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Why Has MLB Trade Market Shifted so Strongly to Sellers' Advantage?

There's always going to be a reaction whenever star players change hands on the MLB trade market. Heck, it would be weird if people didn't say, "Wow!" or some other exclamation.

But these days, we're often saying, "Wow!" not at the reality that such players are being traded but at what they're being traded for.

We know this because we can round up a bullet-pointed list of prominent examples from this winter, this summer and last winter. Like so...

This Winter

  • The Boston Red Sox sent four prospects—including MLB.com's No. 1- and No. 30-ranked prospects, Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech, respectively—to the Chicago White Sox for ace left-hander Chris Sale.
  • The Washington Nationals sent three prospects, including No. 3-ranked Lucas Giolito and No. 38-ranked Reynaldo Lopez, to the White Sox for center fielder Adam Eaton.

This Summer

  • The Cleveland Indians sent four prospects, including No. 15-ranked Clint Frazier and No. 78-ranked Justus Sheffield, to the New York Yankees for ace reliever Andrew Miller.
  • The Chicago Cubs sent four players, including No. 17-ranked Gleyber Torres, to the Yankees for closer Aroldis Chapman.
  • The Red Sox sent No. 13-ranked Anderson Espinoza to the San Diego Padres for All-Star lefty Drew Pomeranz.

Last Winter

  • The Arizona Diamondbacks sent a controllable outfielder (Ender Inciarte), their 2015 No. 1 pick (SS Dansby Swanson) and a well-regarded pitching prospect (RHP Aaron Blair) to the Atlanta Braves for right-hander Shelby Miller.
  • The Houston Astros sent six players, including hard-throwing righty Vince Velasquez and No. 83 prospect Derek Fisher, to the Philadelphia Phillies for ace reliever Ken Giles and minor league infielder Jonathan Arauz.
  • The Red Sox sent four prospects, including No. 26-ranked Manuel Margot, to the Padres for closer Craig Kimbrel.

The Braves got the most praise for shaking down the Diamondbacks in the Miller trade. But to some degree or another, the sellers in each trade got thumbs-up from all corners of the baseball realm.

And this may not even be a comprehensive list of recent seller-friendly trades. There are cases to be made for the Diamondbacks in the Jean Segura trade, the Kansas City Royals in the Wade Davis trade, the Milwaukee Brewers in the Jonathan Lucroy/Jeremy Jeffress and Will Smith trades, the Oakland A's in the Rich Hill/Josh Reddick trade and the Yankees in the Carlos Beltran trade.

And so on. Point is: It's been hard to be underwhelmed at what star talent has gone for.

 

It wasn't always like this.

Five winters ago, Rany Jazayerli was lamenting at Grantland how teams no longer seemed able to trade star veterans for young studs. Just two winters ago, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs drew up a list of recent big-ticket trades and found the buyer-friendly deals easily outweighed the seller-friendly deals.

As for why this seemed so shocking, Cameron wrote:

It feels like if our default reaction to star player trades is almost always that the seller isn’t getting enough in return, then it’s more likely that our expectations are what is out of whack, and not that every team selling a star player is misreading the market for their player.

Survey says: yup.

While NFL and NBA fans have long obsessed over the next wave of talent playing in the college and high school ranks, it's more recently that baseball fans have taken to obsessing over the next wave of talent playing in the minor leagues. That's partially owed to the proliferation of prospect coverage on the series of tubes known as the "internet."

But it's also a reaction to reality.

In 2014, FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine pointed out that MLB's star power had been shifting to younger players as the league moved further past the steroid era. And it hasn't stopped. FanGraphs' WAR claims that the last two years have been the best ever for 25-and-under hitters. Young pitchers, meanwhile, have at least guaranteed big radar gun readings.

Of course, this isn't just an excuse for fans to grow attached to prospects. It's also an excuse for major league front offices to do the same.

In cases like the Astros and Cubs, that's meant tearing down what they had and using the draft and international market to build contenders from scratch. More recently, the Braves, Brewers, Phillies, Padres and now the White Sox have set themselves on that path.

At the same time, there's also the effect that the second wild card has had since it was introduced in 2012. It's emboldened more teams to try and contend every year. So while every team now values young talent, there's also a sharp line between two different classes of teams. There are the few rebuilders and the many contenders.

In an environment like this—one with lots of young talent to go around and some teams having more incentive than others to stockpile itit may have been just a matter of time before seller-friendly trades became more common. All that was needed was the same thing the Joker tells us connects madness and gravity: a little push.

What happened last winter seems to have done the trick.

Last offseason's free-agent class was by far the best in recent memory and was paid accordingly. Per Jeff Todd of MLB Trade Rumors, nearly $2.5 billion was spent on free agents. That made the trade market the only place teams could look for relatively cheap impact talent. 

This set the stage for the Kimbrel, Giles and Miller trades, which went down within a month of each other. The trade that sent Chapman from the Reds to the Yankees didn't fit for extraordinary circumstances, but those three trades effectively pushed the trade market's scales in favor of sellers.

The summer trade market then provided the perfect environment for other sellers to take advantage. The second wild card created the usual gap between buyers and sellers around the trade deadline, but there was an extra wrinkle this time around. Clubs like the Reds, Phillies, Braves and Padres had largely already stripped themselves of their best trade chips. Other clubs like the Diamondbacks, Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Angels had good players but none really for sale.

The many teams looking to deal for impact talent thus had very few sellers to turn to, creating the ultimate seller's market. That was good news for the Yankees, especially, who made the gutsy (and correct) call to pull the plug on a mediocre present to take aim at a brighter future.

Which brings us to this winter, in which the seller-friendly trade market has been upheld by an old-fashioned market force: supply and demand.

This winter's free-agent market is the polar opposite of last year's market. Keith Law of ESPN.com spoke for everyone in writing it "might be the worst I've ever seen." He specifically lamented the market's lack of athleticism and starting pitching, the latter of which wasn't lost on executives.

"The starting pitching landscape this offseason has been a story for what, 18 months now?" Tampa Bay Rays general manager Erik Neander told Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com. "There's been as much of an advance-notice publicly as there's been in a while with respect to a free-agent class."

This put the White Sox in an enviable position with Sale, and they took advantage of it. While nobody seems to think the Red Sox made a horrible trade, the White Sox may have gotten just as much applause for the return they got. Even Red Sox boss Dave Dombrowski admitted he paid a heavy price.

“There will come a day when Moncada is putting in his 15-year career that we will be saying, ‘The Red Sox, geez, I can’t believe we traded that guy,'" he told Bob Nightengale of USA Today. "So yes, it does complicate it. He’s a great player. If he’s not a tremendous player, I’ll be very surprised."

The White Sox were in a similar position with Eaton, whose athleticism elevated him amid a market dominated by one-dimensional sluggers. This time, Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post reported the reaction among executives was decidedly pro-White Sox.

“I love Eaton. But I’m pretty shocked," said one.

The lack of athleticism on the open market likely also helped the Diamondbacks swap Segura for the upside that Walker, a former elite prospect, may still have. Before the winter is over, it's a good bet that another team will get a big return for a starting pitcher (sideways glance at Jose Quintana).

Another good bet is that life won't always be this good for the trade market's sellers. These things go in cycles. The next one will either be the market evening out or shifting back in favor of buyers.

By the same token, the shift in favor of sellers over the last year is something that was likely inevitable and that has been realized by a perfect storm of circumstances.

If nothing else, a reminder that such things don't happen by accident.

                

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. Contract and payroll data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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