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Jeff Passan’s MLB trade deadline preview

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Almost a year ago, when Major League Baseball’s postseason expansion plans first leaked, a league official was trying to sell the idea. It would be good for competitiveness, he said, and would generate revenue for both the league and the players. More playoff teams would bring baseball in line with other sports, he said, and keep fans’ interest deeper into the season. All of this, in theory, was true.

But what about the trade deadline?

I asked this question not only as an interested observer in all things transaction but someone who recognizes the value a robust deadline season provides baseball. As the sport has grown more parochial, that has only added intrigue and interest to the game’s remaining national elements. And while the regular season and postseason — the games themselves — should be the sport’s fundamental attraction, the truth is that transactions are the dessert that fans crave every bit as much as the meat and potatoes (or, if you prefer, vegetables) of games. They are what constitute national baseball interest today.

The official had no good answer to the trade-deadline quandary that expanded playoffs cause, of course, because there is no good answer. This is the price MLB and players were willing to pay. And while in some years everything will unfold in a neat, deadline-friendly package — high-profile free-agents-to-be on non-contending teams — the consequence of more playoff slots is less deadline action.

The shortened 2020 season has supercharged all of the worst elements of that reality. The deadline is a week from today, and teams have played only a month of games. Almost no team is unequivocally out of contention. All it takes is a good week to go from outside the field to comfortably in. There is the rightful fear that a coronavirus outbreak could alter a team’s season at any moment. Most teams haven’t shown a desire to spend money during a year in which they say they’re losing tens of millions of dollars. Questions about the worth of a pandemic championship, ill-founded though they may be, persist. Compound that with a mediocre free-agent class and you have … this.

Nevertheless, here baseball stands, the clock ticking toward 4 p.m. ET on Aug. 31, questions begging to be answered.

Is this trade deadline going to be boring?

Uh. Um. Hmmm. How do I answer that?

Just answer it.

Probably.

Why?

For all of the reasons mentioned above and more. Baseball has evolved into a process-oriented sport to the point where a classic trade — I need this, you need that, let’s make a deal, sounds good, deal’s done — is an anachronism. Trades often materialize over months. The framework starts in the winter, goes dormant, picks back up in the summer, or vice versa. It runs through layers of information: not just traditional scouting and hard-core analytics but the in-between area where the two often marry. Deadline war rooms are marketplaces of ideas, with discussions, arguments and passion. If there’s an overriding feeling, it’s indecision. Every move matters, and the desire to win the trade causes gridlock more often than transaction.

So many of the traditional levers that exist to facilitate teams through that is missing. The information gap in both areas — scouts can’t see players in person, and while there is sharing of minor league data, it’s missing context — is staggering. The potential for a black swan event is very real.

It comes down to this: Teams are profoundly risk averse, and with so many of the risk-mitigating factors absent, the appetite for trades is lost. Teams that need players don’t want to gamble on a season they can’t predict, and teams that want to dump players are uncomfortable working off old information. That’s a bad combination.

And?

And the available player pool isn’t great shakes either.

Who is the biggest name who could move before the deadline?

One thing hasn’t changed from trade deadlines of past: Starting pitching is the greatest commodity. And the possibility that Cleveland could deal Mike Clevinger remains the most intriguing.

Clevinger is currently at the team’s alternate site after breaking protocol and going out with teammate Zach Plesac in Chicago. Both are eligible to be recalled. Currently, Cleveland’s rotation consists of Shane Bieber, Carlos Carrasco, Aaron Civale, Adam Plutko and rookie Triston McKenzie, whose two-hit, 10-strikeout debut earned him another start. Civale will go Monday and Bieber on Tuesday. Plutko, who has struggled in his past two starts, is slotted in for Wednesday. Clevinger could theoretically pitch then.

Trading the 29-year-old Clevinger would epitomize risk. He’s an elite starter with at least two more years of team control — three if the team keeps him on option for 20 or more days. Cleveland also desperately needs a quality outfielder. Over 334 plate appearances this season, its outfielders are hitting a collective .166/.273/.249. That is pitcher-quality offense among a group of position players.

