Sunday, November 25, 2007

Sucking the Joy Out of a Santana Trade

This Santana thing is loads of fun, isn’t it?

The speculation, I mean. After all, that’s what we like to do in the offseason. And that’s especially true for us saberbloggers and rotogeeks, who are only too happy to show off our knowledge of minor leaguers and sleeper candidates. But the real appeal is that it fires up the imagination, both for the fans lusting for that shining star and for the fan base looking for that deal that rebuilds a title shot.

But it’s not likely to stay fun, not if you’re a Twins fan, and especially not for a Twins executive. A very thin and straight line is going to need to be walked due to the impact of the no-trade clause that Santana seemingly has until…when exactly? Most sources indicate that it’s until the end of his current contract, which is the worst possible news for the Twins. That no-trade clause significantly changes their leverage, and likely makes a lot of the speculated player packages out of reach.

The sad truth is that the Twins are in a tough position even if there wasn’t a no-trade clause. With Santana’s impending free agency, there are two ways this trade can go down. It can either be a straight trade, in which case the receiving team only gets Santana for one year. Or it can be a “sign and trade” which means the Twins and another team would make a trade contingent on the other team agreeing to a contract extension with Santana within 72 hours.

For both the Twins and a trading partner a straight trade makes very little sense. Nobody is likely to offer a monstrous rebuilding package for a single year of Santana. In fact, you could argue that Santana is worth more to the Twins next year, a contending team with a young pitching staff, than he is to any other team in the majors. There’s just very little common ground for a deal. That might change as the trade deadline approaches next season. Or it might not.

But from Santana’s standpoint, the sign and trade approach doesn’t make much sense. He is already very rich, and he’s going to get richer. A year from now he’ll be courted and have his choice of teams and incredible paydays. That will all probably happen whether he is traded or not. So from Santana’s standpoint, there is only one reason to sign a new deal – he’ll get his big contract a year earlier.

That’s not a totally trivial incentive for a player, and one might think it’s even more tempting for a pitcher, because they tend to be more fragile than position players. But one doesn’t become a major league ballplayer without being comfortable with risk. Virtually nothing is guaranteed for most of these guys for the first half dozen year of their professional career. Don’t expect them to get cold feet as they approach their big payday. Especially when they already have millions in the bank.

Believe it or not, that’s not the bad news. But we’re getting closer.

Because even if Santana is willing to sign with a specific team a year early, the moment that realization hits, Santana’s allegiances change. If he chooses the team he wishes to sign with, he can just refuse to sign with any other team. The Twins will be in a position of either accepting his choices for a sign and trade deal, or another team’s straight trade deal. It’s an uneven playing field.

And now we get to the bad news.

Because the Twins can’t even do that. They can’t get the minimum return they might receive if they trade Santana to a different team. They can’t send him somewhere at the trade deadline to a team desperate for an ace. Because of the no-trade clause they can’t do any of that without Santana’s approval, and once he settles on the team he wants, there is no point in granting that approval. The Twins will be in an “or-else” position with Santana’s chosen trading partner. And the only incentive the other team has for making the deal early is they’ll have Santana for some portion of next year.

So if you’re a team that wants Santana, what should your strategy be? Put together a list of killer talent to offer the Twins? Hell, no. The winning strategy is to lobby Santana without actually getting charged with MLB’s tampering charges. You can bet that some players from the Red Sox, Dodgers, Mets and Yankees are offering to take Johan on some vacations this winter.

And the Twins strategy? It sounds like they’re doing it:
Open negotiations and as part of those negotiations, get a counter-proposal. They desperately needed to have some idea of what Santana and his agent have in mind for money and what else he might be looking for. Now they need find a couple of teams that can fulfill those wishes and play them off against each other. In theory, if the Twins can find a team that satisfies Santana’s wishes, they at least have a decent chance that a deal will get done.

Keep this on the QT. The larger the media circus that surrounds this, the harder it will be to be to enforce the non-tampering rules, and that is the single most important strategy the Twins have. If Santana, who shouldn’t be talking to anyone, chooses a single team, the battle is lost.

Understand that the Twins have a no-trade clause, too. This is important in two ways. First, they don’t need to trade this guy, which theoretically puts them on even ground with Santana. If they don't make a deal, Santana will need to stay healthy and put up huge numbers for another year. There’s some leverage in that.

But it's equally important when talking to other teams. As they quietly approach potential trading partners, the Twins need to make it VERY clearn that if they even get a whiff that the other team is dealing with Santana directly, they're out. After all, the Twins have incentives to keep Santana too, like a chance at winning in 2008 and the draft picks that will come back as compensation if he walks as a free agent.

