When an aging team at the sad end of a competitive cycle decides to retool by selling off veterans and rebuilding around youth, we criticize its lack of ambition and accuse it of tanking. But when another struggling team, under .500 and on the outermost edge of contention, decides to add significant pieces at Major League Baseball’s trade deadline instead of subtracting as everyone expected, we question its sanity.
When large-market teams use their farm systems to acquire key veterans, we never fail to notice when some of those former prospects blossom into major league all-stars for their new teams several years down the road. But when those same large-market teams hold on to their prospects, turning away from trades that could have filled critical holes down the stretch, we accuse them of being too timid and risk-averse.
The fact is, nobody knows who the “winners” and “losers” were at the trade deadline that just passed Wednesday afternoon, just as nobody knew the two most important acquisitions last summer would turn out to be hired bat Steve Pearce and elbow-surgery returnee Nathan Eovaldi — both journeymen joining their fourth team in five years — who went on be the World Series MVP and arguably the most important pitcher in October for the Boston Red Sox.
But one thing is for sure: We all think we know.
Baseball fans and media members, this one included, really want it both ways. We want “smart” front offices that build from within in a methodical, analytical way and aren’t too impulsive or aggressive — until we suddenly decide that’s exactly what we want them to be. We praise the “smart” rebuild of individual teams but decry the lack of spending on free agents by the industry as a whole.
The Houston Astros were widely declared the winners of the trade deadline this week because, almost alone among the game’s elite teams, they went big. The Astros sent four top prospects to the Arizona Diamondbacks for veteran ace Zack Greinke, giving them the type of super-rotation that we all believe is the ultimate difference-maker in October — unless, hold on, we actually believe it’s a super-bullpen that makes the bigger difference.
But if Greinke gets hurt this month, or simply regresses, the Astros will have just given up the third-, fourth-, fifth- and 22nd-rated prospects in their farm system for an aging pitcher to whom they will owe roughly $46 million in 2020 and 2021, when he is 36 and 37.
Does anyone remember the Astros’ biggest July 31 trade deadline pickup in 2017, the year they won the World Series? It’s a trick question, because the Astros went on to trade for Justin Verlander a month later — minutes before the second trade deadline, for players who pass through waivers first, which as of this year no longer exists. But their biggest July 31 acquisition was veteran lefty Francisco Liriano, who went on to face just two batters in the World Series.
The New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds were widely mocked for acquiring coveted starters Marcus Stroman and Trevor Bauer, respectively, despite both teams residing in fourth place, with records below .500 and the faintest hopes of sneaking into the playoffs. But with Stroman and Bauer both coming with an additional year of team control, both the Mets and Reds were looking to 2020, as much as the stretch run of 2019, and envisioning those pitchers as part of formidable rotations on a potential contender.
Looked at another way, the Stroman and Bauer trades represented another manifestation of teams turning away from free agency and adding veteran pieces by other means. Next winter’s class of free agent starters is notably thin beyond Astros ace Gerrit Cole.
The optics of this trade deadline were not great for baseball. It’s not a good look, for example, when the Washington Nationals and the Red Sox — both seemingly in need of bold moves to address bullpen shortcomings — instead did little in Washington’s case and nothing whatsoever in Boston’s, due in large part to avoiding luxury-tax penalties.
It’s not a good look when teams have made the conscious decision that it isn’t worth sacrificing young talent at the trade deadline just to sneak into a win-or-go-home wild-card game, with a date against a 105-win Astros or Los Angeles Dodgers team waiting for you if you win that game.
“Realistically, we’re probably playing first for a wild-card spot,” Red Sox President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski — whose team sat in third place, 12½ games behind the New York Yankees in the American League East, after Saturday afternoon’s loss — told reporters. “I look at that a little bit differently (than contending for the division title), as far as what you’re willing to do and the risk you’re willing to take.”
It’s also not a good look when Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins — after his team traded away veterans Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Joe Biagini, Daniel Hudson, Eric Sogard and David Phelps — gloated on a conference call about turning “14 years of (contractual) control into 42 years of control,” as if hoarding young, controllable talent at cheap salaries is the overarching mission instead of winning titles.
But the fault for much if not all of this lies less with the individual teams’ philosophies than with the economic systems in place that disincentivize spending in general and devalue veteran players specifically — by artificially depressing the salaries of young players, who can be paid at or near the league minimum for their first three full seasons, thus giving those players an outsize value in relation to older, more expensive veterans.
So the same economic dynamics that have angered baseball’s union during recent offseasons — creating slow-moving free agent markets that have resulted in many veterans being signed well into spring training or not being signed at all — have also turned the trade deadline, with a couple of notable exceptions, into a boring standoff where much is said but little accomplished.
There almost certainly has to be an adjustment to the game’s pay structure, shifting significantly more of the overall dollars to younger players, to fix any of these problems, and that is expected to be a central point in future negotiations between the league and union — whether at the end of the current labor agreement in 2021 or in upcoming (and unprecedented) midterm negotiations between the sides.
We may not know who “won” this trade deadline — OK, we’ll accept the Astros as a default answer — but we know it’s the game of baseball that loses when too few teams are going all-in to win.