Baseball teams make trades for a variety of reasons. At least there are supposed to be reasons.
And baseball trades get evaluated in many ways, most of them way too narrow.
Most commonly, at least historically, are the fill-the-need types of exchanges. Team A needs pitching and has an extra outfielder, Team B needs an outfielder and has a spare pitcher. Win-win and all that. There are variations on that theme, some of them complex, but at heart it’s a case of filling immediate needs in an attempt to do better.
There are bad contract-for-bad contract trades that are less filling a need than getting rid of an albatross and hoping a change of scene will help whoever you get back. There are clubhouse poison trades, though never called such. There are straight salary dumps, ever more common now that revenue sharing provides enough money that a team can run a profit without selling a single ticket.
And then there is a really big category, where one team is in win-now mode and the other is hopeless for the season in question (and maybe longer) and wants to build for the future. This includes almost all trade deadline swaps, but many others as well.
Which brings us to the series of trades for which Rick Hahn is often given credit — too much credit.
THE BIG THREE TRADES OF 2016-17
Usually, trades get evaluated on a player-for-player basis. Baseball Trade Values does this even before the swap, many others do it right after, and maybe even years later. But that’s looking at the small picture, not the real outcome.
Brett Ballantini a few months back did a very comprehensive evaluation of all Rick Hahn trades, delving into the WAR produced by the players involved for the teams involved, even going into future swaps of the same players. It was enlightening, but still focused just on the particular players involved. Unfortunately, it’s all too often that the old cliché gets reversed, and a team wins the WAR but loses the battle.
We need another perspective. Besides, all that statistical analysis is way too much work.
CAN WE GET ON WITH IT?
Who ends up with a higher OPS+ or FIP+ or bats in more runs or allows fewer and accumulates more WAR is interesting, but it’s really not the point. Baseball is a team sport, and it’s how the team performs as a result of a trade or multiple trades that matters. (Well, OK, sometimes it’s only saving money that matters to ownership, but we’re fans, so it’s performance that counts here.)
That performance may be immediate, it may be future, but either way, it’s what means failure or success. We need to look at trades from the broad picture. We need to see if the teams involved in trades accomplished their team goals.
When we do that, Hahn looks worse than ever, even for the seemingly big haul in the rebuild.
FIRST TRADE: CHRIS SALE
This was the really big one. In 2016, Chris Sale wasn’t just the best player on the White Sox, he was one of the best in all of baseball. When he wasn’t cutting up uniforms or supporting 14-year olds participating on the field in Spring Training, Sale was completely dominant, a perennial Cy Young candidate. Still, on December 6, the White Sox traded Sale to Boston.
What was Boston’s goal? To be immediately among the best teams in the game.
Did they achieve the goal? You better believe it. And they did so with plenty of help from Sale. They won the AL East in 2017, then went roaring through the season with 108 wins and won the World Series easily in 2018, with Sale pitching in five postseason games.
Those Red Sox maintained their 2016 record in 2017 despite the retirement of David Ortiz, then got way, way better for 2018 by signing J.D. Martinez. Maybe building around your trade acquisitions helps (please pass that along to Hahn and Jerry Reinsdorf).
In exchange, the White Sox got a big haul — Yoán Moncada, Michael Kopech. Luis Basabe and Victor Diaz. Diaz faded quickly and Basabe’s only time in the majors was nine games with the Giants in 2019, but obviously Moncada and Kopech were the main attraction, and they’ve partly fulfilled their promise.
Moncada had already been briefly up with the Red Sox, and the White Sox brought him back up in July 2017, and he’s been on the team ever since. Kopech had only played Single-A ball, but made it to the bigs in 2018, then missed two years for TJS and taking the COVID bow-out option. Both have had flashes of brilliance.
What was the White Sox goal? To hear Hahn tell it, the idea was to start building a long-term powerhouse.
Did they achieve the goal? Yeah, right. More than six years later, we’re still waiting. Two winning seasons that only happened because of incredibly weak schedules that only led to rapid postseason exits do not a dynasty make.
Is the competitive window closed where Moncada and Kopech are concerned? Not if you’re willing to consider the Moncada extension as an offshoot of the original deal, signing young players to team-friendly extensions being one of Hahn’s three skills, the other two being pushing back the year the contention window opens, and making excuses for himself. With Moncada’s extension and a team option, both players are under team control through 2025.