This is a tough situation for the Twins. It requires some creativity, persuasion and serious poker skills. And for Twins fans, it’s going to require some patience, trust and probably lower expectations. Because it’s not likely to turn out the way we’ve pictured so far. And if the tightrope act falters, it has the potential to be a full-blown disaster.

So, are you still having fun?


Anonymous said...

Good points, but I'm not sure things are quite that dire. One thing the Twins could try to do is to pay Johan what he wants but in return strike a deal without a no-trade clause. A long term but expensive contract would be easier to trade later if that needed to be done. This might be OK with Johan if the Twins then traded some young arms for some young bats.

Anonymous said...

I think this is bad. I don't think we wants to stay. I think he is still miffed when he was held back earlier in his career from starting and I also think he is mad from last years inactivity at the trading deadline. He wants to win now.

It makes no sense for Santana to sign with the Twins. If I was him I would gamble on staying healthy and wait for a very nice payday.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the Twins should sign Santana to his extension - limit the no-trade clause - then continue to seek a trade. The market price is only going up, and the Twins seem to have had a pattern of waiting it out, only to discover (!) that by waiting, the free-agent market has outpaced their payroll. There would seem to be much less downside to signing him - the worst case is that they would end up having Santana on their staff, albeit at a high price. The obvious advantage is that other bidders have a known commodity, eliminating the uncertainty of trying to sign him later.

Anonymous said...

Another point - it's not in Santana's interest right now to lock in on a team eh wants to go to. He'd be better off financially by designating a handful of teams he'd be willing to join, and let the bidding go from there.

Anonymous said...

While the 1st four comments strike me as very rational, I don't think they fit in the world we're in:

First, IMO there's no way Johan signs a contract with the Twins without including a "no trade" clause. At his level, a "no trade" of some sort is pretty much non-negotiable.

Second, the Twins gave him a broad "no trade" in his current contract. Ask yourself - if you were in his shoes and, in negotiating your new contract, your employer asked for it back, wouldn't you be at least a bit suspicious? Oh, and if you were willing to entertain it .... how much more would you want to compensate for giving up the no-trade?

Third, as things presently stand, Johan has the right to decide where he's going to play for the rest of his career - it's in his current contract, and you darn well know he's going to have a similar clause in the free agent contract he signs next fall. Why (other than a lot more $$$$) would he give that up?

Fourth, I don't see any GM (anywhere) being willing to pay the kind of additional $$$$ it would require to get a no-trade completely out of a contract.

I mean, agree to get rid of the 'no-trade' and you're agreeing you could be sent to Pittsburgh.

That'd have to cost you.

Anonymous said...

If the sides want to get creative, there are always ways to make a deal work. Maybe escalator bonus clauses that pay more $ in the event of a trade. But in general, bd is right... not likely that Santana is going to sign a contract that doesn't include significant restrictions, if not prohibitions, on a subsequent trade.

That said, I think given Santana's numbers this past year, he does have significant incentive to get his extension now and not wait a year. Sure, if he has a great year, he could get more money as a FA next off season. But the downside risk of having a poor year is likely to be greater than whatever additional money he could make by waiting (ask Zito what he thinks his value would have been if he had waited one year to get his deal done).

In any event, I'm not going to whine about any situation where the worst case scenario has Johan Santana pitching for my team for one more year. IF the Twins can't get good value for his services now, I can live with that.

Anonymous said...

It's to Santana's best interest to pick the 4-6 teams that can afford to pay him as potential future employers because those 4-6 teams are teams committed to spending to win... and that's what Santana wants in a future employer.

It's to his advantage with $120 plus on the table if the Twins get an offer that they are willing to work with to get the deal done this year and the team making such an offer, they think they'll be getting a $30 million dollar discount and an additional year of service on the front end of the deal instead of the back end out of the best pitcher in baseball.

Although there is a lot of song and dance left, there is a very large incentive to get the deal done this off season.

I can't imagine putting $100 plus million dollars at risk to try to gain another $20-50 when you are going to be playing for a club your probably going to be happy with in the end. Santana and his agent wants the deal done now.

If you wait until July, Santana has earned the right to go to free agency, and if his no-trade clause is still in place I don't see how the Twins can get value relative to a deal that they could get this off season... let alone whether they can get a trade done at all.

The Twins will either make a move this off season or let him walk.

Anonymous said...

santana would be dumb not to take his money now. he could tear his left arm off in an accident or the market could turn sour between now and the next chance at a big payday. i think you all under estimate his motivation to get a deal now. a bird in the hand type thing. that gives the twins more leverage than you think.