The 30: Psst, You Guys Know the Trade Deadline Was Last Week, Right?

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When we assess teams in the few weeks leading up to the trade deadline, our thinking tends to be binary: Everyone’s either a buyer or a seller. You’re close enough to a World Series that you could use immediate improvement or far enough away that you’d do well to punt on the present in exchange for a brighter future.

As such, aggressive acquirers like the Blue Jays, Royals, Astros, and Mets earn plaudits for their big moves, and fire sellers like the Phillies and Tigers dominate the rest of the conversation. But what about the teams who didn’t do all that much? They’re who we care about this week.1

The Reds traded away two starting pitchers but held on to several other players despite widespread rumors that both might be dealt. The Diamondbacks did nothing other than betray some confidence. The Yankees nabbed a utilityman, but failed to address their increasingly shaky rotation. And while the Cardinals picked up a bat and two arms, those moves don’t come close to the kind of star acquisition you might expect from an elite team at the deadline.

Inactivity is noteworthy. It’s Week 17 of The 30.

Best 4-6-3 of the Week

Last Tuesday, the Royals led the Indians 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth. Leading off against closer Greg Holland, catcher Roberto Perez smacked a 1-0 fastball up the middle. The ball appeared headed for center field … until Omar Infante got to it.

Except Infante was deep behind second base and knew he wouldn’t be able to get the ball to first in time, so he flipped it to shortstop Alcides Escobar. Infante’s presence of mind here was nice, but what makes this play truly special is the seamlessness of the transition. Infante makes the flip, Escobar reacts instantly, grabs the ball with his bare hand, and in one motion spins and fires to first to gun down Perez.

The Royals employ a terrific and deep bullpen. Players like Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Eric Hosmer continue to improve. And the acquisition of an ace like Johnny Cueto should provide a big lift. Still, if KC makes it back to the World Series this year, the defense2 will have been a big reason why.

Good, Not Great

The Reds got solid value for Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake, but could have had a lot more with a couple more deals.

30. Philadelphia Phillies (41-65 record, minus-129 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Miami Marlins (43-62, minus-35, LW: 28)
28. Colorado Rockies (44-59, minus-61, LW: 29)
27. Milwaukee Brewers (44-62, minus-55, LW: 24)
26. Atlanta Braves (47-58, minus-66, LW: 20)
25. Seattle Mariners (48-58, minus-58, LW: 26)
24. Boston Red Sox (47-59, minus-65, LW: 27)
23. Oakland A’s (47-59, plus-38, LW: 21)
22. Cincinnati Reds (47-56, minus-42, LW: 25)

Heading into the trade deadline, the Reds had only two healthy walk-year players who would interest other teams: Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake. Those two deals yielded five prospects, including four young, intriguing pitchers. When it comes to deals the Reds had to make, they fared well — a few years from now, we might look back at the haul for Cueto and Leake as a big reason for a Reds resurgence.

Yet it’s the deals the Reds didn’t make that raise questions. Up until the last minute of the deadline, rumors surrounded Aroldis Chapman and Jay Bruce. Both players possess the combination of skill and affordable/controllable service time that could fetch plenty of young talent.

Chapman seemed an especially logical candidate to be moved. Set to become a free agent after the 2016 season, he figures to eventually collect a huge payday. For a smaller-revenue team like the Reds, paying open-market rates for a closer makes little sense, even when that closer is as historically dominant as Chapman. Moreover, a reasonable assessment of Cincinnati’s chances next season would’ve concluded that even a third-place NL Central finish is unlikely. The talent gap between them and the Cardinals-Pirates-Cubs trio is so vast that even a great offseason filled with shrewd acquisitions wouldn’t make a 2016 playoff run anything more than a long shot. Plus, Chapman is the rare player who’s so good that his list of suitors grows beyond contending teams with serious bullpen problems: Even the Yankees and their explosive core of relievers came up in trade rumors.

Bruce can also test free agency at the end of 2017,3 and the Reds shouldn’t really be giving a long-term extension to a player who by then will be entering his thirties. With Bruce hitting .260/.341/.492 and ranking as a top-10 defensive right fielder this season, it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t have produced a solid trade return from an outfielder-needy team trying to win now.

