Those dog days of summer sure flew by.
Here we are one week until the trade deadline and five weeks before the end of the regular season, and no one is quite sure what to make of the Major League Baseball season.
This will be the first time in history no team will be mathematically eliminated before September, and if you look at the National League standings, this could be the first time there is a team with a winning percentage below .500 to make the postseason. There are only five teams in the NL with winning records, and if the season ended today, the Colorado Rockies (13-15), losers of seven in a row, would qualify for the eighth and final spot.
It has been a season of so many unknowns, and that includes the trade deadline, which is at 4 p.m. ET on Monday, Aug 31.
Lance Lynn could be one of the top pitchers available ahead of the Aug. 31 trade deadline if the Texas Rangers decide to deal him. (Photo: Kevin Jairaj, USA TODAY Sports)
“This will be a real unique deadline in a variety of ways,’’ Milwaukee Brewers GM David Stearns says. “I don’t think anybody knows for sure how it will play out.’’
Does a team dare go all in, trading away prospects who haven’t played in a competitive game in a year, to try to win in a season that’s not even guaranteed to be completed?
Does a team give up, knowing that this will be the easiest season ever to qualify for a postseason, with a record 16 teams in the tournament?
Most general managers, executives and scouts say they expect the 2020 trade deadline to be the dullest in history.
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If the Texas Rangers decide to move Lance Lynn (3-0, 1.37 ERA), he could be the highest-profile starter to hit the market. The Los Angeles Angels, who have already received numerous inquiries on starter Dylan Bundy, are open for business. The Boston Red Sox have let everyone know that there are no untouchables, meaning that center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. should be on the move, but unlikely shortstop Xander Bogaerts. The Arizona Diamondbacks are dropping hints that they could go both ways, acquiring talent but selling at the same time, trading No. 2 starter Robbie Ray, with a few teams showing interest in him as a reliever. The Kansas City Royals are willing to take advantage of closer Trevor Rosenthal’s turnaround by quickly moving him, and maybe reliever Greg Holland, too. And the Cleveland Indians are at least open to listening to offers for starter Mike Clevinger, who’s at their team’s alternate camp for violating COVID-19 protocols.
“In a normal season,’’ Stearns said, “you would have some set of teams that are openly willing to trade quality major league players either because they are no longer in contention or they are looking to move money. There are very few teams right now that look in the mirror and say, 'We don’t have a chance at making the playoffs.' "
He's right. Except for the Pittsburgh Pirates (7-17) in the National League, and the Red Sox, Royals, Rangers, Angels and Seattle Mariners in the American League, everyone has a realistic chance.
And if you're a team that is struggling and has a healthy payroll, then the pressure to be one in the field of 16 to make the playoffs could be immense.
Maybe that is why Philadelphia Phillies GM Matt Klentak, one of perhaps five GMs on the hot seat, jumped the trade market last weekend by acquiring Red Sox veteran relievers Brandon Workman and Heath Embree for starter Nick Pivetta and pitcher Conor Seabold, while also grabbing reliever David Hale from the New York Yankees.
The Phillies-Red Sox trade should be the model for most of the moves made this final week, dealing major leaguers for major leaguers, mixing in cash with the Red Sox covering $815,000 of their salaries, and having at least one player (Workman) in the final year of his contract.
“I can’t see a big trade, I can’t,’’ one AL GM said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly. “There’s just too much risk. Too much uncertainty with everyone still looking to save money. Nobody knows the monetary aspect of next year. What will the payroll be in the future? Will we have fans next year?
“The only certainty you have is trading for a player who’s a free agent at the end of the season. You won’t have to worry about next year.’’
Indeed, would a team trade for a veteran pitcher such as Johnny Cueto of the San Francisco Giants knowing he’s owed $21 million in 2021 with a $22 million option or $5 million buyout in 2022?
If the season isn’t shortened by the pandemic next season, meaning no prorated contracts, how will that contract look on the books if there are no fans permitted in the stands until June, or later in the summer?
“Just about every team in the industry, maybe every team in the sports world is over budget in the big picture when you look at what’s happened to revenue," Cubs president Theo Epstein said. "When that happens, you have to weigh any expense, whether it’s a player expense or any expense. You have to weigh taking on any additional expense with the impact, and then put it in the context of the big financial picture, and decide if it’s something that is worth moving forward with.”
Even if a general manager wants to trade top-shelf veteran players, how much faith is he going to have in his evaluation of prospects who haven't played a real game since the summer of 2019.
(By the way, no players outside the 60-man player pool can be traded by next week unless they are a player to be named later.)
There's also the risk that the player you trade for tests positive for COVID-19 in the month or so before the season ends, or just opts out of the remainder of the season.
“Every team is going to be cognizant of who they’re bringing in and how responsible they would be,’’ Epstein said, “how much he can count on them. Also, if the acquiring the player puts them in an untenable situation, it might be hard to acquire somebody who’s got a great setup with their family in a certain spot geographically. And then you’re going to pull them out of there and put him into a situation, whether or not he’s set up for stability or set up to have success?”
The trade deadline clock is ticking, and while there still will be limited activity, those fascinating blockbuster trades will be as common week as those shuttered Blockbuster stores.
It’s that kind of year.
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