MLB Trade Deadline Primer: 10 Story Lines to Watch This July

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Welcome to July, a.k.a. MLB trade deadline season. Throughout this month, all 30 teams will mull the pros and cons of various possible deals. Fewer will actually pull the trigger. And far fewer will roll the dice on the kind of blockbuster that makes the masses froth at this time of year.

So what can we expect? Well, the only thing we know for sure is that every franchise is furiously upgrading its IT protocols, but we can make some educated guesses beyond that. To gauge how the current trade landscape is shaping up, I spoke to baseball operations people from multiple American and National League teams, and those conversations yielded lots of intel, some informed speculation, and a couple of wild guesses. To be fair, the wild guesses were all mine.

Here are 10 of the biggest story lines to watch between now and the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline:

1. There are currently way more buyers than sellers.

Every source I interviewed echoed this sentiment, noting that the second wild-card spot has caused more teams to delude themselves into thinking they have a chance to contend. And because the demand is higher than the supply, gridlock has ensued: “So many teams are in it that the buyers greatly outnumber the sellers,” said one NL exec, “and for that reason the sellers are asking for crazy-high prices, so nothing is happening.”

While that’s largely true, it’s also important to remember that early July trades are the exception, not the rule. For decades, teams have been slow to consummate early deals, so much so that when a trade actually does go through in early July (or June, or — GASP — May), we remember it forever. Not only can I vividly recall the exact details of the CC Sabathia trade (July 7, 2008), the Bartolo Colon trade (June 27, 2002), and the Mark Langston trade (May 25, 1989), I can also remember where I was, what I was doing, and which utensil I was using to eat poutine at the time.

While the previously referenced leaked Astros trade talks got 99 percent of the baseball world gossiping, the content of the talks themselves really isn’t all that atypical. Lousy teams head into every July thinking they can spin a Bud Norris into 28 elite prospects and a Tesla. So even though contenders understand the benefit of getting help on June 15 instead of July 31, they often end up waiting until the final moment to make a deal, because that’s how long it takes for sellers to face reality and recognize that they’re not going to get as much as they hoped they might. That’s how it is in the new wild-card era, and that’s how it was before the wild card ever existed.

2. Even prospect hounds might have a little trouble identifying some of the farmhands who change teams this month.

As one AL exec put it: “I get the feeling that teams trading prospects are much less willing to trade the ones at Double-A and higher. That means teams trading for prospects are having to scout the lower levels more, and it means taking on more risk when acquiring those players. You may get more ceiling in your trades now, but the tradeoff is far less certainty.”

Considering the recent stark drop-off in available premium MLB talent, not wanting to give up near-ready MLB prospects makes plenty of sense. Thanks to rising revenue streams for even the poorest teams, every club can afford to lock up at least one franchise player. When the small-market Reds are dishing out nearly $300 million for Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips, and even the Rays — who rank third-to-last in baseball in revenue — are dropping nine figures on Evan Longoria, it means fewer free-agent options for everyone each offseason. If a club thinks it can trade for David Price and then sign him to a long-term deal, it will obviously offer more than three Single-A guys. But if a team is looking to acquire a lesser player, it might consider the low supply of available MLB talent and decide that getting six years from a top prospect who’s mashing at Double-A is worth more than a no. 3 starter in his mid-thirties.

3. The Rays hold the most valuable card in the deck … but there’s no guarantee they’ll play it.

Despite compiling the third-best record in baseball from 2008 to 2012, the Rays made just two in-season trades during that span, for Chad Qualls and Ryan Roberts. When reporters would ask Andrew Friedman about the team’s underwhelming activity during those five years (he got slightly more aggressive in 2013 by nabbing David DeJesus and Jesse Crain via trade and signing Delmon Young), the Rays GM would say the deadline is a crazy time that can force rushed and counterproductive decisions. The huge deals that sent James Shields and Matt Garza out of town, for example, both came during the calmer hot stove season.

Friedman’s explanation only rang partly true. While the data-driven Tampa Bay front office might prefer lablike conditions when weighing trade offers, the Rays also probably weren’t eager to deplete their dwindling supply of prospects, nor pay big money for elite talent.

