Trade Deadline Goes Out With a Whimper

Major League Baseball’s non-waiver deadline came and went with no major trades happening after most sellers refused to budge from their price tags, negating what was widely predicted to be the best seller’s market in years.

The biggest name changing teams Wednesday was Ian Kennedy. A 21-game winner and Cy Young contender just two years ago, Kennedy has seen his numbers fade since then, with worsening results for his strikeout, walk, home run, and ground ball rates. He has posted a 5.23 ERA this year in 21 starts (up from 2.88 in 2011), along with a 4.59 FIP (up from 3.22 in 2011). Here’s a stupefying stat for you: Two years ago, Kennedy’s 90 mph fastball was deceptive enough to be the most valuable heater thrown by any starter; this year, it has been the seventh-least effective fastball thrown by any starter.

Nine games below .500 and more or less eliminated from contention, the Padres seemed a strange match for a 28-year-old former ace who’ll be just past four years of major league service time at season’s end. But in trading lefty reliever Joe Thatcher, minor league reliever Matt Stites, and a compensation draft pick that’ll fall between the second and third rounds, the Padres aren’t giving up any huge-upside assets to land Kennedy. Their new acquisition is making $4.3 million this year; even if he finishes with an ERA greater than 5.00 and a losing record (arbitrators don’t give a fig about advanced stats), you figure Kennedy will get $6 million or more as an arbitration-eligible player heading into next year. He’ll offer the Padres that 2014 season, plus 2015, assuming they elect to tender him an arbitration offer after next season, too, or maybe sign him to an extension. And San Diego could always try to flip him later, hopefully landing something more exciting than two relievers and a pick in the 70s or 80s.

There’s a real chance this could go well for the Padres too. As Paul Sporer of Baseball Prospectus and Rotowire tweeted, Kennedy is outstanding when pitching at Petco Park, posting a 2.27 ERA, 35 percent strikeout rate, and 8 percent walk rate in 35⅔ innings pitched. Granted, that’s a small sample size. But a fly ball pitcher like Kennedy going from hitter-friendly Chase Field to pitcher-friendly Petco could see a boost simply by where he makes half his starts.

Really, the skepticism over this deal has been almost exclusively directed at the Diamondbacks. Despite their recent woes, the Snakes sat just 3½ games behind the first-place Dodgers at the time of the trade. Though Kennedy had struggled this year, he was still a member of a contender’s starting rotation, having had enough success in the recent past to warrant patience, or so you’d think. Trading him away looks even weirder given the rumors that Arizona was actually pursuing a starting pitcher (Jake Peavy) before finally sending Kennedy west. Really, this looks like a case of a general manager selling low on a player he no longer trusts.

But let’s consider Arizona GM Kevin Towers’s point of view here. Thatcher owns a 2.10 ERA and 2.91 FIP, with a strikeout-to-walk rate of better than 7-to-1. A skeptic would point to his 2013 splits — .212/.257/.231 vs. left-handed hitters and an ugly .280/.294/.520 against righties — and conclude that Thatcher is strictly a lefty specialist. But his career splits (.202/.269/.317 against lefty bats, .267/.347/.370 against righties) point to a pitcher who doesn’t necessarily need to be pigeonholed into one-batter appearances. Towers in particular would know, since this is the second time he has traded for Thatcher, having first acquired him from Milwaukee six years ago when Towers was the Padres’ GM. Meanwhile, Arizona ranked 11th in the majors in reliever ERA (3.26) at the time of the deal, but also 20th in reliever FIP. The formerly reliable late-inning duo of J.J. Putz and David Hernandez has struggled mightily this year, and Heath Bell continues to have his own cruel hashtag. Meanwhile the pen carried only one left-hander prior to the trade, Tony Sipp, who fought command issues for much of the season — thus opening the door for Thatcher to be the high-leverage lefty in the D-backs’ pen.

Towers likely considers Stites to be the key piece to the deal. That’s a bit puzzling at first glance, given we’re talking about a relief pitcher in Double-A. But Stites earns praise for his stuff, with a mid-90s fastball that has generated 51 strikeouts and just eight walks in 52 innings this year. And while you don’t want to fall back on an appeal to authority, Towers has a long history of building excellent (and inexpensive) bullpens; he’s the one who grabbed Bell from the Mets’ scrap heap, thrust him into late-inning work, and watched him become an All-Star in San Diego, for instance. Hell, Will Harris was a Towers waiver claim over the winter, and Harris has been Arizona’s best reliever this year, posting a 2.20 ERA, 2.17 FIP, and 28.6 percent strikeout rate.

