Although an active and even hectic trade deadline period is a source of great joy to engaged baseball fans, I don’t know that it’s an absolute virtue. Player movement keeps the game fresh and exciting, but there’s something to be said for stability, familiarity and long-term cost certainty. In some years, it’s perfectly acceptable for relatively little to happen in late July.
This should not have been one of those years.
If you share my vague indignation with the inactivity that marked the passing of the deadline Wednesday, but have had a hard time putting a finger on a reason for that, let me help: It’s because there are no good teams in baseball, and nobody did anything about it.
The Pirates added nothing to a pitching staff that has won games by being twisted and ground within an inch of disintegration by Clint Hurdle. Hurdle has managed that corps brilliantly, actually, but it’s very much brinksmanship, and the Pirates didn’t leave themselves any hope of surviving the fall when one foot goes over the edge. This team, a team with limited financial resources and who (by virtue of having the best record in baseball) will have last crack at all players who hit waivers, decided to wait and see what happens in August.
The Oakland Athletics added Alberto Callaspo, whom they intend to deploy at second base. This augments what was already their greatest team strength (patient offense) and exacerbates what was already their greatest weakness (an abominable defensive infield). They did nothing to strengthen a starting rotation the rear of which has been a revolving door, and nothing to reinforce a bullpen that rates no better than average.
The Rays provisionally added Jesse Crain to their bullpen, addressing a very minor need but neglecting to insure themselves against regression by James Loney or Kelly Johnson by adding a bat.
The Red Sox added Jake Peavy, Matt Thornton and Bryan Villareal to their pitching staff, incremental upgrades all, because the specter of surrendering any of their 12 or so best prospects was too daunting to permit them to get more bold and add a Jeff Samardzija or Cliff Lee-caliber arm.
The Cardinals did nothing, despite being one of those rare teams whose path to contention could not possibly be more excruciatingly clear. They needed to add a shortstop, and it would have been nice to also grab a short-term fix behind the plate, since Yadier Molina is out for a while. They sat idly by, though, as Detroit played facilitator in the Peavy deal between the Red Sox and White Sox, landing Jose Iglesias in the process.
The Reds did nothing, either, an even more galling inaction. Despite being heavy pre-season favorites, they lag the Pirates by several games, but they didn’t even give much indication of seeking a solution to their left-field issues, nor to their sudden dearth of bullpen depth.
The Dodgers did (functionally) nothing. Adding Brian Wilson through free agency and Drew Butera in a trade doesn’t count. A team with a fistful of bad but no good players at second or third base, a team with four starting-caliber outfielders and zero tenable defensive center fielders, made no improvement.
The Diamondbacks, bafflingly, traded a starting pitcher under control for two seasons beyond this one for a lefty specialist in the bullpen; a relief pitching prospect, as silly as that sounds; and a competitive-balance draft pick. I’ll get into this more later, but suffice it to say: That deal does not close the talent gap between Arizona and the Dodgers. It doesn’t come close.
The Rangers seemed to have balls in the air, but got nothing done, this side of the Matt Garza deal. From the sound of the rumors that flew, I surmise that the front office, having hamstrung itself with an ill-considered contract extension to Elvis Andrus, had a hard time getting potential partners to choose between and move forward with a deal for one of Andrus, Ian Kinsler and Jurickson Profar. Their offense isn’t bad, but it isn’t good, either, and they didn’t take any steps forward.
The Braves had such a cushion in the division that they felt no pressure whatsoever to make a splash, so they didn’t. They added a left-handed reliever (basically, they shook the nearest magnolia tree, and let Scott Downs fall into their hands). They left their rotation, as it has been for five years now, deep enough but flat as week-old Sprite. A team virtually assured of reaching the postseason did nothing at all to reshape its roster to improve their chances come October.
The Indians are as easy a team to improve as you can imagine. They’re a terrific offensive team with solid defensive talent, although Terry Francona is still working out the highest possible usage of the latter. They just need starting pitching. They have shut out opponents 14 times this year, the most in the American League. They have also allowed, for instance, six runs 14 times, which also leads the league. They just need a guy who won’t get rocked every fifth day. They made only limited efforts, and no actual move, to address that need.
