Trade Threads: Weaving a Roster Together

The A’s have acquired more than half their active roster via trades. (via Keith Allison)

In 2015, a Canadian man named Kyle MacDonald posted an ad in the barter section of his local Craigslist that featured a picture of a red paper clip he wanted to trade for something bigger and better. After one successful trade he continued the gambit, and within a year he had traded up and up until he came to find himself in possession of a house.

It sounds apocryphal, but it’s a true story. MacDonald went on to write a blog and a book about his dealmaking. Baseball history is littered with deals that elicit similar, literature-inspiring awe, perhaps none more so than the 1919 deal that sent Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees for $100,000, making a paper clip seem like a fortune in comparison.

One-off deals like Ruth to New York are easily traced via Baseball-Reference or, for active players,, both of which list the transactions involving a player on his player page. Finding baseball’s red paper clip, though, requires plumbing the depths of deals, sorting through the transaction sections of player pages, and tracing the lines to see how a club can trade up to its own metaphorical house. How did the Indians, for example, turn 1977 draftee Jerry Dybzinski into two-time Cy Young Award-winner Corey Kluber.

To find such threads, I started by looking at the rosters of each major league team to determine whether players were homegrown, acquired via free agency or waivers, or acquired by trade. Because 40-man rosters include players without big league service time but 25-man rosters are too volatile, I had to create parameters to limit the population. One hundred plate appearances was my baseline for batters, whereas for pitchers I used minimums of 10 appearances or 25 innings pitched.

In narrowing my search this way, most teams had more than 25 players who qualified (mostly those whose players have struggled with injury), though some had fewer. But because the average number of players per team who qualified was not much higher than average roster size (28.7), I felt fairly confident with my methodology. With my sample selected, I then used Roster Resource and Baseball-Reference to identify how players were acquired and to follow the threads of those who were part of trade deals.

AL Central

AL Central Rosters
Team Drafted/Amateur Free Agent/Waiver Trade % Home Grown % Free Agent % Trade
Indians 12 8 12 37.5 25 37.5
Twins 11 11 3 44 44 16
Tigers 7 11 9 26 41 33
Sox  9 11 10 30 36.7 33
Royals 10  8 8 38 31 31

Though the American League Central has been historically bad this season, it does provide us with the most interesting of all trade threads, stretching from Dybzinski to Kluber.

July 7, 1977, was a lucky day for the Cleveland Indians. In the 15th round of the amateur draft, the team selected Dybzinski out of Cleveland State. The local product would go on to play three seasons of slightly above replacement-level ball for the Tribe. Then, in 1983, the White Sox and Indians swapped Dybzinski for Pat Tabler, who would play the best years of his career in Cleveland before being traded in another one-for-one deal, this time going to the Royals for pitcher Bud Black in 1988.

Black, like Tabler, would play some of his best ball for the Indians, but the organization was mired in a stretch that included just one winning season (1986) between 1959 and 1994. Thus, in September of 1990, Cleveland sent Black, a valuable trade chip, to Toronto in return for Mauro Gozzo and two players to be named later, Steve Cummings and Alex Sanchez. The return for Black produced no value for Cleveland at the big league level, but the Tribe was able to return Sanchez to the Blue Jays in November of 1990 for pitcher Willie Blair.

After one unremarkable season of -0.2 WAR, Blair was packaged with Eddie Taubensee and sent to Houston for Kenny Lofton and Dave Rohde. The trade marked a turning point in Dybzinski’s thread. Lofton was part of the 1995 AL championship team and would go on to be the team’s career leader in stolen bases and 11th in career WAR (43.1). Nonetheless, the Indians retooled before the 1997 season, sending Lofton to Atlanta in return for Marquis Grissom and David Justice. The move would help the Indians reach the World Series again in 1997, and Justice would accumulate 11.1 WAR in Cleveland, but in June 2000 he too was traded, going to the Yankees for three players.

Jake Westbrook proved to be the best of the bunch the Indians received for Justice, pitching 10 seasons and winning 69 games while accumulating 15.8 WAR. In the midst of a 69-93 2010 season, however, the Indians shipped Westbrook out to the contending Cardinals in a three-team deal that saw the Padres send Kluber to Cleveland in return. It was a light haul at the time, as Kluber had only reached Double-A, but in retrospect the deal looks lopsided, as Kluber — at 31.5 WAR and counting -— has amassed more than twice as much WAR as Westbrook and 35 times as much as Dybzinski.