Of course, the window is closing fast in other ways. Witness the next item.
SECOND TRADE: ADAM EATON
One day after the Sale trade, the White Sox sent Adam Eaton to Washington for three pitchers: Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López and Dane Dunning.
When you look at those names, you might think that Hahn really snookered the Nationals. From an individual performance perspective, he sure did. But from the goals of the two teams, he may have been the snookeree.
Eaton barely played for the Nationals in 2017 despite a 120 OPS+. Washington had a far better defender in center in Michael A. Taylor, and some guy name Bryce Harper in right as they cruised to 97 wins, only to lose to the Cubs in the first playoff round. Eaton got more action and again hit well in 2018, then, when Harper went into free agency for the White Sox to ignore, became the regular right fielder in 2019, helping the team to ... yes, another success story ... the championship in 2019, when he had a key World Series homer.
Individually, looks like a White Sox haul. After a horrible 2018 that led to quite possibly the most obnoxious TV commercial ever (a really crowded field), Giolito had three excellent seasons before deciding he wanted to play The Amazing Hulk in the next remake and bulked up for the audition, and is doing very well again after a lousy 2022. ReyLo has been a mixed bag, but not all bad. Dunning, not a downright star with the Rangers, got traded for a Lance Lynn one-season rental that turned into an extended lease that looked good for one year and then turned sour.
What was Washington’s goal? To win a World Series.
Did they achieve their goal? You better believe it. Of course, it didn’t hurt that they had a farm system that produced Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto.
What was the White Sox goal? See above about alleged long-term powerhouse.
Did they achieve the goal? Yeah, right.
And in this case, the competitive window is all but nailed shut. All the smart money says Giolito will be gone no later than the coming offseason, possibly by the Trade Deadline. ReyLo will also be a free agent. There’s a team option on Lynn that shouldn’t be picked up, but might because the White Sox upper farm is as barren as the Dust Bowl.
(Of course, there will be a lot of really good free agent pitchers available before next season. Problem is, tightwad bargain hunters need not apply.)
THIRD TRADE: JOSÉ QUINTANA
It wasn’t until the trade deadline approached in 2017 that the White Sox made their third big trade, sending José Quintana to That Other Team in Town for another four-bagger — Dylan Cease, Eloy Jiménez. Bryant Flete and Matt Rose. Rose’s star never rose and Flete’s career was fleeting, but they were just throw-ins anyway, with Eloy and Dylan being the top two Cubs prospects.
Q had seven wins the rest of that season to help the Cubs to the playoffs, where he had three good appearances and one really bad one. He then won 13 games each of the next two years before injuries took over.
Cease was mostly known for having outstanding stuff that just didn’t come together until last year, when he was downright brilliant. So far this year he’s back to being an enigma, but there’s time to turn things around. Eloy has been just dandy when healthy enough to play — 121 career OPS+ — but, of course, that hasn’t been very often.
Still, they’re both legitimate stars. But by our rules, that’s not what matters.
What was the Cubs’ goal? To repeat the glory of 2016.
Did they achieve their goal? Not quite. They did make it to the NL Championship series in 2017, but that’s not the same as getting those nifty rings. And things went downhill from there.
What was the White Sox’ goal? See the two sections above about being a powerhouse and all that good stuff.
Did they achieve their goal? Yeah, right.
What about that competitive window bit? Cease is under team control through 2025, Jiménez is under team options through 2026 thanks to one of those extensions Hahn pulls off, so there is still a breeze blowing through, albeit you can see the shutters starting to blot out the sun.
Of course, in addition to losing the pitchers from the Eaton trade, Yasmani Grandal will also be a free agent after this season; while he hasn’t had much value the last two years, the alternatives are Seby Zavala and his .200 on-base percentage and 35 OPS+ and, uh, maybe a wax statue of Carlton Fisk? Is Sherm Lollar still alive? Can Jake Burger kneel for long periods of time?
So there you have it, a big-picture look at the trades that once made Rick Hahn look like he knew what he was doing if you just squinted at the narrow view. A pretty picture, it ain’t.