When it comes to evaluating a trade years in retrospect, there are two essential components to evalute–process and results.
Sometimes, a trade can be good in terms of process–the underlying logic behind it is sensible–even if the trade works out poorly. Take, for a famous example, the 1987 trade in which the Detroit Tigers traded pitching prospect John Smoltz to the Atlanta Braves for veteran rental Doyle Alexander. In retrospect, the Tigers would surely rather have the Hall of Famer, but in the moment it made sense–they were chasing the Toronto Blue Jays for an AL East title and wanted to improve their chances for 1987. And in the short term, it worked–the same could be said about when the Braves dealt Adam Wainwright to the St. Louis Cardinals. It made sense in the moment for the veteran Braves to trade unproven commodities for star-level outfielders.
In general, I think “process over results” is used as a cop-out to excuse poor decisions by front offices. It is the job of front offices to know better. But I have an easier time rationalizing moves that are logical based on what was known at the time. The St. Louis Cardinals made a few bad results, good (or at least excusable) process trades last year that look less than awesome in retrospect, but I understand their thought process. Luke Voit almost immediately became a big bat for the New York Yankees, but the 27 year-old minor league first baseman was blocked from any meaningful MLB time. Oscar Mercado was an average-hitting AAA outfielder and trading him to the Cleveland Indians freed up a spot on the 40-man roster. The disappointment was understandable, but largely retrospective.
The Tommy Pham trade flat out sucks. It sucked on July 31, 2018, and it sucks now.
I hate this trade like Roger Ebert hated North. It was a trade justified locally on false pretenses–the notion that the team had to trade Tommy Pham so that Harrison Bader could play center field, despite the fact that they traded him to the Tampa Bay Rays, who had an even better defensive center fielder and thus immediately put Tommy Pham in left field. The Cardinals, who didn’t sell off expiring contract (and documented clubhouse miscreant) Bud Norris at the deadline, still saw it fit to sell low on a player making the league minimum who had three more years of salary arbitration left before he was scheduled to reach free agency. And at the end of the season, the Cardinals were a couple bounces away from making the postseason, a couple bounces that could have easily been cured by having an additional two months of an outfielder who posted a 191 wRC+. And this wasn’t even for a major prospect (though they perhaps could’ve gotten something resembling one had they traded Pham after his MVP-caliber 2017 instead of trading him at the nadir of his value)–the Cardinals did it for Genesis Cabrera, a AA pitcher with ERA and FIPs in the fours (this season, he’s been mostly a AAA pitcher with ERA/FIP in the fives), streaky semi-prospect outfielder Justin Williams, and non-prospect reliever Roel Ramirez. This all seemed obvious to me and to most fans at the time of the trade, and it has become even more excruciating to consider in retrospect.
Popular perception is that in the 2010s, baseball front offices are too smart to whiff on trades. Most trades, it is presumed, are basically even, and that trades are merely teams exchanging extraneous parts for necessary ones. But there have still been quite a few examples of one-sided swindles. It’s easy to be impulsively angry about the Tommy Pham trade, but it’s more fair to look at it in comparison with similar, non-Cardinals trades, to determine once and for all if the Tommy Pham trade is actually the worst trade in modern baseball history or merely a very bad one that I perhaps exaggerate because of emotional attachment. Here are some of the most maligned trades this decade.
- 2010: In a three-team trade which involved the Cardinals more or less breaking even–they traded a slightly better but more easily replaceable player in outfielder Ryan Ludwick and received veteran starting pitcher Jake Westbrook–it was the San Diego Padres, who acquired Ludwick, who unequivocally lost the trade, as they were forced to send future two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber to the Cleveland Indians. Ludwick meandered down the stretch for the Padres, who finished 90-72 but missed the postseason, while Kluber would rank 2nd in San Diego Padres history by Wins Above Replacement (once you get past #1, the list is…something). The results were obviously terrible, but I do understand what the Padres were thinking. Kluber was not an especially esteemed prospect, and Ludwick appeared to be a relatively significant improvement over Scott Hairston as a corner outfielder for a team just trying to make it to the postseason.
- 2010: Following the 2010 season, the Milwaukee Brewers decided they were ready to make a move and contend, and lacking a staff ace, they acquired one of the game’s best in Kansas City Royals starter Zack Greinke. Greinke was close enough to peak form that it wouldn’t be reasonable to be mad at him, but what the Brewers gave up, headlined by center fielder Lorenzo Cain (additionally, Alcides Escobar, Jake Odorizzi, and Jeremy Jeffress), formed the basis of the mid-2010s Royals team that won consecutive pennants and a World Series (the Brewers never reached the World Series during the Greinke years). But to me, this trade benefited the Royals far more than it hurt the Brewers. Lorenzo Cain had some MVP-like seasons in Kansas City, but he probably isn’t enough to put those Brewers teams into the playoffs. The process for the Brewers was completely defensible, and even the results are fine enough.
