How MLB Trades Play Out Behind The Scenes

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Winslow Townson USA TODAY Sports

For the past month, 30 general managers have been ready to rock-and-roll, which is essentially GM speak for making a deal.

However, the rock part is easy. Just place a call or text your competing general manager with an idea and hope it’s immediately accepted.

Not quite because if it was that easy, trades would be made more frequently earlier in July instead of the frenzy that is the non-waiver trade deadline. Often, deals made on deadline day are some variation of ideas that have been floated via phone or text message in the weeks leading to the big day.

Texting didn’t exist 25 years ago and neither did the smartphone but now those are the best friends of any general manager seeking to make a deal that either improves a contending team or reloads a losing team’s farm system.

It’s best described as action that never stops and a process that can interrupt family dinners, family movie nights, or anything else a GM might do if there is any spare time.

“A lot of conversations, a lot of ideas,” Brian Cashman said last week in describing the process. “It seems like the new technique is texting. Some of it’s not as much by phone as it used to be but you just throw out a lot of ideas. First you find out what teams are looking to do, how they’re trying to accomplish it and then you try to see if you match up in any shape or form. It’s not easy.

“Man, probably five, six or seven years ago that texting started. I think it’s easier to insult somebody via text than it is to on the phone.”

Name your adjective and that’s how the process of getting something done is. It’s frustrating, mind-numbing, confounding, occasionally insulting. And perhaps the more complicated thing is when these rumors become public consumption with the constant news cycle of trade rumors.

Most times the process will work out, and if the desired trade works out, the anguish is worth it. If the trade doesn’t, you simply move and try to salvage the situation.

The process also moves slow because of how much information exists. There’s still advanced scouting but there’s also video, analytics, and other components to finding the right trade.

And when the constant back-and-forth of negotiations reaches its boiling point, a good support staff is always needed for the harried general manager.

“Sometimes my staff will prop me up to get me back, ‘you got to throw this in’ and I’m like ‘I’m tired of asking about this guy’ and they’ll motivate me to get back in the game,” Cashman said. “But most of the time it’s a frustrating process that if you’re trying to acquire something that you think can really help you or you even think it’s fair deal, most of the time the other side doesn’t. I jokingly say in the office all the time that if we think this makes sense I guarantee the other team doesn’t.”

So far Cashman has swung seven in-season trades of varying degrees and went into the deadline seeking more help.

In his recent larger transactions Cashman acquired Chase Headley from San Diego dealing with interim GMs Omar Minaya and A.J. Hinch. In his first larger deal, he acquired Brandon McCarthy from Arizona while engaging with Kevin Towers, who also then sent him Martin Prado for power-hitting prospect Pete O’Brien.

The deals for Headley and McCarthy could have been finished earlier. Cashman said he had been trying to obtain Headley for about three weeks and was working on getting McCarthy for what felt like a month and a half.

“You have to stay engaged and you have to be willing to throw out the ideas,” Cashman said.  “On some guys I’ve talked (to other GMs) a lot. In most cases, you’re getting nowhere, you’re spinning your wheels but you have to be willing to keep going back and knocking on the door.

It’s not easy because proposals often begin with high asking prices and in the case of acquiring Headley another team entering the mix, especially a divisional opponent might have influenced the move.

On July 1, reports said the Yankees were scouting Headley but weren’t actively pursuing him. At that time, their third base options was Kelly Johnson and Yangervis Solarte. Then five days later, it was reported that the Padres and Blue Jays were discussing a deal for Headley.

So while reports are surfacing about possibilities, Cashman is working feverishly to make those a reality.

“It feels like it’s getting harder,” Cashman said. “The deals are getting tougher to make. It’s harder to find common ground. It’s not as easy to match up. One of the reasons probably is I think the competitive balance is really much stronger than it’s ever been. So more teams being in it, they’re less likely to take away from their major league club. It’s harder to match up.”

Eventually Cashman found a common ground and wound up not having to deal any of the chips he regards as “high-end” by sending San Diego Rafael DePaula and Solarte and by sending Arizona Vidal Nuno. By the time deadline day arrived, Cashman spent virtually all of it using his phone to text and place phone calls that ultimately resulted in the additions of Drew and Prado

“It depends on the person that you’re dealing with,” Cashman said. “Some people seem to like the vehicles of conversations via text than being in person. At some point you have to be on the phone. I like the phone better than the text.”

Occasionally trades just happen really quickly, though Cashman noted that’s usually in the last hours of the July 31 deadline. Basically it’s one text message asking if he would do something and one text message saying yes or no as a response, which is how Cashman recalled getting third baseman Casey McGehee from Pittsburgh two years ago and how the Jose ContrerasEsteban Loaiza trade happened 10 years ago.

Cashman has made a deal within 10 days of the trade deadline in three straight seasons, acquiring Alfonso Soriano on July 26, 2013 and Ichiro Suzuki on July 23, 2012. He has made deals on July 30 or July 31 on 16 different occasions, but some of the noteworthy deals happen well before the frenzy of July 31, such as when David Justice was obtained June 29, 2000 or when the deals for Alex Rodriguez and Roger Clemens were finalized right before spring training.

Either way, the process remains the same.

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Larry Fleisher
Larry Fleisher has covered sports in various capacities for nearly 15 years. He is a writer/editor for the Sports Xchange and has also worked for SportsTicker and Metro New York newspaper. Larry also has worked on many NBA broadcasts doing stats, on several TV shows as a background actor. He is a member of the Pro Basketball Writers Association and the Internet Baseball Writers Association.