MLB Trade Deadline Winners and Losers: Smile, Sox Fans! (Cry, Phillies Fans)
Welcome to the 2014 edition of that time-honored August 1 tradition, the Trade Deadline Winners and Losers post, in which we pass judgment on many of the moves that were made before yesterday’s 4 p.m. ET cutoff as we sat, spellbound, watching wonders unfold on our Twitter feeds. For the purposes of this post, winning and losing were the only options allowed; get your gray area elsewhere.
Athletics: I shared my thoughts on the Jon Lester–Yoenis Cespedes trade in our Lightning Round reaction piece, and Jonah Keri did a deep dive, so I’ll save some space here. The A’s have enough offense to survive losing Cespedes, whom they felt they couldn’t re-sign and whose production they’ll approximate with the usual misfit toys. And Sonny Gray–Jon Lester–Jeff Samardzija–Scott Kazmir is a killer top four that will give Bob Melvin the ability to avoid anxiety-inducing postseason starts without asking any of his arms to pitch on short rest.
Cardinals: By adding John Lackey and Justin Masterson and sending the expendable Allen Craig and Joe Kelly to Boston, the Cards have cleared room for Oscar Taveras and reinforced a rotation that was depending on a missing Michael Wacha and a shaky Shelby Miller. The catch is that to keep Lackey happy, they’ll probably have to pay him more than the $500,000 he’s in line to make in 2015.
Mariners: It must have been bittersweet for the Mariners to be involved in a David Price deal without getting David Price, a player they coveted and attempted to acquire last winter. (The feeling wasn’t mutual.) As much as the M’s could have used a starter, though, they addressed a greater need in acquiring Austin Jackson and Chris Denorfia to shore up an outfield that had made the Red Sox’s weak pre-Cespedes unit seem productive. Seattle entered the day with the worst offense in the American League, even by ballpark-adjusted metrics, and center field was the most obvious opportunity for an upgrade: Mariners center fielders (Abraham Almonte, who crashed and burned to start the season, and James Jones, who’s been doing a convincing Almonte impression ever since) had produced a .242/.276/.307 slash line, giving them the lowest OPS at the position in the majors.
Given how low a bar he has to clear, Jackson, who got his bat back in July after an abysmal April and May, should make the Mariners one to two wins better down the stretch. While the 27-year-old is due for a raise in arbitration this winter, he’ll be worth at least what he’s paid in 2015, his final season before becoming free-agent eligible. Denorfia, a 34-year-old right-handed hitter, can play every outfield position and has a history of being an above-average platoon bat, though he has caught a case of whatever offense-suppressing sickness has been going around San Diego this season. Denorfia can complement the left-handed-hitting Jones or Endy Chavez in left and (after Michael Saunders returns from a strained oblique) Dustin Ackley in right, supplying another significant offensive upgrade. And, crucially, the Mariners only improved on the strength that’s gotten them this far with a more-than-imaginary shot at the second AL wild card: defense. The M’s lead the majors in defensive efficiency, which represents a huge turnaround from their 26th-place finish in 2013, and they’ll be even better at catching the ball with Jackson replacing Jones, whom both DRS and UZR pegged as a win below average in the field.
In exchange, the Mariners surrendered Almonte, Triple-A reliever Stephen Kohlscheen and, most notably, Nick Franklin. There’s probably a short, boring book to be written about the puzzling way the Mariners handled Franklin, who ranked among the team’s top prospects entering 2013 and hit acceptably for a rookie second baseman in Safeco but has been blocked by Robinson Cano, Brad Miller, and even Chris Taylor this season while appearing at positions he probably never thought he would play. Not since the Diamondbacks pushed Justin Upton out of Arizona has a team done as much to depreciate its own asset, but given that the M’s had hung a big, blinking “For Sale” sign on Franklin, they did well to get Jackson in the former Tiger’s second career three-team trade.
Red Sox: It’s difficult to classify what the Red Sox did on deadline day. Were they sellers? In a sense: After sending Jake Peavy to San Francisco the previous week, they traded their top two starters (Lester and Lackey), shortstop Stephen Drew, coveted lefty reliever Andrew Miller, and Felix Doubront to teams that are better positioned to make the playoffs in 2014. Three of the four players they jettisoned on Thursday are headed for free agency at the end of the season, so, yes, the Sox made these moves with their eyes on the future.
