The 2019 MLB trade deadline season is unlike any that’s come before. Not only is there no clear line between contender and seller—as of this writing, 21 teams are within 3.5 games of a playoff spot—but the rules are different.
Up until this year, there was not a literal deadline for MLB trades. Previously, after the July 31 deadline, a player on the 40-man roster could pass through (or be claimed from) waivers and be traded, but only players joining an organization by August 31 were eligible for the postseason. Yet trades could be made at any time. This year, after 4 p.m. ET on July 31, no player on a major league contract can be traded until the day after the World Series ends.
That means GMs have to decide whether to commit to buying or selling a full month earlier, and there will be no quiet exchanges of bench bats or fifth starters among contenders, let alone a Justin Verlander blockbuster. As The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh wrote on Friday, there’s no way to know how teams will react to the compressed timeline and hard cutoff date. We, the observers, have never gone through a deadline like this before, and neither have the GMs and executives making these decisions.
Also complicating matters is the lack of a tentpole trade target. A year ago, teams from sea to shining sea eyed Manny Machado as the final piece of the puzzle, but this time around there doesn’t appear to be a franchise player on the market, even to rent. A nation turns its lonely eyes to … Whit Merrifield, I guess.
Which is not a knock on the Royals’ superutility man, who’s hitting .307/.359/.496, has led the AL in stolen bases two years running, and can play every position except pitcher, catcher, and shortstop. Merrifield’s also locked into an outrageously team-friendly deal through 2023, which makes him quite valuable as a trade chip. But while he’s the best position player on the market, Merrifield is a good secondary piece, not a franchise tentpole. The lack of available impact position players and the increasing fixation on cost and team control over performance makes this trade deadline even harder to scope out.
But while we don’t yet know who will go where, and for how much, we do know which players are on the trade block. And absent a Machado in this crop of deadline candidates, they fall into a few general categories.
Examples: Will Smith, Sam Dyson, and Tony Watson, Giants; Jake Diekman, Royals; Ken Giles, Blue Jays; Mychal Givens, Orioles; Shane Greene, Tigers; Roenis Elías, Mariners
Now that clubs are leaning harder than ever on their bullpens in the playoffs, and effective relievers can fall off the map in the blink of an eye, there’s no such thing as having too much pitching. And because relievers are relatively cheap to sign and easy to trade, even teams on the hard tank usually have an interesting arm or two lying around. That means we’re in for a flurry of reliever trades before the end of the month.
Clubs that are interested in a top-end closer and are willing to pay more for an extra year of team control could go after Greene, Detroit’s All-Star representative, and his 1.06 ERA. While Greene’s 22 saves won’t top any leaderboards, he’s doing the best he can considering Detroit’s won only 29 games this year. Teams interested in the reduced cost of a rental could go after Giants lefty Will Smith, also an All-Star, who has a longer track record of reliability than the other top relievers in this group.
Dyson and Giles have both returned to their closer-level form after messy meltdowns in previous years. Giles has been particularly impressive—he’s striking out 43.4 percent of opposing hitters, second only to Josh Hader among MLB relievers. Most fans nationwide remember Giles melting down in the 2017 World Series or falling out with management in Houston last year, but he’s genuinely been one of the best closers in baseball this season. He also has one year of team control left after this season, enough to provide more value than a rental but not enough for the Blue Jays to expect the kind of prospect ransom Cleveland surrendered for Andrew Miller in 2016 or Brad Hand in 2018. A team willing to overlook Giles’s recent bumps could end up with the steal of the deadline.
