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The Four Dominoes That Could Shape the 2019 MLB Trade Deadline

From Noah Syndergaard to everyone on the Diamondbacks, these are the players and teams to watch on July 31 and beyond

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Two days before the July 31 MLB trade deadline, we still have no idea what will happen. Sure, there are rumors—there are always rumors—but this season not only features a particularly tight playoff race, in which every team at .500 or better has a puncher’s chance at making it to October, but a new unitary deadline that GMs have never before had to navigate.

Sunday’s Marcus Stroman trade between the Blue Jays and the Mets got the ball rolling, but there’s still tremendous uncertainty as to how the rest of the deadline period will shake out. With so much business left to be done, and so little time left in which to do it, one trade or one player being pulled from the market could dictate how the rest of the league behaves. We don’t know what will happen, but we do have a pretty good idea of which players and teams will set the market. Here are the names to keep an eye on.

Noah Syndergaard, P, Mets

Suffice it to say, the Mets have failed to live up to their goal of contending for the NL East this season, and currently sit 11.5 games back in the division and six back in the wild card, with five teams to climb over. Disappointing would-be contenders usually have enough talent that they can ship some off for prospects and reload for the following years, and until a few weeks ago, it looked like the Mets would be unloading free-agent-to-be Zack Wheeler.

Now, though, the Mets are dangling an even bigger (literally and culturally) right-hander as trade bait: Syndergaard. The 26-year-old Texan has been disappointing this year, with a 4.33 ERA in 20 starts, but he’d be the most attractive pitcher on the trade market for several reasons. He’s better—or at least more talented—than Detroit’s Matthew Boyd, under team control for longer than Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer, and substantially younger and cheaper than Arizona’s Zack Greinke.

The Syndergaard of 2019 might not be as successful as the 2015 or 2016 version, or even the 2018 version, but any team that acquires Syndergaard would do so with the precedent of Gerrit Cole in mind. Cole, like Syndergaard, is a big, hard-throwing right-hander who for stretches early in his career did not achieve results commensurate with his top-end stuff. But when Cole left Pittsburgh via trade and tweaked his repertoire with his new team, Houston, he turned into a Cy Young contender more or less overnight. Indeed, the Astros have inquired about Syndergaard leading up to the deadline.

Bizarrely, the Stroman trade appears to make it more likely that Syndergaard will move this week. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported last week that the Mets could trade Syndergaard to the Padres for a package including rookie right-hander Cal Quantrill, then move part of what they get for Syndergaard to Toronto for Stroman. It was a galaxy-brained idea that seemed too weird to occur in the real world, and then on Sunday afternoon the Mets went ahead and traded for Stroman. The order of the trades means that specific deal won’t happen, but despite the Stroman acquisition indicating that the Mets intend to try to contend in 2019, it does appear that Syndergaard is going somewhere soon.

Syndergaard’s combination of talent, track record, team control, and remaining potential makes him the most attractive player who has a chance to move this trade deadline. Until that happens or the Mets take him off the block, the Astros, Yankees, Rays, and Padres, among other teams, will be hesitant to pursue other options knowing Syndergaard might be available.

Everyone on the Arizona Diamondbacks

Arizona hasn’t been more than two games above or below .500 since June 16, and with the deadline just two days away, it’s time to fold or go all in. But unlike many of their neighbors in the standings, the Diamondbacks have reportedly chosen a course of action: They’re doing the former.

What makes Arizona such an intriguing case is the number of talented players it could move: Given how much better Greinke is pitching right now than Syndergaard, the 2009 AL Cy Young winner could command a king’s ransom if the Diamondbacks were willing to subsidize some of the $70 million he’s owed in 2020 and 2021. They’re also shopping lefty Robbie Ray, who led the NL in K/9 ratio in 2017 and, like Bauer and Stroman, is under team control through 2020. Relievers Greg Holland, Archie Bradley, and Andrew Chafin would fit in any contender’s bullpen, and the Diamondbacks also have a few outfield odds and ends to sell.

This wealth of tradable players gives Arizona incredible flexibility, and the options available to GM Mike Hazen make it tough to predict what he’ll do. He could trade one of Ray and Greinke, both, or neither. He could trade Holland, Bradley, and Chafin singly for smaller returns or package them to get a better top-line prospect, as both the A’s and White Sox did when they sold their bullpens wholesale in 2017. As a result, Hazen probably has more control over how the trade deadline will shake out than any other GM, and everyone else’s actions will be informed by what Hazen does—when, how, and with whom.

San Francisco Giants

Like the Diamondbacks, the Giants have a multitude of pitchers contenders would covet, and like the Diamondbacks, they head into the last week before the deadline at about .500. Unlike Arizona, which has bobbed around the break-even point for most of the year, San Francisco has been red hot of late and is therefore ambivalent about selling. The Giants even indicated late last week that they could add a significant piece at the deadline.

This change in the Giants’ likely standing at the deadline has thrown the pitching market into chaos. Playoff stalwart Madison Bumgarner and All-Star closer Will Smith are both in the last year of their deals; a month ago, when the Giants were 12 games under .500 and out of the playoff picture entirely, it made sense to trade both rather than let them walk for nothing in the offseason. Sam Dyson is under team control for one year and is having one of the best seasons of his career, and lefty Tony Watson also has an ERA below 3.00, with a player option for 2020. Taking Bumgarner and those three relievers out of trade discussions could turn this deadline from a buyer’s market for pitching help—particularly relief pitching help—to a seller’s market, and jack up the price on players like Toronto’s Ken Giles and Detroit’s Shane Greene.

As noisy as San Francisco’s recent hot streak has been, the Giants are still chasing the pack; in fact, Baseball Prospectus has the Giants at just a 5.1 percent bet to make the playoffs, well behind the Diamondbacks, who sit at 25.4 percent. It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see the Giants reconsider their position and decide to sell after all, which would bring its own measure of chaos by flooding the market with pitchers at the 11th hour.

Trevor Bauer, P, Cleveland

One team that shouldn’t be considering a rebuild is the Cleveland Indians, who are two games back of the first-place Twins in the AL Central and three games up in the wild-card race. And yet trade rumors continue to swirl around Bauer, the 28-year-old right-hander who finished sixth in Cy Young voting last year.

Bauer is an unusual player to pin a value on: Cleveland clearly hopes to get back a package commensurate with his performance last year—2.21 ERA, 2.48 DRA, 11.3 K/9, 0.5 HR/9—even though Bauer hasn’t replicated those numbers before or since. As he was being pulled from a particularly rough start on Sunday, a frustrated Bauer threw a baseball over the center-field fence, so any team that was interested in the right-hander now needs assurances that he’ll throw the ball in the right direction.

Unlike pitchers of similar age, performance, and remaining team control—specifically Ray and Stroman—Bauer has been quite vocal about his unwillingness to sign anything longer than a one-year contract at any point in his career. So while a club that trades for Stroman or Ray would have a head start in extension talks, that’s not the case with Bauer. Add to that the pressure on Cleveland to get maximum value if it does trade Bauer from a winning position, and this situation is unlike any other at this year’s deadline. No team in Cleveland’s position should even consider trading a player like Bauer, and yet here we are. It’s one final complication at a deadline where the list of top players available changes from one moment to the next.