If there’s a closest MLB equivalent to the free-agent frenzy that gripped the NBA this month, it’s the trade deadline, the one event on the baseball calendar that we can still count on to motivate teams to upgrade their rosters aggressively. MLB’s offseasons are slowing, forcing some free agents to stay on the market into spring training or after the June draft, and even the December winter meetings are no longer a reliable locus of major transaction activity. But recent July 31 deadlines have been busier than ever, thanks to the second wild card keeping clubs in contention, teams’ insatiable desire for relief pitchers, and, perhaps, a stratified superteam structure that’s created a close numerical match between buyers and sellers. The 2019 deadline, now less than three weeks away, is different from past deadlines in two crucial ways, which makes this the most fascinating trade season we’ve seen in some time.
The first abnormality stems from a structural change. In March, MLB and the MLB Players Association announced a series of tweaks to the rules, one of which called for the elimination of the trade waivers that formerly allowed some trades to take place between the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline and the August 31 waiver trade deadline. Because of the Byzantine waiver system, fewer swaps were completed in August than in July, when business could be conducted with fewer restrictions. But teams did continue to tinker well into the dog days and sometimes made moves that affected pennant races, swung postseason series, and recast seasons to come: Doyle Alexander for John Smoltz (August 12, 1987), Larry Andersen for Jeff Bagwell (August 30, 1990), Justin Verlander for a few minor leaguers who thus far haven’t amounted to much (August 31, 2017). This year, general managers won’t have the option of wheeling and dealing in August; players can’t be traded after this month, which puts pressure on teams to act now.
To gauge how much more trade activity we might see in July because that August outlet is gone, let’s look at all the trade activity in the seven years since the institution of the second wild card in 2012. The image below shows the total trades made on each calendar date from 2012 to 2018.
August was the third-most-active month for trade activity in that span, after July and December, accounting for roughly 14 percent of all trades. About 29 percent of all trades occurred in July, which means that August was almost half (47 percent) as active as July. The next graph displays not just the number of trades, but the total number of players (including minor leaguers, but not counting players to be named later) and MLB players exchanged in each July and August since 2012, plus the collective full-season WAR values of those players. August trades have tended to be depth moves more so than huge splashes, so the total full-season value of the players dealt in August has been about 19 percent of the corresponding full-season value of the players dealt in July.
If all the trades that used to be made in August simply migrated to July, and everything else stayed the same, we would expect to see almost 50 percent more trade activity in July, and almost 20 percent more production changing teams. The result would be a truly frantic deadline, which would be stressful for MLB Trade Rumors’ servers but fun for fans. Of course, that’s too simplistic an assumption. If last call at the ballpark were moved up to the fifth inning instead of the seventh, that doesn’t mean everyone would buy multiple beers in the fifth to make up for the ones they would have bought later. Similarly, it’s unlikely that teams will make as many trades in July as they used to make in July and August, for a few reasons.
For one thing, the playoff picture is typically less clear on July 31 than it is on August 31. That decreased certainty may make more teams reluctant to commit to a course of adding or subtracting, even though they know it’s their only chance to do so. Every year, some teams gain enough clarity (or anxiety) about their postseason prospects between the end of July and the end of August to overcome their resistance to reinforcing their rosters or cutting bait. Some of that clarity or anxiety can come from injuries: Many August trades used to occur in response to casualties suffered after July 31. The Verlander trade is a classic example; on July 31, 2017, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow was comfortable standing pat, but after Dallas Keuchel publicly criticized his inactivity, the team went 11-17 in August, injuries compromised the pitching staff, and Verlander continued to demonstrate that his resurgence was real, Luhnow made a move that may have gone against his model.
Trade talks take time, and front offices lack unlimited bandwidth to conduct them, another factor that could prevent as many deals from going down in one month as used to transpire in two. Plus, it’s not as if teams are banned from trading before July; we may see more teams pull the trigger during the offseason or in the early months of the season in response to the earlier hard deadline. Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto, for instance, dealt Edwin Encarnación and Jay Bruce to the Yankees and Phillies, respectively, in June, although pre-July trades weren’t unheard of before and it’s dangerous to read too much into the trade activity of a man who never stops trading, even from his hospital bed.
Still, consolidating the two deadlines should lead to increased activity at the deadline under normal circumstances. It’s just not clear that “normal” describes this summer’s market.