Among the teams that could use a starting pitcher: Atlanta, New York and Colorado in the National League and New York, Toronto, Oakland, Houston and Chicago in the American League. Cleveland won’t lack suitors, even after Clevinger’s mistake, and president Chris Antonetti and GM Mike Chernoff aren’t shy about trading starters. The team did it the day before last year’s deadline with Trevor Bauer.

How Cleveland handles Clevinger in the coming days might provide some insight into its motivations.

Is Clevinger really the biggest name that could move?

Let me start with a warning: There is no indication this player is going anywhere. His team isn’t shopping him. There is probably a better chance of him signing a contract extension than being traded. This is more a thought exercise.

But if the Philadelphia Phillies run into a buzz saw this week against Washington and Atlanta … could they consider dealing catcher J.T. Realmuto?

Heresy, fans in Philadelphia would cry, and with good reason. Realmuto is the best catcher in baseball. He is also a pending free agent, and if the 10-14 Phillies get walloped this week and find themselves behind everyone in the NL except Pittsburgh, knowing six of the eight playoff spots in each league come from the top two teams in every division, could they make the calculation that the return from a Realmuto trade would outweigh the chances of a turnaround plus the draft pick they would reap if he were to leave in free agency?

Well, yeah. They could. Think about the teams that need catching help: Tampa Bay (with the best farm system in baseball), San Diego (second best), Cleveland (lots of good pitching) and others. But the idea of folding up shop, even if they struggle this week, is not just antithetical to their stated plan of contention in 2020. It would enrage fans who want to shout “Sign J.T.!” at their television and devices and want nothing more than a Realmuto extension. While fan sentiment cannot drive decision-making, anyone who says it doesn’t factor in is lying.

It also would be quite the about-face. Philadelphia just traded for relievers Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree. Bryce Harper hasn’t looked this good since his 2015 MVP season. Rookie Alec Bohm looks like a star. Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler are an awfully good 1-2 punch atop the rotation. And the NL East … leaves a lot to be desired.

If the Phillies sold, they’d have plenty of inventory: Realmuto, Workman, shortstop Didi Gregorius, outfielder Jay Bruce, starter Jake Arrieta. But to go from trying to win to full-on sale in less than a week? No team wants to do that, and it’s what makes this deadline so confusing.

So who are the sellers?

Definite sellers: Pittsburgh, Boston, Kansas City, Seattle, Los Angeles Angels.

Probable sellers: Detroit, Baltimore, Miami.

Possible sellers: San Francisco, Texas.

That’s only 10 of the 30 teams.

Who are the buyers?

Everyone else. Maybe even one or two of the above teams. And it’s what makes this market so weird. With a two-to-one buyer-to-seller ratio and supply so limited, one would think prices would be astronomical. A week from the deadline, they aren’t. It’s an irrational market for an irrational year, and part of what’s driving it may be the difference in the leagues.

What do you mean?

Look at the standings in the AL — specifically all the way to the right, the playoff odds column. Admittedly, I’m no fan of playoff odds. Especially this far out from the postseason field being locked in. But right now, six teams in the AL are seen as 96.5%-or-better chances to make the playoffs, and a seventh, the White Sox, are at 89.8%. That would leave only one spot for the remaining eight teams in the league.

Right now, Toronto (13-13) and Baltimore (14-14) are tied for it. The closest team to either is Detroit at 11-15, which is on pace for 68 wins during a typical season … and still just two games back of a playoff spot. On one hand, a team two games back shouldn’t sell. On the other, before winning Friday, the Tigers had lost nine straight, and teams will give them at least something for second baseman Jonathan Schoop or catcher Austin Romine and maybe some others if Detroit is inclined to tear down 2020 and start prepping for ’21.

So at the bottom of the AL, there’s not much incentive to rejigger a team to chase a playoff spot that would set up a game against the league’s best team. And among those teams at 96.5%-plus, there could be a sense of, well, sure, maybe we should try to improve, but in this kind of season, when we’re already locked into October? Maybe not.

