Passan: 10 things to watch in the two weeks prior to the MLB trade deadline

ByJeff Passan ESPN logo
Thursday, July 18, 2019

Every game, the old chestnut goes, counts the same in the standings. And this is true. Baseball gives no additional weight to extra-inning games, blowouts or comebacks. Each is 1/162nd of an expertly divided pie.

The next two weeks' worth of games, though? They are different. Even the strictest adherents to the they-all-count-equally crowd will admit as much. That especially goes in 2019, when Major League Baseball's playoff picture consists of a few have-lots, a vast majority of have-somes and six distinct have-nots. These games, executives this week said, will serve as the impetus for those in-the-muddled-middle teams to cast their lot. As the trade deadlineapproaches,will they be buyers? Sellers? Maybe even opt for the high-wire act of buying while selling?

What's clear, at this point, is that almost nothing is clear. Only six teams are trending toward 90 losses, and all of them are verging on spectacularly bad. The Miami Marlins are the only team in the National League on a 90-loss pace. The handful of American League laggards range from bad to awful to please-euthanize-this-season-now: Seattle (on pace for 97 losses), Kansas City (100), Toronto (103), Detroit (110) and Baltimore (114).

You can add the New York Mets to those sellers. It seemed the San Francisco Giants were among the clear sellers, too, but they've ripped off 11 wins in 13 games to leap ahead of the Cincinnati Reds, who have been on the record as avowed buyers. The Colorado Rockies, once clear buyers, have lost 10 of 12, sit tied with the Giants and aren't entirely sure what the right path is.

They're far from the only ones. Do the Los Angeles Angels, winners of five straight heading into Wednesday, buy or hold? How about the Pittsburgh Pirates, who saw the NL Central as eminently winnable but lost four in a row after the All-Star break? Or the Philadelphia Phillies, 12-19 in their past 31 with two more games against the Los Angeles Dodgers on the docket and a near-double-digit deficit in the NL East? The Oakland Athletics already traded for Homer Bailey; as winners of five straight to start the second half and 18 of 23, do they double down despite being 4 games behind the Houston Astros?

All of these questions will carry us toward ...

1. ... July 31, the one and only deadline day this year, lending it even more weight than it carried in the past. The question proffered a month ago by executives was: How does the elimination of the waiver trading period in August change things? Some assumed the change might cause a flurry of earlier deals or a deluge of trades in the days leading up to the deadline.

While the latter might still happen, the former never materialized. The evolution of the free-agent market reminded executives of a very valuable lesson: Waiting works wonders. Now, this can cut both ways, and the dynamics at play make for a fascinating final two weeks.

Because there is currently a finite amount of sellers, asking prices for the most-valued players are astronomical, according to sources. And that makes sense. If a buyer is that motivated to move now, they should pay a premium, two executives of selling teams said. The lack of impact bats, which runs the risk of finding soft markets because contenders might already have a strong player at the same position, has turned the attention to pitching. "And everybody," one of those executives said, "needs pitching."

That's a fact. What's also closer to fact is that a number of teams will have that critical moment in which they recognize that selling beats buying or standing pat. The Arizona Diamondbacks are one, the Texas Rangers another. Should that happen, the supply will get a re-up and prices will drop to fairer ranges.

Then comes the game of chicken. Can a seller really afford to hold on to a player? Can a buyer really afford to look at the clock at 4:01 p.m. ET on July 31 without having improved his team? This is the state of play. This is where championships are won, where executives earn their paychecks, where strategy is paramount.

For all the posturing, one GM on Tuesday said: "I don't think this is gonna be an active trade deadline." He figures there will be a few deals, but while he's in the market for a starting pitcher, he believes ...

2. ...Noah Syndergaard will not be traded. The price, another GM chuckled, is "a few arms and a leg." The Mets are plenty aware of what they have in Syndergaard: a pitcher with the greatest raw stuff in the game. They also are acutely aware of what they don't have: a good team.

