Why was the 2019 MLB Trade Deadline so different from the past?

MiLB, MLB, MLB Trade Deadline

Cashman pic

The 2019 MLB Trade Deadline was radically different from how it was in the past.

There are several factors that factored in with this peculiar turn of events. Certain teams illustrated this more than others.

Yankees

General manager Brian Cashman is getting scorched for his failure to act. At his press conference, he made reasonable sense as to why he didn’t trade for a prominent starter or reliever. Still, “reasonable sense” is not what made the Yankees so alluring to fans around the world. They won a lot and that will certainly draw attention; but there was always action going on. Now, instead of getting the biggest available names who fit their blatant needs and surrendering the prospects necessary to do so, Cashman again cuddled his prospects, many of whom are quietly being described as overrated.

Ignoring whether this is a wise course of action or not, the fundamental reality is that the Yankees of the Steinbrenner offspring are not the same as the Yankees of the Steinbrenner patriarch. George Steinbrenner would not have wanted to hear about Deivi Garcia if he was all that was standing in the way of getting the caliber of starting pitcher that would have made his team the favorites to win the World Series. This, more than any baseball operations philosophy, is why the Yankees have become so passive to the point of appearing impotent.

Arguing that their injured list with Luis Severino and Dellin Betances rehabbing provides them with two “acquisitions” is theoretically sensible, but it’s also Met-like – one that rarely yields the result the team expects. By now, it is wise not to expect anything from either and the Yankees know that.

The current Steinbrenner ownership does not have the unquenchable thirst to win and dominate that George Steinbrenner did. It wants to win, sure. But it’s not fanatical and desperate. Their desire to win is folded in with advancing the brand. Instead of a World Series-or-bust attitude, they’re content to be contenders, have a chanceto win a championship while understanding the vagaries that go into that result, and do not overreact when it is unsuccessful.

The Boss might have understood all this in a rational sense (or he might not have), but his rage inevitably took over and he reacted by firing people, signing free agents, trading for stars and doing something. That is not to imply that capricious brutality is preferable to wise conservatism, but there needs to be nuance. There wasn’t and these Yankees did nothing.

Having cost control with a respectable farm system and flexibility is great, but it is not the Yankee way. It’s the way of the game itself in 2019 and the Yankees in their years of dominance never adhered to what everyone else was doing. They were trendsetters and everyone wanted to play for them. If other teams couldn’t keep up? Too bad.

While shunning Bryce Harper and Manny Machado made financial sense, it might have had a hidden cost in that players are no longer looking toward the Yankees as their ideal destination. If they’re going to treat it as a cruel business, so are we. In retrospect, the Yankees were right to avoid both on the field, but it could have had a radical aftereffect in the greater context.

Hal Steinbrenner has been conscious of payroll and Cashman was a willing cohort as both got what they wanted. Steinbrenner has the immediately recognizable and financially lucrative brand; Cashman gets to show the baseball bona fides that eluded him when he inherited the late 1990s dynasty and bought his way to maintaining contending status. He rebuilt the team and is now perceived in a category with Theo Epstein, Billy Beane, Andrew Friedman and Jeff Lunhow as an architect. Yet the last championship in 2009 came after a half-billion-dollar spending spree.

Every team ownership in New York has been hammered for its faults. The Yankees have largely been shielded from that. However, Steinbrenner expressed his willingness to go beyond the luxury tax and in trading prospects to get what the Yankees needed.

And they didn’t do it.

Was this Cashman? Did Steinbrenner leave it to the baseball people to decide on cost effectiveness? Or was there a wink and nod with Steinbrenner knowing Cashman would “do the right thing” while they made statements to quell rising fan apprehension?

Put it this way: George Steinbrenner would have told Cashman to get pitching and he didn’t care what it cost. Hal Steinbrenner didn’t.

Padres

General manager AJ Preller has been there for five years and they have achieved absolutely nothing concrete. It’s all about ephemeral prospect rankings and lusty gazes regarding his “outside the box” thinking, aggressiveness, lack of interest in making friends and, in some cases, indifference for adhering to moral and ethical standards.

The latest was acquiring another top prospect, Taylor Trammell in a three-team trade with the Indians and Reds.

Most prognosticators love Trammell and he adds to the Padres’ already strong farm system. But when does the transition from rebuild to trying to win take place? There’s a difference between being happy to win and trying to win. There’s no middle ground with Preller. It’s one end of the spectrum with a ridiculous buying spree like in 2014-2015 or the rebuild where he burned the organization to the ground not with a controlled demolition, but arson. There’s the signing of Eric Hosmer; there’s the trading of Brad Hand; there’s the signing of Manny Machado; there’s the trading of Franmil Reyes; there’s the pursuit of Noah Syndergaard.

Which is it? When does this reach its conclusion? Or is this the conclusion?

Maybe “What is he doing?” is the strategy. Always maintain a plausible deniability that he’s failing. This is year five of the rebuild and they’re 20 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West and in “if we have a hot streak” contention for the Wild Card.

The spin from Preller’s first offseason as Padres GM in which he gutted the system he inherited and traded for and signed name players and then pivoted to an ongoing full-blown rebuild happened within his first year on the job. While his system has received laudatory and even beatific praise since then, he is still doing the zigzag of willingness to trade anyone and everyone while simultaneously adding the likes of Hosmer and Machado on big money contracts.

