Biggest questions still to be answered as MLB trade deadline finally arrives
Friday’s non-waiver trade deadline is quickly approaching, and though this week has seen a flurry of deals both big and small, there are still a number of teams and players whose intentions and final destinations remain unknown. As we draw closer to the 4 p.m. ET deadline, here are five questions that are left to be answered before each team closes up shop.
1. What will the Padres do?
When Sunday, April 6 dawned, Craig Kimbrel was preparing for his fifth season as the Braves’ dominant closer, which was to begin the following afternoon against the Marlins. By day’s end, he was on a flight from Miami to Los Angeles, using the plane’s Wi-Fi connection in an attempt to cram an entirely new set of teammates into his brain. “I looked up the front office and the coaching staff and the players, tried to get everybody’s faces and names,” he told me earlier this season. “I did awful!”
Of all of the Padres’ acquisitions this past winter, their eleventh-hour trade for Kimbrel was the most unexpected. Still, during an off-season in which San Diego added Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers, Derek Norris, Will Middlebrooks and James Shields, the team's new general manager, A.J. Preller, saw Kimbrel as the finishing piece on a club that he designed to end a nine-year playoff drought.
It hasn’t worked out. The Padres are just 49–53, seven games out of the NL’s second Wild Card spot. Compounding the damage is that several of the highly regarded young players Preller sacrificed during his one-winter rebuild are excelling elsewhere. Matt Wisler, the central prospect sent to Atlanta for Kimbrel, is 5–1 with a 3.43 ERA over his first seven starts for the Braves. Cameron Maybin, the outfielder who was packaged with Wisler, is having a career year, batting .276 with eight home runs, 47 RBIs and 17 steals. Trea Turner, the minor-league shortstop who was eventually sent to Washington as part of the Myers trade, is batting .313 in the minors and has already reached Triple A.
Was Preller’s winter a disaster? Well, not entirely. His mandate from the Padres ownership, as far as 2015, was two-fold: build not only a winner, but also an exciting team that would invigorate fan interest in a recently apathetic market. Despite the Padres’ mediocre results, Preller succeeded as far as the latter assignment: The club is on pace to draw some 2.57 million fans to Petco Park this year, an increase of more than 370,000 from last season and the team's highest total since '07.
As Friday morning approaches, the single most pressing question concerned what Preller—who had thus far made no moves at all—was going to do. Another reason the Padres hired him was that they trusted his finely tuned scouting eye to rebuild in short order a farm system that was necessarily depleted by last winter’s aggressiveness; as the Rangers’ scouting director, he had turned one of the game’s weakest systems into one of its deepest. Friday could represent an opportunity to jumpstart that process by turning mature assets into prospects. Upton, who is a free agent after the season, and Kimbrel, a highly-paid closer at the height of his powers, represent Preller’s most likely trade chips, but he has plenty of others. With the starting pitching market depleted, the Padres’ rotation features four of the most attractive targets left in Shields, Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy and Tyson Ross.
All of them could go on Friday, but Preller, a master of the unexpected, might do something even more surprising. He might just as well double down on last winter and on his rejuvenated fan base and decide that his nucleus can win as soon as next year, and trust that he can revamp the Padres’ farm system by himself. In other words, Preller once again controls the market. On Friday night, Craig Kimbrel is just as likely to be learning another set of new faces and names on a flight as he is to be getting ready for his next game as a Padre—which, coincidentally, will come in Miami.
2. Where will the sluggers end up?
Most of the market’s top pitchers already have new homes, but that is not the case for its hitters. Yoenis Cespedes, Adam Lind, Carlos Gonzalez, Jay Bruce, Josh Reddick, Upton—all are on pace to exceed 20 home runs, and all could move on Friday. In fact, with so many clubs having already depleted their prospect resources for arms, and with just a few obviously looking for big new bats, it could prove a buyer’s market.
Chicago was, until recently, the American League’s version of the Padres: a would-be contender whose aggressive off-season didn’t add up to much. But after an improbable seven-game road winning streak that ended on Thursday night, the White Sox find themselves at 49–51 and just three games back of the Twins for the second Wild Card spot. Suddenly, indications are that they will not only hang on to Jeff Samardzjia—the free agent-to-be who was expected to be one of the top pitching targets on the market—but are hunting for a middle-of-the-order hitter to bolster an offense that ranks dead last in the AL in runs scored.
With the AL Central crown firmly out of reach, is it worth it for a shot at a one-game playoff, especially when Chicago will have to leapfrog four teams (including the vastly improved Blue Jays)? Probably not. But the White Sox haven’t reached October since 2008, and it seems as if they’ll do anything they can to get there, if only potentially for one night.
4. Do the Yankees’ untouchables remain as such?
It was only on Wednesday morning that I argued that the Yankees ought to refrain from making any big moves at the deadline. A lot has changed since then, as it always does this time of year: The Blue Jays acquired David Price and, perhaps even more importantly, Michael Pineda hit the disabled list with a strained forearm. Even so, the Yankees’ strategy should remain the same.
New York still remains the heavy favorite to win the AL East (Baseball Prospectus pegs them as having a nearly 83% chance to do so), and any deal involving the team's untouchable prospect quartet of Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, Jorge Mateo and Luis Severino—thereby sacrificing the future for a marginal boost in the playoffs—still seems illogical. And with Price, Samardzija, Cole Hamels and Johnny Cueto now off the market, there doesn’t appear to be an available starter who would make a truly big difference anyway. Might the Yankees pursue a top reliever, like Kimbrel, instead?
5. Will the Mets rebound from an embarrassing 24 hours?
A crying shortstop, a botched trade, a blown 7–1 lead: The run-up to Friday’s deadline hasn’t exactly been a proud time for New York’s other team. But the fact remains that the Mets are still just three games behind the Nationals in the NL East, despite having baseball’s worst offense. Even a mild offensive upgrade might make a big difference. It won’t come from Carlos Gomez—the Astros jumped at the chance to acquire him after his trade to the Mets fell apart. Might Bruce, Cespedes or Upton, in particular, be the answer?