Trade activity drives frenzied MLB off-season

Jason Heyward, Josh Donaldson and Matt Kemp were among the many star players dealt during the 2014-15 off-season. Athletics GM Billy Beane, who traded Donaldson, and Padres GM A.J. Preller, who acquired Kemp, were among the busiest executives of the winter (AP).

The odds were seemingly stacked against a truly memorable baseball off-season three months ago.

The free agent class looked pretty pedestrian beyond a few elite arms, and there was no elite international star like Masahiro Tanaka or Yu Darvish. It didn’t have the makings of a crazy winter.

But the off-season was anything but quiet thanks to a trade market that more than made up for a relatively ordinary free agent class. Jason Heyward, Jeff Samardzija, Justin Upton, Ben Zobrist, Josh Donaldson and Matt Kemp were among the dozens of players to change teams this off-season.

Credit the San Diego Padres and Oakland Athletics for driving much of the activity. In his first winter on the job, GM A.J. Preller re-made the Padres with a flurry of deals that saw San Diego land a whole new outfield composed of Kemp, Upton and Wil Myers. Not to be out-done, Athletics GM Billy Beane agreed to deals involving stars such as Donaldson, Zobrist and Samardzija. In the process he acquired a whole new infield.

(In retrospect, the Derek Norris trade seems more inevitable than surprising given how many deals Beane and Preller made.)

But the off-season trade market wasn’t just a product of two eager-to-deal GMs. The market for players with one year of team control remaining was incredibly busy league-wide, with 20 notable players from next winter’s free agent class getting traded.

Player Former Team Current Team Years of Control Left
Jason Heyward Braves Cardinals 1
Mat Latos Reds Marlins 1
Rick Porcello Tigers Red Sox 1
Howie Kendrick Angels Dodgers 1
Yovani Gallardo Brewers Rangers 1
Jeff Samardzija Athletics White Sox 1
Yoenis Cespedes Red Sox Tigers 1
Justin Upton Braves Padres 1
Tyler Clippard Nationals Athletics 1
Ben Zobrist Rays Athletics 1
Dan Haren Dodgers Marlins 1
Jimmy Rollins Phillies Dodgers 1
John Jaso Athletics Rays 1
Matt Joyce Rays Angels 1
Casey McGehee Marlins Giants 1
Marlon Byrd Phillies Reds 1 (+ vesting/club option)
J.A. Happ Blue Jays Mariners 1
Adam Lind Blue Jays Brewers 1
Marco Estrada Brewers Blue Jays 1
Dexter Fowler Astros Cubs 1

Why all the activity?

There’s no single answer, but the advent of the second wild card berth figures in. Established players are in high demand, since executives around baseball are choosing win-now mode over long rebuilds. Now that the playoffs are more attainable than ever, more teams have use for players with present value. The Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Miami Marlins and Padres each lost 85 or more games in 2014, but that didn’t stop them from targeting players one year away from free agency.

Compensation picks figure in, too. Teams that want to get draft picks for 2015-16 free agents must act before the season begins, since players dealt mid-season can’t receive qualifying offers. Teams that make trades now also get a shot at extending the players before the season; it’s tougher to try negotiating a long-term deal in the heat of a pennant race after a mid-season move. As a result, it can make sense to trade players one year before free agency as opposed to mid-season.

And it’s probably not a coincidence that Heyward, Upton and Yoenis Cespedes were all traded at a time that free agency offered few impact outfielders. When the free agent class is light at certain positions, those areas become highly valued on the trade market.

That said, the trade market wasn’t limited to next year’s free agent class.

Player Former Team Current Team Years of Control Left
Michael Saunders Mariners Blue Jays 2
Jeremy Hellickson Rays Diamondbacks 2
Brandon Moss Athletics Indians 2
Luis Valbuena Cubs Astros 2
Ike Davis Pirates Athletics 2
Yunel Escobar Rays, Athletics Nationals 2 (+ club option)
Seth Smith Padres Mariners 2 (+ club option)
Nathan Eovaldi Marlins Yankees 3
Miguel Montero Diamondbacks Cubs 3
Alfredo Simon Reds Tigers 3
Brett Lawrie Blue Jays Athletics 3
Wade Miley Diamondbacks Red Sox 3 (at time of deal)
Josh Donaldson Athletics Blue Jays 4
Shelby Miller Cardinals Braves 4
Dee Gordon Dodgers Marlins 4
Yasmani Grandal Padres Dodgers 4
Will Middlebrooks Red Sox Padres 4
Derek Norris Athletics Padres 4
Evan Gattis Braves Astros 4
Wil Myers Rays Padres 5
Matt Kemp Dodgers Padres 5
Didi Gregorius Diamondbacks Yankees 5
Shane Greene Yankees Tigers 6
Andrew Heaney Marlins, Dodgers Angels 6
Marcus Semien White Sox Athletics 6
Jesse Hahn Padres Athletics 6

Everyone from borderline non-tender candidates to long-term building blocks got traded — and this list would be much longer if all bench players, relievers and prospects were included.

As with the first group of players, the trade market for controllable players compensated where the free agent market lacked. Demand for Dee Gordon and Yunel Escobar may have spiked thanks a free agent market that was light on true shortstops; Miguel Montero was dealt after the Cubs missed out on the lone impact free agent catcher, Russell Martin. It’s hard to see those deals taking place if alternatives are freely available on the open market (and maybe Cole Hamels would have been traded if teams seeking aces hadn’t had the option of signing Max Scherzer, Jon Lester or James Shields).

On paper, next year’s free agent class looks deep, particularly in the starting pitching department. Not only will the likes of Mat Latos, Rick Porcello and Samardzija hit free agency, they may be joined by Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, David Price and Zack Greinke, to name just a few. That kind of star-studded class promises to make next off-season interesting. But even if those headliners sign extensions and the open market starts to thin out, plenty of intrigue will exist.

If the 2014-15 off-season showed us anything, it’s that the trade market can more than make up for the shortcomings of a given free agent class.

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