A Few Brief Thoughts on Signings Versus Trades


You make a blockbuster trade and suddenly it changes the entire landscape of baseball. The same can be said of a free agent signing, but not nearly as often. There are plenty of trades in which no notable player is dealt, but there are far more players signed to free agent contracts, especially minor league deals, who don’t end up doing much for the teams that acquire them. But one of the major ironies in the way that baseball is reported these days is that basically every trade, from the large to the small, is immediately confirmed by teams the day that it happens. More and more these days, we hear about trade negotiations in progress, and sometimes they hit snags, but once a trade happens, it quickly becomes official. The Diamondbacks traded Justin Upton to the Braves and in the same day it was on both teams’ websites. Signings, meanwhile, are almost never confirmed until several days later, even the most insignificant ones. What’s going on with that major difference between signings and trades?

A trade is something that has no good parallel outside of sports. What do you mean, taking an employee, often one that has done nothing wrong, and forcing him and his family to relocate to another city to join another company, receiving other employees in return? Job transfers are a reality of life, but a job transfer where the employee almost always can’t turn it down? Signings, on the other hand, happen every day in the most in-demand professions. A businessman gets laid off, and then he spends the next several weeks and maybe months weighing the job offers he receives before accepted the one he deems best for him. That’s unfortunately not the reality for most of us, but it’s not something that’s the most foreign thing we’ve ever heard, and that’s exactly why it takes so much longer to confirm.

Trades are always very crazy, and that’s especially the case when a star player is being shopped. The team’s general manager can spend months fielding proposals and then has to spend even more time working out the specifics of the deal. But once a deal is agreed upon, that’s basically it. Except for the few players with no-trade clauses, once a trade is completed, the players traded just have to deal with it whether they like it or not and move on. Signings are in theory a lot more simple, but there’s another decision involved the player. For a star who hits free agency, the player and his agent could spend months fielding proposals before choosing the best one for them, but there’s three parts of the agreement and maybe more. The team has to agree to offer a contract in line with what the player desires, the player has to agree, and then the two sides need to hammer out the specifics of the deal. But sometimes things get more complicated when the player agrees to the deal but only on the condition that another team, say the team they were coming form, has the chance to match it. And even once all of that happens, the fine print of the contract can get very complicated as players need to make sure there are no glitches within the contract that will bind them for the next year or more and that they receive all the secondary concessions that they need as well. Players understand that every contract is a critical juncture in their life, and they have to make sure that it fits exactly what they’re looking for.

When general managers trade players, it’s a phenomenon we can’t understand and they may not entirely grasp themselves, trading away players without their control. A conventional contract negotiation, meanwhile, is a natural, human process we have gotten used to and with not just the baseball element but the human element involved, things get more complicated and take longer to happen. The fact that trades are confirmed so much more quickly seems strange, but we understand that traded players are going to receive the same amount of money wherever they go while free agents still need to determine the terms of their livelihood and that make things exponentially more complicated. Even in the so-called “child’s game” of baseball, the human element still wins out.