Lifestyles of the Perpetually Traded

Cameron Maybin has been traded several times throughout his career. (via Rick Briggs)

Eric Patterson. Jeremy Giambi. John Buck. Billy Koch. Cameron Maybin. Edwin Jackson. When your favorite team trades for these players or players like them, no one gets excited. There are perfunctory statements about how they will make a nice addition to the organization. The players say they are excited about the opportunity to play in front of the home crowd and win some ball games. But in reality, these are not typically the players who make the headlines of ESPN, FanGraphs, or your parents’ local newspaper.

Yet players like Patterson, Buck, and others are the fuel for major league baseball’s player acquisition machine. The Cubs traded Patterson and Josh Donaldson to the Oakland A’s for Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin. Later, the Red Sox shipped Patterson to San Diego as part of the trade for Adrian Gonzalez. Buck helped the Houston Astros land Carlos Beltran in the mid-2000s; he later went to the Mets, along with Noah Syndergaard, for R.A. Dickey among others. The A’s turned Koch into Keith Foulke. Maybin was part of trades that brought back Miguel Cabrera and Craig Kimbrel.

Stars like Cabrera and Kimbrel might only get traded once or twice in their careers. Meanwhile, players like Edwin Jackson can find themselves going month-to-month on their rental agreements. What makes someone like Jackson valuable enough for multiple teams to have an interest in trading for him but not valuable enough for his acquiring team to hold onto him long term?

To answer those questions, I turned to the Baseball-Reference Play Index. In order to look at the tier of players below that of Cabrera and Kimbrel, I examined every hitter and starter with 15 or fewer WAR and every reliever with 10 or fewer WAR from 1996 to the present. To track their changing value, I identified players who had been traded at least three consecutive times without having been released, waived, or signed with a different team. In total, this analysis yielded a sample of 171 players: 89 hitters, 19 starters, and 63 relievers.

The players fell into three different categories, which I’ve outlined below. The first consists of hitters who offered no defensive value, players like Patterson and Jeremy Giambi, who had the hitting skills necessary to play in the majors and thus warranted playing time. Their inability to field, however, drove them out of baseball. There were 47 such players. The second group, highlighted by Buck and Koch, consisted of players overvalued in their own time, whether because of the save rule or the lack of data on pitch-framing. 76 players rated this way. The last group is made up of players who were good enough at some of the toughest parts of the game—starting pitching and playing center field—to carve out lengthy careers and warrant consistent playing time. There were 48 such players.

The Defensively Deficient

The Chicago Cubs drafted Eric Patterson in the eighth round of the 2004 amateur draft. He began his minor league career at a later age than most of his contemporaries but quickly moved through the Cubs system. In 2006, Patterson posted a batting line of .288/.351/.427 between Double-A and Triple-A. In 2007, the Cubs traded Patterson to the A’s. Christina Kahrl wrote at the time that, “As an offensive contributor, there aren’t any real questions–he has fine plate coverage, good enough patience, solid power, and he contributes a useful dose of speed on the bases.”

The A’s later sent Patterson to the Red Sox for minor leaguer Fabian Williamson. On December 16, 2010, the Red Sox shipped Patterson to San Diego along with Anthony Rizzo, Rey Fuentes, and Casey Kelly in exchange for Adrian Gonzalez. Less than a year later, the Padres released Patterson; he never played in the majors again.

Patterson’s bat never translated to the major leagues. In 575 plate appearances, he hit .217/.294/.343, good for a 74 wRC+. But Patterson’s inability to play second base is what doomed his career. The Cubs had experimented with Patterson in the outfield before trading him to Oakland. The Red Sox hoped Patterson would fill in at second base when Dustin Pedroia was injured in 2010.

But Patterson was perpetually a below-average defender. Through his MLB career, Patterson produced -8.7 UZR in the outfield and -4.7 UZR at second base. Back in 2007, Kahrl had correctly identified Patterson’s career trajectory. In the outfield, she wrote, “maybe his athleticism makes him into a good center fielder someday, and maybe it doesn’t and you’ve got…another underpowered left fielder.”

Jeremy Giambi survived in the majors solely because of his bat. After being drafted in the sixth round in 1996 by Kansas City, Giambi slugged his way through the Royals minor league system. By 1998, he had reached Triple-A, where he hit 20 home runs in 394 plate appearances and produced a batting line of .372/.469/.634. But Giambi struggled to adjust in the majors. Over parts of two seasons with the Royals, Giambi only hit five home runs in 406 plate appearances. In 2000, the Royals traded Giambi to the Oakland A’s.

In just over two seasons with the A’s, Giambi found a bit of his power stroke. In 2001, he hit 12 home runs in 443 plate appearances and demonstrated good patience at the plate. In 2002, Giambi continued to play well, hitting .259/.414/.505 with 20 home runs and a walk rate of 19.8 percent. The 2003 Red Sox acquired Giambi to help fill their 1B/DH hole in their lineup. Giambi, however, floundered, hitting .197/.342/.354. The Red Sox released Giambi in November 2003, and like Patterson, he never played in the majors again.