But not far into the future. Ben Cherington didn’t deal for prospects on Thursday, except in his Miller-for–Eduardo Rodriguez exchange with the O’s. The Red Sox sold with 2015 in mind. The last time the Sox traded talent at the deadline, in August 2012, their place in the standings looked similar: 13 games out in the AL East, 10.5 in the wild card. That season, they traded big contracts (Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett) for salary relief, but only to rearm for 2013, a year in which they succeeded beyond even their own expectations after making several smart short-term signings.
The same rapid rebound could happen here. With Craig and Cespedes improving what has been a weak offensive outfield this year, Boston’s lineup won’t need a lot of work this winter. However, the Sox will need to buy or trade for one or more top-of-the-rotation arms to complement the deep stable of midrotation starters their system appears primed to produce. If Lester winds up being one of them, then the Sox will have pulled off a rare and impressive feat: converting an impending free agent into other players and bringing him back the following year. The trick will be to rebuild the rotation without abandoning their recent stance on overfeeding free agents.
Tigers: If you subscribe to the simplistic notion that the edge always goes to the team that receives the best player, then the Tigers won not only their deal, but also the day. Rumored to be in the market for left-handed relief, they instead overachieved by landing lefty ace David Price, giving them a super-rotation to rival Oakland’s. The three-team swap isn’t a blanket success for Detroit, however. Without Jackson, the Tigers will have to make do with a lesser platoon of Rajai Davis and Ezequiel Carrera in center. In Drew Smyly, they gave up at worst a no. 4 starter who’s under team control through 2018 (though who’s about to be arbitration-eligible). And Willy Adames, the lone prospect Detroit surrendered, may have been the most promising player in a thin system.
That said, the Tigers are playing for the present, and Price gives them a great chance to acquire the ring they’ve come close to winning before. He’s a significant upgrade over Smyly, Rick Porcello, or latter-day Justin Verlander, and whoever ends up the odd starter out in October will give Detroit another valuable bullpen piece. Given the age of their roster and the state of their farm system, the Tigers’ time is today and 2015. Not having an 18-year-old Adames in A-ball isn’t something to sweat.
Yankees: Whatever roster-construction sins they committed in entering the season without an infield, the Yankees played this deadline perfectly, making use of their least-exhaustible asset — money — to bolster their slim playoff hopes. If the Bombers — a nickname that hasn’t suited them since 2012 — are ever going to get out of the spend-big, win-small cycle they’ve locked themselves into by punting player development and living and (lately) dying with high-priced free agents, they need to supplement their signings with a few homegrown guys who can play significant roles beyond the bullpen and the back of the rotation. With only an 18 percent chance at a playoff spot, per Baseball Prospectus’s playoff odds, and a 13 percent chance at bypassing the wild-card game and securing a spot in a real playoff round, raiding the small prospect stockpile they’ve amassed in order to inject a little life into a team with a minus-30 run differential would have been a mistake. Instead, the Yankees pursued a middle path, bolstering their chances almost purely by picking up other teams’ tabs. After buying low on Brandon McCarthy and Chase Headley earlier this month, the Yankees acquired Stephen Drew and Martin Prado on deadline day at a cost of Kelly Johnson and only one other human being, Peter O’Brien, a high-strikeout Double-A slugger who just turned 24. (They also claimed Triple-A starter Esmil Rogers off waivers from Toronto.)
Prado is an off-brand Ben Zobrist who rotated between second, third, and left field in Arizona; with the Yankees, he’ll also see some action in right, where he’s played only two big league innings. A spike in ground ball rate has sapped some of his power this season, but he’s not far below the league-average baseline he’s surpassed in each of the past two seasons, and at 30 he’s barely over the minimum age permissible for a Yankees position player. New York is on the hook for the $22 million he’s owed in 2015 and 2016, but that’s not too high a price in light of the options that Prado’s flexibility affords Brian Cashman in making other moves.