At this year’s All-Star break, only six teams—the Orioles, the Royals, the Tigers, the Blue Jays, the Mariners, and the Marlins—were more than seven games out of the closest playoff spot. That’s easily the lowest number of way-out-of-it teams we’ve seen at the break in any season since the advent of the second wild card.
Now, that’s not to say that the other 24 teams are all in it, exactly. The teams just below that seven-game-deficit cutoff—the White Sox, the Mets, the Giants—are for all practical purposes barely less out of it than the teams trailing by twice as many games. As the following graph based on the Baseball Prospectus playoff odds from each All-Star break shows, though, the separation between the sextet of truly terrible teams and the cluster of clubs close enough to dream of wild-card contention is wide enough to produce a pattern that’s unprecedented under the current playoff format.
The current division favorites (represented by the dark-blue line) have higher average odds of holding on to take their respective titles than any crop of midseason division favorites from 2012 to 2018. The current wild-card favorites, however, have lower average odds of fighting off their challengers than any previous cohort of wild-card favorites. Despite the parity in the NL Central, where the last-place Reds are closer to first than the second-place team in any other division, most of the division leaders are sitting pretty enough that they don’t have a huge incentive to add at the deadline for the purposes of retaining those top spots (although they may still want to add for October). And even if they did want to call in the cavalry, it’s not easy to see where that cavalry would come from, because so many teams are within theoretical striking distance of a wild-card spot that they either won’t want to sell or may be wary about the backlash from their fans if they concede.
To compound the problem, the bones of the teams that are seven or more games out of a playoff spot have already been picked pretty clean. The Orioles and Royals are horrendous for the second consecutive season, and the productive relics of their last winning teams are long gone. The Tigers, White Sox, and Marlins have already made major trades that strip-mined their major league rosters; they’re either at their nadirs or (in Chicago’s case) approaching emergence from a rebuilding phase. The Mariners spent the offseason selling and, as mentioned, already made moves in June. The Mets saw themselves as contenders and are still on the fence about selling.
There are a few team-controlled, cost-effective prizes to be had here (Matthew Boyd, Marcus Stroman, Whit Merrifield), some moderately appealing bats (Miguel Rojas, Domingo Santana, James McCann, Leury García, Eric Sogard, Trey Mancini, Nicholas Castellanos, Todd Frazier), a few veterans (Mitch Haniger, Alex Gordon, José Abreu) who for various reasons haven’t seemed likely to move, potential rental Zack Wheeler, and, as always, relievers (Shane Greene, Alex Colomé, Mychal Givens, Ian Kennedy). That’s not nothing, but it won’t go a long way toward replenishing the contenders’ rosters considering how many clubs could conceivably be biting.
There’s still some time before the deadline, and the playoff field may be a little less fuzzy come July 31. A few teams that the playoff odds paint as long shots—the Rangers, the Pirates, the Reds, the Padres—are currently still close enough to contention that they’d anger supporters if they started selling, but a couple of rocky weeks could change that. It’s there, though, that the unified deadline makes its influence felt; at least some of those teams will likely be clearly out of the race by August 31, but they’ll be hard-pressed to pick a lane this month.
In this uncertain environment, one team stands for being both virtually out of it and closer to embarking on a rebuild than completing one: the Giants, whose modest 5.5-game deficit in the race for the NL’s second wild-card belies a negative-70 run differential and one of baseball’s worst BaseRuns records. In Farhan Zaidi, the Giants have a new top executive who’ll be motivated to make moves and unattached to the remnants of a roster he didn’t assemble. They also have a mid-to-top-of-the-rotation starter in Madison Bumgarner; a passel of relievers in Will Smith, Sam Dyson, Tony Watson, and Mark Melancon; a corner bat who’d be better away from Oracle Park in Brandon Belt; and a few other complementary pieces that might suit some other squad. As I said on The Ringer MLB Show, this once-proud roster has turned into a whale carcass slowly sinking to the bottom. It’s about to be torn apart by a feeding frenzy that will nourish the rest of the league. Snort the trade rumors and relish the circle of life, unless you’re a San Francisco fan.
Because this season’s standings are somewhat out of whack, we may not be able to tell just how much the unified deadline juices July until we’ve watched it play out for a few years. Maybe it’s better this way: In sports, it’s usually more fun not to know what we’re about to see, and this year’s market is too murky to call. The trade deadline is always a source of excitement and mystery. Fortunately for fans, that’s probably truer with one deadline than it ever was with two.