Anatomy of a Baseball Trade
Imagine telling a lawyer she’s been traded for two promising law students. Or a salesman that he’s moving from a software company in Seattle to a tire company in Cleveland. In sports, it happens all the time. To find out how it’s done, we asked Ed Wade, general manager of the Houston Astros, and Frank Wren, his counterpart with the Atlanta Braves—as well as some of their scouts and players—to reconstruct a swap they made just before baseball’s July 31 trading deadline. The process begins with Wade realizing that his slumping Astros need to unload players such as star outfielder Hunter Pence and speedy center fielder Michael Bourn to build for the future.
Astros: Wade e-mail to Wren, July 6, 2:42 p.m. CDT – Frank, hope all is well. In advance of the [trade] deadline I want to give you a general sense of where we are. We’re open-minded on just about anything. Looking for prospects, closer to the big leagues the better. Let me know if anything makes sense.
Braves: Frank Wren, general manager, Atlanta Braves – We started having conference calls right after spring training in mid-May to prepare for the trade deadline, talking to our scouts to see which teams we matched up with.
Astros: Wade – There were 14 e-mail exchanges between Frank and me. On outfield subjects—outfielders plural.
Braves: Wren – I got a text message from Ed on July 22 that their internal discussions had picked up, and he said, “We do have Pence in play, I will call you tonight.” So Ed called me and I told him, “Yeah, we do have interest.” And so we talked primarily about Pence right up to the morning of the 30th.
On July 26, Wade convenes his brain trust to discuss which minor league prospects they’ll seek in exchange for the major leaguers they hope to move.
Astros: Charlie Norton, Astros director of baseball research – There were 15 scouts sent out for supplemental coverage based on several clubs we matched up with.
Astros: Dave Gottfried, Astros assistant general manager of baseball operations – We’re reaching out to amateur scouts on some of the younger minor league players, where in some cases they may have watched them in high school or college and grew up nearby and can really give you the background and personal information, the makeup that you’re looking for.
Astros: Wade – Along with doing their formal reports, we were asking scouts to send e-mails overnight. And it got to the point where, I think I said it semi in jest, “I sure hope somebody is reading all this stuff.” Because the volume of it was pretty substantial.
Astros: Gottfried – Everyone’s got one of those black binders, and guys are spending a lot of time looking in there, it’s got the OFP listing. [Hundreds of minor league prospects are ranked by overall future potential.] It’s also got all the waiver and roster information on all the clubs, their depth charts. It’s got major league stats, minor league stats. Guys who are less familiar with some clubs, say someone who may not know Atlanta as well, they’re bearing down on that stuff.
Astros: Wade – At one time Friday, we had a number of clubs that had strong interest in Pence and strong interest in Bourn. Two guys were assigned to each club. There were half a dozen clubs. We wanted to come back with options A, B, C. We were continually getting fresh reports. Atlanta was interested in Pence. So was Philadelphia.
On Friday night July 29, the Astros agree to send Pence to the Phillies for four minor leaguers. On Saturday morning, with the trading deadline less than 30 hours away, Wren, Atlanta’s GM, is at a traffic light on his way to Turner Field when he receives a text message from Wade.
Astros: 10:30 a.m. Wade text message – Do you have interest in Michael Bourn?
Braves: Wren text message – A little.
Braves: 12 p.m. Wren text message – Was driving when your message came in. We have other things we are working on as a higher priority. We know the names you gave us [as part of the Pence negotiations], what mix would it take?
Astros: Wade text message – We’ll look. We would have interest in a package of [Randall] Delgado and [Mike] Minor.
Braves: 1:30 p.m. Wren text message – We see Bourn valued down a level from Pence for our club. We like the run production and power of Pence, and Bourn is a run creator. That doesn’t do as much for us. That is too rich for us. Thanks, Frank.
Astros: Wade text message If you want to pursue him, feel free to make a proposal that makes sense for you. Thanks.
Braves: John Coppolella, Braves director of professional scouting – They asked at first for one of our top four pitching prospects and we went through the room and each of us ranked those four, talked about each one, and we ended up not trading any of them. This team is based on good young pitching and we all felt we needed to hold on to that strength.