The Royals needed a second baseman. That’s what they needed. Having no apparent interest in giving Johnny Giavotella the shot he deserves, they have played terrible players there all season, guys with neither gloves nor bats worthy of inclusion in an MLB lineup. So they needed to add a second baseman. They added Justin Maxwell, whom, hey, maybe they intend to use at second, but who has never played second base in the Majors, and whom it sure seems they intend to play in his usual position, the corner outfield spots.
The Nationals, too committed to this season to trade anything of value away, also found themselves too far from contention to make a substantial buyer’s move, so they stood pat and forsook any chance to make marginal improvements in either the near or the long term.
The Blue Jays, too committed to this season to trade anything of value away, also found themselves too far from contention to make a substantial buyer’s move, so they stood pat and forsook any chance to make marginal improvements in either the near or the long term.
The Angels, too committed to this season to trade anything of value away, also found themselves too far from contention to make a substantial buyer’s move, so they stood pat and forsook any chance to make marginal improvements in either the near or the long term.
The Phillies, too committed to this season to trade anything of value away, also found themselves too far from contention to make a substantial buyer’s move, so they stood pat and forsook any chance to make marginal improvements in either the near or the long term.
The Yankees, too committed to this season to trade anything of value away, also found themselves too far from contention to make a substantial buyer’s move, so they stood pat and forsook any chance to make marginal improvements in either the near or the long term.
That last exercise is meant as a transition from listing the specific opportunities each team missed, to looking at the larger issue here. It’s this: Every team in baseball looks the same these days. No one is excellent. No one is interesting, except for teams like the Astros, Cubs and Marlins, who are interesting only insofar as their experiments in rebuilding include unprecedented willingness to bite multiple bullets and a startling eagerness to trade short-term for long-term assets.
This is the opposite of what the second Wild Card was supposed to do. Since winning the division is more important than ever, teams were supposed to strive for excellence more. They were supposed to aim higher, not lower. Every team is going the other way. Every team is accepting its weaknesses, instead of amending them. Every team is shooting at 90 wins, knowing there’s an extra playoff spot in which to land. That sameness is not only a major culprit in the criminal inactivity of several contending teams, but also a factor in the parity that has taken a firm and unforgiving hold on the game.
Every team is also making the Rizzo Error. Last season, you might remember, the Nationals shut down Stephen Strasburg for the last month or so of the season, in the name of saving his arm from undue cumulative seasonal strain in the first full season of his career post-Tommy John surgery. It raised a lot of questions about just how well a pitcher can be protected from injuries, and about what the right way to do so is, but more importantly, it led us to ask this:
Just who does Mike Rizzo think he is?
You don’t get to trade today for tomorrow. Baseball has no tomorrow. Bizarrely, even as the low price teams place on rentals at the deadline demonstrated their understanding of the violent variance that overwhelms any predictive efforts even in the short term, they have shown something very like Rizzo’s hubris about finding consistent success in the long term. Contenders refused to pay for a 10-percent boost in their chance to reach and succeed in the playoffs, apparently on the premise that they’ll be back.
Every GM is obsessed with the process these days. Every GM is obsessed with prospects. Every GM thinks the wealth of information he has, which is always greater in the cases of his own players than in the cases of others, allows him to make confident projections and promise success.
It isn’t true, but this is how everyone feels. This is why the Arizona Diamondbacks keep signing infielders to two- and three-year extensions. This is why Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler and Dustin Pedroia get big contract extensions way before they need to get them, and for more than they should get if they’re getting guaranteed money that far ahead of time.
It’s why free agency is dying, and why the trade deadline is dying. It’s why teams are locking up veterans in their late peak even with elite prospects at the same position in waiting. It’s why, if everyone played to their current winning percentage the rest of the way, 15 teams will finish with between 82 and 96 wins, but no one will win 97. It’s why there are no good teams in baseball.
