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Hok Talk: A guide to trade evaluation

It can be an incredibly complex or an incredibly simple process.

Kansas City Royals v Baltimore Orioles
Yes, we’ll revisit the Jorge Soler trade among others.
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Completing a trade is probably the most exciting thing a general manager can do for a sports team, so far as fans are concerned. Signing a free agent comes in a close second but a trade is the only move a GM can make that requires the team to give up something more than money and a roster spot. Trades also might be the hardest thing to evaluate because there are so many more pieces to the puzzle than in other kinds of transactions. If you draft a guy and he makes an impact at the major league level it was probably a good draft pick. If you sign a free agent you can compare his production and salary to the average cost of production in the big leagues.

It’s tempting to judge trades on simply which team came out with more total production from the players they acquired. But that only tells you part of the story. Other key factors are what the goal of the trade was and whether that goal was accomplished. From the outside, deciphering the goal may not always be a completely flawless process, but we can make educated guesses. To that end, when a player makes his contributions can be as or more important than what his contributions total. This is especially true when prospects are involved. In such cases, one team is always trading current production that can’t help them for potential future production.

For example, the Royals unequivocally won the Ben Zobrist trade in 2015. The team was steamrolling the competition on its way to the post-season. They wanted him to improve their odds of winning once they got there. Zobrist did exactly that. Even if Sean Manaea turns into the second coming of Randy Johnson it won’t matter; he couldn’t do that for them in 2015 and that’s when they needed the help. The Royals’ needed production right then and they traded future production to get it. They had a goal that made sense and they accomplished that goal.

Similarly, they won the Johnny Cueto trade. This would be true even if Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb, and Cody Reed had all turned out to be viable big league pitchers. The Royals had a goal and they accomplished that goal by trading the future production for current production.

They even won the Jeremy Guthrie trade. When they sent Jonathan Sanchez to the Rockies they could hardly lose that trade; he was performing so poorly that simply cutting him would have been productive for the team. Getting anything for a player who otherwise deserved to be cut - even if that something was another player performing almost as poorly - had to be a win. The worst that could happen was that Guthrie would continue pitching poorly for a team that could absorb the losses and then get cut. The best that could happen was that he could become a mediocre, back-end starter that could chew up innings to help keep the younger guys from getting over-exposed or over-used.

They also “won” the Joakim Soria, Kelvin Herrera, and Jake Diekman trades. They probably didn’t win at least the first two of those trades as well as they could have under other circumstances, but they were all better than nothing. Those players were only under contract for years the Royals simply were not going to be able to benefit from their production. Trading away that then-current talent which could not help the current rosters in any meaningful way and getting potential future production was the smart move.

This phenomenon is one of the things that makes the James Shields/Wil Myers/Wade Davis trade so difficult to analyze. Had the Royals made it to the playoffs in 2013 it would have been easy to say the team had accomplished their goal. By 2014, however, some of that “future production” that they had given up was blossoming for the Rays. Could the Royals have contended in 2014 and 2015 without the trade? Maybe. Jake Odorizzi and Wil Myers were pretty valuable players in their own right by then and they were much cheaper. It’s possible the Royals could have filled their remaining gaps and even competed for longer with those two on rookie deals. But it’s also possible that without what Shields offered the 2013 team that the rest of the team doesn’t progress in the same way to compete in 2014. Or that Myers and Odorizzi would have developed differently or not at all had they remained in the Royals’ farm system.

And so we come to the Wade Davis-Jorge Soler trade. Did the Royals make a good trade? The answer is no, not really. So it was a bad trade? Also no. The interesting thing about this deal is that evaluating it requires evaluating circumstances that are entirely independent of what Wade Davis did for the Cubs in 2017 or what Jorge Soler has done for the Royals.

Finishing at exactly .500 in 2016 meant that it could have made sense for the Royals to go in either direction; they could attempt to bolster the roster a bit more and compete again in 2017 or they could choose to sell off all of their valuable one-year assets and try to be ready to compete again in 2019. Standing pat, however, seemed likely to prove disastrous. And yet, excepting the aforementioned trade of Wade Davis for Jorge Soler, that’s pretty much what they did. Worse, that trade actually made what had been a mediocre team slightly worse. But they didn’t follow it up by trading off any other pieces.

In trading Davis, they made their chances of competing in 2017 worse but failed to get full value for their suddenly-less-competitive team in a way that would have completely justified the decision by potentially bringing the next competitive season to Kansas City sooner. Had the Royals traded off Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer during the same off-season the Davis trade would be another of those “wins” that you get for trading production you can’t benefit from for any kind of potential future production. By refusing to trade any of those guys the Royals ended up trading production that couldn’t help them in 2017 for production that still can’t and probably won’t help them for the lack of talent surrounding it. Talent they could have acquired by trading those other guys.

So in trying to evaluate the Wade Davis-for-Jorge Soler trade we find that it is inconsequential but it does highlight how terrible the process around that trade was. And once you understand it in that context, you can see that while the trade, taken in a vacuum, is almost entirely value-neutral the trade, taken in context, is probably a bad one. But this is largely because when you don’t have a coherent plan every move you make is inherently bad.

There’s one final thing to remember about trades, however: you can’t really begin to evaluate many of them until they’re well and truly completed. At the end of 2013, the James Shields trade looked like a bad one. He and Davis weren’t enough on their own to get the Royals over the hump into the playoffs. The goal had not yet been achieved. But by the end of 2014 both men were still there, still producing, and a large part of how Kansas City went to Game Seven of the World Series. The Wade Davis-Jorge Soler trade is bad right now because of all the things outlined above. But, after all, Wade Davis wasn’t enough to help the 2017 team reach the playoffs all on his own. So, even if the trade could be evaluated as a “loss” right now, if Jorge Soler is still in Kansas City and still producing at a high level when the next Royals team makes the playoffs, as unlikely as that seems, the trade will have proven to be a net positive for Kansas City.