When you don't have a good team but do have players with value, it's irresponsible not to consider dealing them. So the Mets are taking calls on Syndergaard. He's not in the category of Todd Frazier or Jason Vargas, both pending free agents who will fetch C-level prospects when they move. Perhaps he's not the biggest fish, but Syndergaard is still going to take 600-pound test line to reel in.

The San Diego Padres, who have had conversations with the Mets about Syndergaard dating to last year, recognize as much. Their desire to trim their outfield surplus is clear -- they've been shopping Hunter Renfroe and Franmil Reyes for the better part of a year now -- but that doesn't exactly line up with the Mets. San Diego also has talked with teams about Double-A pitchers Adrian Morejon and Michel Baez, both great talents with question marks. Next to the Tampa Bay Rays, San Diego might have the best farm system -- and one of the deepest. If GM A.J. Preller wants to make a splash, he can.

There is no lack of interest in Syndergaard. Every team gushes at the idea of a 6-foot-6, 240-pound right-hander whose fastball sits at 98 with a slider at 89, has two more above-average pitches and isn't a free agent until after the 2021 season. The Astros are casting a wide net on starting pitching and would love to bring Syndergaard back to Texas, where he grew up. The Milwaukee Brewers share the sentiment, but unless they're inclined to include Keston Hiura in a deal -- they aren't -- they don't have the prospect capital to get him.

The problem, one GM said, is that the Mets want good-Thor prices when he's pitching to a mid-4 ERA. "I mean, I'd do the same," the GM conceded, which is why he doesn't believe Syndergaard moves by July 31. At the same time, the Mets witnessed what can happen by waiting: Zack Wheeler, whose market was as big as that of any pitcher because he's heading into free agency this winter and wouldn't cost as much, went on the injured list Monday with shoulder fatigue. Regardless of the seriousness, the mere mention of an injured shoulder soured a number of executives on acquiring him.

At best, the price on Wheeler -- which wasn't exorbitant to begin with -- has dropped. It's what happens when the game of chicken goes wrong, when the safety net that exists with Syndergaard and ...

3. ...Trevor Bauer isn't there. The soft landing of club control protects the Mets with Syndergaard just as it does the Cleveland Indians with Bauer. Trade him now? Sure. Don't trade him now? Fine. They can do it this winter. Or again at the deadline next year.

Bauer isn't a free agent until after the 2020 season, though the fact that he has zero intention of re-signing with them unless he's paid like the mercenary he intends to be gives Cleveland incentive to move him now. There's that, a salary that could approach $20 million next season depending on how well he pitches in the second half and the return of Mike Clevinger (excellent in his last two starts) and Corey Kluber (throwing a bullpen session Wednesday) to fill out the rotation.

There's also this small matter: Executives think Bauer is the best pitcher to be had. They don't necessarily believe the Indians are going to deal him -- Bauer was very available this winter (and spring) and didn't go anywhere -- but they won't shy away from asking. Because they know Indians president Chris Antonetti and GM Mike Chernoff are trying to thread the very delicate needle of not fading as the tenures of Bauer and, sooner or later, shortstop Francisco Lindor end.

It's a robust market because even the tweener teams see themselves getting Bauer now in order to have him next year, too. That same incentive is fueling the ...

4. ...Marcus Stroman interest. While his peripheral numbers are almost identical to last season's -- a 7.16 strikeouts-per-nine rate compared to 6.77 last year, 2.77 walks per nine vs. 3.17 and 0.81 homers per nine vs. 0.79 -- his ERA is more than two full points lower. Stroman was not nearly as bad as his 5.54 ERA last season indicated -- and might not be quite as good as his 3.25 ERA this year.