The NL is the yang to the AL’s yin. It’s the Dodgers and everybody else. The Cubs have been great. Their games over .500 (+7) is also higher than their run differential (+4), which is typically not a great sign for continued excellence. How screwed up is the NL? The last-place Phillies have higher playoff odds than the three teams ahead of them in the NL East. Same for the fourth-place Brewers and the two teams in front of them. The Diamondbacks are in the cellar in the NL West. Their postseason odds are 54.8%. The Giants are in third (albeit just half a game up). Their odds are 6.9% — lower than even (gulp) the Red Sox.

Can any NL team actually sell?

The Pirates! But they don’t have much to offer. Closer Keone Kela left Friday’s game with forearm tightness, two of the scariest words in baseball. Reliever Richard Rodriguez is an interesting under-the-radar guy who will draw interest this year.

But beyond Pittsburgh? Perhaps an overachieving team like Miami seizes this sort of opportunity and tries the ol’ buy-and-sell plan that Tampa Bay executes so well. And the Giants are in a position to dictate an awful lot at this deadline. They’ve got two good starters (Johnny Cueto and Kevin Gausman), a top reliever (Tony Watson) and two veteran infielders raking (Wilmer Flores and Donovan Solano) to the point that a team ravenous for hitting might overpay because each has another year of team control.

The issue is that the Giants keep winning — six straight and counting — and as president Farhan Zaidi illustrated last year, he does not like punting on a season that has shown unexpected promise.

What is one trade you would make before the deadline?

I’ve got two.

I said one.

This is my column. I don’t care.

1. Kyle Seager to Atlanta: Neither Johan Camargo nor Austin Riley is proving himself an every-day third baseman. Seattle wants to move Seager, who is hitting .291/.377/.515 and has the seventh-lowest strikeout rate among qualified hitters. With Seager, 32, under contract for $18 million next season, Seattle would need to include significant money. Atlanta is not going to overpay, especially with the third-base market practically nonexistent, although there are twice as many DH slots as there were last season, and he’d fit nicely in that role for a team without an elite designated hitter.

2. Andrelton Simmons to Toronto: The market for a player like Simmons, an all-time great defender at shortstop, is every bit as slim, though that won’t keep the Angels from trying to find him a landing spot. Most playoff contenders have shortstops, and Simmons’ bat doesn’t play at DH. But with star shortstop Bo Bichette out for an undetermined amount of time with a knee injury, renting Simmons — even if the Blue Jays’ staff generates ground balls only 40% of the time — would be a mighty upgrade over the out-of-position Joe Panik or Santiago Espinal.

Would a team like the Orioles, Tigers, Royals or Giants really consider not selling to make a run at the No. 8 spot?

Probably not. And considering each is rebuilding, it’s a potential double whammy: Going for it takes present capital and theoretically prevents teams from stocking future capital.

But: Isn’t there something to be said for winning? For trying? For potentially meaningful September baseball? For giving fans a reason to follow the standings? Right now, here is where they are in them.

Orioles: tied for eighth playoff spot

Tigers: two games back of eighth playoff spot

Royals: three games back of eighth playoff spot

Giants: in a three-way tie for seventh playoff spot

Yes, the incentives in place still discourage teams like the Orioles and Tigers and Royals and Giants from trying to win. Draft order is important. And yet with teams’ 2020 records not necessarily determining it — the March agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Association gave commissioner Rob Manfred the right to modify the order if there were fewer than 81 games played — it’s another checkmark in the just-go-for-it-dammit column.

What should the Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers do?

I didn’t realize the voice in my head was a coastal elite.

Shut up.

