It wasn’t simply that the final couple of weeks of the unrestricted trade period passed with relatively few deals being agreed. This year’s deadline came and went without even the normal flurry of ‘potential blockbuster’ rumours.
The quiet deadline was expected though as it reflected the current state of MLB’s competitive position.
There were only a small number of teams looking to trade away quality players as most can put together an optimistic argument that they might just get themselves into to Wild Card race over the final two months of the regular season. More teams are also getting wise to the importance and value of good young (and therefore cheap) talent making them less willing to trade away top prospects for short-term fixes.
Add in the prevalence of contract extensions, reducing the pool of potential free agents, and the rule change that means teams now only gain compensation for losing a free agent if they’ve been with the team for the whole of the preceding season, and finding a match when you want to add a player or two is becoming increasingly difficult.
The one trend we did see was in the steadfast rebuilders continuing to trade away any MLB regulars to further add to their stocks of players for the future. The Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros and Miami Marlins were the teams everyone else was looking towards and this showed that there is value in rebuilders taking a chance on a few rental free agents each year.
Even the worst team in the league claws in millions of dollars in shared revenue so they have surplus cash to spend even while diverting money to prospects and building for the future. These teams are then in the position to take advantage of the scarcity of available players at the deadline (or, more accurately, players available at a cost teams are willing to meet).
The Baltimore Orioles’ hopes of repeating their surprising playoff appearance of 2012 were at risk of being thwarted by a scuffling starting rotation. The Cubs and Astros then came into view. Scott Feldman was acquired from Chicago and Bud Norris came across from Houston to add two decent starting pitchers to go straight into the Orioles’ rotation.
You could look at the Cubs and Astros’ records this season and wonder why a playoff hopeful would be keen to take on any of their players, but baseball is a game where individual performances cannot make up for a team’s failings on a daily basis (see Matt Harvey and the New York Mets). It’s also true that a good team doesn’t necessarily have to add a star to improve the overall strength of their roster.
Neither Norris or Feldman are going to set the world alight, but the O’s couldn’t have acquired even one pitcher of Cy Young award standing without giving up so much talent that it would be a risky proposition. Adding these two ptchers provides some stability at an affordable price, whilst the Astros and Cubs get some extra talent by trading away players who aren’t going to make them contenders in the next year or so anyway.
Matt Garza was another player on the Cubs’ roster to fall into that category. There were rumours that Chicago had hoped to trade him at last year’s deadline, only for an injury to scupper those plans. This time around they were able to dangle him in front of the eyes of contenders and it was the Texas Rangers that bit, allowing the Cubs to add Mike Olt to their collection of young talent.
The Miami Marlins did the same thing with Ricky Nolasco, this time with the Los Angeles Dodgers being the contender keen to further improve their odds of success this year. The way the Marlins have gutted their roster so soon after opening a largely publicly-funded new ballpark is shameless to say the least, but they’ve had success in retooling before and if Jose Fernandez is any indication then some very bright times could be ahead. Until they come around, the Marlins will keep on exploiting their position as a team that can have contenders coming to them looking for that one final piece which could determine if their season ends in success or failure.
As we’ve seen, it’s a position that is especially relevant to teams with pitching to trade. There were no premium bats on the market – the Cubs trading away Alfonso Soriano to the desperate New York Yankees was one of the main trades for a hitter – but it’s always the case that playoff hopeful teams are seeking an extra arm. The Red Sox acquired Jake Peavy in arguably the one big-name trade and it’s one that could bring rich reward in Boston.
The Red Sox’s change in fortunes after a miserable 2012 shows just how quickly things can turn around for a team. In most cases that situation has led to teams keeping hold of players rather than trading them this year. We’ll have to wait and see whether those who opted to stick, or those who opted to trade, made out the best when the Fall Classic comes around.