So the teams interested in him must balance that with the Blue Jays' capacity to keep him. Like most of the desirable pitchers in trade talks right now, Stroman is a free agent after the 2020 season. In his case, the return needs to be significant enough to cover a year and a third of his value, plus the compensatory pick the Blue Jays would get for giving him a qualifying offer following the 2020 season. Because of their market size, the best the Blue Jays could get if Stroman were to reject the offer would be a pick somewhere in the mid- to high 70s.

In other words: He's gettable, and multiple GMs expect Stroman to be dealt before July 31. The demand for him could depend on the next two weeks, or even the next week, at which point ...

5. ...Mike Minor's status with the Rangers could be clearer. Texas is 50-45 and in third place in the AL West, 8 games back of Houston and four behind Oakland and Cleveland, which are tied for the second wild card. The Rangers' calculus is more multilayered than that of other teams.

Texas will move into a new stadium in 2020, and the desire to field a winning team in that stadium is real. Minor is a big reason the Rangers are where they are, with a 2.73 ERA and nearly a strikeout per inning. He is plenty cheap, too, at just $9.5 million next year, whereas Stroman will make roughly $12 million in his final arbitration season.

Should the Rangers deal Minor -- rival executives believe they would for a high price -- others could go. Hunter Pence, Logan Forsythe and Asdrubal Cabrera are free-agents-to-be and fit as role players anywhere. The Rangers also have multiple years of control on Danny Santana and Jose LeClerc, who intrigue buyers.

Where Minor fits into the market with ...

6. ...Robbie Ray potentially available is an interesting question being asked by teams desiring starters. Like Texas, Arizona hasn't officially jumped into the sellers' market yet. Like the Rangers, the Diamondbacks could be a buy-and-sell team, similar to what Tampa Bay did last season when it dealt Opening Day starter Chris Archer and traded prospects for Tommy Pham. David Peralta, Greg Holland, Alex Avila, Andrew Chafin, Adam Jones and Jarrod Dyson are all Diamondbacks who could go.

The Diamondbacks have very quietly cobbled together an interesting roster. Ketel Marte is playing like a star. Re-signing Eduardo Escobar proved savvy. The Paul Goldschmidt deal could be a monster win, particularly if catcher Carson Kelly is anywhere near as good as he has looked and Luke Weaver pitches like he did before suffering an elbow injury. Compound that core with what could be a top-5 system, and Arizona's rebuild-without-tearing-down would be a model.

Dealing Ray could factor into that. Since joining Arizona's rotation full time in 2016, Ray's 11.76 strikeouts-per-nine rate ranks third in baseball behind Max Scherzer's 11.93 and Chris Sale's 11.88. Even if Ray lacks the control and command of those two, his raw stuff makes him wildly attractive to teams that could deploy him in a starting role or even use him as a devastating October bullpen option.

Ray is far likelier to go than Zack Greinke, whose salary -- $35 million for each of the next two seasons and another $14 million or so this year -- limits his market. Even then, the Diamondbacks' desire not to bottom out makes trading Greinke, their best pitcher, that much more difficult. The Giants should feel no such compunction when it comes to ...

7. ...Madison Bumgarner, a player who has meant even more to their organization than Greinke to his. San Francisco's recent success isn't throwing a wrench in the team's trade-Bumgarner-and-all-the-relievers plan. Even with their best run of the year, the Giants are three games below .500 and have the third-worst run differential in the NL. They are selling. One more time, a bit slower. They. Are. Selling. Which is a difficult thing to pitch to a fan base and clubhouse of players who are enjoying this winning stuff.

It's just the truth. The only question, really, is where he's going to end up. Minnesota, which has been in on practically every available starter, is an option. Milwaukee, which is stuck around .500 with a negative run differential, needs an upgrade. The Astros could do wonders for Bumgarner, as he could for them. Even the Phillies, who still hold the second wild-card spot in the NL despite their wretched run, are an option.

The Giants tried to jump the deadline on a Bumgarner deal a month ago. When nothing substantive came of that, they resolved to wait -- and interested teams believe that waiting will continue until close to July 31. Everyone knows what Bumgarner is. The actual prices they're willing to pay won't reveal themselves until the clock starts ticking louder. And when they do, we'll be able to see whether ...