Of course, the Rays were winning then. We’ll soon find out if Friedman’s commitment to saving big deals for the winter holds now that the team is no longer contending. Price offers the best combination of present-day value and contract status (he’s a free agent after the 2015 season) and would be a huge addition for any team chasing playoff dreams. But if Tampa Bay hopes to make the kind of reloading move its mostly barren farm system sorely needs, Friedman will need to find the right match — and maybe accept that a perfect deal is often the enemy of a good deal.

“In the end, I think the deals happen because the current team is not maximizing the value of its player,” said another NL exec. “Price should be pitching in meaningful September and October games — he makes the same salary either way. Tampa Bay is probably shooting for the moon, and rightfully so, but they’ll trade him in the end for the best offer from a playoff-likely team. I’m just curious to see how high that offer will be. And whether it will be a win-win deal.”

4. Even if the Rays get stubborn about Price, they can still dangle Ben Zobrist.

Tampa Bay’s jack-of-many-trades is on pace for his worst offensive season in four years … and his 108 wRC+ is still 8 percent better than league average. Moreover, even at age 33, Zobrist continues to offer excellent defense all over the diamond as well as superior baserunning. As Rob Neyer put it on this week’s podcast, every team could use Ben Zobrist somewhere, because he can play anywhere.

In a market that offers very few quality position players, landing a Zobrist who’s signed inexpensively through next season (when he’s due $7.5 million in a club option) would be a great get.

5. The Cubs are the other seller everyone’s watching.

And Jeff Samardzija is the other pitcher everyone’s talking about. The Cubs ace and 29-year-old right-hander currently ranks 11th in the NL in strikeout rate, at 22.9 percent, and 10th in ERA, at 2.83. Like Price, he’d be more than a rental, offering team control through 2015. Unlike Price — who’d cost just less than half of his $14 million salary this year, plus likely another $20 million via arbitration next year — Samardzija’s base salary is just $5.3 million in 2014, and will probably be about $10 million next season after arbitration. Of course, Samardzija can’t match Price’s track record of sustained dominance, and teams putting extra weight on recent results might not look favorably on the 24 runs (20 earned) and .879 OPS allowed that Samardzija has posted in his past six starts and 33 innings. What’s more, the Cubs’ asking price for Samardzija is said to be sky-high, which could dissuade some shoppers.

There might be a compelling alternative on the same team: Jason Hammel. The 31-year-old righty’s numbers compare well to Samardzija’s almost across the board, from a 4.6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate to a sub-3.00 ERA. Hammel pitched poorly for the Orioles last year, which is how the Cubs were able to grab him on a one-year, $6 million contract just one season after his very good (if abbreviated) 2012 campaign.

Regardless of what move or moves the Cubs make, possessing two attractive commodities like this sets up some intriguing possibilities.

“I think the Cubs will do what they did last year: trade somebody like Hammel first to set up Samardzija closer to the trade deadline,” said an NL exec, referencing last year’s trade season, when Chicago dealt Scott Feldman on July 2 and Matt Garza 20 days later.

With Hammel pitching well and eligible for free agency at season’s end, he offers a rare combination of solid performance potential and relatively low cost, which has caught several teams’ interest. Several of the front-office sources I interviewed noted the Jays’ interest in Hammel in particular. Speaking of which …

6. Look for the Jays to be one of the most aggressive buyers over the next four weeks.

General manager Alex Anthopoulos has already shown he’s not afraid to make gigantic moves in an effort to better his team. The Jays have led the AL East for 59 days this season, making this their best chance to win the division since 1993 and snap the second-longest playoff drought in the majors. Yet despite that success, Toronto still has multiple needs worth addressing.

That includes the starting rotation. Marcus Stroman’s rise appeared to address the Jays’ pitching needs, as he’s flashed a 2.48 ERA and limited opposing hitters to a line of just .222/.269/.348 in six starts since moving to the rotation. The problem is that both Stroman and fellow rookie Drew Hutchison could run up against an innings cap, or fatigue and deliver a diminished performance if they’re not capped, which could threaten the Jays’ chances to make the playoffs or leave them shorthanded if they do earn a postseason berth. Throw in R.A. Dickey’s recent transformation into a home run machine, and the Jays’ reported interest in a pitcher like Hammel makes perfect sense.