Meanwhile, Drew’s bat has rebounded since his ice-cold June — judging by the way he and Kendrys Morales belatedly started their seasons, sitting out until after the draft doesn’t do wonders for one’s preparedness — and there’s no reason not to expect him to hit like his old self for the next two months. However, he won’t do it as a shortstop: Like Alex Rodriguez before him, he’ll be diverted to another infield position rather than displace Derek Jeter, who’s played down to his usual defensive standards in his sepia-toned final season. With Drew at second base (a position he’s never played professionally) and Mark Teixeira back from the disabled list, the Yankees finally have something resembling a contending team’s lineup, and they obtained it by peddling prospect slop.
Us! Until Thursday morning, it looked like we were in for an uneventful deadline, with little movement leading up to the last day of the non-waiver trading period and many teams close enough to contention to dissuade them from selling. General managers are nothing if not masters of procrastination, though, and so instead of a dud, we got a day that started with what Jonah called “one of the most shocking blockbusters in MLB trade deadline history” and grew much more exciting from there. The defending world champions continued to rearrange their roster. The extended David Price sweepstakes finally came to a stunning conclusion. The Red Sox cracked the seventh seal by making their first trade with the Yankees since 1997, and compared with the swaps that preceded it on Thursday, that once-every-two-decades event was almost an afterthought.
The deadline also reminded us that another need is always one injury away. The A’s and Cardinals, whose rotations ranked among baseball’s deepest in mid-March, combined to acquire five starting pitchers in July. The Nationals, who until recently were so stocked with position players that Bryce Harper’s return threatened to take away playing time from qualified starters (predictably, a “problem” that a hamstring strain resolved), added another one in Asdrubal Cabrera. With two months to go in the regular season (and a month until the waiver trade deadline), postseason rosters are far from set, and that’s something to celebrate. If, as New York magazine’s Will Leitch wrote earlier this week, the modern sports enthusiast is more interested in front-office strategy than in the actual games, then monitoring/celebrating/complaining about yesterday’s developments was the purest form of fandom.
Astros, Braves, Brewers, Cubs, Nationals: All of these teams made incremental improvements, but we’ve got only so much space.
Phillies: Ruben Amaro probably didn’t spend Thursday refreshing MLBTradeRumors and bemoaning every other GM’s lack of loyalty as his cell phone buzzed until its battery died; he probably made and fielded phone calls just like his counterparts with the other 29 teams. The Phillies’ lack of activity doesn’t mean they weren’t willing to listen to offers, or even to propose them. It does suggest, though, that either their conception of where they stand in the competitive cycle or their player evaluation process is completely out of step with the rest of the industry’s.
Let’s give Amaro the benefit of the doubt and assume that Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins wouldn’t have waived their no-trade rights, that Ryan Howard was worthless, that Cliff Lee’s balky elbow scared off too many teams to create much of a market (and rightly so, since Lee was forced out of his post-deadline start by the same injury). That still leaves Marlon Byrd, A.J. Burnett, and Jonathan Papelbon, among other semi-interesting veterans who could have brought something back. It’s no certainty that an Amaro trade would have resulted in a rich return — in July 2012, he traded Jim Thome, Chad Qualls, Shane Victorino, and Hunter Pence and netted close to nothing that’s useful to the Phillies today — but it’s negligent to do nothing for two consecutive deadlines while an aged roster continues to head downhill. No one was expecting an Astros-style teardown, but by acting early or being bolder, the Phillies might have shortened their stay in the cellar.
When Amaro gave in to peer pressure and hired a stathead over the offseason, he conceded that some awareness of sabermetrics might be useful, if only so that the Phillies could gain a better understanding of “how other clubs are evaluating players when we talk about possible trades.” It’s tough to square that quote with reports that Amaro demanded “big prospects” back for Byrd. Amaro seems to think that the onus was on other teams to bowl the Phillies over. In reality, the onus was on him.
Blue Jays: The Phillies’ mistake was not making a move for the future; the Blue Jays’ was not making a move for right now. With a 60 percent chance of keeping the wild-card spot that they’re clinging to today, and with close to a 40 percent shot at the AL East, the Jays were the strongest contender that needed to make a move but didn’t (aside from adding Danny Valencia), much to the dismay of some of their stars. A win or two added would have benefited the Blue Jays more than almost any other team, given how much it might have moved the needle on their odds of reaching the ALDS.