- 2012: Not long after R.A. Dickey won the NL Cy Young Award, the New York Mets were quick to sell high on the veteran knuckleballer, trading him to the Toronto Blue Jays for prospects. The most notable of the prospects at the time was Travis d’Arnaud, a catcher who had some very good, if injury-plagued, seasons for the Mets, but the centerpiece became Noah Syndergaard, a low top-100 prospect who eventually became, when healthy, a Cy Young-caliber pitcher for the Mets. Dickey predictably regressed to innings-eating mediocrity and the 2015 Blue Jays team, the franchise’s best since their World Series wins, certainly would’ve preferred Noah Syndergaard. While the trade didn’t backfire for Toronto in quite the expected manner, backfiring in general was always on the horizon. I’m agnostic on comparing this to the Pham trade for now–how Genesis Cabrera and company materialize will likely impact my overall view.
- 2013: The 2016 Chicago Cubs were built on the foundation of several trades for seemingly marginal players, such as Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Hendricks, but the trade which sent 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta to Chicago stands out among the pack. The Cubs sent rental starter Scott Feldman and hyper-marginal catcher Steve Clevenger to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for not only Arrieta, but effective reliever Pedro Strop. The trade turned out to be a disaster for the Orioles in the long term, but at the time, this was a team that sat in a Wild Card position with a shot at an AL East title and, seemingly, a shot at bolstering their rotation.
- 2014: The 2014 Oakland Athletics are one of the more pronounced recent examples of a team going all-in, and one of the more pronounced cautionary tales against it. In an immediately maligned move, the Athletics, who led the AL West by 3 1/2 games, bolstered its starting rotation by adding Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Cubs in exchange for pitcher Dan Straily and, more infamously, shortstop Addison Russell, already a top-ten MLB prospect. While the trade has aged poorly for Oakland, it hasn’t been quite the disaster it seemed in the moment. After the 2014 run busted for the Athletics, the team flipped Jeff Samardzija for a package which included Marcus Semien, a comparable (and less problematic) shortstop to Russell, though the Cubs benefited from Straily in that he was part of the trade which sent Dexter Fowler to Chicago.
- 2014: In most retrospectively-lopsided trades, the team getting prospects won. The reason is simple–veterans make more money and don’t generally come with several years of club control associated with them and thus their upside isn’t as high. But in the case of the trade which sent Josh Donaldson to the Toronto Blue Jays, the return that the Oakland Athletics received was not nearly high enough to justify parting with an MVP third baseman. Oakland received Brett Lawrie (a dime store at best version of Donaldson), nonfactor pitcher Sean Nolin, and Kendall Graveman, who later became a slightly below-average starter. The jury is still out on second base prospect Franklin Barreto, but it seems very unlikely he develops into a Donaldson-like talent. Oakland eventually developed a superstar third baseman in Matt Chapman, but they missed out on 2 1/2 years of Josh Donaldson prior to his arrival. The trade was criticized in the moment but once Donaldson took another step forward and Lawrie failed to materialize, it has gone down as even more lopsided.
- 2014: On back-to-back days, San Diego Padres general manager A.J. Preller made two of the most lopsided trades in modern baseball history as part of an ill-fated attempt to push the Padres to the postseason, all while creating a roster that was generally predicted to finish in third place (they ended up finishing in fourth). First, the Padres traded pitching prospects Joe Wieland and Zach Eflin, along with starting catcher Yasmani Grandal, to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Tim Federowicz and outfielder Matt Kemp, widely considered well past his prime. Kemp was a big name but he also became a salary albatross for the Dodgers (though the Dodgers also sent $32 million to San Diego, so from a Padres perspective, the additional salary wasn’t too harmful). What crushed the Padres, however, was that while Matt Kemp continued his defensive slide while taking a significant step back at the plate, Yasmani Grandal emerged as one of the game’s best catcher for the Dodgers. While A.J. Preller fancied himself a 3D-chess modern GM, he exhibited absolutely no foresight for how much more Grandal would be valued in the catcher framing era of defensive metrics. The only silver lining for the Padres is that Grandal probably wasn’t going to make the difference for the team making the playoffs or not, which is another way of saying that A.J. Preller’s other terrible decisions helped to cover for this specific terrible decision.