Beyond the Kluber thread, Cleveland can also trace both Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco to the signing of Bartolo Colon. Colon was traded in 2002 for Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore, and Lee Stevens; Lee was then traded in 2009 for Carrasco, Jason Donald, Jason Knapp, and Lou Marson; Donald was part of the three-team deal in 2012 that sent Bauer from Arizona to the Indians.

No other AL Central team has such deep threads, but Minnesota’s Eduardo Escobar has the oldest thread among the other division teams, being, as he is, a product of deals going back to the 1994 drafting of A.J. Pierzynski. Likewise, the Royals can trace both Alcides Escobar and Jorge Soler to drafting Mike MacDougal 25th overall in 1999, and White Sox pitchers Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez have a line back to Joe Borchard, who was drafted in 2000. Though more recent, Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris of the Tigers have a notable link to 2002 draft pick Curtis Granderson.

AL East

AL East Rosters
Team Drafted/Amateur Free Agent/Waiver Trade % Home Grown % Free Agent % Trade
Yankees 11 5 11 41 18 41
Red Sox 11 5 13 38 17 45
Jays 7 12 8 26 44 30
Rays 8 5 13 31 19 50
Orioles 11 12 8 35 39 36

Perhaps the most interesting threads among the most dominant division in baseball today are those involving Adam Warren and the Yankees.

New York selected Warren in the fourth round of the 2009 draft and then traded him, along with Brendan Ryan, in 2015 to the Chicago Cubs for Starlin Castro. Castro was then packaged with Jose Devers and Jorge Guzman and sent to Miami in exchange for Giancarlo Stanton. This thread tied one of the game’s preeminent sluggers to the Yankees, but it’s short and compact and would hardly be worth noting, if not for the fact that Warren is a current Yankee.

How Warren came back to New York traces to Manny Banuelos, who signed with the club 15 months before it drafted Warren. One month after the Yankees traded Warren to the Cubs, Banuelos was sent to Atlanta in exchange for David Carpenter, who was traded to Washington five months later in return for Tony Renda and Chasen Shreve. In December 2015, Renda was one of four players sent to Cincinnati in return for Aroldis Chapman, who was then sent to Chicago prior to the 2016 trade deadline, which is how Warren (along with Gleyber Torres) came to wear pinstripes again.

The Tampa Bay Rays are the shortest-tenured AL East team, but there is a long thread running from Matt Andriese and Jose De Leon back to Victor Zambrano, who was signed before the club had even participated in a major league game. Zambrano was signed in February of 1996 and played three-plus seasons, accumulating 2.6 WAR before being traded for Scott Kazmir in 2004. Kazmir was worth 15.5 WAR over five-plus seasons in Tampa prior to going to the Angels for Alex Torres, Matthew Sweeney, and Sean Rodriguez. Torres had one effective season with the Rays (2013, 1.3 WAR) before he was traded to San Diego for Andriese, Brad Boxberger, Logan Forsythe, Matt Lollis, and Maxx Tissenbaum. Then, in January 2017, the Rays and Dodgers engaged in a one-for-one swap, with Forsythe heading to Los Angeles and de Leon going to Tampa, tying up the connections to Zambano.

Other interesting threads running through current AL East rosters include the link from Roy Halladay, drafted in 1995, to current Blue Jays second baseman Devon Travis, as well as the Red Sox thread beginning with the amateur signing of Hanley Ramirez (who was designated for assignment earlier this season during his second stint with the team) to utility infielder Brock Holt. Despite the flurry of trade activity currently going on in Baltimore, the Orioles have just one player with a significant thread: Mark Trumbo, whose thread goes back four deals to the 2009 signing of Mike Gonzalez.

AL West

AL West Rosters
Team Drafted/Amateur Free Agent/Waiver Trade % Home Grown % Free Agent % Trade
Astros 7 8 11 27 31 43
Angels 9 9 11 31 31 38
A’s 4 8 18 16 26 58
Mariners 6 8 14 21 29 50
Rangers 11 13 4 39 47 14

Nick Swisher is best known for his positive attitude (in Cleveland, he also carries the honorific “mayor of Brohio”), but perhaps he should be known as the person who, by this measure, has shaped the A’s roster more than anyone besides Billy Beane. Four players, as well as two currently stationed in the minors, can trace their place in the Oakland organization to the jovial outfielder known as Swish.

