MLB’s six division leaders took two divergent tacks at Wednesday’s trade deadline. On one side, the Braves acquired three back-end relievers in the final hours to fortify a leaky bullpen, and the Astros struck at the 4 p.m. buzzer to add Zack Greinke to a frightening rotation.
But the sport’s other leaders—and the playoff-hopeful Red Sox—spent the deadline period mostly inert, consummating minor moves here and there but largely failing to complete any transaction that would change their rest-of-season outlook. Within this context, the Astros’ Greinke splash looks even more formidable: They’re the only top contender that added a star.
The Yankees were the most surprising holdout, with their only trade at the deadline sending reliever Joe Harvey to the Rockies for Single-A pitcher Alfredo Garcia. This inactivity came amid rumors connecting New York to seemingly every starting pitcher who might have been available. But Madison Bumgarner is not a Yankee. Mike Minor is not a Yankee. Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard are—not surprisingly—not Yankees. Robbie Ray is not a Yankee. Trevor Bauer is not a Yankee, nor is Marcus Stroman, nor is Greinke, who is now instead on New York’s greatest rival for the American League pennant.
Whether Greinke specifically could have become a Yankee is not the point (New York, unlike Houston, was one of the teams on his no-trade list); the point is that Yankees fans would have reasonably expected at least one of those pitchers to join the team before the final clock struck. New York’s starting pitching just suffered a disastrous stretch against the Twins and Red Sox, but those struggles were not merely a one-week aberration. Since the start of June, Yankees starters have posted a collective 6.00 ERA and 5.49 FIP, both of which rank 28th in the majors. At the moment, the only starter on the roster with a better-than-average ERA is Domingo Germán, who will likely be subject to an innings limit. (He’s already thrown more innings in 2019 than he did last year.)
Perhaps the prospect demands from general manager Brian Cashman were too strong; he reportedly refused to discuss top pitching prospect Deivi Garcia for anyone less than Syndergaard, for instance, or to trade young outfielder Clint Frazier for anyone without much future team control. But nor did he get creative by adding relievers to help alleviate the starting load. New York already has a superb bullpen, with Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle, and Chad Green claiming the high-leverage innings, but that might not be enough to, for instance, allow manager Aaron Boone to avoid the third-time-through-the-order penalty in every playoff game.
The Yankees will instead hope that Dellin Betances and Luis Severino, who have thrown a combined zero innings in the majors or minors this season, can return from injury and pitch effectively. Jonathan Loaisiga could be another bullpen candidate in this vein, and even the young Garcia, who was recently promoted to Triple-A, could force his way into the big league bullpen by season’s end. That’s a lot of “hopes” and “coulds,” though; the Yankees are now relying on hypotheticals, while the Astros secured meaningful MLB help with no hypotheticals attached.
Yet the Yankees were not alone. The Dodgers traded for infielder Jedd Gyorko, who looks more like a depth piece in case of further injuries than someone who is even guaranteed to make the playoff roster, and reliever Adam Kolarek, but nothing more. In the Dodgers’ defense, their push for Pirates closer Felipe Vázquez was reportedly thwarted by Pittsburgh’s prospect demands: The Dodgers have two top-10 prospects and Pittsburgh wanted one or both, but even an elite, cost-controlled reliever isn’t worth that trade-off. But Vázquez wasn’t the only reliable reliever available, and like the Yankees, L.A. evidently didn’t pivot to a backup plan once the primary path was exhausted, as other relievers like new Atlanta closer Shane Greene went to their immediate competition instead.
Like seemingly every season this decade, the Dodgers will once again win the NL West but enter the postseason with bullpen questions. Closer Kenley Jansen has a career-worst 3.67 ERA, and Pedro Báez is no Dodgers fan’s idea of a lockdown reliever in high leverage. L.A. has flexibility with its robust starting staff, so the likes of Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling could join the playoff bullpen—as could flamethrowing prospect Dustin May, a.k.a. the Gingergaard, one of the Dodgers’ off-limits prospects—but they’ve tried that route before and failed to win the title.
Another puzzlingly quiet team was the Twins, who did acquire Sergio Romo from the Marlins and Sam Dyson from the Giants to bolster the bullpen, but could have done more, especially given their situation in the standings. By both record and run differential, Minnesota is enjoying its best season since the 1960s, and it’s pushing for its first division title since 2010 with both a deep and balanced offense and a viable, playoff-caliber starting rotation.
Yet the Twins’ division lead has dwindled from 11 games to three since mid-June, and second-place Cleveland was on a torrid pace even before improving the roster with Tuesday night’s three-team Trevor Bauer–Yasiel Puig trade. The Twins remained tentative, though, adding a good reliever in Dyson and a decent one in Romo to a tumultuous bullpen, but not matching Cleveland’s urgent push with one of their own. If the Twins lose more steam and fall behind in the standings, they’ll reflect on July with regret.
Say this for the Twins, at least: They added someone to the MLB roster. The Yankees didn’t, and nor did the Cardinals, the newest NL Central leader, who shed Gyorko’s salary and twiddled their thumbs besides. The Cardinals have ended up on the wrong side of some recent lopsided deadline deals—in 2018, they lost Luke Voit, Tommy Pham, and Oscar Mercado to the Yankees, Rays, and Indians, respectively—so they might have remained intentionally conservative this season, but they also haven’t reached the playoffs since 2015 and could have used a boost in a historically crowded division. The Cardinals, Cubs, and Brewers are all within two games of each other, to say nothing of the wild-card race, so even slim upgrades could matter for St. Louis in a way that they wouldn’t for, say, the Dodgers, who are 15.5 games up in their division. Yet the Cardinals didn’t even try for that much.
Nor did Boston, which didn’t make another move after trading for back-end starter Andrew Cashner earlier this month. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told reporters that he felt like a push wouldn’t be worth it given Boston’s placement 9.5 games back in the division—evidently forgetting that his team still plays the Yankees eight more times, has a reasonable secondary path of Chris Sale starting the wild-card game if the divisional dream dies, and is ostensibly trying to repeat as the World Series champion. Boston’s bullpen has needed assistance since the offseason, when it grew clear that Dombrowski hadn’t done enough to replace closer Craig Kimbrel; it turns out he didn’t try to fix that hole at all this year.
Outside of Houston and Atlanta, that was a common theme on deadline day, and it conspired—at least until the Greinke news broke—to sap the event of its exciting promise. For the Yankees, Dodgers, and other leading contenders, this year’s trade-fest was all potential energy, no kinetic, and those teams’ rosters down the September stretch and into October may suffer accordingly. There’s no guarantee that Houston will parlay its deadline coup into another title, but after the Red Sox relied on Nathan Eovaldi and Steve Pearce to win last year’s World Series, and the 2017 Astros needed Justin Verlander, and the 2016 Cubs needed Chapman and Mike Montgomery, and the 2015 Royals needed Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist, the pattern is pretty clear: Midseason trades are a necessary way to add top-end talent, fix positional weaknesses, and generally round out a championship roster. There’s no August deadline to fall back on this season, either—for these minimally active or unambitious teams, the whole experience represents a missed opportunity.