Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 1, 2021

Hope And Sadness, Together At The Trade Deadline

When 4:00 p.m. arrived on the east coast Friday, fans of almost every major league franchise had good reason to sit back and take a few deep breaths.  The Great Game’s annual midseason trade deadline had finally arrived, ending a dramatic week in which all thirty clubs were involved in at least one deal.  But what set this year’s point of no return – when GMs of teams on the fringe of the playoff race must decide whether to go for broke by becoming buyers or throw in the towel on the current season and start building for the future by selling – apart from the trade deadline of recent seasons was not just quantity, but also quality. 

By the time the last deals were officially recorded at MLB’s Manhattan headquarters, ten of this year’s All-Stars had changed uniforms.  That’s not ten players who have been All-Stars at some point in their careers, but ten who were chosen to go to Coors Field little more than two weeks ago.  That number included three now-former members of the Washington Nationals – Max Scherzer, Trea Turner and Kyle Schwarber – and two players each from the Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers, with Craig Kimbrel and Kris Bryant departing Wrigley Field and Joey Gallo and Kyle Gibson saying goodbye to Globe Life Field in Arlington.

The frenetic activity started, as it usually does, with minor moves several days before the deadline, trades that would have attracted little attention but for the looming calendar.  For example, early in the week the Yankees shipped relievers Luis Cessa and Justin Wilson to the Reds for the always popular player to be named later.  It was a salary dump, the frugal Yankees of the Hal Steinbrenner era freeing up space below the luxury tax threshold for both this season and next.  If the move was irritating to New York fans, many of whom don’t believe their team is really trying if it’s not busting through the tax cap, it was also a clear sign that general manager Brian Cashman was getting ready to buy.

Sure enough, by week’s end the Yankees, currently sitting outside the playoff picture, had made both big moves by acquiring slugger Gallo from the Rangers and first baseman Anthony Rizzo from the Cubs, and small ones like the last-minute addition of starting pitcher Andrew Heaney from the Angels.

But the trade deadline action wasn’t remotely limited to the Bronx.  In addition to Gallo, that list of All-Stars on the move included Nelson Cruz from the Twins to the Rays, Adam Frazier from the Pirates to the Padres, and Eduardo Escobar from Arizona to Milwaukee, as well as Schwarber going to the Red Sox, Kimbrel moving across town to the White Sox, Bryant flying west to San Francisco and Gibson joining the Phillies.  But the biggest deal of all was Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo’s packaging of veteran starter Scherzer and dynamic shortstop Turner.  Putting the two All-Stars together netted Washington four minor leaguers including catcher Keibert Ruiz and pitcher Josiah Gray, ranked as the number one and two prospects in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ minor league system.  It was also clear from social media postings that Rizzo was working multiple teams for the best possible return right up to the last minute.  Thursday night several pundits confidently predicted that a deal between the Nats and Padres was imminent, only to scrub those tweets minutes later when the Dodgers entered the picture.

Of course, the deadline was quickly followed by assessments of winners and losers.  In a world focused on immediate gratification, such instant analysis is probably required of the paid media, though especially for the typical trade deadline deal, it has limited meaning.  Sure, if Max Scherzer edges out Trea Tuner for World Series MVP honors while leading L.A. to a repeat championship, the Dodgers will fairly be called winners of the trade deadline, though fans of twenty-nine other franchises will argue it’s hardly fair when L.A.’s payroll now approaches an eye-popping $275 million. 

Short of such an obvious result, the very definition of winning isn’t entirely clear.  If the moves by the Yankees are enough to get the club into the playoffs, but it again falls short of the World Series, much less a championship, should New York be considered a trade deadline winner?  For Steinbrenner, who would reap the benefit of full houses for some number of postseason games, the answer would likely be yes.  But for many fans of the Bombers, who like Hal’s father, call a season successful only when it ends with a parade up lower Manhattan’s Canyon of Heroes, not so much.

Then there’s the nature of typical deadlines deals, which obviates any quick analysis.  Prior to this week, Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray were names known only to the most dedicated of Dodgers fans.  Should it turn out, ten years from now, that fans in D.C. are ready to build statues to the two heroes who’ve brought multiple championships to Washington, they will look back and praise Mike Rizzo’s trade deadline acumen.  But despite their high ranking, if neither Ruiz nor Gray ever makes it to The Show, those same fans will long rue Rizzo’s 2020 breakup of a squad that seemingly only yesterday brought long-delayed joy to D.C.

For now, at least, a sense of disappointment and loss is surely prevalent at Nationals Park and Wrigley Field.  For teams that buy, the end of July can reinvigorate a fan base.  But for the faithful of teams that are heavy sellers, like the Nationals and Cubs this year, August begins with emptiness.  Two months remain on the schedule.  Elsewhere playoff dreams remain alive, and fans prepare for the push in pursuit of a pennant.  But for this year’s sellers there are only memories, of long droughts ended, and championship parades, and a time when anything seemed possible.  All gone now.  All traded away.

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