Drafted 16th overall in 2002, Swisher produced more than 10 WAR for the A’s between 2004 and 2007, after which he was traded to the White Sox for Fautino De Los Santos, Gio Gonzalez, and Ryan Sweeney. Sweeney was traded to the Red Sox in 2011, bringing Miles Head, Raul Alcantara (who is currently with the A’s Triple-A affiliate in Nashville), and Josh Reddick to Oakland. The A’s then took Reddick and packaged him with Rich Hill to obtain Jharel Cotton and Frankie Montas (also in Nashville) from the Dodgers in 2016. Separately, in 2011 the A’s traded Gonzalez (part of the initial return for Swisher) to the Nationals in exchange for A.J. Cole, Tommy Milone, Derek Norris, and Brad Peacock. Cole was sent back to the Nats in 2013 for John Jaso, who was swapped in 2015 for Ben Zobrist of the Rays, who was then traded to the Royals later that year for Sean Manaea. Also part of the Gonzalez deal, Norris was later traded to San Diego for Jesse Hahn, who was sent to Kansas City in January of this year for Ryan Buchter.

Besides Swisher’s link to current A’s Buchter, Cotton, Manaea, and Montas, Oakland also can draw a line from Mark Mulder, drafted second overall in 1998, to Stephen Piscotty and Boog Powell. The other threads in the division are somewhat disappointing. The most interesting might be the Astros’ Gerrit Cole, who is a product of deals starting with Roy Oswalt, a 23rd-round draft pick in 1996.

Elsewhere, Jerry Dipoto has earned his reputation as a dealmaker, but the Mariners currently have fewer players acquired by trade (14) than division rival A’s, and both the Mariners and the Rangers have just two players apiece with trade threads multiple deals deep, none of which date back prior to the turn of the century. The Angels, meanwhile, have just one player with a trail of more than one trade.

NL East

NL East Rosters
Team Drafted/Amateur Free Agent/Waiver Trade % Home Grown % Free Agent % Trade
Nationals 12 10 10 38 31 31
Braves 7 9 12 25 32 43
Phillies 14 6  8 50 21 29
Mets 11 6 7 46 24 30
Marlins 10 10 8 36 36 28

The current season is Martin Prado’s fourth in Miami, but because of the near constant flux in the organization, he’s already one of the longest-tenured Marlins on the roster. The thread tracing him to the Marlins, however, goes all the way back to the team’s expansion draft.

With the eighth pick of the 1992 expansion draft, the Marlins selected Trevor Hoffman from the Reds. Hoffman was worth -0.3 WAR for the Marlins in 1993 before being sent to San Diego, where he would accumulate 26.4 WAR and a then-record 601 saves en route to enshrinement in the Hall of Fame this year. The Marlins’ return for Hoffman, Gary Sheffield, wasn’t too bad either, racking up 18.2 WAR for the Fish before being traded in 1998 for another Hall of Famer, Mike Piazza. Piazza played just five games in Florida before he was traded again, this time to the Mets for Geoff Goetz, Preston Wilson, and Ed Yarnall. Yarnall spent less than a year with the Marlins before being traded to the Yankees for Mike Lowell, who spent seven seasons in Miami, accumulating 17.3 WAR before he was sent to Boston for Hanley Ramirez. The best years of Ramirez’s career were spent with the Marlins, where he generated 30.7 WAR between 2006 and 2012, when he was traded to the Dodgers. Nathan Eovaldi came to Miami in the Ramirez deal, but two seasons later he was traded again, this time to the Yankees in exchange for Prado.

The club that originally signed Prado in 2001, the Braves, also has significant ties to the infielder. Prado accumulated 12.9 of his 22 career WAR in Atlanta before he was traded to Arizona in a seven-player deal in 2013, with Justin Upton heading the opposite way. Upton was traded two seasons later to San Diego for Max Fried, Dustin Peterson, Jace Peterson, and Mallex Smith. Fried and Dustin Peterson are still with the Braves (on the 40-man roster, currently), but Smith was shipped out to Seattle in return for another member of the Braves’ 40-man roster, Luiz Gohara. Smith was on the Mariners roster for a little over an hour before Dipoto sent him to Tampa.