Finally, the D-backs certainly are selling low on Kennedy, or at least far lower than where he was in 2011 or even 2012. But let’s consider the details. If this truly is Kennedy’s ability level from now on, non-tendering a pitcher with a 5.00-plus ERA who is due to make $6 million to $7 million isn’t all that crazy; at the very least, that’s no bargain. Arizona has Patrick Corbin, Wade Miley, and Randall Delgado in its current rotation, with Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarthy due back soon and top lefty prospect Tyler Skaggs waiting in the minors, so a roster crunch was coming. Extending that idea, while capable starting pitchers are usually more valuable than even good relievers, in this case you could argue that Thatcher helps the 2013 D-backs as much or maybe more than Kennedy might’ve over the final two months of the season. That’s not counting the future value gained from Stites, the draft pick, and cash saved, especially if Kennedy were a potential non-tender, or at least a trade candidate, at season’s end.

There’s a pattern here, that much is true. I jumped all over Towers for the Justin Upton trade and the Trevor Bauer deal, arguing that you can’t give up on players with that much natural talent, especially not when their value is depressed, and certainly not for perceived attitude problems. But the Bauer swap in particular serves as a helpful reminder that deals can work out just fine for teams even when the rationale might seem a little off. Towers and the D-backs brass claim they saw something in Didi Gregorius that the numbers, and critics of the trade like me, didn’t. And in the case of the Kennedy transaction, a starter-for-two-relievers-and-a-pick trade might seem right in principle. Still, there are real reasons for the Diamondbacks to have made it.

It’s our job as writers to take a hard stand on every little baseball happening — Google “trade deadline winners and losers” and watch the results pile up. But the answers are rarely so black-and-white. Best guess this time: Both teams look back on this deal and call it a win.

Elsewhere, the Astros made a pair of deals, arguably getting more back in the trade that sent away a lesser player.

One deal sent fungible outfielder Justin Maxwell to Kansas City for promising 20-year-old Class A starting pitcher Kyle Smith, a trade that makes you wonder why the Royals gave up a real prospect in exchange for a player who doesn’t offer much beyond what Jeff Francoeur did for KC — and the Royals waived Francoeur on July 5. Meanwhile, the bigger swap sent Houston’s de facto ace, Bud Norris, to Baltimore for outfielder L.J. Hoes, 19-year-old minor league left-handed pitcher Josh Hader, and a competitive-balance draft pick in 2014.

Called up on Sunday, Hoes had played one game with the Orioles this season before the trade; with the two teams playing each other Wednesday, he switched dugouts and batted second for Houston right away. A versatile player with a strong batting eye, Hoes played second base, third base, and all three outfield positions in the minors, hitting for little power but posting a .366 on-base percentage, with a .304/.406/.403 line this year and more walks than strikeouts. Still, Hader is the higher-upside player as the Orioles’ fifth-ranked prospect this year according to MLB.com. A hard thrower, Hader struck out 79 batters in 85 innings at Delmarva of the Sally League this year, though with 42 walks. You could call the deal a decent haul for the Astros, though far less than what Houston was reportedly asking for Norris in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline (rumors no doubt stoked in part by the Astros themselves).

And really, that’s been the story of the Orioles this trading season. Baltimore added two useful starting pitchers in Scott Feldman and Norris, as well as a decent relief pitcher in Francisco Rodriguez, without giving up anything remotely close to a premium prospect in the process. It’s a strategy reminiscent of what the Pirates did in 2011 and 2012, except for one major difference: The O’s have a much better chance to make the playoffs this year than Pittsburgh did the past two years.

Of course there’s a price to pay for being stingy with your prospects, and that price is acquiring merely useful talent in return. We’ve already covered K-Rod and the incredible good fortune he had to post a 1.09 ERA with Milwaukee before the trade to Baltimore.

