Victor Lustig was one of the most infamous con artists of the early 20th century. One of his first scams was to show his mark a money-printing machine. The machine, Lustig claimed, was able to create perfect reproductions of a $100 bill. Unfortunately, as the sob story went, the device required six hours in which to complete the work on each individual copy, and Lustig needed to pay off some debts pronto. He could not afford to wait around for the machine to produce the cash he needed at the incredibly slow pace of a mere $400 a day.
After a demonstration proving the machine did in fact work, the greedy mark would happily fork over upwards of $30,000 for the machine, knowing full well that in a matter of months, he would be paid back on his investment and then some. Of course, 12 hours later, after the machine painstakingly cranked out the second and final $100 bill that Lustig had planted inside, the only thing that this worthless piece of junk would produce was anger. But with nearly a half-day's head start, Lustig could not be tracked down.
Lustig was so good at convincing people to believe what he wanted them to believe, he even managed to sell the Eiffel Tower. Pretending to be a French official who wanted to keep the public in the dark about the government's desire to tear down the landmark and sell its metal frame for scrap, Lustig was able to finagle a suitcase full of cash from his unwitting targets before fleeing the country. When he realized that the victims of his fraud had been too embarrassed to report the crime to the police, he returned to Paris and pulled the scam a second time.
When it comes to fantasy baseball trades, many people are fearful of making a single swap, lest they discover far too late that they are dealing with someone like Victor Lustig. And certainly, there are some con artists out there, ready to get some poor schmo to agree to a trade of "Utley for Santana," only to discover after accepting that it wasn't Johan Santana or even Ervin Santana that was being offered, but marginal Cubs' prospect Audy Santana. A fantasy commissioner has every right to step in and veto such a deal, especially if the Chase Utley owner cries foul play.
However, just because a deal may sound suspicious to some, that doesn't mean there's something underhanded going on. I received several letters this week, all questioning the same sort of transaction, where an owner makes a trade to acquire rights to the top waiver priority spot. Is such a deal within the bounds of fair play, or is it simply an attempt to circumvent the waiver procedures set in place by your league rules?
To answer this properly, we'll have to look at what those rules actually say. First of all, we need to know if your league allows trading or not. Perhaps this seems silly, but certainly if the answer is no, it will save us the need to explore the issue any further. So let's assume you can make trades. Is there any restriction on what can be traded? After all, if there is a specific rule in place that forbids the trading of waiver picks, or even future considerations or players to be named later, then a deal like the one in question is likely to be either in violation of the rules, or at least subject to a general ruling by the league commissioner as to whether or not these types of deals are in the spirit of the rule.
If there's no restriction on trades, then this deal seems perfectly legitimate to me. One team is trading an asset, that of "first waiver priority," in exchange for something of value, namely a particular player. Both teams are getting something, and also giving up something. The problem some people may have with this kind of deal is the question of what exactly the value of "first waiver priority" is. If Team A is trading it away for Tim Lincecum, then owners want to be sure that Team B uses that top pick on someone closer to Johnny Cueto than Gustavo Molina. I would argue that in leagues that give owners a veto vote on deals, that such a deal should be vetoed. Not because it's an illegal move, or that collusion is necessarily in place, but simply by the fact that they are making the deal before all of the players involved in the deal are known quantities, the owners are trying an end-around the league vote policy.
Imagine if you were to propose a deal of Clete Thomas for Cueto. Would that pass your league's veto vote? More than likely it would not. But if you were to propose a deal of Clete Thomas for Felix Pie, I can't imagine too much of an uproar over the move. That's kind of what happens when a blind deal of "a player for a pick" is proposed. You're asking owners to trust that there's nothing sneaky going on, that both sides of the deal will end up having fairly even value, and that may be asking for too much of a leap of faith.
The other complaint I've heard about deals of this nature comes from owners in leagues where there is a clearly written rule forbidding the trading of waiver claims, and they can't understand why. Let me ask you this first ... what is the difference between the following scenarios? Owner X trades his waiver pick to Owner Y for Mark Teahen, and Owner Y selects Rajai Davis -- or owner X selects Rajai Davis from waivers and then trades him to Owner Y for Mark Teahen. Isn't the result exactly the same? Then why is one allowable under the rules and the other not? It's a fair question. Some people may fear the latter deal is a form of collusion, as Owner Y might be, in effect, making the pick for Owner X. In other words, if owners agree to make a deal for something (in this case, Rajai Davis) that neither of them currently owns, shouldn't that be considered collusion, and therefore, be deemed illegal?
It's an interesting argument, but completely off the mark. The owner of the first waiver priority has the right to pick whomever he wants, and if someone wants to suggest that he'd be willing to part with Mark Teahen in exchange for Rajai Davis, should he end up being the player selected ... why can't he do so? Nobody is forcing anyone to agree to make the pick, or to make the deal once the pick is made, for that matter. If you want to have trading, then this kind of deal comes with it. Playing with the timing of the deal by forcing the original owner to make the actual selection doesn't affect the end result, so why quibble over such a minor detail.
Now, if you wanted to eliminate such deals entirely, you'd have to not only outlaw the trade of waiver picks, but also force owners to keep players signed on waivers on their rosters for a given length of time, so that such pre-arranged deals can't come to fruition. But preventing an owner from trying to improve his or her team by trading away what could well be one of the team's most valuable assets seems to go against the whole point of allowing trades in the first place.
Yes, there are snake oil salesmen in the world of fantasy baseball, but that doesn't mean you have to fear one is lurking on every street corner just waiting for you to stroll on by. That certainly doesn't mean you should agree to pony up your money to play three-card monte without expecting to lose your shirt, but if all the kindly old gentleman sitting in front of the fruit stand is offering is an apple for a quarter ... don't call the cops! Enjoy a healthy snack and continue on your merry way.
AJ Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.