Dominating The MLB Trade DeadlineAugust 10th, 2011
For the last couple weeks, the primary topic of conversation around Major League Baseball has not been the surprising Pittsburgh Pirates, who look poised to finish the season with a winning record for the first time in 18 years, or the Texas Rangers finally playing like the team who went to the World Series last year, or the Seattle Mariners losing 17 in a row. No, at this time of year, what's happening on the field is secondary to what we can only speculate is happening off of it: trade talk.
The July 31st trading deadline is the time of year when every team must decide whether to make a push for the playoffs, or step off the gas and hope to rebuild for the future. For the buyers, it's the last chance* to add what could be the missing piece of a championship team. For the sellers, it's the last chance to get some value in return for a player who likely won't be around if and when a team is ready to compete for a championship. And as the deadline approaches, everyone from Buster Olney to Ken Rosenthal to your next door neighbor begins to peddle rumors about the next big blockbuster deal.
Even when coming from "the experts," the majority of trade talk is pure speculation, and they'll admit that themselves. This year, some of the big names said to be on the market include Heath Bell of the Padres, and BJ Upton of the Rays. Ex-Mets Francisco Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran are the only stars to be dealt so far. All four call for some top-level prospects in exchange. This is why the right trade can push a team over the top, and the wrong one can cripple the future. In light of the important nature of this time of the season, here are some thoughts on how teams should approach the deadline.
Like I said earlier, the first decision a team must make is whether they want to be buyers or sellers at the deadline. But that distinction doesn't go far enough. Some teams, like the Pirates for example, would likely need to add a piece in order to even make the playoffs. But even then, they likely wouldn't have the firepower to compete with the likes of the Phillies, Braves, and Giants. These three teams, on the other hand, figure to make the playoffs whether they add somebody or not. In this sense, they do not "need" to add anyone. Having said that, if one of these teams were to add an impact player, that would likely make them to the favorite to make the World Series.
The next level of analysis a team must make is how desperately they want to improve from fringe-contender to real-contender, or real-contender to favorite. This has a lot to do with how much recent success you've achieved, how long you believe you'll be able to compete at a high level, and what the organizational expectations are. Even if the Yankees have the talent and money in place to be a factor in the AL East for a long time, anything short of a World Series is considered a disappointment for them each and every year. It could be argued that the Red Sox and Phillies are in this category as well. Teams with this mentality are more likely to make a move than, say, the Rangers, who have a ton of young talent, are fresh off a World Series appearance, and play in a market that doesn't demand the same level of excellence as New York, Boston, or Philadelphia. While the Pirates are on the opposite side from those three perennial powers on the expectations spectrum, their surprising success in light of their recent, historical failure almost demands that they make a move as well. It would be insulting to their fans not to make a run at the playoffs considering they haven't been to the playoffs since the early 90s.
Then you have a team like the Giants, who had compelling reasons both to trade and to stand pat. It could be argued that they have the young pitching to compete for a long time, and that they should be happy with last year's championship and hold onto their valuable prospects. After all, it was homegrown talent (Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Brian Wilson, Madison Bumgarner) that led the Giants to the title last year, so if they want to win another one they should hold on to their next crop of potential studs (Zack Wheeler, Brandon Belt, Gary Brown). On the other hand, the Giants' young pitchers have been remarkably healthy, and they're having another amazing season. Ask the Cubs how Mark Prior and Kerry Wood turned out, and ask any Nationals fan if they're confident that Stephen Strasburg isn't headed for a similar career. Faced with this difficult decision, the Giants decided to give up Wheeler in order to acquire Beltran; only time will tell if it was worth it.
Nowadays, fans know a lot more about their team's top prospects, and general managers are more cautious than ever against making a trade that comes back to haunt them. No one wants to be the next GM to make a trade like the Dodgers did when they gave up star prospect Carlos Santana for Casey Blake. There has already been major backlash from Giants fans over the Wheeler trade. Of course, if the move results in another World Series title, the complaints will turn into adoration. This is the conundrum every GM faces at some point in their career at the deadline.
My advice in this situation is to go after consistency and known quantities. A lot of fans are clamoring for their team to trade the farm for BJ Upton, a player with a ton of potential and a unique skill set, but also a player who is wildly inconsistent. The risk there is too great in my opinion to warrant giving up top level prospects. Carlos Beltran will play at a high-level this year, but there is no certainty that he'll be anything more than a 2 month rental as he will become a free agent at year's end. Still, if the goal is to win now, which is what trading high level prospects suggests, Beltran was the better call. Having said that, the Astros' outfielder Hunter Pence may be the ultimate acquisition if it happens. The struggling Astros would be smart to deal Pence for prospects, and teams looking for an impact bat would be smart to get him. He's younger than Beltran, better than Beltran, and won't be a free agent like Beltran. The Giants would have loved to get Pence for a package built around Gary Brown (a player with a similar, but not identical, ceiling as Pence). And if the Phillies want to really put some distance between themselves and the rest of the NL, they'd be wise to ship Dominic Brown, or top pitching prospect Jarred Cosart, to Houston for Pence if they have to. Whoever gets Pence knows they will be getting All-Star level production for at least a couple years, and it's worth trading potential future All-Stars for that kind of talent if you have the chance to use it to win a championship.
Who knows what the return for the Cliff Lee trade will turn out to be for Seattle. The players the Rangers traded are still young and developing. What we do know is that the Rangers don't make the World Series last year without Cliff Lee, so even though they didn't end up re-signing him, I'd bet Texas does that deal again. Same with the Brewers when they got CC Sabathia and he powered them to the playoffs. Those guys were known quantities, just like Hunter Pence. Those are the kind of guys that warrant trading top-level prospects. Predictable, impact players.
How everything shakes out in the next few days will almost certainly determine who's playing late into October, and ultimately who's celebrating a World Series championship. So if you're the Pirates, go for it. If you're a Yankees, Red Sox, or Phillies fan, don't worry, your team will probably do something (and if not, you'll be back next year).
By: Michael Lussier
*Teams can still trade/acquire players after July 31st, however the player must clear waivers first. It's pretty complicated, but basically, if a team puts a guy on waivers, all 29 other teams have the chance to claim his contract and sign him. This is how the Giants ended up with Cody Ross, who ended up hitting two HRs off of Roy Halladay on his way to winning the NLCS MVP and helped the Giants win the World Series. So actually, if you're lucky, you can get an impact player after the deadline passes.