Giambi’s power and patience made him a viable major leaguer for a brief time, attracting the attention of analytically inclined teams like the A’s and Red Sox. But his defense undermined the little value his hitting brought to the plate. FanGraphs only has UZR data for Giambi’s 2002 and 2003 seasons. During those two years, Giambi posted -10.0 UZR in 1377 innings in the outfield and -2.8 UZR in 143 innings at first base. In Moneyball, Michael Lewis wrote that Giambi was “playing left field not because he has any particular gift for plucking balls from the air but because he is even more gloriously inept when faced with the task of picking them up off the ground.” Lewis also vividly described Giambi’s efforts to track down a fly ball as being “like a postman trying to escape a mad dog.”

The Overvalued

After being drafted by the Houston Astros in the seventh round of the 1998 draft, John Buck began the long slow climb up through the Astros farm system. He showed enough potential with the glove and the bat to rank as the 43rd-best prospect in baseball in 2002, according to Baseball America. He fell to 67th in 2003.

The Astros traded Buck to Kansas City in June 2004 before he ever made it to the majors. The three-team trade brought Beltran to Houston, where he helped the Astros reach the World Series in 2005. Buck started for the Royals from 2005-2009, playing 584 games at catcher while hitting .235/.298.407. After signing with the Florida Marlins in 2010, Buck became a valuable trade asset.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

On November 12, 2012, the Marlins sent Buck, Emilio Bonifacio, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, and Jose Reyes to the Toronto Blue Jays for Henderson Alvarez, Anthony DeSclafani, Yunel Escobar, Adeiny Hechavarria, Jake Marisnick, Jeff Mathis, and Justin Nicolino. Less than a month later, the Blue Jays sent Buck along with Wuilmer Becerra, Travis d’Arnaud, and Noah Syndergaard to the Mets for R.A. Dickey, Mike Nickeas, and Josh Thole. The Mets traded Buck to the Pirates in August 2013 as part of a trade for Dilson Herrera and Vic Black. In the course of 10 months, Buck found himself as part of two franchise-reshaping trades.

Buck played sparingly after joining the Pirates. New research into pitch framing has changed our perception of Buck, however, revealing he was the fourth-worst pitch-framer in the majors. From 2008-2013, Dan Brooks and Harry Pavlidis calculated that Buck had cost his teams -55 framing runs. He only beat out Ryan Doumit, Gerald Laird, and Chris Iannetta. Buck had a league worst -22 framing runs in 2010 and was tied for second-worst with -15 in 2013. As Meg Rowley noted in 2016, Baseball Prospectus’ catcher framing metrics wipe out much of Buck’s career value. Buck has 10.3 WAR at FanGraphs, which does not include framing runs in its WAR calculations. Baseball Reference has Buck at 5.6 WAR; Baseball Prospectus has him at 2.8 WARP.

Billy Koch, meanwhile, thrived from 1999-2002 on his reputation as a closer. He produced gaudy save totals back when few people challenged the primacy of a baseball rule that did not exist until 1969. Koch notched 144 saves, the fourth most in the major leagues, behind Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, and Robb Nen. From 1999-2002, however, Koch finished 23rd in reliever WAR, sandwiched between Roberto Hernandez and Paul Quantrill. Koch’s save totals masked his 10.8 percent career walk rate.

A’s general manager Billy Beane has acquired Koch in a trade in December 2001 for Eric Hinske and Justin Miller. After the 2002 season, he flipped Koch to the Chicago White Sox for Keith Foulke, Mark Johnson, and Joe Valentine. Koch only lasted parts of two more seasons in the majors. In Chicago, his terrible control finally caught up with him. From 2002 to 2003, his HR/9 nearly tripled from 0.67 to 1.70. By 2004, his BB/9 had ballooned to 6.61 up from 4.42 just two years earlier; it would be his last year in the major leagues.

The Effectives

The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted Edwin Jackson in the sixth round of the 2001 draft. He started his first major league baseball game on his 20th birthday, September 9, 2003. His opponent? Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Jackson threw six innings, struck out four and allowed only a single run. Johnson went eight innings, allowing eight hits and four runs. Jackson never lived up to the hype of that glorious first start, however.

His career was soon marked by a constant string of trades, earning him the nickname Transaction Jackson. Between 2006 and 2011, Jackson was traded six times as part of trades both large—a three-team trade that brought Curtis Granderson to the Yankees and Max Scherzer to the Tigers—and small—to the White Sox for David Holmberg and Daniel Hudson.

Even as Jackson’s address changed nearly every year, he carved out a role for himself as a league average starter. Below are Jackson’s stats from 2006-2011, along with his rank out of 204 eligible starters.

