This time of year, a decision tree involving free agents-to-be on teams falling out of contention starts to sprout. Follow one branch and you're supposed to trade a guy and get a prospect, or prospects. Follow another and you keep the guy until he's a free agent, and presumably you reap draft picks. It's a fairly straightforward proposition, but in today's trade market it's also an increasingly false dichotomy.
First, the team adding a veteran to make a run is only getting two months or so of the guy's time. That's valuable, and if it involves adding a player worth an arbitration offer after the season, then the deal is potentially even more valuable to the acquiring team. That's because then they stand to get the draft pick to replace the prospect(s) dealt -- or they wind up with the right to retain their veteran for another season at something approximating market value.
An example of that would be the Ted Lilly trade last season. The Cubs got a package of prospects from the Dodgers for two months of Lilly (bound for free agency), plus two months and two years of contractual control over Ryan Theriot at arbitration-driven pricing in 2011 and 2012. In that trade, the Cubs had to add cash to get a fairly modest swag: failed second-base suspect Blake DeWitt (overhyped as an OBP source because he'd occasionally flirted with a 10 percent walk rate), plus young pitchers Kyle Smit and Brett Wallach. None of them is what you'd call a blue-chip prospect, but to make that deal happen, the Cubs had to kick in seven figures in cash to sweeten the pot. To really get a worthy prospect, you'd better be offering up not just two months, but a year and two months, and that's if you're trading away Mark Teixeira or the like.
Which brings us to the second point. In today's prospect-loving environment, you're lucky to get much more than the odd organizational player. It's usually somebody already in his mid-20s, perhaps moderately successful at Double-A.
That makes for one of several variations on what you might call a tweener, whether in the infield, the outfield, or out on the mound. Among infielders, it's usually the guy whose bat profiles as adequate at second base who lacks the range for short or the arm for third. If he's an outfielder, he'll almost certainly lack the power for a corner or the glove for center. Among pitchers, you might be landing a strike-thrower with average velocity (or worse), someone gunning either for the fifth slot of a big-league rotation or a middle relief job as the pen's spongebob, mopping up blowouts. If you're lucky, you get a moderately live-armed righty reliever or a situational lefty.
None of these are bad things to have, and everybody needs them, but they're also usually the kind of talent a moderately competent player development program conjures up on its own. So the prospect or the package of prospects you're hoping for? They aren't likely to be franchise-changing additions.
The third and final point is that there's the unreasonable expectation that you ought to offer arbitration to everybody, to get those picks. For example, Bruce Miles of the Arlington Daily-Herald recently posited this very question -- trade or hold? -- about Cubs first baseman Carlos Pena, because he's having a nice enough season, and he's a free agent at season's end.
The problem in this proposition is that, in a case like Pena's, you don't get picks, because you don't want to take the risk of offering him arbitration. That's because this coming winter there's a very real possibility he'd simply take it -- and thereby take you out of the bidding for Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder. It will also keep you from collecting those draft choices, because you're now the lucky recidivist when it comes to winning the Pena sweepstakes.
Put all of that together, and you can see why the trade deadline gets built up as a big deal, but increasingly yields a paltry payoff to the sellers. Between teams loving their own prospects -- and the value of multiple years of contractual control of those prospects -- and the mediocre veterans available in trade, the "prospects or picks" choice ends up being an increasingly rare decision. It isn't all that unusual for teams looking move players to wind up with neither when trading a veteran on short time before free agency.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.