Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 20, 2017

Buyers And Sellers, And Something Else

The All-Star break is over; the second half is well underway. As baseball teams approach the century mark of games played in the longest season, the moment is at hand when general managers must choose between filling weak spots in their team’s roster with the goal of playing deep into October, or stockpiling youth and potential in the farm system and by so doing tacitly admit that championship dreams are being deferred to another year. The Great Game’s July 31st non-waiver trading deadline is just days away.

Already several clubs have made their intentions clear. Last week the Chicago Cubs, seemingly stuck in a season-long hangover from their championship celebrations of last fall, moved to bolster their starting rotation by sending four prospects to the south side of town in exchange for White Sox starter Jose Quintana, generally regarded as the top pitcher likely to be available in this year’s summer trade market. Quintana was an All-Star last year, and while he got off to a rough start this season he’s improved of late, and is recording strikeouts at his best rate ever. He’s also signed through 2020 at team-friendly annual numbers.

As expected White Sox GM Rick Hahn demanded and got a hefty price for his star. The four minor leaguers surrendered by the Cubs included their top two prospects, one of whom, 20-year old outfielder Eloy Jimenez, was recently ranked the fifth best prospect in the game by Baseball America. Clearly Theo Epstein believes that the window for another title run by the Cubs is still open. In choosing to do all he could to seize that moment Epstein had to be willing to mortgage the future.

This is the Great Game’s annual July tradeoff. For a team like the defending champion Cubs, who on the strength of a six-game winning streak and five straight Milwaukee losses have closed the gap with the Brewers in the NL Central standings, the choice is clear. It is as well for Mike Rizzo in Washington, where the Nationals are running away with the NL East despite a dreadful bullpen. Rizzo sent right-hander Blake Treinen and a pair of minor leaguers to Oakland for relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson. On the other side of those deals, it is an equally easy call for the White Sox and A’s to stockpile assets for the future, as they have the two worst records in the American League.

But for many clubs the choice between being a buyer or seller at the trade deadline is a tougher call. Perhaps not in the National League, where two of the division races are routs and the Diamondbacks and Rockies have opened some daylight in the Wild Card race. With two months to go no team has clinched anything, but for many NL franchises the path to the postseason is getting very narrow. The story in the junior circuit however is very different. Only the Houston Astros are running away with their division. Three teams in the AL East and four in the AL Central have a legitimate shot at their division, and the competition for the two Wild Card spots is especially fierce. As this is written the Yankees are clinging to the second Wild Card with eight teams, every franchise except the White Sox and A’s, within five games of New York.

Of course, six of those eight teams have records below .500, and whatever the standings may be today, in the end only five AL clubs will advance to the postseason. No general manager wants to be the Great Game’s equivalent of Dell Demps, GM of the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans. On the fringes of the playoff chase at last winter’s trade deadline, Demps brokered a blockbuster deal, giving up both players and draft picks for DeMarcus Cousins, only to see his franchise sink in the standings.

Some clubs will try to walk a middle ground, as the Yankees appear to be doing. On Tuesday Brian Cashman sent reliever Tyler Clippard and three prospects to the White Sox for infielder Todd Frazier and hard-throwing relievers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle. The Yankees need starting pitching, and Cashman had talked to Chicago’s Hahn about Quintana, but ultimately balked at his asking price.

Instead he relinquished just one highly regarded prospect, and that a player currently in single-A so a few years away from the big leagues, along with two lesser minor leaguers while dumping Clippard’s salary. In return New York got Frazier, who should improve upon the weak offense put up so far this season by the long list of players who have appeared at the two corner infield spots, and bolstered an already strong back end of the bullpen. In refusing to part with his top prospects Cashman signaled that the Yankees are not abandoning their commitment to getting younger and nurturing home-grown talent. Whether being in Cashman’s words “careful buyers” results in October baseball in the Bronx remains to be seen.

For the next week and a half rumors will continue to fly, and as front offices make the decision to either buy or sell and trades are made, the focus will understandably be on the players who are part of those deals. But often they are not the only ones affected, and the trade deadline reminds fans that the Great Game is in fact a business, one in which hard business decisions are made every day.

The Yankees acquired three players destined for their 25-man roster in this week’s trade, but relinquished only one current member in Clippard. That meant additional roster moves were needed, and when New York designated two players for assignment one of them was Rob Refsnyder. Just two seasons ago, during 2015 Spring Training, Refsnyder was the subject of a glowing feature in the New York Times. It focused in part on his compelling backstory. Refsnyder was born in Korea and given up for adoption by his birth mother. Just five months old, he was adopted by a California couple, brought to this country, and given a new name. But the article also highlighted Refsnyder’s minor league exploits and called him “a gifted hitter” and “a top Yankees prospect,” both true statements at the time.

But Refsnyder, who made his major league debut later that year, turned out to be the classic “4-A” player, a slugger at the AAA level but never able to figure out major league pitching. Shuttled between the Bronx and the Yankees AAA affiliate for two-plus seasons, his career big league average is .241, and this season he is hitting just .135. He may have enough talent that the Yankees can work a trade with another team during the allowable ten-day period after a player is designated for assignment, but having been DFA’d, Rob Refsnyder’s days as a Yankee are over.

In sports, as in life, there are no guarantees. As a new group of young Yankees hear the cheers, the departure of a player who was so recently a “top Yankees prospect” is proof that at the trade deadline there are not just buyers and sellers, but also casualties.

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