Edwin Jackson, 2006-2011
fWAR FIP Innings K/9 BB/9
Total (rank) 12.7 (51st) 4.25 (89th) 971 (37th) 6.78 (102nd) 3.51 (152nd)

In all that time, Jackson never posted a season WAR above 3.5. But he consistently ate up innings. When Jackson hit free agency in 2012, the Nationals signed him to a one year, $11-million dollar contract. In 2013, the Cubs signed him to a four-year, $52-million contract. R.J. Anderson of Baseball Prospectus wrote at the time that “Jackson—blessed with mid-90s velocity and a knockout slider—is not the ace or frontline starter portended by his stuff or brilliant debut. He is, however, a middle-of-the-rotation workhorse with good athleticism and character.” He’s found a home with the Wild Card-bound A’s.

Like Edwin Jackson, Cameron Maybin has managed to carve out a successful career for himself after failing to live up to his early hype. The Tigers drafted Maybin in the first round of the amateur draft in 2005. The next year he debuted on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list at 31. In 2007 and 2008, he climbed to sixth and eighth, respectively.

In November of 2007, Kevin Goldstein, then of Baseball Prospectus, called Maybin a five-star prospect. He noted, “When it comes to tools, Maybin is Home Depot.” Maybin boasted great size and athleticism, speed, and the ability to hit for power and contact. Goldstein warned that Maybin also loved to chase breaking pitches out of the zone and struck out too often. Maybin’s 21.1 percent career strikeout rate has borne out Goldstein’s concern. Still, Goldstein, like other prospect writers at the time, believed Maybin would have a long and successful career. In a perfect world, Goldstein wrote that Maybin would become “a transcendent star who puts fannies in the seats.”

In December of 2007, Dave Dombrowski, who never met a prospect he didn’t want to trade, sent Maybin, Miller, Burke Badenhop, Mike Rabelo, Frankie De La Cruz, and Dallas Trahern to the Florida Marlins for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis.

Maybin’s bat failed to develop in Florida. During parts of three seasons with the Marlins, Maybin hit an anemic .255/.328/.358 and struck out in 24.4 percent of his plate appearances. After the 2010 season, Florida traded him to San Diego for relievers Edward Mujica and Ryan Webb. In his time with the Padres, Maybin settled into a career as a low-average, high-strikeout hitter. In 1458 plate appearances, he hit 19 homers with a .246/.307/.358 batting line and 89 OPS+. His strikeout rate settled at 20.5 percent.

In 2015, the Padres flipped Maybin to the Braves along with Carlos Quentin, Jordan Paroubeck, Matt Wisler, and a 2015 competitive balance pick for Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton Jr. Since then, Maybin has played for the Tigers, Angels, Astros, Marlins, and Mariners.

In his career, Maybin has posted a .254/.321/.367 batting line and a 91 wRC+. Yet he has produced 13.3 career WAR. Unlike the Eric Pattersons and Jeremy Giambis of the world, Maybin has carved out a career for himself by playing a decent center field. In 6951.1 innings, he has 6.4 UZR in center.

Players like Maybin, Jackson, Koch, Buck, Patterson, and Giambi are back-end roster fodder. They fit different profiles but have one thing in common. They’re just good enough to warrant a roster spot, but not for too long.

References and Resources

Chris Bouton is a historian turned jury research analyst.
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5 years ago

Even though he is no longer in sole possession of the record, I still think you should have mentioned Dotel somewhere in this article.

Mario Mendozamember
5 years ago

Oh. i thought this was actually going to be about lifestyles. I was expecting to see a poor man’s “mtv cribs”… the airbnb “where the magic happens” and the hat collection and and the webcam for skypes with the kids… on second thought I’m glad it was not about that.

Barney Coolio
5 years ago
Reply to  Mario Mendoza

I expected it to be about that, and I want to read about that. The living arrangement situation.

5 years ago

It’s not hard to imagine that someone like Willie Calhoun will be a future member of the traded multiple times clubs. He’s already been part of the Yu Darvish trade and his hitting potential is strong enough for another A.L. team to try and pick him up in a few years.

5 years ago
Reply to  steelehere

He’ll have to make some real strides to avoid being a future member of the playing in Japan club.

5 years ago

This article is good, but… not what the title implies?

5 years ago
Reply to  humanbeingbean

It was pretty much what I expected, given the title. I’m sorry that it wasn’t what you expected.

Dennis Bedard
5 years ago

Maybe I missed it but Maybin played again for the Marlins during the first half of this season. For the readers who thinks the title is misleading read Ken Harrelson’s HAWK for an accurate and very humorous account of his time in the big leagues. If you are an aficionado of 1960’s baseball, it is must reading.

5 years ago

Excellent baseball article; on topic, informative, and interesting. Thank you for writing it.

kick me in the GO NATSmember
5 years ago

I would take the life of one of these perpetually traded players over the life I lead in my 20s any day,