Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 12, 2018

Temptation And Risk, As The Deadline Approaches

The calendar turns to the middle of July, so the Great Game’s non-waiver trade deadline on the last day of the month is in sight. With each day that it draws closer, indeed at times it feels more like with each passing hour, the speculation grows more rampant and the rumor mill grinds faster. Where will Manny Machado land, and will his teammate Zach Britton join him in a blockbuster deal? Will the triumvirate now running the Mets front office trade one of New York’s star pitchers, and if so will it be Jacob deGrom or Noah Syndergaard? Are the Astros shopping for a closer now that they’ve demoted Ken Giles to AAA after the lefty reliever, who had already surrendered closing duties to Hector Rendon in the last month, suffered another rocky outing Tuesday night and then cursed at A.J. Hinch when the Houston manager came to pull him from the game?

For these and all the countless other questions being bandied about, there are answers galore, but most of those are the product of some semi-informed guesswork at best to good old wishful thinking at worst. Still, between now and the end of the month deals will be consummated, and players will change uniforms. As is always the case with the July deadline, many of those on the move will be players in their final season before free agency. The logic is simple: if an out of contention team doesn’t believe it will be able to retain a player after the season, then trade him now for a prospect or three and get some return, rather than get nothing when he signs a fat new contract with some other franchise come the offseason.

The receiving team weakens its farm system but gets what its general manager believes is the essential piece that will make the difference for a deep postseason run. But even if that gamble pays out, nothing is guaranteed beyond that, for the soon to be free agent can still ultimately go elsewhere for 2019 and beyond. The likely short-term nature of these acquisitions is why they are called rentals, and their value has always been the source of considerable debate.

In 2016 Theo Epstein knew that the Chicago Cubs needed to strengthen their bullpen to maximize their chance of finally ending the longest championship drought in baseball. So on July 25th of that year Epstein sent relief pitcher Adam Warren and minor leaguers Gleyber Torres, Rashad Crawford, and Billy McKinney to the Yankees in exchange for fireballing closer Aroldis Chapman. For Warren it was a return home to the team with which he had begun his professional career. But the acknowledged jewel of the deal was Torres, then just 19-years-old but already rated as one of the Great Game’s top prospects.

The Cubs were a very good team at the time of the trade, sitting in first place in the NL Central, seven games ahead of St. Louis. They were a juggernaut after the deal, going 44-19 over the final two months of the season and winning their division by seventeen games. Chapman picked up sixteen saves over that stretch, and despite being over used by manager Joe Maddon, was a key contributor as Chicago beat first the Giants in the NLDS, then the Dodgers NLCS, to advance to a taut World Series that finally ended in a 10-inning Game 7 on a night when everyone in America became a Cubs fan.

But after the season ended Chapman, now a free agent, wasted little time signing not with Chicago, but once again with the Yankees. This season, as New York, Boston and Houston vie for the best record in baseball, Yankee fans come to their feet when the bullpen door swings open in the top of the 9th inning of a close contest and Chapman begins his jog to the mound. With twenty-four saves, Chapman has been named to the American League All-Star team.

Crawford and McKinney remain in New York’s farm system, while Warren has returned to his old role as an integral part of the Yankees bullpen who is also capable of making the occasional spot start. As for Torres, he quickly worked his way up through the Yankees minor league affiliates, starting with Single-A Tampa. By the middle of 2017 he was at AAA Scranton Wilkes-Barre when he tore the UCL in his non-throwing left arm. Torres underwent Tommy John surgery, but the recovery period was much shorter than the familiar year or more because it wasn’t his throwing arm and because he isn’t a pitcher.

This year Torres began the season in Scranton, but on April 22nd got the call that every minor leaguer longs for. Since arriving in the Bronx to be New York’s starting second baseman, he’s batting .294 with 15 home runs and an OPS of .905. After just sixty-three games at the major league level, Gleyber Torres has been named to his first All-Star team.

Ask any Cubs fan if the Chapman deal was worth it, and surely the reply will be “absolutely.” One hundred and eight years is a long time to wait between titles, and every move that helped the Cubs hoist that most precious “W” flag of all over Wrigley Field will always be lauded. This example of a deadline rental deal is cited in part because it is so easy, but also because it’s worth remembering what a near thing the Cubs’ title was. Called upon repeatedly by manager Maddon in the postseason, a weary Chapman stumbled in that historic Game 7, allowing Cleveland to tie the score in the bottom of the 8th. He held the home team at bay in the 9th and wound up as the winning pitcher, but the result could easily have been different.

Had it been, Aroldis Chapman would have joined a pet goat named Murphy from the middle of the last century and a loyal fan who reached for a foul ball in more recent times as one more reason why Chicago’s northside franchise was eternally cursed. Meanwhile the Yankees would still have two good prospects in the minors, a reliable reliever, and two more All-Stars in their flame-throwing closer and rookie second baseman. Cubs fans would today be looking at that short-term rental in a decidedly different light.

Between now and the end of the month, speculation and rumor will gradually be replaced by the reality of this season’s deadline deals. Every general manager on a contending team will be tempted to sign off on a trade that might make the difference between merely being in the hunt and winning it all. But the advice from here is to proceed cautiously, for the price of those deals is always high, and they come without a guarantee.

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