There seems to be a total disregard for actual results, replaced by a reliance on prospect rankings that, one must remember, are completely exterior from baseball front offices!If that obnoxious, arrogant buffoon Keith Law ranks a prospect number 10 in baseball, that does not mean he’s judged the same way by those who are making the actual decisions. It’s a moneymaker. It’s clickbait. Just as there is no award for winning the winter championship, there’s no tangible award for having the best farm system as ranked by some guy.

There is a benefit, though. If and when Preller’s bosses say enough’s enough and ask when the team will start show success on the field, he can point to the praise and prospect rankings and promote it as progress when it is contextually meaningless. When does the plan come to fruition? Year seven? Year nine?

It’s beginning to take the tone of a flimflam man with a modicum of competence who has tricked a wide swath of people and inspired a Manson-like loyalty sans criticism for fear of inundation from his indoctrinated loyalists.

Astros

GM Jeff Luhnow spots vulnerability and compounds that with a willingness to act. Comparing owner Jim Crane to George Steinbrenner is unfair in terms of temperament and overreaction, but not in terms of the hunger to win.

The Astros had several irons in the fire to acquire starting pitching, but would not surrender what the Mets were asking for to get either Zack Wheeler or Syndergaard – namely Kyle Tucker. Then they spun around, gave up a big haul of prospects to the Diamondbacks to get Zack Greinke (not including Tucker or Forrest Whitley) and suddenly the Yankees were KO’d with a shot they did not see coming.

Contrary to the immediate overreaction, this does not mean the Astros are guaranteed a World Series win. In a short series, anything can and usually does happen. But Luhnow’s willingness to deal while still retaining his untouchable prospects is unique. Other teams – like the Padres with Preller – are not simply looking to improve, they’re looking to screw you while they do it. Luhnow will give up value for value. And if it doesn’t make sense, he doesn’t do it.

Once this window of contention begins to close, he won’t patch it with duct tape. He’ll clean house before anyone expects or advocates it and start all over again. That’s why the Astros are where they are.

Mets

Finally, the Mets were caught in the middle of “what are they doing?” with “why are they doing it?”

It’s unlikely that GM Brodie Van Wagenen thinks the Mets are legitimate contenders in 2019. But they’re not at the point where it makes sense to clean out the entire house either. Edwin Diaz and Syndergaard were bandied about in trade talks. Wheeler, a pending free agent, was all but guaranteed to go. Yet they stayed.

With Syndergaard, there was zero point in trading him unless the Mets got exactly what they wanted. For Wheeler, the cost-benefit hinged on comparing the acquisition of prospects to what they will get with the draft pick compensation after making the qualifying offer following this season, re-signing Wheeler or in the unlikely event he accepts the QO.

It’s important to remember that Van Wagenen manipulated the entire MLB Draft to get Matthew Allan – a consensus top-20 talent who fell because he was expected to attend college – at the approximate spot where they’ll get the compensatory pick if Wheeler rejects the QO.

With their recent hot streak that has gotten them within striking distance of a Wild Card and that they added Marcus Stroman to the rotation giving them a devastating starting five of Jacob deGrom, Syndergaard, Stroman, Wheeler and Steven Matz, and there was no urgency to trade anyone. This rotation is tantamount to the “big five” the Mets had long touted as their future with Matt Harvey replacing Stroman, but the Mets only cycled that group once and it was for sentimental “what might have been?” reasons as Harvey was immediately jettisoned after it happened.

As for adding to the bullpen, trading Diaz and adding a few names would have been shuffling the same cards. There’s no guarantee the relievers they acquired would handle New York any better than Diaz; would adjust to the set-up role as Jeurys Familia has not. Rather than change for its own sake, it was better to get Stroman, retain what they had and hope the mediocrity of the National League and improved performances from their own players worked for the rest of 2019 and they could retool for 2020.

***

Teams are no longer passively letting Trevor Bauer and Stroman get traded to obvious contenders, deferring to those whose need is more pronounced and holding their chips – and the good will with their peers – for when they need the help.

The new rule that prevents trades after July 31 had a greater impact than expected. Teams were aware they could not wait out the likes of Justin Verlander and other star players whose contracts likely precluded an August waiver claim meaning they would be eligible to be traded after the “deadline” that was not a hard deadline. Now, it is a hard deadline. Now, the decision as to whether a team was a legitimate contender, a nominal contender, a non-contender or “wait ‘til next year (or, in the case of the Padres, the next-next year; or the next-next-next year), or a team that has surrendered and is adhering to a “plan” is harder to make with any certainty.

There was still a flurry of activity, but much of it was surprising in that the usual suspects who are aggressive in filling holes – the Yankees, Dodgers, Cardinals and Red Sox – were quiet. Teams that are not close enough to first place to warrant a buying spree to go for it still made moves that were in part for 2019, but were largely done for 2020. “Sellers” were few and far between as most clubs have shunned the gutting rebuild and tanking, preferring to lean toward a moderate attempt at respectability and maybe even a lightning strike playoff run. Even teams that were willing to sell big pieces added similarly big pieces before deciding to stand pat. This is better for the game, not worse.

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