On a gorgeous Minnesota July afternoon, Jack Goin, the Twins’ manager of major league administration and baseball research, sits in the Target Field broadcast booth high above the playing field. Below, the Twins are taking batting practice and a variation of infield warm-ups that happens behind protective screens at every base. There is controlled chaos with batted balls going every direction. The team is preparing for that evening’s game.
Goin, meanwhile, is a part of the Twins’ front office team that has been preparing for the upcoming trade deadline. Since the June draft, the organization’s attention has shifted toward the game’s big swap meet on the last day of July.
The internal process for preparing for the trade deadline starts with an abundance of prospect research and scouting reports. Goin reviews each organization’s top prospects, adding others who may be intriguing statistically, and connects with the team’s director of pro scouting, Vern Followell, to compare notes.
“We start looking at if we have reports on prospects, real prospects, which everyone has ranked. We look at the top 20, top 30, whatever, specifically of those teams that are in the buying mode,” Goin says. “Now whether that is off those lists or I’ve gone through and tried to cross-check it myself and say here are guys we should have interest in regardless of what our scouting reports say. Then we talk about it.”
This is when Goin’s statistical favorites are vetted through the lens of the scout. Followell and his team’s scouting reports may help illuminate why prospects are having an abundance of unexpected success. They may be hitters seeing a high percentage of fastballs in bandbox minor league parks or pitchers who are old for that particular level and are thriving by spinning off curveballs in the dirt; essentially, players who are succeeding through methods that may become ineffective as they progress up the minor league system.
Occasionally, a potentially useful prospect may fly under the radar and require further scouting. It could be due to Goin’s research or a scout’s recommendation that a player was identified, but the Twins want to be as thorough and complete with their information as possible if a team unexpectedly calls to discuss a deal. “We try to make sure we haven’t missed anybody to limit the emergency visits as you get close [to the deadline]. It’s kind of like the draft; you are flying across the country at the last minute.”
If a team has an information advantage going into the trade deadline, it means they can swap a David Hollins for a David Ortiz or turn a Brian Buchanan into a Jason Bartlett. Of course, those types of trades seem like ages ago for the ballclub. When was the last time the Twins could consider themselves the indisputable victor? Since then, teams have beefed up their analytics departments as well as their scouting teams. On their website, the Twins have 14 people listed under Baseball Operations. By comparison, the Pittsburgh Pirates, baseball’s newest surging darling, have 37 Baseball Operations employees, involving both scouts and analysts. Even small-market teams like the Pirates are going on the offensive when it comes to identifying as well as retaining talent.
Goin agrees that the constructs of the trade deadline have changed.
“There’s a difference in what the trade deadline is now versus what the trade deadline used to be,” he added. “I think it used to be more of a negotiation where you say we’re not giving up this guy and you get a list of A, B and C and you can take one guy from A and one guy from B and two guys from C, or whatever the combination.”
“Because there is so much prep work – between analysis and scouting – teams really funnel down who they want. They say if you want this guy, we need this guy, this guy and this guy. Or they have a formula of we need a guy who's close in Triple-A, maybe a lesser ceiling, we need a certain position and then we want another guy that is low but has a chance to be the guy
The Cubs’ recent Matt Garza trade demonstrates this mentality. With the Rangers in need of additional pitching and the Cubs looking to rebuild, they landed Mike Olt, a third base prospect with some major league experience, Justin Grimm, a starting pitcher with 22 major league games under his belt and then a lower level pitcher, C.J. Edwards, who has plenty of upside. The Cubs will also be entitled to a player-to- be-named-later as well. One starter with an expiring contract landed Chicago up to four useful chips.
How do trade talks start? In the movie Moneyball
, Brad Pitt ate three fistfuls of popcorn, made five calls and dealt two players – all in the span of ten minutes. That is the Hollywood version of what is often a lengthy process.
Some teams will first try to determine the lay of the land early in the month of July. Calls will be made by various members of the front office to former colleagues or friends in another organization, putting out feelers to gauge interest. What do they need? Are they looking to shop anyone? Maybe a follow-up call is made. This is done by buyers and sellers alike but not the Twins, says Goin. That is not how they operate.
For the Twins, trade talks can start in the stands at a game with an innocuous conversation between scouts. “You’ll get one of our scouts calling in and he’ll say I was talking to so-and-so at the park the other day and they've got interest in this guy or need a backup catcher and we need a utility infielder. Then Terry [Ryan] would just respond by saying tell them to call us.”
Some general managers use the media as a means of letting other teams know that they are buyers or sellers. Ryan recently used the local scribes to let people know the team would listen to offers on anyone, thereby letting other GMs know the Twins are open for business. Others use media to gain information, particularly from MLBTradeRumors.com.
“Everybody monitors that stuff,” acknowledges Goin. “There are GMs that see something and they call right away and they admit, hey, I saw on MLB Trade Rumors
that you guys are shopping Liriano.”
The trade market changes on the fly. One day a GM may be checking to see if his office phone is actually plugged in, to having it ring incessantly. Houston’s GM Jeff Luhnow said that prior to the Garza trade there was little discussion for the Astros’ right-handed starter Bud Norris. Now, with Garza off the board, Luhnow expects to have more frequent conversations regarding his player. As the trade deadline plays out, teams that are buying may become more desperate. At the same time, selling teams may wait too long and miss out on the buyer's market. Timing is everything.
Part of that timing is deciding whether the team is a buyer or seller. There is no magic date in the schedule by which teams make that decision. The Twins do not run projections at the All-Star break to calculate what the remainder of the season is going to look like. The standings tell them everything they need to know. A double-digit deficit can be a gentle reminder that the season is not going as desired and the team will find itself in the sellers camp.
“Depending on where you are, you try to hang on. Sometimes you may hang on too long,” says Goin. “We’re all competitive and it is hard to get that out of your system. We still want to compete, we want to win. There are a lot of things that go into making a trade. Then there are times that it is obvious that you are out of it.”
And this is one of those times. Having seen this season play out and now going on three losing years, the Twins would be fooling themselves if they believe they should be anything but sellers. Minnesota’s most valuable trade commodity is Glen Perkins. In additional to being an elite reliever, he has an extremely team-friendly contract. Because of baseball’s enlightenment that says stats like the save are overvalued, would a closer like Perkins still be able to garner a decent return?
“There are teams that have gone beyond that, sure” Goin admits. “But I think there are still teams that are going to go out and try to make a trade for a Perkins or [Jonathon] Papelbon or whoever they think they need to get to shore up the back of the bullpen. Some teams are not going to worry about that as much but there still are teams that will say this guy is having a good year, he’s driven in 85 runs through July and we need to get a bat. It may be a function of him being a good hitter and the RBIs are secondary.”
With just a week remaining until the trade deadline, the Twins have conducted their due diligence. Goin and company have identified and researched hundreds of potential prospects across the league. The question remains if any teams will be interested enough in any of the currently available players. That, Goin says, may be one of the biggest misconception about the trade deadline.
“With media the way it is, internet, Twitter, everything, it gets so much more hype than what actually goes on. You might sit there and no one is calling you back. You may say we’d love to trade. We've got guys or we’d like to trade for your guy and you do not get a call back. They literally do not call back. It’s strange. There is a lot of work that actually goes on to prepare for nothingness.”