Baseball trades are at their most interesting when they involve players with notable skill sets and teams with widely varying needs. Here, take my Luis Arraez, and I’ll take your Pablo López in return. Your Zac Gallen for my Jazz Chisholm. I suppose the Marlins are, in this way at least, my platonic ideal of a baseball team. But not all trades are like that. Some trades barely care about the skillsets of the players involved and instead depend to an annoying amount on their contracts. Take this one, a trade from last week’s Winter Meetings:
Or this one, which Alex Eisert already wrote about:
Or this one:
Or this one:
White Sox Get:
They all boil down to this essential form:
- Salary Relief for Previous Spending Decisions
- A contract they could live without
- Jarred Kelenic
Seemingly Every Other Team in Baseball Gets:
- A little taste of the pie
Wow, is this boring. I won’t try to trick you into thinking otherwise. When Evan White changes hands twice in one week, you know something is up: the only notable thing about his professional career (he crushed in college, shout out to Michael Baumann) is how rarely he’s played. He signed one of those “boy, the team couldn’t possibly lose this” extensions before the 2020 season: six years and $24 million, pocket change for modern major league clubs. Then he struck out 40% of the time in a 2020 big league stint, then missed most of 2021, then missed most of 2022, then missed most of 2023… you can see the trajectory, and it’s not great.
The good news for White is that the money is his to keep. I’m sure he’d love to be a ten-time All Star, consensus first ballot Hall of Famer and all the rest, but the reason to sign one of those early-career (pre-majors, in his case) extensions is that regardless of what happens, you’re getting checks that will cover the rest of your life’s expenses.
Which team is paying you, on the other hand, can change. And so the Mariners decided they disliked paying White more than they liked having Kelenic on their team and traded White’s contract (and Gonzales’, too — a less extreme variation of the same idea) to Atlanta largely for the privilege of not paying out these contractual obligations.
That was good business for the Braves, who needed a left fielder. But they didn’t have a spot for White or Gonzales, so the trade machine got in motion. First, they traded Gonzales and a pile of cash to the Pirates for a player to be named later. In other words, they ate most of Gonzales’ contract and then swapped him plus a sliver of salary to a team where he would be a solid major league contributor, rather than a guy chilling in Triple-A or at the end of the bench collecting a check.
Oh, you feel nonplussed by that one? You’ll absolutely adore the next one then. They shipped out White, or rather White’s contract, to the Angels in exchange for Stassi and Fletcher. They, too, are less-extreme versions of the White archetype: baseball players who ended up just short of the preposterously high level required of major league regulars, but who get paid in the mid-single-digit millions each year because their teams signed them to risk-reducing contracts early in their big league careers.
Fletcher signed a five-year, $26 million deal before the 2021 season. He was coming off of three straight years of throwback excellence: sterling middle infield defense, a 10% strikeout rate, and enough success when he did put the ball in play that he put up a 98 wRC+ despite only 10 homers in 1,190 plate appearances. The Angels locked him up because he was playing like an average regular with upside for more, and $5 million a year is a great deal for that. Instead, his BABIP ticked down, his offensive production suffered, and he dealt with intermittent injuries. Suddenly, he wasn’t one of their best 26 players, but hey, the contract was already written.
The same broad beats happened to Stassi, though the specifics were different. He signed a three-year deal worth roughly $5 million per year before the 2022 season, then lost his place with the team thanks to underperformance, injury, Logan O’Hoppe’s post-trade emergence, and a traumatic personal experience that ate up the back half of 2023 (his son spent an unfathomable seven months in the NICU).
These are extremely different players, to be clear. White is a defense-first player at an offense-first position who has never succeeded in the majors. Fletcher is a slap-hitting defensive whiz who might not have enough bat to make everything work. Stassi is a part-time catcher who missed time thanks to a personal tragedy. But from the cold, calculating eyes of teams who have to work within a budget imposed by their owners and by competitive balance tax constraints, all three players (plus Gonzales) are most notable for their salaries.
Thus, they were swapped. The Angels achieved some minor payroll savings by exchanging Fletcher and Stassi for White, who is due $17 million over the remainder of his contract: two years plus a team buyout for an option that certainly doesn’t make sense. Fletcher is due $14 million, and Stassi has $7.5 million ($7 million plus a $500k buyout on a $7.5 million team option) left on his deal.
For the penny-pinching Angels, $4.5 million in savings is nothing to sneeze at, given that they seem to have written off the two players they’re interested in moving; they placed Stassi on the restricted list in their attempt to get under the CBT threshold last year and put Fletcher on waivers when moving him to the minors. For the Braves, whose minor league depth has been taxed in recent years due to trades and the fact that all their minor leaguers keep turning into major league stars (the horror!), Fletcher might actually be pretty useful in the same role Nicky Lopez played last year.
Stassi, on the other hand, was superfluous. Not to worry, though: the Braves didn’t acquire Stassi for his on-field skills, and they certainly didn’t feel attached to him. They might have looked at him as payroll ballast, but there are plenty of major league teams who have more need for a catcher who might be able to hit a little bit (Sean Murphy and Travis d’Arnaud have that position locked down for Atlanta). So the Braves paid down most of his salary and sent him to the White Sox for a player to be named later.
For all that boring old money math, though, these trades are a pretty good deal for the players involved, and the teams, too. Stassi will probably get a fat chunk of playing time next year; he’s probably the best catcher in the White Sox organization but would have been either a backup or off the field completely in his previous two stops. Fletcher is now a utility infielder on one of the very best teams in baseball. Gonzales went from an odd man out in Seattle to a part of the rotation in Pittsburgh. White — well, okay, he has enough money to be set for life, but his playing time is still in limbo.
Without knowing either the player or the money involved in the Stassi trade, it’s hard to feel strongly about which side “won” the deal. But really, the Braves are just reconfiguring the swap they already made with Seattle. Instead of sunk-cost contracts for Gonzales and White, they now have a sunk-cost contract for Fletcher, who will provide them useful backup innings, and some money heading out to the Pirates and White Sox. Given that the point of that first trade was getting Kelenic, turning the guys Seattle was willing to pay to get rid of into a useful contributor is a neat little trick.
For what it’s worth, my guess is that the player to be named later in the Stassi deal isn’t set. If he turns into a regular for the White Sox, I imagine they’ll give up a slightly better player than if he languishes on the bench and loses his spot. But let’s not lose sight of the central weirdness of the situation: The Braves had White, Gonzales, and Stassi under contract for a little bit as part of some fancy maneuvers that got them Kelenic and Fletcher. What a strange set of trades, even if several interested parties end up fairly happy with them.