Granted, when it comes to trading veterans for future help, the door is by no means completely shut. August waiver trades are certainly possible, and that could be a particularly good choice for Marlon Byrd, the power-hitting veteran outfielder who isn’t an outright free agent next year but could become one if his club option is declined and he fails to reach his 550-plate-appearance vesting-option trigger this year.4 Although we won’t see either of them moving this season, Chapman and Bruce could also get dealt this winter or before next year’s July 31 nonwaiver deadline. But with each passing day, they both lose a bit of controllable time and a bit of trade value.

In a division with the toughest top three in baseball, waiting was the wrong call. The Reds simply can’t afford half-measures if they hope to sniff the playoffs before the end of the decade.

Sitting on Their Hands

The mediocre Diamondbacks were one of the only teams not to make a deadline deal.

21. Cleveland Indians (48-56, minus-40, LW: 17)
20. Chicago White Sox (50-53, minus-62, LW: 23)
19. Tampa Bay Rays (52-54, minus-18, LW: 16)
18. Detroit Tigers (51-54, minus-33, LW: 15)
17. Arizona Diamondbacks (50-53, plus-3, LW: 22)
16. San Diego Padres (51-54, minus-49, LW: 19)
15. Texas Rangers (51-53, minus-42, LW: 18)

The addition of a second wild-card spot has complicated the buy-or-sell calculus for a wider swath of teams. The parity and uncertainty that come with that additional spot have even prompted some within the game to lobby for a later nonwaiver deadline so teams have more time to assess their chances before opting to buy or sell. When you’re hovering around .500 in late July, there’s an argument to be made in either direction. Still, there are ways to make subtle but useful moves that can improve either your playoff hopes or your long-term future without sacrificing the other.

When the dust cleared, the Diamondbacks, whose record stood at 49-51 as of 4 p.m. Friday, hadn’t made a deal in the week leading up to the deadline. At the time, they were seven games out of first (trailing the Dodgers and Giants) and six and a half games out in the wild-card chase (trailing the Giants, Cubs, and Mets). The five-game winning streak that had lifted the Diamondbacks to that point was fun, but it did little to change those astronomical playoff odds. Simply put, the D-backs are not very good, and they should have been a seller.

Yes, they did make a couple of notable trades in June. The first sent Mark Trumbo and Vidal Nuno to Seattle in the kind of six-player deal for prospects you’d expect to see from an also-ran ballclub. But the other was just the opposite: In trading away first-round draft pick and intriguing pitching prospect Touki Toussaint for the sake of saving some bucks, the D-backs unloaded the exact kind of asset a rebuilding team should want. The move prompted the baseball world to ask a simple question: What the hell is Dave Stewart doing?

The answer is no clearer after the quiet trade deadline week. Stewart caused even more head-scratching with comments he made to the media once the deadline passed. If Stewart is to be believed, Arizona’s inquiries into the availability of Craig Kimbrel led Padres GM A.J. Preller to ask for MVP-caliber first baseman Paul Goldschmidt in return. If Stewart is properly representing the situation, that makes Preller look a bit like the loose cannon in your fantasy league, but it’s also the kind of info that GMs typically don’t reveal. While leaks happen all the time in trade negotiations, you’ll almost never see a GM comment on the record about specific names exchanged in unrealized trade talks. If you’re trying to build goodwill or even just maintain a reputation as a good potential trade partner, you don’t do what Stewart did.

As for what the Arizona GM has done well, Robbie Ray has been electric in his first 11 starts with Arizona, and right now he looks like a good bet to become the best player of the four exchanged in December’s three-way Didi Gregorius trade with the Yankees and Tigers. Beyond that, though, this is a team that’s been mostly mediocre, occasionally terrible, and continually confusing since the 94-win bonanza of 2011. And after all that’s happened — and not happened — in the past couple months, it’s unclear if the person in charge is the one best suited to lead the Diamondbacks to another October run.

Meet the New Boss, Different From the Old Boss

The first-place Yankees stand pat in a very un-Yankees way.