- 2014: One day later, A.J. Preller was back at it. The immediate returns and departures of the trade did not work out particularly well–as part of a three-team deal, the San Diego Padres lost a handful of productive players, such as Joe Ross and Jake Bauers, and in return received Wil Myers, a once-top prospect who has become a middling MLB regular who will be owed $22.5 million per year for the next three seasons. Already not a great trade, but it didn’t venture into notably bad territory until the Padres were forced to send another player to the Washington Nationals the next June–shortstop Trea Turner. Turner has become easily the best player exchanged, combining above-average offense and terrific speed. While the Padres are probably very content with their current shortstop situation, the team could’ve done better than Wil Myers’s massive contract, and the connected process, described above, doesn’t make it look any better.
- 2015: News broke that the Atlanta Braves traded starting pitcher Shelby Miller to the Arizona Diamondbacks for outfielder Ender Inciarte, and it immediately felt like a savvy move for the Braves. Shelby Miller felt like a strong sell-high candidate and Inciarte had already established himself as one of the game’s best defensive outfielders. And then came the news that the Braves had acquired top-100 pitching prospect Aaron Blair. And then the true bombshell: Arizona had thrown Dansby Swanson, the incumbent #1 overall pick, into the trade. And the Braves have continued to make out like bandits–Shelby Miller immediately suffered a dramatic drop in performance, while Inciarte has been a Gold Glove-winning center fielder and Swanson, originally a glove-first shortstop, has shown dramatic improvement at the plate this season. That Swanson hasn’t quite become a star probably limits Atlanta’s upside on the trade, but it’s impossible to make a case that Arizona couldn’t have done better.
- 2016: The San Diego Padres, you have surely noticed, were a calamitous mess for the first half of the 2010s. But eventually, A.J. Preller cut his losses and in 2016, he traded James Shields to the Chicago White Sox. Shields, in the second year of a four-year, $75 million contract that already felt like a bit of an overpay. At the time of the trade, the pitching-starved White Sox were only two games behind first place, so overpaying slightly for a starting pitcher wasn’t absurd, but as it turns out, the Padres didn’t just give away James Shields. So the White Sox sent Fernando Tatis Jr. to San Diego. Admittedly, Tatis Jr. wasn’t a super-prospect yet, but Tatis is one of the most valuable commodities in baseball and James Shields is no longer a professional baseball player. The White Sox process can be rationalized but this will nevertheless go down as one of the most hilarious baseball trades of its time.
- 2018: When the Miami Marlins traded Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna in late 2017, most fans were underwhelmed by the return, but when they sent Christian Yelich to the Milwaukee Brewers, the return was considered fair. The team acquired a major prospect in outfielder Lewis Brinson, as well as intriguing minor leaguers Monte Harrison, Isan Diaz, and Jordan Yamamoto. Unfortunately for the Marlins, Lewis Brinson has been a disappointment so far, and while the other three prospects have been fine relative to expectations, Christian Yelich went from a good outfielder to a superstar. That said, I fully understand the Marlins’ process. They were going to be bad with or without Yelich. But if they could do it all over again, they would surely prefer to wait a year and sell even higher on Yelich.
- 2018: On July 31, 2018, the Tampa Bay Rays traded for Tommy Pham, but this was probably not their best trade of the day. On that day, they sent Chris Archer, long a subject of trade rumors, to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for two MLB prospects, Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows, as well as a player to be named later. The Pirates acquired Archer as a long-term piece, not a stretch rental, but Archer has been wildly disappointing, pitching at sub-Replacement Level in 2019. Meanwhile, the younger, cost-controlled Glasnow has been electric when he has been able to pitch for the Rays, while Meadows has been an offensive centerpiece for a Rays team hoping to contend for a postseason berth in 2019. Meanwhile, the player to be namd later, Shane Baz, was Pittsburgh’s #3 prospect, and the barely-twenty year-old has pitched well in A-ball for the Rays. The process was questionable for the Pirates, who were more than one pitcher away from sincere contention, but the speed at which Archer declined could not have been reasonably forseen.
Looking at these other bad trades gives me some hope that, by comparison, the Cardinals didn’t get swindled that badly. Tommy Pham, after all, is 31–not old, but not a player anyone expects to take another step forward, and the prospects for whom he was acquired could still materialize. But in terms of process behind the trades, I still can’t make sense of this one. It still comes across as a move that, tangibly, doesn’t make sense, and if Pham was traded for personnel-related reasons, I question why this doesn’t seem to be a problem for the Rays, an organization for whom Pham seems to occasionally have semi-open contempt. The Tommy Pham trade isn’t what caused this mediocre Cardinals season, at least not by and large, but it does seem to be a metaphor for what did cause it.