It’s not that they didn’t have holes: With Adam Lind, Edwin Encarnacion, and Brett Lawrie nearing returns from injuries, it made sense not to blow up the system for a big bat, but a complementary piece like Asdrubal Cabrera could have helped. And they certainly could have used an arm. Pitching help was a priority for the Jays over the offseason, but they couldn’t pull the trigger then, settling for a series of inconsequential moves. Unless they can find a starter in August, they’ll have to hope that Drew Hutchison and Marcus Stroman don’t run out of steam down the stretch, and that they don’t miss out on a playoff spot by a game that could have been started by someone better than J.A. Happ. The Jays may have been hamstrung by a lack of payroll room, although Alex Anthopoulos has consistently claimed that he had permission from ownership to add salary.
Diamondbacks: Stop me if you’ve heard someone say this about a Diamondbacks deal before: By trading Prado, McCarthy, and Gerardo Parra for nothing exciting but salary relief, the D-backs sold at an inopportune time. Parra, a multiple Gold Glove winner who fully deserved the honor (and who had to wait overly long to break into the Diamondbacks’ lineup), is having a down year, but he’s a young 27 and the dip in his defensive stats might be nothing more than a small-sample quirk. He’s a nice piece for the Brewers to platoon with Khris Davis or use in an outfield rover role, and he doesn’t have the sort of stats that pay off in arbitration.
Rays: Your take on the Rays’ return for Price depends on your tolerance for the idea of trading an ace without receiving a player with a ceiling in the same stratospheric range. After months of speculation, during which bigger names were bandied about (though not necessarily offered), Tampa Bay ended up with two guys who should give them good value, particularly in the production-relative-to-salary sense, but who don’t have franchise-altering futures. Maybe we expected too much from the Price trade because of the hauls the Rays got for Matt Garza and James Shields. Plus, there’s only so much surplus value that even a pitcher like Price can provide when he’s making $14 million and headed for a sizable raise. Franklin and Smyly aren’t sexy, but they’re cheap, and they’re ready right now.
But the Rays have to be held to a high standard — not only because they’ve lived up to it in the past, but because they need to make a killing on trades to survive. Poor results in recent drafts have hurt Tampa Bay’s farm system, so to stay competitive, the Rays have to maximize their internal assets by adding talent from other organizations in trades when their homegrown guys get expensive. We can’t hold it against Andrew Friedman that Tampa Bay didn’t trade Price last winter — raise your hand if you foresaw their slow start — and while the Rays’ playoff odds aren’t much lower than the Yankees’, who were active buyers, the Rays are operating under different financial constraints. To ball on a budget, Friedman has to be able to flip his bat after every major move, and it’s not clear that this is the type of return that can keep their run going.
Teams That Tried to Trade Prospects: On a day when many moves were made, few top prospects were traded: Colin Moran, whom the Astros received as part of a great get for Jarred Cosart, and Eduardo Rodriguez were the best of the bunch, and neither is better than a top-100 type. GMs who couldn’t complete trades, such as Anthopoulos and Dayton Moore, complained that potential partners wanted only big leaguers back; Amaro, who pooh-poohed the appeal of prospects, probably wasn’t alone. With the second wild card making more playoff runs realistic, teams are looking for mature players who aren’t locked up long-term, a combination that offers the best of both worlds: reduced risk without a big financial burden. Major leaguers, after all, are just prospects who’ve already panned out.
Mookie Betts, Red Sox: Somewhere in Pawtucket, blocked Boston prospect Mookie Betts pulled out a list of positions he hoped to play in 2015, crossed off the outfield corners, and stared sadly at an empty page.
Dodgers, Giants, Marlins, Pirates, White Sox: Not the best showing, but they didn’t do (or not do) enough to earn a real beating.
Filed Under: MLB, 2014 MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Trades, Winners and Losers, Jon Lester, David Price, Oakland Athletics, St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers, Seattle Mariners, Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Rays, Arizona Diamondbacks, MLB Prospects, MLB Stats, Ben Lindbergh