Braves: Wren – We sat down and talked through it with our scouts and I said, [Bourn] is the perfect fit for us. If we want him, and if we want to make this deal without giving up what we consider our Big Four, we’re going to have to give up talent. At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s a better option.
The Braves offer outfielder Jordan Schafer, minor league starting pitchers Paul Clemens and Brett Oberholtzer, and reliever Juan Abreu, whose fastball has been clocked at 101 mph. The Braves also ask for $900,000 to cover part of Bourn’s $4.4 million salary.
Astros: 4 p.m. Wade text message – Seriously considering, will respond shortly via phone.
Two hours later, Wren and Wade agree to the deal. Wade follows up by e-mail with a six-sentence letter of agreement and calls Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr. for approval. He also calls Jim Crane, the Astros’ prospective new owner. Wren informs Braves Chief Executive Officer Terry McGuirk.
Astros: Gottfried – Once Ed and Frank consummated it, we worked on putting a term sheet and an agreement letter together. Then it’s got to be entered into the major league computer system. Traci [Dearing, Wade's executive assistant] entered all of that, and then it kicks over to their side. They reviewed it and approved it, and it goes to MLB.
Because this is the second deal within six months in which the Braves are receiving more than $400,000 in cash, the commissioner’s office must approve it.
At 7 p.m., Wade’s phone rings as he’s about to head home. It’s the general manager of another team inquiring for the first time about Bourn.
Astros: Wade – Our briefcases are packed up now, all we have to do is just say novenas for the rest of the night hoping Michael doesn’t get hurt. And I’m just about 10 paces from the elevator to push the button to go down to the parking garage. I said, “Out of respect, I don’t want to waste your time. I think we’re pretty far down the road on something.” And the response is, “Even if I’m willing to give you better players?” And I said, “Just take me at my word. We’ve known each other for a long time, stay out of it.”
Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig signs off on the deal. Wren calls Jordan Schafer to tell him he’s been traded from a winning team in Atlanta to a losing one in Houston.
Braves: Schafer – I was heading to the park, and I saw Frank’s number pop up on my cell phone and I knew right away what was happening. It’s kind of bittersweet. It’s nice to go somewhere where someone wants you, but it’s not fun leaving what you’re accustomed to, guys you’re used to and a situation you’re comfortable with. You just pick up and go, you take what you need for the last two months of the season.
Braves: Bill Acree, Braves director of team travel – The first thing I had to do was get [Bourn] here. We had an idea he was coming here, so we had a uniform made in case the trade took place. I sent somebody to meet his flight, get all his baggage.
Wade calls Michael Bourn, who grew up in Houston, to tell him he’s been traded to Atlanta.
Astros: Bourn – I couldn’t sleep that night. I was wondering what was going to go on. Would I stay or would I go? I wanted to know either way so I could have peace of mind. I knew they weren’t calling that early in the morning on the day of the trade deadline for nothing. He told me I had been traded to the Braves and they was moving in a different direction.
Astros: Wade – I’ve met his mom. I’ve met his dad. I’ve met his baby. He knows my kids. All those types of things come into play. Sometimes we tend to sanitize this whole process: “It was a roster move, it was a player move.” But the human element does factor into it, you do build relationships with players. Players certainly build relationships with the fans. In this case a hometown guy. So there were a lot of moving parts from an emotional standpoint.
Bourn’s parents went to almost every Astros game this season to see their son play. After the trade, they fly to Atlanta for 10 days to find Michael an apartment. They have perhaps the toughest job of all: persuading Michael’s son, Bryson, to switch allegiances.
Ray Bourn, Michael’s father – The biggest problem I think we had is that he had a Mickey Mouse hat with “Astros” on it and he wanted to wear that. So we were trying to tell him no and he had a fit about that hat. A 2-year-old, you tell him not to wear that hat when he’s been wearing it every game, that’s a big problem. We ended up buying him an Atlanta Mickey Mouse hat.