Thursday, February 7, 2008

Why the Twins got so little for Johan Santana

Say I call you up tonight and offer you a wonderful car--a loaded, new BMW that was once owned by Tom Hanks, your family's favorite movie star. And then I say that what I'm really offering you is the chance to buy that car from a dealer. Oh, and that I've already told your family that you're giving them that exact car for Christmas. And I told the dealer how much you all adore Tom Hanks. Think how much stuff you'd want to give me in return for the favor I've done you.

That's why the Twins got such a crappy package for Johan Santana.

On his podcast last week, Bill Simmons (this blog's eponymous Sports Guy) proposed that the Minnesota Twins' general manager had done so poorly in trading Johan Santana that he should be fired. This got me thinking about the kinds of value that were involved in the Santana trade, and my thoughts helped me understand how the Twins might have received so little in return for such a terrific player.

Every sports analyst I've heard is talking about the Santana trade as a gift to the Mets, a deal in which the Twins received 60 or 40 or even a very few pennies on the dollar. This view comes from what seems like common sense: the Twins traded one of baseball's best players and received nobody who appears likely to become anywhere close to as good as Santana. I accept that assessment of the quality of the players involved.

But this is the crucial fact of the trade: the Mets didn't exactly trade for Santana. They traded for a brief window of time in which they could negotiate a contract that would persuade Santana to waive his no-trade clause. The negotiations did not involve the competitive bidding of free agency, but the lack of competing bids arguably made the Mets' position weaker: they could not withdraw gracefully after being outbid, as they could after making an offer to a free agent. Instead, they faced a situation in which every observer I know of thought they absolutely had to sign Santana to consummate the deal and thereby avoid the insupportably embarrassing circumstance of appearing to steal Santana from the Twins and then give him back.

In other words, the trade gave Santana overwhelming strength in the negotiation, to the extent that he could easily force the Mets to pay as much or more than Santana would have received as a free agent.

And reader, the right to pay market value or more for a commodity is simply not worth very much. Santana now has a gargantuan contract; he may be the best pitcher in baseball, but he is now also the highest-paid pitcher by a fair margin. Given legitimate questions about his health and his poor performance at the end of last season, Santana does indeed seem to have benefited from his extraordinary leverage in negotiating with the Mets.

The Mets, therefore, traded four prospects of some value in order to overpay a player. The Twins received not only the prospects but many millions of dollars. They would have paid Santana more than $13 million in 2008; his replacement will make vastly less, and the lost ticket revenue will--unfortunately--be balanced by the income the Twins will receive from the perversely structured revenue sharing agreement. I'll guess that the total savings comes to about $8 million, but I welcome refinement of the estimate.

Therefore, instead of thinking about the quality of the players alone, we can think instead of the stuff each team actually received.

The Mets received a terrific player but one with (at least) a fully valued contract.

The Twins received four prospects and maybe eight million bucks.

The only reason for a team to give up substantial value for Santana would have been defensive: a team could reason that Santana's value was literally incomparable because he so thoroughly outclassed players available by trade or free agency, so even above-market compensation made sense if it meant blocking anyone else from gaining a uniquely desirable asset. This is the Yankees-Red Sox scenario, in which either time could have overpaid to block the other from acquiring Santana--just as both were willing to overpay for the rights to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka. Matsuzaka's case was, in fact, much more closely analogous to Santana's in economic terms than more apparently similar trades such as that of Erik Bedard, who had no negotiating power with his new team.

If the Yankees and Red Sox did not view Santana as a singularly market-altering property, or if each team simply realized that the other was not seriously pursuing Santana, the Twins were left with almost no trade leverage. Their weakness seems surprising given Santana's raw value as a player, but in economic terms, the Twins had very little to offer another team. Having little to offer, they received little in return.

Addendum: The Twins appear to be using the money they've saved to piddle away millions on medium-sized contracts for replaceable players. If they want to know how that will work out, they might investigate the track record of the 1990s Pirates.