8. ...Will Smith or Bumgarner garner the greater return. This has been a point of debate among executives, who recognize Bumgarner's pedigree, credentials and especially his postseason bona fides. They also know that 2019 is a bullpen game and October a bullpen month. If Smith isn't the crme de la crme among relievers, he's certainly in the coffee mug.

The relief market will be the most active of any, executives believe, simply because bullpens are so mediocre and relief usage is paramount in the postseason. Smith, who provides more usefulness as a left-hander, is one of many relievers who could be on the move. San Diego is listening on closer Kirby Yates. Detroit is trying to parlay a career year from closer Shane Greene into a big return and listening on Joe Jimenez and his big strikeout rate, too.

Toronto is inclined to move Ken Giles -- and should do the same with Daniel Hudson, who has a 1.91 ERA since the season's first week. The Jays have another trade option on their roster: Aaron Sanchez, the longtime starter, whose stuff, multiple teams believe, would play exceptionally well in a relief role.

The Royals should find a solid market for left-hander Jake Diekman and will pay down Ian Kennedy's salary to move him after his resurgence in the bullpen. Ditto for the Rockies and Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw, if they decide to sell. The Chicago White Sox have a pair of solid, controllable relievers in Alex Colome (free agent after 2020) and Aaron Bummer (2024). There are so many more. Raisel Iglesias, should Cincinnati sell. Seth Lugo could be another Met to move, as could Edwin Diaz if GM Brodie Van Wagenen is really willing to rejigger the roster.

That one sits firmly on the "quite unlikely" list, though even a week ago the prospect of ...

9. ...Felipe Vazquez leaving the Pirates wasn't all that great. It still might not be, even as the Pirates stumble through July. As Buster Olney wrote, there are good and bad reasons for the Pirates to deal Vazquez.

The good, of course, is the enormous return they'd receive for him. Vazquez has been exceptionally consistent as the Pirates' closer the past three seasons, sits 98 mph with his fastball, has a legitimate four-pitch mix, is death on right-handed hitters (and historically the same on lefties) and agreed to one of the most team-friendly contracts in baseball last year. He'll make only $5.25 million next year, $7.25 million in 2021 and has a pair of club options at $10 million apiece that can be exercised one at a time.

The Pirates could look at the NL Central landscape, see the Cubs' window closing, the Brewers and Cardinals stagnating and the Reds still with holes, and reasonably believe they could contend for division titles over the course of that deal. They also could say that while acknowledging that a one-inning relief pitcher who provides massive return is baseball's version of a gift horse. Thing is, the specter of ...

10. ... July 31 does weird things to teams. Delusions of grandeur intersect with agonies of defeat. Arbitrage opportunities abound. Talks live. They die. They're resuscitated. They die again. They get mouth-to-mouth -- or text-to-text -- and die one more time.

It's frustrating but also edifying and intriguing. Unlike the dopamine rush of the NBA, in which the stars leverage their destinations and essentially hand-pick their teams, baseball is a never-ending puzzle in which one seemingly insignificant late-July trade can make the difference between championship and heartbreak.

Maybe Nicholas Castellanos, whose market hasn't hit a rolling boil yet, steps up with the go-ahead run on base in Game 7 of the World Series. Perhaps another team pays the exorbitant asking price for his Detroit teammate, Matthew Boyd, who's on the mound. If Cleveland sells Bauer, it could follow the Vazquez corollary and do the same with closer Brad Hand, who combines excellence with a team-friendly deal.

Just when one GM thinks it's going to be a quiet deadline, the baseball world can go from zero to irrational in under three seconds, because that's how July 31 works -- especially with no deals to be consummated after it. This time of year, you're only as good as your last week. Those vital weeks are upon baseball, ready to render judgment and dictate what sort of trade deadline 2019 will offer.

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