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Trades don’t need to have winners and losers

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Everyone can win sometimes

Kansas City Royals pitchers James Shields, center, and Wade Davis, right, speak to reporters during introductory news conference at Kauffman Stadium with Royals general manager Dayton Moore, at left, Wednesday, December 12, 2012, in Kansas City, Missouri.
Kansas City Royals pitchers James Shields, center, and Wade Davis, right, speak to reporters during introductory news conference at Kauffman Stadium with Royals general manager Dayton Moore, at left, Wednesday, December 12, 2012, in Kansas City, Missouri.
David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

As the clock turned from January to February, the St. Louis Cardinals zigged when the rest of the National League Central was zagging: they went out and acquired a superstar by the name of Nolan Arenado from the Colorado Rockies.

There aren’t many players like Arenado out there. Since 2015, he has been worth about 5 Wins Above Replacement, per Fangraphs, every year. During that stretch, he’s hit about 25% better than league average, but that’s not all—Arenado combines that excellent bat elite defense at third base; Arenado has played eight years in the big leagues, and the next year he does not win a Gold Glove will be the first. He is a top-ten position player talent in the league.

And yet, Arenado wanted out of Colorado. He made that known. And the Rockies, intent on saving money and getting anything out of him, traded him for a parade of mediocre prospects. This being a Royals blog, I won’t go out of my way to try to explain who those people are, but it’s as if the Royals acquired a perennial All-Star for Brady McConnell, Jonathan Bowlan, Zach Haake, Lucius Fox, and Will Klein. It seems like a steal, and that’s because, well, it is, from the Cardinals’ perspective.

Cue, then, the people in the league who declared Colorado the losers of the trade. Tom Gatto at Sporting News wrote that the Rockies bungled the move, R.J. Anderson at CBS wrote that the Cardinals fleeced the Rockies, and Eric Longenhagen at Fangraphs basically wrote that the Rockies got a tray of vegetables back for their star.

The Rockies never should have found themselves in a position where they needed to trade one of the most exciting players in the game, of course. But Longenhagen makes a good point in his article that Colorado did not have any leverage in these negotiations.

It was never going to be enough for one of the more electrifying players in the world, but allow me to sing one part of the harmony panning the Rockies’ return for Nolan Arenado. As I was on the phone working on prospects lists in the days before the trade’s prospect details were finalized, casual conversation with scouts and front office folks indicated that both Arenado’s public request for a trade as well as Rockies ownership’s supposedly mediocre financial situation made it so that teams pursuing the third baseman were really leveraging Colorado into taking an underwhelming prospect package, knowing that the front office (which is different than ownership) would have no choice but to trade him, and soon.

As a result, this trade is more complicated than it seems at face value. Again: that the Rockies basically forced out a homegrown star amounts to a rather astounding level of incompetence. But did the Rockies lose the trade? I don’t really think so. See, the trade was immaterial: they had already lost when they got to the point where they were forced to trade Arenado.

Thankfully, Royals fans haven’t been in a position where the team has so utterly failed that they needed to trade a beloved player for pennies on the dollar. Sure, Zack Greinke wanted out after 2010, but the relationship hadn’t devolved to the point where they were forced to trade him. And when they did trade him, they got fair market value out of him, netting Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain, two starting position players on their 2014-2015 playoff squads. So, it seems that the Royals won the trade.

But did the Royals win the trade? The Milwaukee Brewers did pretty well for themselves. In 2011, the team made only their second playoff appearance since 1982, and were two wins away from the World Series at that. Then in 2012, they managed to trade Greinke for younger players, saving $5 million along the way. Jean Segura managed a 4-WAR season in 2013, more value than Greinke put up for the Dodgers that year.

...But, the group of prospects that the Brewers got back from the Angels was, more or less, a dud, and Segura struggled mightily with Milwaukee outside of that 2013 season. So did the Angels win the trade?

Trading is not a zero sum game. It is not the transfer of one player to another club. It is an exchange of talent from one team to another, and from one situation to another. In other words, there doesn’t need to be a winner and a loser for every trade, because there’s always a chance that two teams benefit from a trade (and a chance that both teams screw up, too).

Yes, one team can benefit more from a trade than the other team. But even in those situations, that doesn’t mean one team has to lose. Rather than focusing on which team “wins” a trade, there are other, more important things to talk about: whether each team offered fair value or, more importantly, whether the idea of a trade was a good one in the first place.

The Royals have been relatively quiet on the trade front for a while. Ever since the Wil Myers/James Shields/Wade Davis blockbuster, we haven’t seen many—or any, depending on how you feel about Matt Strahm—big trades involving fan favorites on multi-year deals. That’ll change, at some point. Will the Royals win that trade? Maybe. However, so can the other team. And that’s totally fine.