Outside the Prado connection, the Marlins can also trace four players to the drafting of Josh Willingham in 2000. A 17th-round pick, Willingham played parts of five seasons and produced 6.4 WAR before he was traded to Washington in 2008. The Marlins’ return in the deal was P.J. Dean, Jake Smolinski, and Emilio Bonifacio, with Bonifacio being the only player to impact the major league roster for Miami. In 2012, however, Bonifacio was sent to Toronto in a 12-player deal that returned Yunel Escobar, Adeiny Hechavarria, and Jake Marisnick, among others. Escobar subsequently was sent to the Rays for current left fielder Derek Dietrich; Hechavarria later was traded to the Rays for Braxton Lee, who has played in eight games with the Fish this year. Meanwhile, Marisnick was part of a five-player deal that brought Enrique Hernandez to Miami from Houston, where he would then become part of a six-player deal through which the Marlins acquired current shortstop Miguel Rojas from the Dodgers.

Alas, the intrigue in the NL East stops there, as the Mets, Phillies, and Nats have few threads among their players. The Nationals have the longest and oldest thread, though it pales in comparison to the Marlins’ threads, dating back to 2008 and extending four stops from Ryan Langerhans to Michael Morse to Blake Treinen to current Nats Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson.

NL Central

NL Central Rosters
Team Drafted/Amateur Free Agent/Waiver Trade % Home Grown % Free Agent % Trade
Cubs 6 11 12 21 38 41
Brewers 6 10 14 20 33 47
Cardinals 15 9 5 52 31 17
Pirates 13 2 12 48 7 45
Reds 12 6 8 46 23 31

When the Brewers signed Alcides Escobar out of Venezuela in 2003, they surely had high hopes for him, as he cracked prospect lists just three years later, but they perhaps didn’t expect him to net them a starting pitcher and outfielder 15 years later. Escobar accumulated only 1.0 WAR in Milwaukee before being shipped to Kansas City in 2010 with Lorenzo Cain, Jeremy Jeffress, and Jake Odorizzi for Yuniesky Betancourt and Zack Greinke.

Greinke’s season and a half with the Brewers was short but productive, as he was worth 7.6 WAR over that span; that productivity returned Jean Segura in a 2012 trade. Segura’s nomadic career (traded three times in four years) was only just beginning, however. In 2016, the Brewers sent him to Arizona for Chase Anderson, who has emerged as Milwaukee’s ace, Aaron Hill (who was then traded to Boston for Aaron Wilkerson, currently in the Brewers’ minor league system), and Isan Diaz, who was flipped to Miami in the previous offseason for Christian Yelich.

Likewise, Pittsburgh can draw a line from drafting Brad Lincoln in 2006 to both Steven Brault and Ivan Nova. Other fairly long threads run through the Central, such as that from Anthony DeSclafani to the Reds’ purchase of Josh Hamilton’s rights from the Cubs in 2006, or the Cubs’ Tommy La Stella, who can be traced to Mark DeRosa signing as a free agent in 2006. The Cardinals, while lacking many extensive threads, have the oldest, extending from injured pitcher Dominic Leone all the way back to the 20th pick in the 1997 draft, Adam Kennedy.

NL West

NL West Rosters
Team Drafted/Amateur Free Agent/Waiver Trade % Home Grown % Free Agent % Trade
DBacks 7 10 12 24 34 42
Dodgers 10 9 15 30 26 44
Giants 12 14 5 39 45 16
Rockies 12 10 6 43 36 21
Padres 9 10 11 30 33 37

No division is closer in 2018 than the NL West, where the Giants, currently in fourth place, trail the first-place Dodgers by just 4.5 games as of this writing. However, in terms of deep trade threads, the NL West is considerably less interesting. Both the Giants and Rockies lack any trades of significant depth, with the players traded by both organizations being amateur signings or draft picks.

The Dodgers made a big splash during the All-Star break, acquiring Manny Machado from Baltimore, but Breyvic Valera was the only one in that six-player deal previously acquired via trade. His thread is brief, as he had previously been with the Cardinals, and was traded for Johan Mieses. The Dodgers’ deepest thread runs from Rich Hill, who was acquired in 2016 in a deal with the A’s involving Frankie Montas, who had been acquired in a three-team trade in December of 2015 that sent Jose Peraza to the Reds, who had come to the Dodgers just five months previous in a different three-team deal that moved Hector Olivera to the Braves.

