The Phillies Traded a Pitcher for Nothing. Why?

Cisco hurling for the Reading Phillies in 2011 Photograph by Mike Janes/Four Seam Images via AP Photo

On Sunday, Philadelphia Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro, deep in the throes of slimming down his spring training roster, agreed to send 25 year-old right-handed pitcher Mike Cisco—the team’s 36th round draft pick from 2008—to the Los Angeles Angels. In return the club received nothing: no fresh-faced prospects, no players-to-be-named-later, and no money.

While that seems hardly ideal for the Phillies—and, as some have noted, embarrassing for Cisco—Amaro’s decision isn’t without precedent, and it isn’t without potential upsides. John Hart, a former general manager for the Texas Rangers and the Cleveland Indians, made “no compensation” trades at least three times during his front-office career.

When an aspiring Major Leaguer is released by an organization, he is essentially fired and must begin contract negotiations at square one. But if he’s traded—even for nothing in return—he retains his existing contract.

“When you draft a player or acquire a player, you’ve got a good feel for that player,” says Hart, who currently works as an analyst for MLB TV. “You’ve had a chance to look at the guy at spring training and he isn’t a good fit. You look up and go, ‘Well, what are my options?’ I always try to get compensation if I can. If I can’t, I can release him, which is generally what happens. But if the player is my player, and I drafted him and I liked the guy and I can help him have the chance to get a job somewhere else, then I’d go ahead and make that deal.”

While the circumstances surrounding the trade remain unknown, Amaro’s apparent giveaway is obviously a favor for the Angels, as well as for Cisco. As Hart notes, the Phillies, an organization deep in pitching prospects, has nothing to lose or gain by choosing to trade him for nothing vs. simply cutting him loose. Either way, he’s gone. But this way, the deal is an act of goodwill between teams, which could potentially pay off later.

“I would venture to say this,” says Hart. “You try to get compensation but if you can’t, there generally becomes goodwill between the clubs. So if you’re caught somewhere during the middle of the season—you’ve had some injuries and need some middle infielders—you might get some help” from the club that benefited from the donated player. “Everybody,” Hart says, “gets caught like that.”

In 1994, Hart, then GM for the Cleveland Indians, was at the receiving end of a no-compensation trade. “I took Dave Winfield during the strike of ’94, late August,” he says, “[The Minnesota Twins GM Andy MacPhail] did Winfield a favor, and here I got a Hall of Famer for no compensation.” The next season would be Winfield’s last. When the Indians went to the postseason, Hart left Winfield, a 44 year-old plagued with injuries, off the roster. Coincidentally, he activated a pinch runner instead: Ruben Amaro.

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