades made where one team may want a pitcher and another a hitter. There are steals committed as well, such as a team getting weak prospects back for a star player. Just this evening, a salary dump trade occurred. Dan Haren was dealt to the Los Angeles Angels for so-so prospects and a below average major league starter. I have to figure they could have waited for a better offer, but they wanted to shed Haren's contract, and did so. In our current economic climate, salary dump trades in the MLB are becoming commonplace.

Now my question is about how fans react to a salary dump trade by their team. Obviously we know the proper reaction after an "even" trade or "steal" occurs. And, as I stated, this is short-lived and details of many trades are forgotten before the current season even ends. Fans only remember how they felt about a deal going down, not what the outcome was six years later. But with a salary dump, there is no positive reaction. Fans see it as their team's owner symbolically throwing in the towel. Yet, at the same time, most salary dump trades are either necessary or savvy. I'm sure fans know this, yet do they care? Obviously, a Dbacks fan would have preferred to get some big name back for Haren, but since they are clearly not making the playoffs in 2010, do they acknowledge the trade made sense? Do they see the smart business of it?

My problem is that I have never experienced rooting for a salary dumping team. As I said, NFL teams rarely resort to this technique, and I have no favorite NBA franchise. I am a basketball fan drifter. As for baseball, I am a Yankees fan. So...yeah. With the caveat being that salary dumps could border on being even trades, do fans, even if they don't like the state of their franchise, at least appreciate the importance of a salary dump deal? Last year the San Diego Padres salary dumped Jake Peavy. This allowed them to fill in their roster with pieces who ended up being ridiculously good. The Padres are in first place. If they had not dumped Peavy's salary, they could not have filled out their roster and would probably be battling the Diamondbacks for last place right now. The salary dump can work. Now I'm not saying Arizona is necessarily as smart, or if there will even be moves available to help them next off-season, but they weren't going anywhere with Haren. Why not save the cash now and try to make that worst to first move in the standings next year?

In fantasy sports, the equivalent of a salary dump is made without hesitation, because there is no one to ridicule you afterwards. If your fantasy team, in a keeper league, has no shot at making the playoffs or finishing in the money, it makes perfect sense to trade an expensive player for a more valuable keeper or draft pick. So shouldn't this translate? If the deal in and of itself makes perfect sense in a business and strategy world, why should it not make sense just because a team has people following it? If your fantasy team, for some bizarre reason, had thousands of fans who watched every move you made, wouldn't you still have to make that "salary dump" to prepare for next season? It would be stupid not to. Now obviously there are not people paying to follow your fantasy team, but if there were, would they appreciate the importance of the move?

I guess my ultimate question is how business savvy is the average fan? Or, if they can all realize and recognize the move, how much do people care about that? If your team's owner loses millions in 2010 and is forced to cut spending in 2011, not bringing in that big name free agent, do the fans see the connection or will they just see him as a penny pincher?

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