The MLB Trade Deadline Isn't What It Used to Be, and Might Never Be Again
Teams locking up star players before they reach free agency has made an impact on baseball's trade market, too. In a tight market, things are going to get weird.
Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
When I was a child, my parents would take the family on cross-country driving trips in a rented car; they'd put about 10,000 miles on the thing, plus the additional ambient wear and tear of four bickering humans, three puking cats, and enough greasy roadside takeout to account for the current state of my circumflex artery. At the end of the whole ordeal, rather than attempt to return the massively depreciated vehicle with its melted crayons staining the shelf in the back seat, my father would simply purchase it from the rental agency in a moment of sad-trombone surrender: Meet the new car, same as the old car.
Baseball trades are like that now, except instead of coming away with a wheezing maroon 1983 Chevrolet Caprice Classic, you get James Shields.
If it seems like the buzzy weeks before the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline aren't what they used to be, it's because they aren't what they used to be. In large part, that's because the free-agent market isn't what it used to be. In 1980, Dave Winfield hit the market after his age-28 season and was off to the New York Yankees for a decade as the owner's hate-object. In 1992, Barry Bonds wrapped up his age-27 season and set sail for fame, fortune, and a robust slathering of mystery ointments in San Francisco. In 2000, Alex Rodriguez, 24, signed a contract with the Texas Rangers scheduled to last the rest of time, and, with the odd adjustment, it pretty much has.
Today, those players wouldn't get away from their original teams while still in their 20s. Jose Altuve's contract contains team options extending through 2019, as does Paul Goldschmidt's. Mike Trout is signed through 2020, as is Clayton Kershaw; Anthony Rizzo, Starling Marte, and Brandon Belt are likely tied up through 2021; Stephen Strasburg will be in Washington until the Capitol dome collapses. There are and will be exceptions, but barring an immediate upheaval in the game's finances, there can be little doubt that when the time comes for players like Kris Bryant, Manny Machado, and Xander Bogaerts to re-up with their original teams they'll be handed deals that will keep them busy through both Trump administrations and the ensuing Age of the Cockroaches.
This structural transformation is the result of the transient flood of local television revenue into team coffers—sneak up behind any major league team's CFO and whisper "Cord-cutting!" but be ready to hand him a change of boxers—and the understanding, which goes back to the Cleveland Indians organization in the 1990s, that doing the annual arbitration dance just ain't worth it. It has terrifying long-term implications for teams that don't know how to develop their own stars and short-term implications for teams looking to upgrade right now. The coming free-agent list is so meager that buying teams are looking at aged chuck roast for the stretch drive and preparing to pay prime rib prices.
This is problematic because 2016 is a year of highly flawed contenders. The Baltimore Orioles lead the American League East by two games despite having a starting rotation with a 5.15 ERA, second to last in the league. The bullpen has been the staff's saving grace, but it also has thrown more innings than any AL bullpen except Oakland's, and with relievers, heavy usage goeth before a fall. The Rangers, who lead the AL West by 6.5 games, have a bullpen ERA of 5.10. Indians catchers are hitting .168/.216/.300 on the season. They could also use either a third baseman or some trained seals to distract the crowd whenever their third basemen come to bat. It works at the Central Park Zoo.
The thin list of rising free agents who might be available in trade is further reduced because some of them are already on contenders. In a different year, the Indians (just to pick one example) might be able to make a play for catchers such as Wilson Ramos, of the Nationals, or the Orioles' Matt Wieters; this year, those guys are starting on contenders. Instead, it's Jonathan Lucroy or bust, and it's a long fall from him to Derek Norris and the rest of the second tier.
That leaves acquiring clubs looking to deal with motivated sellers, those teams in such dire straits that they have to move someone to show their fans they're aware something unpleasant is happening. The problem is that what they're offering is so compromised. Yes, if we stick with the Indians catching example, virtually anyone, including 68-year-old Carlton Fisk, would probably be an upgrade. That means a middling free-agent-to-be like the Minnesota Twins' Kurt Suzuki or the San Diego Padres' Norris (having a miserable year but perking up a bit lately) or the Phillies' Carlos Ruiz (ancient and struggling, but loaded with veteran sangfroid) is fair game. For most other teams, though, the margin between what they currently have and a potential upgrade is far slimmer and fraught with danger.