And it’s all illusory. The truth is that these long-term extensions aren’t helping that much. Pre-arbitration deals, the kind that lock up a guy at 23 and steal two years of free agency before he can glimpse the money that would be waiting there, are fine. But the second kind of extension, the keep-my-MVP-off-the-market deal, is killing teams, and destroying the delightful sense of possibility of movement that used to mark baseball’s player-acquisition framework. Ditto the two-year pin-the-role-player-down-while-the-rest-comes-together deal.
The truth is that GMs are running their teams too much alike, valuing players too much alike, and worrying too much about things far beyond their control. Teams aren’t going for it when they get a chance. They’re playing scared.
A few more things:
Can Someone Wind Back a Clock Please?
In a hilariously clear microcosm of what Chicago politics has always been, when the Illinois legislature was debating the notion of helping the White Sox build a new stadium some 25 years ago, they turned back the clocks in the chamber so as to avoid going past a deadline that would have beaten a path out of town for the city’s second team.
A quarter-century later, the Cubs and White Sox need someone to do the same thing with the clocks on the walls of the league office, because they have a ton of unfinished business.
How did the Cubs not deal Kevin Gregg and Dioner Navarro? I’m just starting here; deals involving either guy would have been minor. Still, they should have been moved. What the Cubs front office seems to have overlooked is that impending free agents on bad teams do not have little utility, nor none: They have negative utility. They actively hurt you by being on the roster. You have to spend more than the league-minimum salary on them, and if they accidentally win you a game down the stretch, it could shove you down a crucial slot or two in the draft the following year. The Cubs should have expected less than they seemed to expect, especially for Navarro, and they should have traded both.
They also failed by not trading Jeff Samardzija, James Russell or Nate Schierholtz.
I’ve already made my case for trading Samardzija. It is my firm and obdurate position that the industry in general overvalues Samardzija, and that the Cubs’ front office does so by a radical margin. The only names reported during trade speculation about Samardzija were Archie Bradley and Tyler Skaggs, two of the 25 most valuable young pitchers in baseball, both of whom the Cubs apparently demanded from the Diamondbacks in any possible Samardzija swap. That’s ridiculous. The Diamondbacks rightfully turned that down. The Cubs should have been miles more reasonable, and if they had been, a deal might have been there to be made, if not with Arizona, then with Pittsburgh or Boston.
To the points outlined in the piece linked above, I want to add one: Recent history shows that storing up starting-pitching treasures is simply not how a rebuilding team succeeds.
In 2012, the Atlanta Braves reached October with three starting hurlers (Kris Medlen, Paul Maholm and Randall Delgado) with less than a full season of tenure in their rotation entering the year. The Washington Nationals did the same thing (with Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and Edwin Jackson). The Baltimore Orioles, too (Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Joe Saunders and Miguel Gonzalez). Oakland (Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Tom Milone).
In 2011, it was the Milwaukee Brewers who set the tone, winning a division title with newly-acquired Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum at the front of their pack. The Cardinals won the Wild Card (just one back then) with Edwin Jackson (him again) and Jake Westbrook. The Diamondbacks took the West with Daniel Hudson, Josh Collmenter and Joe Saunders. The Phillies won the NL East with Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt.
Go back to the Cubs’ last good teams. The 2007 starting rotation featured two free-agent acquisitions, in Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis, and a relative newcomer in Rich Hill. The 2008 team had both Lilly and Marquis, plus bullpen convert Ryan Dempster and mid-season acquisition Rich Harden. The point should be clear now: You don’t build up pitching bulk and talent, let it get spent and spendy, then win. You build up the positional core, ensure the farm system has strength in its number of arms and add pitching only once pitching is of immediate and measurable value.
A rumor cropped up, then quickly died, that the Cubs might be in on Ian Kennedy. Obviously, Kennedy ended up in San Diego, and the Diamondbacks ended up with a collection of inferior talent. It seems that before that happened, Arizona tried to get Chicago interested in a package centered around Kennedy, in return for Samardzija.