On the other end of the spectrum is Givens, Baltimore’s talented but sometimes homer-prone 29-year-old righty. With Miller, Zack Britton, Brad Brach, Tommy Hunter, and Darren O’Day departed (most at previous trade deadlines) from the Orioles, Givens is the last holdover from Baltimore’s stupendous bullpens of the mid-2010s. Givens is under team control through 2021, which could be attractive to a team unwilling to shell out for a rental like Smith. And Givens’s 4.50 ERA this year could be explained away: 11 of his 18 earned runs allowed have come via the long ball, and he has allowed eight dingers on just 33 total fly balls, the seventh-highest rate among 335 MLB pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched this season. If that’s a fluke, he could be a steal and a solid closer or setup man for years to come. If it’s not, it doesn’t take too much imagination to picture Aaron Judge or Cody Bellinger taking him deep late in Game 7 of the World Series. Such is the risk of playing the relief pitcher market.
Examples: José Abreu, White Sox; Nicholas Castellanos, Tigers; Todd Frazier, Mets; Justin Smoak, Blue Jays; Pablo Sandoval, Giants; Franmil Reyes, Padres; Hunter Pence, Rangers
Not only Machado, but Mike Moustakas, Jonathan Schoop, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Brian Dozier, Logan Forsythe, Eduardo Escobar, and Ian Kinsler all changed hands at last year’s deadline. In comparison, this year’s crop of position players on the trading block is extremely corner-heavy. Most of last year’s traded players were, if not defensive wizards, at least capable of standing at second base without putting others in danger. This year, bats are on the menu—bats belonging to Beefy Dinger Men best suited to corner positions.
The good news for buying teams is that because most of the available hitters are both defensively inflexible and pending free agents, home runs can be bought on the cheap. Seattle alone has already sent Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnación packing, but that’s about the level of player we’re talking about here. Someone like Chicago’s José Abreu delivers obvious pop and name recognition, but would appeal mostly to a team with an opening at first base or DH, eliminating most National League contenders.
But there are so many players like this available, likely for next to nothing in prospects, that teams in need of offense should be able to find power easily, even if it is only on a part-time or platoon basis.
Expensive Ace(ish) Starters
Examples: Trevor Bauer, Indians; Zack Greinke, Diamondbacks
Every contender needs more starting pitching at the trade deadline, but not every contender needs the same quality of starting pitching in order to improve. On one extreme are clubs that literally don’t have enough starting pitchers, like the 2011 Red Sox, who collapsed down the stretch with Kyle Weiland in the rotation and were so hard-up for pitching they considered trading for Bruce Chen in September, knowing he wouldn’t be able to pitch in the playoffs. These are the clubs that send minor league utilitymen and D-grade prospects out for the likes of Homer Bailey and Andrew Cashner, as the A’s and Red Sox did, respectively, this weekend. It’s easy to find a body to throw into the volcano to appease the god of Somebody Needs To Pitch These Innings.
On the other end of the spectrum are this year’s Yankees, who have at least five competent starting pitchers but would probably rather not have J.A. Happ start a playoff game. They don’t just need any starting pitcher, they need a good starting pitcher, and the two best names on the market are Bauer and Greinke.
Bauer and Greinke are both performing at a level below their peaks, but either is capable of throwing an absolute bucketload of high-quality innings (129 ERA+ for Bauer, 151 for Greinke). And joy of joys, Bauer’s under team control through 2020, Greinke through 2021. The complicating factor for both is cost. Bauer is due for a substantial arbitration raise next year, perhaps to as much as $20 million, while Greinke will make $70 million over the last two years of his deal.
That’s why both of their respective teams are open to trading them, despite being in position to make the playoffs this year. (Cleveland is tied for the second AL wild-card spot; Arizona is one game out of a playoff spot despite being at .500, because apart from the Dodgers and Braves the National League is committed to some sort of slapstick farce bit.) Winning isn’t enough; some teams have to win on the cheap.
Cleveland is likely looking for a king’s ransom for Bauer, but a team willing to absorb most or all of Greinke’s contract would be able to get the best starter on the market, under team control for multiple years, for relatively little in prospects.
