With June winding to a close, baseball's rumor mill is heating up. While the trade deadline is still just more than a month away, many teams are starting to seriously consider if they should be selling or buying — or, as many people view it, cashing in their chips for the future or stocking up for a playoff run.
But this is a false dichotomy. Why can't a team trade away players and improve in the short and long term? This might seem like an impossible project to most, but not to Rays executive VP Andrew Friedman; for him, it's standard operating procedure.
Since stepping into the role of the Rays' VP of baseball operations in 2006, Friedman has not been afraid of cutting a deal. In his 51/2 years at the helm, he has made well over 20 trades — an average of more than four a season. This reliance on trades is common among small-market ballclubs, which have to do so to bring talent into the organization instead of delving into the expensive free agent market.
But what's not common is how successful Friedman has been with his trades.
Using the statistic Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, it's now possible to summarize a player's total offensive, defensive and pitching contributions to a ballclub in one simple stat.
In short, WAR attempts to answer the question, "If this player got injured and his team had to replace him with a minor-leaguer, how many wins would the team lose?" The results are normally rather intuitive; for example, the Rays' leaders in WAR this season are Ben Zobrist (3.5), David Price (2.8) and Matt Joyce (2.4).
So using WAR, it's possible to compare how many wins Friedman has brought into the franchise to how many he has traded away. I recently went through Friedman's trade history, marking down how many wins each player has been worth since being traded (up until he became a free agent), and the results are impressive: Friedman has netted the Rays 59 wins through his trades while giving up only 39 in return.
But that's not all: While netting the Rays 20 extra wins, Friedman has managed to save $40 million in budget space while acquiring players that will be under team control for years. These numbers are all still changing — Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, Edwin Jackson and Jason Hammel are still out there — but players such as Joyce, Zobrist, Sean Rodriguez, Brandon Guyer and Chris Archer look to tip the balance even further in the Rays' favor.
Using a similar methodology, a blogger recently compiled these same numbers for Neal Huntington, general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and found that his trades have saved the Pirates $93 million but resulted in a net loss of 29 wins. Those trades might work out more in favor of the Pirates, as players such as Jose Tabata develop, but I still think this does a good job of framing how impressive Friedman has been.
When the Rays traded Scott Kazmir in early August 2009, there was widespread outrage that Friedman was "giving up" on the season. People were underestimating how good top prospect Wade Davis could be, and in fact, Davis and Kazmir were equally valuable down the stretch: 1.2 WAR for Kazmir and 1.1 WAR for Davis. Friedman eschews your "win now or win later" paradigm, using the Rays' farm system to do both at the same time.
Along those lines, don't be surprised to see the Rays trade B.J. Upton at the deadline this year, regardless of whether they are in the race or not. Upton is looking like he might be the top outfielder on the market, and the Washington Nationals have already stated they're willing to "overpay" to acquire him. With top prospect Desmond Jennings sitting in Triple A and Upton set to become a free agent after the 2012 season, trading Upton this season would be a classic "win now and later" move.
So as trade rumors start flying everywhere, sit back and relax — the Rays are in good hands.
In fact, they might just be in the best hands in baseball.
Steve Slowinski is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay.com, a blog on the Tampa Bay Rays that specializes in analysis and statistics.