The Cubs laughed that one off. So did most of Twitter. I disagree with all involved. While Kennedy alone is an insufficient return for Samardzija, any “package” led by him would at least prick up my ears.
Kennedy and Samardzija were born roughly six weeks apart. Kennedy has been an effective big-league starter for more seasons (two) than Samardzija (one), although Samardzija should be able to even that score this year. Kennedy is smaller, throws less hard and probably presents higher injury risk. On the other hand, Kennedy has very good command, more often than not, and is markedly better at approaching and attacking opposing hitters than is Samardzija.
Both pitchers are under control for two more seasons. They’ll be more or less equally compensated over that span. I would think Samardzija will be five or 10 runs better than Kennedy over those innings, but it hardly matters. I likened the rejected deal, on Twitter, to trading a crisp five-dollar bill for a tattered one and two singles. Kennedy would have been every bit the flippable asset Samardzija is, this winter, and presumably, the Cubs also would have gotten one of Arizona’s arms in the high minors, or at the bottom of their current rotation, along with him. I see Kennedy landing in San Diego as a panacea for the Padres, but a mutual failure by the Diamondbacks and Cubs.
Speaking of the Cubs and mutually damaging non-trades, Nate Schierholtz should be a Pittsburgh Pirate right now. If any team ought to know better than to assume the best is yet to come, it ought to be the Pirates, whose last winning season nearly earned them the right to visit George H.W. Bush at the White House. If any team ought to feel obligated to, without taking a torch to the farm system, ensure they plugged their bigger leaks, it ought to be the one whose picture-perfect ballpark has still not been tested for structural integrity by any sort of standing-room crowd.
The Pirates’ right-field situation is a mess. Jose Tabata and Travis Snider are essentially failed prospects, although Tabata can probably hack it as a short-side platoon outfielder. Garrett Jones has to play first base because Gaby Sanchez can’t hit right-handed pitchers. They need reinforcements, and if they didn’t like the price tags on various available starters (somewhat understandable), they should have leaped headlong into the outfield bat market.
Maybe they did, and the Cubs simply would not budge on their asking price for Schierholtz. Schierholtz, in the midst of a career year at age 29 thanks to being sheltered from all the left-handed pitchers the Cubs have faced (32 starters, 11 more than Pittsburgh, which is no coincidence, because Pittsburgh employs 50 percent of the left-handed pitchers in NL Central rotations). Schierholtz, who will cost $5 million or so next season and then become a free agent, one year too soon to help the Cubs, who will not be ready to compete next year. Schierholtz.
A trade needed to happen. Something had to get done. But both the Pirates and the Cubs stood their ground too firmly, too certain the other would blink, or too attached to their own guy, or too concerned with a longer-term issue when this moment, this chance for the Pirates to permanently leave their two-decade losing streak in the dust, should have been the thing. They blew it.
The White Sox might be worse. How they could fail to move Alejandro De Aza, Alexei Ramirez, Alex Rios, Adam Dunn or Gordon Beckham, I can’t imagine. No one wanted Dunn, who has 65 home runs since the start of 2012 and is hitting .275/.393/.534 since June 1? No one wanted Rios, the best right-handed outfield bat available, at a reasonable price?
It takes two to tango, and it’s a bit of a fool’s errand to go hectoring front offices this way, because I don’t have any insight about what they were and were not offered. Still, the White Sox are way behind the rest of the division, and could be stuck there a long, long time if they don’t get serious about rebuilding, and I (literally) mean yesterday.
Other Swings and Misses
The Giants held onto a lefty reliever, a free agent-to-be who could have changed a team’s fortunes in right field, and a pitcher who threw a no-hitter in July and will hit the market this winter. They’re in last place in the NL West. What were they thinking there?
The Phillies are even worse than the Giants, even further from contention, and have, in Chase Utley, an even more attractive trade chip. But the same paralysis gripped Ruben Amaro as took hold of Brian Sabean.