14. Minnesota Twins (54-50, minus-2, LW: 11)
13. Baltimore Orioles (53-51, plus-47, LW: 14)
12. Washington Nationals (54-49, plus-28, LW: 8)
11. New York Mets (55-50, minus-2, LW: 12)
10. Toronto Blue Jays (54-52, plus-106, LW: 13)
9. Los Angeles Angels (55-49, plus-44, LW: 3)
8. San Francisco Giants (57-47, plus-52, LW: 10)
7. Chicago Cubs (57-47, plus-7, LW: 9)
6. New York Yankees (59-45, plus-60, LW: 7)

If the Padres were the team slammed hardest for their inactivity at the deadline, the Yankees probably came in second.

Thanks to a monster bullpen and Fountain of Youth seasons for Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, the Yanks have stormed to a six-game lead in the AL East. But for a team that came into last week saddled with starting pitching problems, including a teetering CC Sabathia, who has no business starting games for a contender in a pennant race, reinforcements would’ve been useful. Armed with piles of cash and some highly marketable prospects, the Yankees were well equipped to land a frontline starter or just a midlevel guy — anyone to push Sabathia out of the rotation. And then when ace Michael Pineda hit the disabled list on Thursday, it seemed a foregone conclusion they’d bring in at least one arm.

Instead, New York acquired utilityman Dustin Ackley from the Mariners, and that was it. Now, there’s a tendency among the New York media to look at the inactivity, remember the team’s late owner, and say, “If George were alive, he never would’ve let this happen.” That might be true, but let’s offer up a four-point defense of New York’s approach:

1. The Pineda injury happened late. By the time the DL announcement came out, just one day remained until the deadline, and most of the big-name pitchers thought to be available were already gone. Compounding the issue: Middling teams like the White Sox and Padres became delusional about their playoff chances, and that prevented Jeff Samardzija and a passel of San Diego pitchers from getting dealt.

2. While the Yankees didn’t complete a deal for a starter — and we’ve yet to see any reports that they got all that far in talks for one — they did reportedly make a run at Kimbrel. With Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, & Co., the pen is already very strong, but adding Kimbrel could’ve set the Yankees up for a 2014 Royals-like playoff run, in which they’d need only a few adequate innings from their starters followed by multiple shutdown innings from relievers. When Preller curiously decided to hold on to everyone, that possibility disappeared.

3. When the deadline hit, the Yankees (as they do now) owned a six-game lead in the AL East, the second-biggest cushion for any division leader. Already blessed with overwhelmingly strong odds to make the postseason, the Yankees could’ve been understandably skeptical about trying to move that needle just a percentage point or two by trading a premium prospect for a big-name rental at the deadline.

4. The pitching staff could get a big boost on Wednesday, when Luis Severino makes his major league debut. The 21-year-old right-hander was rated MLB.com’s no. 16 prospect on its midseason list. Severino’s combination of a blazing fastball and plus changeup produced lights-out numbers in the minors this year: 2.45 ERA, 98 strikeouts, 27 walks, 72 hits, and two homers in 99.1 innings across Double-A and Triple-A. He might seem a little young and inexperienced to be thrown into the thick of a pennant race, but he was also young to be pitching in the high minors. On pure talent alone, Severino might be as good as anyone New York already has at the big league level.

Sure, the Yankees would be a better team today had they traded for another capable starter. But by not giving away Severino or the club’s other top prospect, outfielder Aaron Judge, they’ve helped preserve their long-term future. As for the near term? If Pineda makes it back from the disabled list in the minimum 15 days (he has said he doesn’t need any longer), Masahiro Tanaka continues to dodge the DL despite playing with a partially torn UCL, and Severino doesn’t get whacked by rookie jitters, this is still a good team with a big divisional lead — and the rotation might actually end up in decent shape too.5 That might not sound all that George-like, but it’s still not a bad spot to be in.

Death by Bullpen

After passing on flashier trade options, the Cardinals decide to augment an already solid relief corps.