In the case of Norris, the O’s landed a pitcher whose overall stats look solid at first. He made all 21 of his scheduled starts this year, posting a respectable 3.93 ERA and 3.87 FIP. But a closer look shows a flaw that could prove costly in a pennant race. A fastball-slider specialist, Norris has shown the ability to bowl over right-handed hitters. Lefties, not so much. For his career, Norris has allowed a line of .263/.354/.443 against left-handed hitters. In 2013, those numbers have swelled to .300/.365/.494; for a frame of reference, MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen is hitting .301/.371/.494. The AL East does feature several big right-handed bats, of course. On contending teams you’ve got Evan Longoria and Wil Myers in Tampa Bay, plus Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli in Boston. The last-place Jays feature righty sluggers Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista. The O’s have 22 games left against those three teams, which could put Norris to good use. But Baltimore also has seven games left against the Yankees and Robinson Cano, plus potential showdowns with fellow potent left-handed hitters (or switch-hitters) Jason Kipnis, David Ortiz, Adam Lind, and others. All things considered, better teams might feast on Norris and damage the value of Baltimore’s investment.

The good news is that it wasn’t a major investment. Norris has about $1 million left on his 2013 salary, then offers two more years of likely fairly affordable team control. The Orioles kept their now somewhat thin cache of prospects (behind Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy) intact. For their trouble, they get a pitcher who might’ve been Houston’s no. 1 starter but realistically slots in as the no. 5 or even no. 6 for the Orioles. Baltimore largely reached out for Norris because Jason Hammel had just hit the DL and the O’s wanted to have at least competent options going every day until Hammel returns. Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Feldman, and a healthy Hammel could all be argued as better options than Norris. The price of the deal — and all three of the Orioles’ notable deadline and pre-deadline deals — reflected that. Given how little true front-line talent changed hands at this year’s deadline (ostensibly none), the Orioles upgraded that team as much or more than just about anyone else.

Though MLB’s trade deadline often disappoints given the big names thrown around every year, there was less action this year than most anyone could remember. Reds GM Walt Jocketty, who spent 13 years running the Cardinals and is now in his sixth season at the helm for Cincinnati, told reporters, “Today was completely dead. This is the quietest trade deadline day I’ve had.”

There are plenty of reasons that the non-waiver trading period ended with a whimper and not a bang. The second wild card has deluded more teams into imagining that they might still be in the race, even when the odds are overwhelmingly against them. Multiple teams, notably the Royals and Mariners, have a combination of GMs on the hot seat and a mandate to show some kind of progress that has prompted them to hold onto their assets (the Royals winning eight in a row at least made their approach of “sell nobody and even consider buying” not totally ridiculous). Shoot-for-the-sky teams pursued elite commodities like Giancarlo Stanton and came up empty. Many others simply exercised caution, refusing to give up intriguing prospects for win-now veterans out of concern that those prospects could flourish elsewhere.

There’s more. Subtle changes like walk-year players dealt at the deadline not being eligible to fetch compensation draft picks for their new employers have had an impact. In some cases, such as with the Giants and Javier Lopez, there’s a mutual interest from both parties to re-up a walk-year player at season’s end, or even beforehand. Moving the non-waiver trade deadline back a couple of weeks could alleviate some of those concerns, though certainly not all of them. There are those who would argue that any player not likely to be part of a future winner for the city in which he plays should be dealt for any available handful of magic beans. But even that’s not as straightforward an idea as you’d think, especially when considering players, like Marlon Byrd, who are making next to nothing and putting up good numbers. Even for losing teams, there are reasons to avoid tanking entirely.

So for now, we’re left with the possibility of August waiver deals. The players most likely to clear waivers and thus become available for trades are those who are widely regarded as overpaid — well-compensated, mediocre commodities like Justin Morneau and Michael Young seem like obvious choices. It’s possible that we could see well-paid but superior players like Alex Rios or even Cliff Lee also make it through waivers to become trade fodder, should teams get scared off enough by elevated salaries to avoid trying to block deals for league and division rivals … but that’s far from certain.

More likely, we’ll see the 2013 trade season come and go with a few interesting pitchers changing teams, and little else. Blame baseball’s new rules, a muddled landscape, and fear.

Filed Under: Arizona Diamondbacks, San Diego Padres

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.

Archive @ jonahkeri