People of a certain age like to call this the "Lou, I just won you the pennant—I got you Steve Trout" problem. Those were the words George Steinbrenner spoke to Yankees manager Lou Piniella on July 13, 1987, the day the Yankees traded three pitching prospects to the Chicago Cubs for Trout, who is still the gold standard for gas-station-sushi-grade pennant-race acquisitions. Trout was thrashed in New York, the Yankees sank like a stone, and one of the prospects turned out to be Bob Tewksbury, who would have been one of the best pitchers of any Yankees team in the first half of the '90s. Instead of an upgrade, the Yankees had traded one of their few viable prospects for something they already had, another batting-practice pitcher.
At 32-57, with a pitching staff that belongs in the Cthulhu mythos, the Cincinnati Reds are on a pace to lose 100 games for only the second time in their insanely long team history. Beginning at last season's trade deadline, they moved everything they could, dealing Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, and Marlon Byrd during the year, and then Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman afterwards. Despite all that activity, their farm system still looks like something T.E. Lawrence should be riding a camel through, and so they're fielding offers on shortstop Zack Cozart and right fielder Jay Bruce.
Neither player is likely to be a free agent this winter. Cozart had another year of arbitration before he's eligible to shop himself around, and Bruce is subject to a $13 million team option with a $1 million buyout; if you're the Reds, you're looking to get what you can while you still have the assets to deal. Both players are problematic acquisitions. Cozart is a strong defender who didn't hit much over the first three years of his career, but going back to last year's injury-shortened season has hit .263/.314/.473 with 23 home runs in 133 games. That kind of production combined with defensive excellence makes for a very valuable player, but the odd Felix Mantilla '64 aside, 30-year-old infielders don't suddenly figure out how to hit. An acquiring team could get the glove, the occasional homer, and a .280 on-base percentage.
Despite these caveats, there is this paradox: Given what's available, Cozart is one of the more attractive players available for trade, but none of the contenders is desperate for a shortstop. It's hard to make with a really convincing "Lou, I just won you the pennant, I got you Zack Cozart" when your team already has Corey Seager (and calling Dave Roberts "Lou" would only cause unnecessary confusion).
Bruce is dicier still, even though he's an established left-handed power-hitter who is having a fine .267/.315/.538 season. The issue isn't the poor campaigns he had in 2014 and 2015, which should have been peak years for a player his age (which is now 29). Rather, it's his career-long vulnerability to left-handed pitching and reliance on the Great American Ballpark for his production; while those things haven't been a problem this season, there's enough history there to provoke a reasonable worry that once he leaves the Queen City he could turn into a greatly diminished platoon player. In addition, defensive metrics agree that Bruce's glove actively repels fly balls; it's gotten so bad that when a batter seems likely to swat a ball out to right field, Bruce's teammates whisper among themselves trying to figure out how to gently ease him out of the way, perhaps by sending him for ice cream.
Other players whose names have popped up in rumors, from Padres starter Drew Pomeranz to Braves reliever Arodys Vizcaino, have records of success that are attenuated, while Melvin Upton and Ryan Braun have records that are, in different ways, entirely too long. None of that is to say that they couldn't help or that any traded player might not roll up an insane Yoenis Cespedes–like run after being dealt—it mostly doesn't happen, but we tend to remember when it does—but the risk-reward ratio could turn out to be painfully askew. There's one player, Lucroy, who it's hard to make any argument against. He's performing, he has a track record of doing so—complete list of catchers to hit 50 or more doubles in a season: Jonathan Lucroy—and has an inexpensive, no-brainer contract option for next season.
Lucroy will cost you, but so will everyone else we might possibly mention. There's another category of team we haven't even touched on: confused, middling clubs like the Yankees and the White Sox who don't know if they're a buyer, a seller, or an eggplant. Players from those teams might be the most expensive of all, because their owners have to be convinced of their own need.
With five of the six division leaders up by more than five games, the question becomes how much of the future the first-place teams want to mortgage in an effort to go further, and what a wild-card lottery ticket is worth to the rest. If it costs you more than a maroon Chevrolet Caprice Classic to spend the stretch drive with Eduardo Nunez or Rich Hill, you might be better off waiting 'til next year.
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