5. Houston Astros (60-46, plus-86, LW: 6)
4. Pittsburgh Pirates (61-43, plus-52, LW: 5)
3. Kansas City Royals (62-42, plus-59, LW: 4)
2. Los Angeles Dodgers (60-45, plus-67, LW: 2)
1. St. Louis Cardinals (67-38, plus-110, LW: 1)

The Cardinals own the best bullpen ERA in the National League by more than half a run. Run through any fancy stats you want and you still might not get the impression that said pen needed upgrades. Yet adding to the relief corps seemed to be St. Louis’s biggest priority last week, as it brought in Steve Cishek from Miami and Jonathan Broxton from Milwaukee. The Cards also traded for veteran first baseman Brandon Moss, rounding out a low-impact deadline week that left many wondering why the team didn’t do more to help the lineup or even the rotation.

On Sunday, ace Cardinals beat writer Derrick Goold detailed why GM John Mozeliak pursued the bullpen-focused strategy. There’s some parallel here with the Yankees’ deadline approach: Armed with a five-and-a-half-game lead in the NL Central and all but assured a playoff spot, the Cards weren’t sweating the short-term effects of, say, losing Matt Holliday to the DL (again) with a quad injury. This was, instead, an effort to add the kind of bullpen depth that can prove so useful in October.

“Obviously, having a lockdown bullpen has led to a lot of people’s success in October,” Mozeliak told Goold. “I think when you look at the last four months, our starting rotation has set the tone and our bullpen has closed the door. That’s great. That’s certainly been a major part of our success. But is it sustainable over six months without some shot in the arm?”

The two relievers acquired to help run that marathon aren’t sure things by any means. In Cishek, the Cardinals acquired a sidearm righty whose numbers are down sharply from their dominant 2014 levels, with more walks and hits allowed. Glance at Cishek’s plunging pitch velocity and that regression becomes easy to understand. But he’s still got a ground ball rate that tops 50 percent, a quality the Cardinals have sought out since the Dave Duncan era. Meanwhile, Broxton, who has allowed five homers in 38.2 innings, hasn’t had the same success as Cishek in preventing long balls, but he makes up for it with a mid-90s fastball that has keyed a strikeout-per-inning pace that belies his misleading 5.59 ERA.

Neither pitcher is likely to produce the way, say, Chapman or Kimbrel would have if the Cardinals were willing to empty their farm system for a glitzier name. But when you see Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn, and other homegrown Cards leading the way, it’s a reminder that holding tight to your best prospects can pay dividends down the road. In this case, the Cardinals gave up little of value to acquire relief reinforcements,6 as most of the burden comes from taking on the salaries carried by Cishek and Broxton.

However, they did give up a quality prospect in left-hander Rob Kaminsky (no. 88 in MLB.com’s rankings) to acquire Moss, but his upside falls a bit short of, say, Wacha’s, and even in an optimistic scenario he’s likely several years away from the big leagues. If Moss, who’s hitting .216/.285/.399, doesn’t at least stop his brutal slump to become a capable platoon partner for Mark Reynolds in the injured Matt Adams’s absence, that would leave a hole at first base. And if Holliday doesn’t recover as hoped, left field, and the offense in general, become a greater concern.7

As with the Yankees, it’s possible that St. Louis’s discipline leaves the team outmanned in the playoffs and they end up regretting not landing higher-quality players by July 31. Then again, these are the Cardinals we’re talking about. If they go deep in the playoffs thanks to the beefed-up bullpen and some sudden magic from Moss,8 and if Alex Reyes, the top pitching prospect everyone was lusting over, goes on to become the team’s ace by 2019, would we really be all that surprised?

Filed Under: MLB, 2015 MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Trade Deadline, Trade Deadline, Baseball, MLB Trades, MLB Stats, MLB Power Rankings, The 30, Jonah Keri, Kansas City Royals, Omar Infante, Alcides Escobar, Cincinnati Reds, Jay Bruce, Aroldis Chapman, Arizona Diamondbacks, Dave Stewart, A.J. Preller, Craig Kimbrel, New York Yankees, Michael Pineda, Luis Severino, St. Louis Cardinals, Steve Cishek, Jonathan Broxton, Brandon Moss

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 New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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