The Marlins refused to discuss a Giancarlo Stanton trade, on orders from ownership, and also clung tightly to their bullpen pieces. Because what a that is 15-20 in one-run games, 9-12 in two-run games and 17-31 in all others really needs to do is keep its bullpen intact for the long haul.
Seattle should have been shopping their corner and DH bats at bargain prices, but if they did so at all, nothing came of it. They also kept their bullpen intact, although if you hear me soft-pedaling criticism of teams who didn’t empty the relief pitcher shelves, it’s because it sure seems like the market just wasn’t there during the final hours the way so many thought it would be.
So Who Did Well?
I feel a little too mean, leaving discussion of who actually succeeded in the run-up to the deadline for the 3,400-word mark. But I suppose that’s part of the point. Not many did well, and those who did, didn’t dominate.
The Tigers, I thought, made some savvy moves. Your mileage may vary, but I like Jose Iglesias better than Avisail Garcia, and much better than other alternatives to Jhonny Peralta, should he get hurt. I also thought the Jose Veras acquisition was pitch-perfect, a move that deepens a deep pen, and doesn’t concern itself with who pitches in the ninth inning with a three-run lead.
I actually liked the other side of the Veras deal, too, though. Danry Vasquez is succeeding while young for his level, in full-season ball at age 19. I like left-hitting outfielders. They tend to have high floors. The Astros got him straight-up for a relief arm, and they didn’t stop there. All reports are that they got a solid pitching prospect in Kyle Smith, in return for Justin Maxwell, and the package deal they hammered out in dealing Bud Norris to Baltimore seems fairly strong, too. I noted on Twitter yesterday that. whereas Houston entered the season overloaded with big power, big strikeout totals and low OBPs, they have made this season about reversing that formula. Jose Altuve now bats third for them, which is right where a .290 doubles hitter who doesn’t walk should bat, and Jonathan Villar and L.J. Hoes bring the contact skills and modicum of patience you want atop the order.
And hey, the Orioles did alright, themselves. Bud Norris, Scott Feldman and Francisco Rodriguez are get-to-October guys, not take-over-October guys, but that’s fine. They really do augment the Orioles’ chances to reach the playoffs, and although I’m pretty high on the guys they dealt to do it, I still can’t see that they’re going to regret trading any of them for another strong run. The offense is there, and between adding arms and pitchers getting healthy, the pitching staff is coming together.
The Padres get a nod here, because Ian Kennedy is the best player who was traded within 24 hours of the deadline, and he went to a team that can use him next year, for practically nothing. On the other hand, I wonder why Carlos Quentin and Huston Street weren’t more available. I might even have listened harder on Chase Headley, given what the market for bats was.
Predicting August Moves and the Races From Here
In rapid-fire fashion:
- The Rangers will claim Adam Dunn whenever he hits the wire, and end up getting him. I doubt Chicago would just let him go if Texas did lay a claim, but a deal is there to be worked out, and the threat that the Sox WOULD simply walk away from the contract might keep a team like the Yankees from placing a blocking claim. The acquisition will lift Texas past Oakland and into the playoffs.
- The Pirates will make a thoroughly tepid addition to the offense, and find a relief arm, too. Candidates to be the latter include Luke Hochevar, Drew Storen and Matt Guerrier. These will not help, though. The Pirates’ pitching will collapse in on itself, and although they will eke into the Wild Card coin-flip game, the season will end with bitter tastes in mouths all over western Pennsylvania.
- The Tigers will run and hide a bit with the AL Central, although not, as has been the case the last two seasons, thanks to collapses by all their rivals. The Indians will win a spot in the Wild Card game in the AL, having added Aaron Harang or Joe Saunders during August.
- The Dodgers will win the NL West, but by a thin margin over San Diego and Arizona.
- The Braves will win the NL East, but not before a charge from the Nationals and concomitant Atlanta slump puts those clubs in a tussle over one playoff spot.
- Alex Rios will land somewhere, although the return will be surprisingly small. My best guess is New York, but the Reds could be in play.
My playoff teams are: Texas, Detroit, Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Cleveland; Atlanta, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.Next post: How an Oswaldo Arcia Works
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