Trading baseball players for anything of value is impossibly hard.
A GM only has 29 potential trade partners, and of those he must find one that's usually in the exact opposite side of his team's location in the standings. There's a desire to win the trade, of course, but there's also the desire to maintain amicable enough relations with the other GM so that there's not irreparable damage done to the relationship that would prevent advantageous trades in the future. There are infinite rolls of the dice, and there's a non-stop juggling of scouting information (much of which gives completely conflicting opinions on individual players).
And if that wasn't enough to make for sleepless nights, there's a stopwatch timing it all.
There are ten days until the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline, which is the last chance for baseball GMs to make moves with each other without other franchises being allowed to meddle in any potential deal. For the first time with the Cincinnati Reds - and more or less the first time in his GM career - Walt Jocketty has a pile of tradable assets with short shelf-lives on a team that's going nowhere and going there fast. For a GM who has become notorious for keeping any and all potential dealings as close to the vest as any in the game, Jocketty now sits in the spotlight with moves that have to be made and have to be made within a set period of time.
Everyone knows it. The next ten days won't feature Walt pulling a deal for Mat Latos out of thin air, nor will it see him trade again from prospect depth to land a Shin-Soo Choo type rental. Instead, the next ten days will see Walt be forced to trade Johnny Cueto with the eyes of every other team in baseball watching him. With that added scrutiny comes added pressures, and in the baseball world in mid July, one of those pressures is that buying teams want things for pennies on the dollar.
ESPN's Jayson Stark spoke to one of those GMs, presumably, who just so happened to be on-hand for Cueto's awful outing against the Cleveland Indians on Sunday.
Asked an exec of a team interested in Johnny Cueto if they saw anything to be alarmed about in his start Sunday. He said: "Yes. Everything."— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) July 21, 2015
As the news leaked out recently that Reds reliever and potential trade piece Manny Parra had been placed on the 15-day DL with an elbow sprain, it was easy to craft a parable about holding on to valuable assets too long, being greedy, and seeing the strategy ruin the near future. A 47 minute rain delay, six walks in four innings, and a potentially damning quote from a rival later, it's easy to wonder if Jocketty's insistence on holding on to Cueto long enough to build a furious bidding war as the deadline nears has backfired completely.
Perhaps that's the case. The rumors of the Reds' unwillingness to trade their ace prior to the All Star break out of reluctance to see him in attendance in another uniform are well known, and if that was actual strategy more than rumor, that coupled with Sunday's implosion serve as pretty damning evidence that the course of action has been proved fallible.
But there's every bit the chance that Walt Jocketty has been calling contenders in need of an ace for weeks only to be told that there are weeks until the trade deadline and that they're not ready to make a move. There's the possibility that after Cueto's mastery of the Washington Nationals opposite Max Scherzer two weeks ago, Walt called Brian Cashman, Alex Anthopolous, and Jeff Luhnow and got three "I don't know if we're ready" responses and had Jose Reyes & 14 million bucks as the best offer on the table.
Since the advent of the newest Collective Bargaining Agreement and the new inability for teams that acquire players in their final year under contract to get any sort of draft pick compensation should they leave after the season, the prevailing sentiment has become to not let star players reach the point that Johnny Cueto has reached. That point, of course, is 'star player on a team forced to sell who is in a position of zero leverage.' The Reds made the conscious decision to step into that position, and in doing so played their hand with other teams able to see their cards. However, that move wasn't made after Cueto's start against the Nationals on July 7th, it was made during the winter when the team traded Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon and not Cueto himself.
The Reds insistence on keeping their assets until the final days before the trade deadline is a calculated strategy, but it's not one that changes markedly by the hour. It's a decision that was consciously made months ago, and it's a path that carries risk ample enough that the Parra situation made us all cringe. It's baseball brinksmanship, and it's the Reds front office hoping that a buyer's need for an ace will become more desperate than the Reds' need to trade Cueto before losing him for near nothing.
It's also hoping that an equally well-tooled third party doesn't emerge with assets that rival Cueto, et al, and that they don't alter the market in the waning moments before the deadline so much that the Reds' entire platform becomes useless.
It's on Walt Jocketty at this point, but at least he's not entirely new to the concept. He turned fodder into Mark McGwire at the same deadline 18 years ago, Placido Polanco into Scott Rolen 13 years ago, and netted Nick Masset for the last gasps of Ken Griffey, Jr.'s career at the 2008 deadline. He's not walking into this scenario with lack of experience, but Reds fans will have to hope that him being a seller instead of a buyer isn't something that overwhelms him.
I mean, only the next three years of Reds baseball depends on it.