Sorry. The Red Sox should shop everyone on their roster not named Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers and Alex Verdugo. Not a single player who throws a pitch for the Red Sox this season beyond Darwinzon Hernandez will be with Boston beyond 2022. With a mediocre farm system and player development more or less in neutral this season, accelerating the Red Sox’s rebuild won’t be easy. So whether it’s now with free agents-to-be Jackie Bradley Jr. and Kevin Pillar or this winter with Christian Vazquez and Martin Perez (who has the fourth-lowest average exit velocity among starters this season), move ’em. If you can get something for J.D. Martinez, who has another opt-out clause this winter, do it.

The Yankees need starting pitcher. Gerrit Cole is great. Beyond him, Masahiro Tanaka and Jordan Montgomery have been average, James Paxton is hurt and J.A. Happ ineffective. Their lineup and bullpen are great. Are Cole, Tanaka, the bats and the pen really enough to win a World Series?

As for the Dodgers … I honestly don’t know. If they need a bat, they can grab Gavin Lux from their alternate site. Their rotation right now, with Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw, Julio Urias, Dustin May, Ross Stripling and, when need be, Tony Gonsolin, is deep and excellent. Their bullpen was supposed to be questionable, but over 123⅔ innings, it has a 1.82 ERA and generates ground balls more than 50% of the time. The Dodgers have a plus-79 run differential. The next best is Minnesota at plus-40. Los Angeles might not be a perfect team, but it’s really, really, really, really good. There is no argument for who’s the best in baseball.

Which team has the toughest decision to make before the deadline?

Take your pick of any team that hasn’t been very good but could or should be.

The shoulds: Washington, New York Mets, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Arizona, Texas.

The coulds: Toronto, Colorado, San Francisco, Baltimore, Miami.

Take a team like the Nationals, who are coming off a World Series during a season in which they started 19-31. This isn’t as much a buy/sell choice for them as it is a buy/buy-a-lot decision. How they go about buying — how much they buy — matters deeply.

As much as I’d love to answer this question more definitively, it’s not one with concrete decisions. What happens to the standings over the next five days will offer at least a sliver more insight. Just know this: The muddled middle is a weird place to be.

What type of player is most movable in the next week?

One from the American League?

It’s only sort of a joke. Kansas City closer Trevor Rosenthal might be the best relief arm available. Teams may get frisky and ask the Royals about Whit Merrifield, Salvador Perez, Hunter Dozier and others, but the Royals want to win in 2021, and in the soon-to-be-loaded AL Central, that’s going to take all the present quality they can muster.

If the Angels are punting only in 2020, they’ve got a nice array of talent: a utility guy like Tommy La Stella and a veteran catcher such as Jason Castro are always in demand. If they move their controllable pitching — starters Dylan Bundy and Andrew Heaney, and relievers Cam Bedrosian and Ty Buttrey — the Angels might not control the trade market, but they’ll certainly be at its forefront.

Other names to keep an eye on: Taijuan Walker of Seattle, Miguel Castro and Mychal Givens of Baltimore, Todd Frazier of Texas.

Last time we were talking trade, Nolan Arenado, Francisco Lindor and Kris Bryant were the big names. What the hell happened?

Nothing important or life-altering since February. No, sir.

Non-snarky edition: The Cubs are winning. Bryant isn’t going anywhere for now. (Especially because he’s hurt.) The Indians are winning. Lindor isn’t going anywhere for now.

If the Rockies’ spiral into the 2020 abyss continues and leaves them on the outside of the playoffs looking in, the speculation about Arenado’s future with the team will only increase — particularly considering he can opt out of his contract after the 2021 season and wields a full no-trade clause, giving him the ability to dictate where he goes.

Granted, the number of teams willing to take on the remaining six years and $199 million on his deal is surely less than it was six months ago — and that especially goes for during the season. Financial flexibility is, as Buster Olney wrote, paramount. The best fit for Arenado could be a team needing to take a step and understanding that short of Realmuto or Bauer, there may not be a free agent this winter capable of being that bridge — unless George Springer and Marcus Semien start hitting.

How do players feel about the possibility of being dealt in the middle of everything going on?

“Did you really just ask me that?” one player on the trade block asked this week.

Uh. Um. Hmmm.

