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Trade Strings: Keeping Talent Alive, or Delmon Young and Victor Zambrano Still Live

Like middle-school history teachers always say, "You can't know where you're going until you know where you've been."  With the off-season coming up, and the probability that the Rays will make some trades during it rather high, it's a perfect time to take a retrospective look at many of the trades the Rays have made in the past and attempt to glean some insight from them.  Since there are too many trades to discuss all in one post, this will be a series that I'll return back to every other weekend or so.  I intend to focus mostly on trades completed by Andrew Friedman and the new ownership group, but on occasion I might dabble into some old trades and look at their current ramifications.

To lead off this series (no pun intended), I want to look at a concept that has always fascinated me: trade strings.  I'm pretty sure I just made that phrase up, so let me explain what I mean.  "Trade strings" are trades that eventually result in future trades.  And then those trades beget future trades.  And so on and so forth down the road until eventually, a prospect or two doesn't pan out and the trade string fades.  Theoretically, if a team was exceptionally good at evaluating talent and got lucky in some trades, a team could keep one player's peak talent within their system for decades, even long after that original player had declined and fallen out of baseball. 

Mostly, trade strings serve as a fun amusement and don't serve a huge analytical purpose.  They're like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon - fun and rather weird, but still trivia.  However, there is an important reason why we should look at trade strings.  Franchises can only acquire new talent three ways: drafting and signing amateur talent, signing free-agents, and through a trade.  Each of these options has its downside, though: prospects bust more often than they boom, free-agents are quite expensive for small-market teams, and trades are normally close to equal in terms of talent (otherwise, who would agree to trade?).  Because of this, talent is incredibly valuable to small-market teams; it's tough to acquire and so when they do acquire some, they want to retain that talent for as long as possible.  Individual players fade over time, though, so the only way to maintain your talent assets are to constantly keep changing them into newer, younger assets.

That said, smart front offices of small-market teams will constantly be looking to get the most bang out of each player they have.  Take a look at an example:

Wow.  Just wow.  That is a thing of beauty right there.  For Mark Mulder, the Athletics originally received Dan Haren, Kiko Calero, and Daric Barton, but they eventually received another 10 player if you follow the trade strings to their current state.  They had Dan Haren under control for 3 cost-effective seasons, they obtained Matt Holliday for half a season, and they've received a heck of a lot of solid prospects.  Mulder's 2004 talent level has stayed in the organization through shrewd trades, and with little increase in payroll for Oakland, while in the meantime, Mulder has produced a total of 1.4 WAR while being paid around $25 million.  Talk about a deal.

So how about the Rays?  Are there any instances where the Rays have managed to put a nice trade string together?  Although the Rays have not had a savvy front office for as long as Oakland, there are a couple burgeoning trade strings that we can look at.

For our first one, let's look at an obvious example:

This is one of those rare instances where not only did the Rays manage to maintain Zambrano's talent within the system, but they actually got more talent back than they dished out.  Zambrano's salary spiked the year after he was traded (from league minimum to over $2M), and his ability level has fallen off the past few years.  Although the Mets did acquire an average starter for half of 2004 and the entire 2005 season (.9 WAR and 1.7 WAR respectively), Zambrano fell off a cliff after that and hasn't pitched in the majors since 2007.  Kazmir, meanwhile, went on to provide the Rays with 16.7 WAR over the course of his 6 seasons with the (Devil) Rays.  The newest incarnation of Victor Zambrano is Sean Rodriguez, who is young, talented, and under team control for the next six seasons.  Long live Zambrano!

While the Rays do have a couple other small trade strings that are still alive (Baez to Jackson to Joyce comes to mind), I want to close out by focusing on a trade string still in the infant stages of development.  Take a look right here:

There are two things that immediately jump to mind: wow, we absolutely fleeced the Twins, and this deal looks to only get better if we get value back for Bartlett this off-season.  Obviously we don't know if we're actually going to trade Bartlett and how much we'd get for him, but as it stands already, the Rays significantly increased their franchise's talent level through the Delmon Young trade.

To sum up, the Rays don't have very many long trade strings, but the new front office has been around for only four seasons.  The old front office produced very few trade strings (Randy Winn for Lou Piniella, anyone?  Talk about squandering talent), although they did manage to acquire Kazmir and begin that trade string.  Completing successful trades require a front office that is skilled at assessing talent, and it also involves large quantities of luck (especially when prospects are involved).  Recently, the Rays have had both of these going for them.  Let's hope the trend continues.