It's axiomatic that there are two key forms of currency in pro baseball: cash and prospects. You can make some noise from time to time as long as you have one of them. Don't stand much of a chance if you're broke on both counts. But if you're flush in both, you're in business.
A deep minor league inventory, however, differs from deep pockets in one very important manner: Only one is fungible.
There's risk in throwing millions at Milton Bradley or Brandon Webb. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't. Dollars are dollars, and if your ballclub has a healthy balance sheet and a committed ownership group, it's understood that capital expenditures carry with them some degree of acceptable risk. But if the deal bombs, there's nothing (other than a pesky exercise of good sense) stopping a club from spending again, on someone else, to cure the mistake or ramp the roster up in some other way.
You can't trade a player twice, though (with apologies to Ruben Sierra Sr.) - so you have to take extra care when the expenditure comes in the form of baseball players. And that's something that I think occasionally gets missed.
Could Texas outbid the Phillies and Angels for Padres reliever Mike Adams, or beat a Giants' offer to get Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran, or come out ahead of the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, and Indians and end up with Dodgers starter Hiroki Kuroda?
In most cases, the answer is probably yes, and maybe even without having to blow the selling team away.
But prospects, unlike cash, are single-use commodities.
Could you offer Robbie Erlin, Chris Davis, and Luis Sardinas to San Diego and get Heath Bell? Maybe you could.
But what if you know Florida covets Erlin and, a year from now (when Bell has signed elsewhere as a free agent, leaving you with two draft picks), just might back off its current stance that it won't trade Anibal Sanchez or Ricky Nolasco - or a once-again-healthy Josh Johnson?
And maybe you know that about Erlin because the Marlins are asking for the Frisco southpaw plus Jose Felix, or Joe Wieland plus Jorge Alfaro, in exchange for closer Leo Nunez. A reasonable demand in this market, perhaps, but again, if you're going to move Erlin or Alfaro, doesn't it have to be in a trade that alters the top of your rotation, even if the deal is a year or two from now?
Let's say Houston would give you Michael Bourn and Sergio Escalona for David Murphy, Michael Kirkman, Roman Mendez, and Hanser Alberto.
But maybe in talks with the Dodgers about Kuroda, you've learned that Kirkman and Mendez are players of interest there, and if things get even worse off the field with that franchise, there are a couple players on that team that sure would fit nicely in Texas a year from now. One of whom would be even easier to dream on than Colorado's Ubaldo Jimenez, who I still can't believe will be traded.
Especially if the ask from the Yankees really did include Jesus Montero, and Manny Banuelos, and Dellin Betances, and Ivan Nova. (You in the mood to give up Jurickson Profar, Martin Perez, Neil Ramirez, and Matt Harrison for Jimenez?)
Surgery on Julio Borbon's ankle has crushed my will to piece together a Tyler Clippard scenario (Peter Gammons reports this week that Washington was one of several teams interested in Borbon before the injury), but sticking with the Nationals: Engel Beltre or Matt West for Todd Coffey?
Do you really want to sell low on either of those two in a deal like that? Do we know that Coffey would be a better bullpen weapon than Tommy Hunter?
Before even considering what pitching prospect Oakland would want as the third piece in a deal for closer Andrew Bailey, the fact that the demand would start with Perez and Davis makes that an easy idea to move on from. (Not that I blame the A's. If I were a small-market team checking around to see what Neftali Feliz might bring, for instance, I'd set my sights on a package like that as well, particularly in the division.)
Christian Villanueva plus Pedro Strop for Brandon League?
Even if you'd trade both, one because of depth and the other because of options, and even if that's fair July market value for League, is that really how you want to deploy those two?
Davis for Koji Uehara?
For Jim Johnson, under control through 2013, maybe. But the 36-year-old Uehara? Risky way to push in the Davis chip.
Ramirez and Leury Garcia for Joakim Soria?
I'm convinced that if Ramirez doesn't force his way into the rotation picture within a year, he's going to be able to advance the ball on a bigger trade target than Soria, this winter or next summer.
A year ago, or two? Soria had much greater value then, and Ramirez had much less.
But that's how it goes. Consider the value of Bell and Adams, two of the hottest properties on this month's trade market. As we discussed on June 26, Bell was drafted (as a junior college shortstop) in the now-defunct 69th round but didn't sign, then signed with the Mets the following year as an undrafted free agent, was designated for assignment a few weeks into his first season on a 40-man roster, cleared league-wide waivers, and three years later was part of a unremarkable four-player trade with the Padres.
Adams was also an undrafted free agent (out of Texas A&M-Kingsville) and pitched for four organizations' AAA clubs in 2006 alone, waived once and traded twice for journeymen (and former Rangers), first Jeremi Gonzalez and then Brian Sikorski, then was released - by San Diego - and a year later re-signed with the Padres on a minor league deal.
Now consider what San Diego might be able to pull in exchange for the two righthanders. If you ask ESPN's Buster Olney, Texas is the favorite to trade for one of them. Darren Smith of San Diego's XX1090 AM thinks Adams will end up with the Rangers. They say that because of fit, and also because the Rangers are very, very deep in prospects.
Look, I'd love to see Texas land Adams in the next 12 days, and have that guy own the eighth inning into October, and give the Rangers a perfect candidate to assume closer duties in 2012 should Feliz be moved into the rotation.
But if it would take Ramirez, Davis or Mike Olt, and David Perez to make the deal? Sure, you'd be thrilled if Ramirez ended up developing into an Adams type, and yes, Davis's greatest value to the club is probably as a trade piece at this point and Olt will be big league-ready long before Adrian Beltre's time in Texas is done, and while Perez is an exciting arm with a massive ceiling, the system is full of them and Perez is at least three years away, which happily feels like an eternity when you're a contender.
But all that is a short-sighted view of things, and ignores the next layer of consideration. Trading Travis Hafner was defensible, and objectively speaking, without the benefit of hindsight, maybe Adrian Gonzalez fell into that category, too. Trading them when they were traded can even be justified. But - well, you know.
The problem is that even if there are dozens of players in this organization (1) that other teams want and (2) that you wouldn't mind trading, for one reason or another, you only get one shot. Prospects aren't stacks of cash, and even if one asset is as important as the other, a decision on whether the time is right to deal Robbie Ross, or Odubel Herrera, or Luke Jackson as a player to be named later, is more nuanced, and in some ways loaded with more risk, than deciding whether to give a free agent pitcher that extra year, or another million or two to the veteran bat that might make your offense a tougher proposition on left-handed pitching.
When cash is the cost, the question is whether you're willing to give it up to get the deal done. With the outlay of prospects, though, the analysis goes further, as you have to ask yourself whether you're willing to give it up now.