Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 30, 2020

A Trading Deadline As Strange As Its Season

Although it comes a month later on the calendar than usual, Monday marks baseball trading deadline. It’s the last chance for contenders, and those teams with GMs who think their squads ought to be, to beef up their rosters by rolling the dice on one or more transactions with clubs that have come to the realization that there is no chance this year will end with a championship parade. It’s a time of high anxiety in front offices, in no small part because for all the advanced analytics at their disposal, those in charge of baseball operations at the Great Game’s highest level know that luck plays a significant role in how any deal ultimately pans out.

A contending team will typically exchange some number of prospects for an established player, occasionally a star, who appears to fill a gap in the roster. In truth, the value of the deal can’t be judged for years, until its known whether those prospects turn out to be All-Stars, or journeymen, or join the long list of young players who never make it out of minor league ball. But since one franchise is parting with that uncertain future value to gain immediate help in its push for the playoffs, fans and pundits are quick to pass judgment on the acumen of at least one of the general managers involved in the trade.

Stories of deadline deals gone bad are legion, as MLB’s website reminded fans with a weekend story about five trades, all considered huge at the time they were made, that manifestly didn’t work out for the team that believed it was buying just what it needed to win now. One of those deals was especially pertinent to the current season. At last summer’s deadline the Blue Jays traded pitcher Marcus Stroman to the Mets for a pair of minor leaguers. At the time the Queens club was on the edge of the postseason chase, but New York GM Brodie Van Wagenen saw the then 28-year-old righthander as an addition for both 2019 and 2020, because Stroman was still one year away from free agency.

Stroman was effective, if not exactly overpowering, over the remainder of last season, though the Mets came up short of a playoff spot. But Van Wagenen’s plan to parlay a second year of benefit from the deal went a-glimmering when Stroman was injured during the Mets second training camp in July, and then opted out of the season because of concerns about COVID-19. New York could still offer Stroman a free agent contract for 2021 and beyond, but so could twenty-nine other teams. Even if he remains a Met it will be with a new contract, so the value of the deadline deal was just the 59 2/3 innings Stroman pitched last season for a club that finished third in its division.

A potential opt out is just one of the variables unique to this year’s trading deadline, though before finalizing any deal GMs will surely want assurances that a player isn’t about to suddenly decide that his new team’s home city is too much of a coronavirus hot spot. There is also the continuing uncertainty about whether the season will be completed. Sunday’s game between Oakland and Houston was postponed after an A’s player tested positive for COVID-19, making the Athletics the fifth team to report a positive test.

Even without an outbreak widespread enough to force commissioner Rob Manfred to cancel the season, the integrity of the schedule hangs on a knife’s edge. While MLB continues to add doubleheaders and eliminate days off to make it appear that all thirty franchises will play sixty games, many teams now have just one or at most two scheduled off days over the final month. If the virus doesn’t disrupt the calendar, weather almost certainly will. Manfred has already said the final standings will be based on winning percentage if all franchises don’t play sixty games, but he’s given no indication how many teams falling how far short would make those standings untenable.

Add to that an expanded playoff structure and a short season in which a five game winning streak is the equivalent of running off thirteen wins in a row any other year, and more general managers than usual can look at the standings and convince themselves now is no time to throw in the towel.

There will still be deals of course – this is the trading deadline, and these are general managers. The San Diego Padres, a decade removed from last finishing a season with a winning record, have already acquired slugging first baseman Mitch Moreland from the woebegone Red Sox, catcher Jason Castro from the Angels, and pitcher Trevor Rosenthal from the Royals, and are part of the rumor mill in multiple other potential trades. But while there are rumors aplenty as in every season, some of the biggest names may still be wearing their current uniforms come Tuesday, because potential buyers may not be willing to part with highly valued prospects given all the uncertainties of this ever so strange season.

It may well turn out that this season’s most significant deadline deal won’t involve any players. On Friday numerous outlets reported that billionaire Steve Cohen had emerged as the winner of the bidding process for the Mets, beating out bids by the current owners of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and by a consortium fronted by Alex Rodriguez and Jennifer Lopez. While for obvious reasons having very little to do with baseball the A-Rod / J-Lo group was the favorite of the New York tabloids, if Cohen does manage to consummate a deal to end the long ownership of the franchise by the Wilpon family, Mets fans will rejoice. Owners who have spent money like they were stewards of a struggling small-market team will be replaced by a lifelong Mets fan who would be the wealthiest owner in MLB. Of course, these are still the Metropolitans. Considering how the team’s last big deadline deal worked out, fans in Queens probably shouldn’t start celebrating just yet.

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