As trade deadline approaches, shallow market presents tough questions
That ticking you hear? It’s either the sound of the clock counting down to Thursday’s non-waiver trade deadline or the accelerating pulse of a general manager desperate to strike a deal in a market loaded with far more buyers than sellers. Welcome to trade deadline week, where no rumor is too far-fetched (Matt Kemp to the Red Sox!) and front offices everywhere are weighing the pros and cons of possible deals that could set the course for their franchise for years.
Over the weekend, the Giants plucked one starting pitcher off the market (Jake Peavy); the Rays kept winning and further complicated their David Price decision; and the rumor machine cranked into overdrive (Jon Lester, anyone?). Before you start salivating over potential blockbusters, though, recall that last year’s deadline was one of the quietest we’ve seen — the three major trades on deadline day involved Ian Kennedy, Bud Norris and Justin Maxwell — and was, to hear executives tell it, a preview of future trade deadlines in the new wild-card era. Don’t expect a barrage of high-impact deals this week, not in a market where the cost for high-end starting pitching is, in the words of one executive on a contending NL team, "astronomical." As for the impact hitters available: "There are none," said the exec. "We keep talking about what’s out there, and we keep saying, 'Is that really it?'"
This year’s market is the result of a number of factors. The second wild card is deluding clubs into thinking they’re contenders (when they probably really aren’t). General managers are becoming wiser about pulling the trigger on the bonehead deal. And there's now a trend of teams hoarding young talent like rare diamonds. “Teams are just so cautious, particularly with young pitching,” said one NL executive. “You look at the cost of a free agent starter — no knock on Ricky Nolasco, but he got $50 million. You look at that and you think, if that’s what it costs to get a starter, I’m going to think about giving up my homegrown pitchers. That’s why a team like Seattle has to think really hard right now about parting with their young pitchers.”
Another reason front offices are proceeding cautiously: They understand that it probably isn’t wise to sell the farm just for a shot at a one-game playoff, especially this year. "Say you’re a bubble team [in the AL]," said an executive. "You have to think about what the chances are of beating Felix Hernandez in a one-game playoff, possibly in Seattle, or your odds against either the Angels or Athletics, probably the two best teams in baseball, because one of those teams is finishing second in the AL West."
And that’s why some executives still believe there is a scenario out there where the Rays move their ace this week. Tampa looks like the best team in the AL East right now, and Wil Myers will return to the lineup in mid-August. But the Rays are still 7 1/2 games out in the AL East entering the week, and their odds of winning the division still stand at just 6.5 percent, according to Fangraphs’ Playoff Odds. Even though they've moved to within 4 1/2 games of the second wild card, their overall playoff odds are still just at 12.9 percent. Tampa begins a three-game series with Milwaukee on Monday, and if it falls further back in the division before the deadline, GM Andrew Friedman would be wise to pull the trigger on a David Price deal that would replenish what has become a barren farm system. (Baseball America ranked the Rays' system 20th before the start of the season.)
"I keep going back to whether the cost is worth it for that one-game playoff," said an executive of a team on the playoff bubble. "They’re obviously a very smart organization, and if some team comes to them and is willing to overpay [for Price], how could you turn that down for just a shot at that one-game playoff? I think they only keep him if they really believe they can win the division, and as good as they’ve been, winning the division for them is still a longshot."
Added the exec, "Price is very attractive even to a bubble team that’s also looking toward the long term. He’s signed through next year, and the philosophy could be, let’s do what it takes to get one of the best pitchers in the game and see what happens this year, and then in the offseason, let’s trade him away, when all the teams are in on the bidding, and we can replenish our farm system then."
And so while there will not be a barrage of impact deals between now and Thursday, there could still be one or two game-changers that make this a deadline to remember: One involving Price, and another involving the other AL East ace on the block. Foxsports.com’s Ken Rosenthal reported over the weekend that the Red Sox were listening on Lester but seeking a "huge" return. One NL executive’s prediction over the weekend on where Lester ends up: "Cardinals," he said. "They have what it takes to make the deal, and they seem motivated, probably even more so now that they didn’t get Peavy." He added, "St. Louis is a good fit. Take Shelby Miller. He seems to be a little out of favor there, but that guy is really good, he’d be perfect as the main piece in a trade. If you’re Boston, Shelby Miller is a lot more valuable than a pick somewhere in the 30s in next year’s draft."
Though Lester is just a two-month rental — he’s headed toward free agency this offseason — his price is "enormous," one executive said over the weekend. "If you’re a team that thinks you’ve got a shot to sign him to a longterm deal, then you’re even more aggressive. This is an elite pitcher. If you’re asking me who I would rather have for the rest of this year and the next three or four years, Lester or Price, it’s really close." The list of teams interested in Lester is most certainly long: On Sunday, one executive even floated the possibility that the Marlins — 51-53 and 5 1/2 games out of the second wild card — will make a serious run at the lefty. With owner Jeffrey Loria, “you just never know,” said the exec, noting that the Marlins were just over .500 in 2003 when they traded Adrian Gonzalez and two other prospects to get closer Ugueth Urbina on their way to a World Series win that year.
The next best pitcher who could soon relocate is Cliff Lee, whose last audition before the deadline took place on Saturday. Lee, who returned to the Phillies' rotation last week after two months, was knocked around by the Diamondbacks, and one scout who saw Lee said, "Fastball command was off, his stuff was pretty flat. He’s throwing strikes, just not with his usual control. He’s rusty, but that’s expected. If you’re a believer, you think he’s just rusty and by the time October arrives, he’ll be the Cliff Lee of old. But right now, that’s quite a leap of faith."
But executives agree that Lee, because of the money that’s owed to him (he’s due $25 million in 2015 and has a club option in 2016 worth $27.5 million), will pass through waivers and could be moved in August. "I think he’ll be dealt," said one exec. "There’s still a perception that this is a guy who could get hot and pitch you all the way to the promised land. A couple decent starts in early August, and a team that can take on the money will make a move for him."
The Dodgers, Cardinals and Mariners still seem to be the most likely teams to make a splash by landing Price or Lester, because they have the young talent to trade: L.A. has Joc Pederson, Julio Urias and Corey Seager; the Mariners have Taijuan Walker and James Paxton; the Cardinals have one of the deepest farm systems in the game, and an elite prospect in Oscar Taveras. "Everyone assumes that the Dodgers will do something big here, but I’m not so sure. Do you give up six years of control over Joc Pederson for two months of Jon Lester?" said one rival executive of a bubble team. "If you’re making a move like that, you had better be sure you’re going to win the division, because if you’re suddenly facing a guy like Johnny Cueto in that one-game playoff, all bets are off. What’s the cost of the one-game playoff?"
He added, "That’s just one of the many tough questions teams are facing right now."