Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 26, 2015

Trade Deadline Approaches, And The Hype Builds

So we come to the final week before the MLB non-waiver trading deadline, the moment when teams going nowhere officially start planning for next year while those at the top of the standings look to add the final piece of the puzzle that will produce October glory. For general managers of franchises on the fringes of the playoff race, it’s time to decide whether to become a buyer or a seller; whether to invest money and minor league prospects in the acquisition of one or more players for the push over the final two months, or to dump salary in exchange for an unproven but promising minor leaguer or three.

Already there has been significant activity. Late last week the Houston Astros got the trade deadline market moving by acquiring left-handed pitcher Scott Kazmir from the Oakland A’s in exchange for a pair of prospects. More than a year ago Sports Illustrated praised the forward-looking moves by Houston GM Jeff Luhnow and the franchise’s strong minor league system by running a cover story declaring the Astros “Your 2017 World Series Champs.” The magazine may have been conservative in its timeframe, for after three consecutive seasons of more than 100 losses and modest improvement to 70-92 last year, Houston led the AL West for much of the first half. A slump of 8 losses in 9 games leading into the All-Star break dropped the Astros into second place behind the Angels, but the deal for Kazmir makes plain that Luhnow believes his team can contend for a title this year.

The deal is prototypical of those made at the trading deadline. Kazmir is in the final year of his contract. At age 31 and coming off a 15-win season and an All-Star nod in 2014, he’s likely to command more in free agency than the ever frugal Athletics can afford. Oakland also has the second worst record in the American League, so GM Billy Beane knows that there will be no playoff baseball at wretched Coliseum this year. Thus it makes sense for Oakland to trade Kazmir and get something in exchange rather than see him simply walk away as a free agent. For their part, the Astros get a two month rental of a top pitcher for the stretch run, with the hope but no guarantee that Kazmir, who happens to be a Houston native, will like the idea of pitching in his hometown and eventually sign up for a longer term.

Over the weekend a deal between the Reds and the Royals involving Cincinnati ace Johnny Cueto was on, then off, then finally on again and finalized Sunday afternoon. Cueto won 20 games for the Reds last year and was runner-up to the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw in the National League Cy Young voting. But as popular as he is in Cincinnati, Cueto is entering free agency this fall and will likely be one of the top pitchers on the market. So the Reds opted to ship him to Kansas City and even pay part of his salary in exchange for three young left-handers. The Royals sit comfortably atop the AL Central standings, but their starting rotation has been their most obvious weakness, thanks in part to a series of injuries. Cueto is almost certainly just a short-term rental for the mid-market Royals, but after coming so close to a title last year management, players and fans in Kansas City are hungry for a return to the Fall Classic.

Between now and 4 p.m. next Friday other big names could be changing uniforms as well. Cole Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon of the Phillies, the Tigers’ David Price, the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki and Ben Zobrist of the A’s all headline any number of stories about possible deadline trades. Not all exactly fit the parameters of the typical deal for the last week in July. Hamels for example is signed through 2018 and figures to become a key component of some team’s rotation for the next few years. Yet he has been a major player in MLB trade rumors for more than a year, in part because the Phillies have fallen so far so fast. His contract status just means Philadelphia GM Ruben Amaro Jr. can just ask for that much more in return for his prized right-hander.

Of course not every name in the rumor mill will be traded, and there will also be dozens of deals involving less prominent players. But as fans of the Great Game get ready to follow the action off the field as closely as they do events on the diamond over the next few days, it might be a good idea to maintain some perspective.

Kazmir joined the Astros in the midst of a road trip, and immediately proved his worth by allowing just three hits over 7 scoreless innings in Kansas City Friday night. Certainly other players who change clubs in the next few days will help their new franchises as well. But baseball is a team sport, and the ability of a single player to influence the outcome of a game is limited. Even a starting pitcher, the one position with arguably the greatest ability to do so, only throws once every five days.

There have been successful midseason deals over the years. Cliff Lee from Seattle to Texas in 2010 was a trade that helped push the Rangers to that year’s World Series. Soon-to-be free agent Carlos Beltran from Kansas City to Houston in 2004 helped the Astros win the NL Wild Card, and Beltran’s 8 home runs in the postseason certainly didn’t hurt his negotiating position in free agency.

But when the dust settled last year the pundits assured fans that the big winners at the trade deadline were the Tigers and A’s. Both strengthened their rotations with the acquisitions of David Price and Jon Lester respectively. Oakland GM Billy Beane famously went all-in on his 2014 team, in a sharp departure from most seasons when the A’s are sellers. Of course when the World Series began the closest either team was to the action was the fact that three games were played at AT&T Park in San Francisco, across the bay from the A’s home.

This week there will be lots of trades and even more rumors, and by next weekend fans in some cities will be ecstatic while the faithful in others will be lamenting missed opportunities. But as it always does the longest season will go on, and in the end it’s likely that the July 31st trade deadline will be more about hype than hope.

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