Hirsute Veteran Starting Pitchers
Examples: Madison Bumgarner, Giants; Zack Wheeler, Mets; Lance Lynn and Mike Minor, Rangers
If the financial cost for Greinke or the prospect cost for Bauer is too much, Bumgarner is the next level down. Bumgarner isn’t the same pitcher he was in his playoff asskicker days, but he’s made 20 starts this year with a 109 ERA+, and is striking out more than a batter per inning and almost five batters per walk. Bumgarner is also a rental, which means he wouldn’t require the prospect haul necessary to bag a pitcher with multiple years of team control. On the other hand, Wheeler’s trip to the IL with shoulder fatigue makes Bumgarner the only rental starter capable of upgrading a rotation spot, so a bidding war could ensue.
Lynn and Minor have been two of the best pitchers in the AL this year, but like Bauer and Greinke, they’re on a team that might need pitchers for its own playoff run this season, as the Rangers are just three games out of a playoff spot. Failing the right offer, Texas might well just let it ride.
In terms of upside and reliability, this group probably represents the best value for cost, but between Texas’s and Arizona’s own playoff aspirations and Wheeler’s injury, Bumgarner will probably be the only one of these pitchers to move before the deadline. And even then, who knows? The Giants, once left for dead, have won 10 of their past 12 games and are back on the fringes of the playoff hunt.
Decent Cost-Controlled Starters
Examples: Matthew Boyd, Tigers; Marcus Stroman; Blue Jays; Robbie Ray, Diamondbacks
Last year, I argued that no team would regret trading for Machado, that despite rentals being perceived as an all-in bet on one postseason, paying a high price for an exceptional player is usually defensible. In fact, the truly disastrous trades tend to be the result of overpaying for factors other than talent, specifically age and team control.
Boyd, Stroman, and Ray share similarities: They’re all having much better seasons in 2019 than they did last year, they’re 28 or younger, and they’re under team control at least through next season. (Boyd is under team control through 2022.) All three would be an upgrade in any contender’s rotation. But if in five years we’re looking back and laughing at a team that got fleeced at the 2019 deadline, it will probably be a team that traded for one of these players.
Boyd is having a career year, with a 120 ERA+ and 12.0 K/9 ratio after entering the season with a career ERA+ of 86 and a career K/9 ratio of 7.7. Boyd is definitely improved from last season (his DRA, 3.02, is nearly a run better than his ERA), but the problem for buyers is not his performance so much as his likely price. The Tigers are reportedly asking for a package commensurate with what another 28-year-old left-hander, José Quintana, fetched two years ago. The Cubs traded a top-10 prospect, Eloy Jiménez, and another top-100 prospect, Dylan Cease, plus two other pieces for the then–White Sox pitcher, who had been an above-average starter five years running at the time, and with the benefit of hindsight the Cubs would probably rather undo that trade.
Stroman, an extreme ground ball pitcher who’s never posted big strikeout numbers, is having a great year, with a 3.25 ERA in 19 starts. Stroman has a longer track record of success than Boyd, having posted similar numbers in 2016 and 2017. Even Stroman’s lackluster 2018 was more the result of injuries and bad luck rather than a true down year. But he’s only under team control through 2020, and he isn’t as good as either Bauer or Greinke.
Ray followed up an All-Star-caliber 2017 with an injury-plagued 2018 and has split the difference in 2019. He’s been healthy all year and is striking out 30.8 percent of opponents, eighth among qualified starters, but he’s also tied for second in MLB in walks. Like Stroman, Ray is under team control through 2020. The only advantage Stroman and Ray have over those two pitchers is cost, in which case a team serious enough about winning to trade major prospects for a starter ought to be serious enough to shell out for the best starter available.
It is possible, of course, that the Indians, Diamondbacks, and Rangers all keep winning enough to stay in the race, taking Greinke, Bauer, Minor, Lynn, and presumably Ray off the trade market. In that case, Boyd and Stroman would probably be the best starting pitchers on the trade market by any standard, so suitors will have to make hard choices about whether their price is worth paying.
What that price is, who will pay it, and when, remains to be seen. But with this unprecedented trade deadline season already in full swing, we’ll find out soon enough.