The Padres also made a big deal during the All-Star break, sending Brad Hand and Adam Cimber to the Indians, but Francisco Mejia has yet to crack the big league roster. Among those actually playing in San Diego, Carlos Asuaje and Manuel Margot have the longest thread, as they were brought to Petco Park in a deal with the Red Sox for Craig Kimbrel in November 2015. Kimbrel had been acquired from the Braves in April 2015 for Cameron Maybin and three others: Maybin was obtained in 2010 for Edward Mujica and Ryan Webb; Webb had come over from the A’s in 2009 for Scott Hairston; and Hairston had been the product of a 2007 deal for Leo Rosales, who was a 2003 draft choice of the Padres.

Finally, the Diamondbacks have three players on the current roster from the 2009 draft (Paul Goldschmidt, Chris Owings, and A.J. Pollock). But the team can trace a thread from four other members of their 2009 draft class to eight players who were acquired via trade. The ‘09 picks who were swapped include Chase Anderson, Adam Davidson, Marc Krauss, and Jarrod Parker, who were either directly a part of deals or pieces in threads that brought back Nick Ahmed, Randall Delgado, Matt Koch, Ketel Marte, Robbie Ray, and Steven Souza Jr., as well as injured Taijuan Walker and minor leaguer Domingo Leyba.


It is difficult to make any sweeping conclusions about roster construction and success. The division leaders as of this writing have rosters ranging from 21.4 to 51.8 percent homegrown players, 20 to 39.2 percent free agent or waiver signings, and 25.9 to 44.1 percent trade acquisitions. If there is a relation to success, perhaps it is that good teams have balanced profiles. The extreme teams, with the most and least homegrown players (the Cardinals with 16, and the A’s with five), free agent or waiver signings (the Giants, 14, and the Pirates, two), and trade acquisitions (the A’s with 18, and the Twins with four), weren’t meaningfully closer than the Giants’ 6.5 games behind the division leader. Indeed only the A’s, at 6.0 games back of first place Houston, is doing better.

In terms of skill sets, position players were more likely to remain with the club that drafted or signed them than pitchers, with 39 percent of outfielders and 38 percent of infielders homegrown compared to 32 and 31 percent of starting and relief pitchers, respectively. Not a single team’s primary designated hitter in 2018 is a homegrown player.

Acquisition Method by Position
Infield Outfield Starting Pitcher Relief Pitcher DH
Homegrown 90 54 62 90 0
Free Agent/Waiver 68 33 51 105 9
Traded 75 49 75 91 6

Forty percent of DHs come to their teams by trade, which is just a hair more than the 39 percent of starting pitchers who were acquired by trade. If any team is trying to start a new trade thread and turn its paper clip into a house, it might be best to start with a slugger or someone who can eat innings. Who knows where it will end up?

Chris Davies (@chris_d_davies on Twitter) is a father and husband from central Illinois. He is a writer for Let's Go Tribe and had a piece of fiction published in the 2018 Hardball Times Annual.
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Deacon Drakemember
5 years ago

James Shields… the ultimate paper clip.

5 years ago

I think you missed an equally long Dodger thread that goes back further in time. Scott Alexander->Eric Mejia->Joe Wieland->Matt Kemp (2003 draft). Yasmani Grandal goes back to Kemp as well, but only in one step.

5 years ago

This is very interesting, but you forgot to include compensation draft picks for departed free agents.

For example: Albert Pujols was drafted by the Cardinals in 1999. He left via free agency after the 2011 season. The Cardinals received two compensatory draft picks, which they used to draft Michael Wacha (who is a current SP for the Cardinals albeit on the DL right now) and Stephen Piscotty, who was traded to the Athletics for current utility man Yairo Muñoz and prospect Max Schrock.

formerly matt w
5 years ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

Even if you don’t allow compensation picks for departed free agents, the Pirates have a long thread that goes through a traded draft pick. The Pirates purchased Ricardo Rincon from the Mexico City Reds in 1997, traded him to Cleveland for Brian Giles in Nov. 1998, traded Giles to San Diego for Jason Bay, Oliver Perez, and Cory Stewart in August 2003, traded Bay for four players including Bryan Morris in a three-way deal in July 2008, traded Morris to the Marlins in 2014 for a competitive balance round A pick, drafted Connor Joe with that pick, and in August 2017 traded Joe to Atlanta for Sean Rodriguez.