“Not great,” he said.

Will anyone actually refuse to report to his new team if traded?

Probably not. However much inconvenience the pandemic is causing, however many little details someone needs to figure out when it comes to moving, almost every major league player traded is going from a bad team to a good one. That’s usually enough incentive and motivation for a player to keep playing.

Is Aug. 31 the actual deadline or is it like in past years where the deadline was July 31 and players still got traded after it?

It’s a firm deadline. The rule instituted last year outlawing post-deadline trades for players who clear waivers remains in place.

Players must be with an organization by Sept. 15 to be playoff-eligible. So let’s say a pitcher is cut Sept. 13 and signs with a new team on the 16th. He can’t play in the postseason. But if he signs by the 14th, he’s good to go for October.

Any other names on the trade market worth following?

If the trade candidacies of Mike Clevinger and J.T. Realmuto had a baby, it would look like Lance Lynn’s current situation.

We’re at the point now where you’re anthropomorphizing trade possibilities. Lovely.

Like Clevinger, Lynn is under team control. Like Realmuto, he is among the best at what he does. Like Clevinger, there is wide interest in his position and skill. Like Realmuto, his team is on the wrong side of the muddled middle.

The Texas Rangers were in this same position last year. They kept Lynn, aware he’s among the best values in baseball at $10 million a year through the 2021 season. Unless Lynn gets hurt, he’ll have plenty of suitors this winter too, which does notionally make trading him now a less appetizing prospect. That said, in the offseason, teams will have about the same amount of scouting reports and data to form their opinions on players, so the risk Rangers president of baseball operations Jon Daniels is taking now by engaging on Lynn is equivalent to what he’ll be equipped with this winter: not enough.

The market is a fickle thing. Teams win this week and suddenly they want in. Say the Cincinnati Reds drop even deeper into the hole. Do they at least consider trading Bauer? Or Anthony DeSclafani?

It’s fun to think about, right? That’s why I asked the question of the official all those months ago. Is the trade deadline really the sort of collateral damage baseball can afford to stomach?

This has been a lot of trade talk.

Tell me about it.

Let’s finish with something else that stokes national interest: awards. Most teams are about halfway through the season. Who ya got?

NL MVP: Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, San Diego — With a tip of the cap to Mike Yastrzemski, Mookie Betts and Bryce Harper, the answer is Tatis, who has been the best player in baseball this season.

AL MVP: Shane Bieber, SP, Cleveland — It feels odd to award someone who has played in only six of his team’s 28 games an MVP award. Bieber has been that good.

NL Cy Young: Yu Darvish, SP, Chicago — Bauer has been the best pitcher in the NL this year, but coronavirus-related postponements have left him with four starts to Darvish’s six. Volume especially matters in a year like this, and Darvish is looking every bit like the pitcher the Cubs signed for $126 million expecting to lead them into October.

AL Cy Young: Shane Bieber, SP, Cleveland — 40⅔ innings, 25 hits, five runs, six walks, 65 strikeouts, 1.11 ERA, 5-0 record. The stuff backs up the numbers too.

NL Rookie of the Year: Jake Cronenworth, UT, San Diego — Dustin May has been really good. Bohm might be the favorite. Gonsolin still hasn’t given up a run for the Dodgers. But Cronenworth, acquired alongside Tommy Pham for Hunter Renfroe and prospect Xavier Edwards, has been a revelation who plays all four infield positions and is hitting .347/.410/.627.

AL Rookie of the Year: Kyle Lewis, OF, Seattle — Apologies to Luis Robert, who has been everything the White Sox hoped, and Randy Dobnak, who has been more than the Twins could’ve imagined, but Lewis leads the AL with a .368 batting average, walks at an impressive clip, strikes out less than league average and plays center field. Quick shoutout to the rookie class of ridiculous relievers: Cleveland’s James Karinchak, Kansas City’s Josh Staumont, Toronto’s Jordan Romano and Chicago’s Matt Foster. Maybe in another year. Not this one.

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