How Do You Sell A Constant Trade Deadline “Seller”?

A's Fans in Bleachers
Devoted A’s fans display signs in the outfield bleachers during the 2014 MLB Playoffs. (Image credit: Kelley L Cox – USA TODAY Sports)

As the calendar approaches July 31, baseball fans feel a special sort of anxiety as their favorite teams, depending on their self-perceived chances of making the MLB Postseason –  seek to either load up on talent for the stretch run, or trade away their better players in the hopes of having a better shot next season. Fans of the Oakland Athletics, however, feel a particular variant of this anxiety, since July 31 has become the team’s traditional fire-sale day, even when the team is in contention. From a team performance standpoint, these moves make sense. But does it makes overall business sense to be consistent sellers?

As I write this, it has been about three hours since the Athletics’ latest in a long line of trade-deadline selling: Sean Doolittle and John Axford to the Washington Nationals for Blake Treinen and two minor leaguers. So begins yet another round of rebuilding for the beleaguered A’s, who are rumored to be making another major trade (or two) in the coming weeks. It makes sense on paper – In Doolittle and Madson, you send two former All-Star closers to a team that needs bullpen help, and receive a pair of prospects who may turn into high-caliber Major Leaguers, and Billy Beane is famously against the idea of a traditional closer, instead opting to shuffle players in and out of the role as performance and game situations dictate. Indeed, this is the Athletics’ modus operandi, especially as it comes to closers, but Oakland’s high-turnover approach doesn’t just apply to bullpen specialists:  in just the last season and a half, the A’s have parted ways with Danny Valencia (traded), Trevor Plouffe (traded), Steven Vogt (waived), Sam Fuld (free agency), Eric Sogard (free agency), Billy Butler (free agency), Coco Crisp (traded),  Rich Hill (traded), Josh Reddick (traded), Billy Burns (traded), Brett Lawrie (traded), Drew Pomeranz (traded), Ike Davis (free agency), Jesse Chavez (traded), Dan Otero (waived), and Barry Zito (free agency). Granted, not all of these deals were of the “sell-high” variety, but that’s still a list of 16 players, not including the players that you’ve probably never heard of.

Even in the Athletics’ better-performing years, they’re not exactly buyers at the deadline. Consider the Athletics’ trade deadline deals in their most recent playoff years, 2014, 13, and 12: Fautino de los Santos for George Kottaras, Grant Green for Alberto Callaspo, Yoenis Cespedes for Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes, and Tommy Milone for Sam Fuld. In three years of playoff-caliber baseball, the A’s made exactly one blockbuster deal. Not surprisingly, the A’s never made it out of the Divisional round of the playoffs in any of those three years. 

An MLB executive may argue, fairly, that this is the cost of doing business, especially when a team has a limited budget, as the A’s famously do. But what does this do from a fan’s perspective? In short, it prevents fans from connecting with players, as it has become expected that the team will simply trade a particular player away or opt to let him go in free agency. As an example of this, note than in 2014 USA Today article referenced earlier, none of the A’s players mentioned are still with the team.

By way of background, I am a life-long A’s fan whose family has held a share of A’s season tickets for the last 31 years. That is to say, I’ve seen this happen since the late 90’s, I know the drill. Even so, please do not consider this a bitter rambling from a weary fan: Taking fandom out of the equation, it’s tough to see a team with an incredibly devoted – if small – fanbase let practically every one of its established players (not even established stars, just established players) go on a yearly basis (but do allow me one more bitter ramble: of the players referenced in the fans’ outfield signs in the featured image at the top of the post, none are still with the A’s. I’m done ranting, I promise).

My overall argument is that this sort of revolving-door approach is not only a risky approach on the field, but risky to the team’s bottom line. If A’s fans expect a star to be let go in a matter of a couple of seasons, why buy that player’s merchandise? I certainly wouldn’t invest in a Sonny Gray “shirsey” at this point, and I consider his days in green and gold numbered. It’s also a tough sell to get a casual fan to come to a late-season game for a team with no established players and no hope of making the playoffs. It makes the promotions department’s job tougher, since it’s increasingly difficult to plan giveaways around current players – a lesson learned in 2014 when Yoenis Cespedes T-shirt day was held after he had been traded to Boston. Additionally, it puts pressure on a team’s ticket sales staff, who are left to convince a season ticket holder to renew his plan after a disappointing season, especially when that fan doesn’t know who’s coming back next year.

What are the A’s to do, then? Two answers that they have found are to sell the history of the team and the brand of the team. Instead of promoting a current player with a high-value promotion, the A’s held “Rickey Henderson Night” just last night, featuring a Henderson jersey giveaway. The team also named its field after the hometown hero, and renamed its stadium’s Gate C after fellow Hall-of-Famer Jim “Catfish” Hunter in separate ceremonies this season. Additionally, the team has launched a brand-new marketing campaign this season, “Rooted In Oakland”, doubling down on the team’s commitment to the East Bay after years of back-and-forth on the potential of moving the team out of Oakland (the A’s are expected to finalize the site of their new Oakland stadium later this year).

Overall, it’s difficult for all but the most die-hard of fans to stay committed to their team if the product on the field is disappointing, without even a single big-name player to entice them to come to games. Teams like the Oakland A’s have to continue to innovate and find ways to keep fans coming back in lean years. If the team can’t market its core product, it has to find other means to bring fans out to the ballpark after each July 31 or risk a catastrophic collapse of its fan base.