The team needs infield help, too. Juan Francisco’s early-season pixie dust has disappeared, as he hit just .169 with a .217 on-base percentage in June. Acquiring either a third baseman to replace Francisco or a second baseman to push Brett Lawrie back to third, the position he plays better, has seemed like a logical move for a while. And with Lawrie now on the disabled list with a broken finger and not expected back until potentially after the All-Star break, grabbing a quality infielder makes even more sense.

7. Bullpen arms will be in abundant supply, as always.

Teams like the Diamondbacks, Padres, Astros, and Rockies have been bad for a reason: They don’t have many players who could help other teams win right now. Still, even the worst teams tend to have at least one or two quality relief pitchers, which is why we see so many bullpen arms change teams every July. Huston Street, Joaquin Benoit, Qualls, Tony Sipp, Matt Belisle, Oliver Perez, and Brad Ziegler are just a few of the relievers who’d offer a lot more value for contenders than they would for their current also-ran employers.

This is why some of the first-half concerns over certain teams, especially the Tigers, were overblown. Yes, Detroit’s bullpen has been terrible for most of the season. But for a first-place team carrying a loaded lineup and a deep rotation, landing a couple of decent setup men qualifies as a minor and very fixable problem.

While we’re here: The Reds have a few more needs than the Tigers do, but getting fresh arms in to support Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Broxton could help an already surging team get even better.

8. Other buyers to watch:

Beane-Billy-Podcast-MIB-SL-TRI

• The A’s, who are relying on castoff Brad Mills as their fifth starter, and who are praying that Sonny Gray’s first full major league campaign doesn’t result in a second-half downturn as his innings pile up (Gray’s first 10 starts: 1.99 ERA; his next six starts: 5.50 ERA). They own the best record and best run differential in baseball and are the favorites to win the AL West crown, which would be their third in a row, and which would surely fuel the comparisons to the Moneyball A’s of the late ’90s and early 2000s. Neither of those Billy Beane–led streaks has resulted in a World Series title, but this Oakland team has enough young talent to reel in a front-line starter who could help push the club toward that elusive championship.

• The Yankees, whose makeshift rotation is starting to crack now that the league has apparently caught up to David Phelps and Chase Whitley. (Vidal Nuno was never going to be the answer, either.) CC Sabathia might be back in a month, but the Bombers need pitching help sooner than that if they want to stay in the race. What’s more: Yangervis Solarte’s magic carpet ride has come to a screeching halt, exacerbating the infield’s non-Teixeira weaknesses.

• The Cardinals, whose usually reliable rotation has been crushed by injuries lately.

• The Giants, who have baseball’s worst record since June 9, now lead the Dodgers by just .5 games, and are trying to get by with Tyler Colvin and Joe Panik playing regularly and Mike Morse’s early-season tear petering out.

• The Dodgers, because they’re the Dodgers.

• The Royals, who stayed in contention into September last season, but who haven’t made the playoffs since 1985, know Shields is set to become a free agent at year’s end, and reportedly have the go-ahead from ownership to spend money as needed.

• The Braves, who could also be players for Price.

9. Other players who could be on the move:

Cliff Lee (but only to one of the richest teams), Chase Headley, Seth Smith, Luis Valbuena, Josh Willingham, Adam Dunn, Michael Cuddyer (when he returns from injury), Brandon McCarthy, Erik Bedard, Matt Joyce, Jason Castro, Dexter Fowler, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jake Peavy, and half the Rangers’ roster.

10. A parting shot from one AL exec:

“The market may be slow right now, but teams will start to go for it at some point. Chances to win are too hard to come by for teams not to get aggressive as we close in on the deadline. It’s a lot easier from the outside to be disciplined and restrained and not want to trade X prospect to fill a need when you don’t have to watch the black hole on your own club killing you night after night.”

Amen. Buckle up, folks.

Filed Under: MLB, MLB Trade Deadline, 2014 MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Trades, Baseball, Tampa Bay Rays, David Price, Ben Zobrist, Chicago Cubs, Jeff Samardzija

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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