Flashback to two weeks ago…
- With the Angels’ continued struggles before Shohei Ohtani enters free agency, could a baseball-playing unicorn potentially be on the trade deadline block this year???
- The St. Louis Cardinals had the top two NL MVP vote recipients from last season but have been a dumpster fire in last place, with their president vocally stating that he would be trading some guys. Could Nolan Arenado or Paul Goldschmidt be on the move???
- The Padres put all their chips on the table with a preseason “Miami Heatles” level of expectations regarding winning championships but have been underperforming all year long in fourth place in a highly-competitive NL West. Could the Padres deal NL Cy Young Candidate Blake Snell or Juan Soto before free agency and declare this year a wash???
This could have been one of the most explosive deadlines possible with so many surprising results this year, as pretty much every team aside from the cruising Atlanta Braves has some sort of major flaw. No one had all of their bases covered if you will, but no one was necessarily completely dead aside from a select few with the extended wild card.
While we DID see two generational pitchers around age 40, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, get dealt to the Rangers and Astros, it felt like all of the insider buzzes we had been hearing were all a wash. Teams either stayed pat or took half-measures.
Adley Rutschman, Orioles All-Star catcher and superfan of the Netflix sketch comedy series I Think You Should Leave, would be proud of this reference: there is a viral meme of Tim Robinson in a hotdog suit; you may have seen it: “We’re all trying to find the guy who did this” as a hotdog-shaped car has crashed within a store.
The deadline was relatively dead this year in terms of our expectations, and there were two men in hotdog suits that were responsible for it.
Guy Who Did This #1: The Ripple Effects of Having Another Wild Card Spot
We’re in year two of having an extra wild card spot in expanded playoffs. Last year, it appeared to work smoothly as the third and final team who made it in the NL, the Philadelphia Phillies, was a deservedly hot team that made it to the World Series. There are going to be years where there are enough postseason-worthy, competitive teams where it works out! Others, not so much.
This season, because everyone within that wild card range has been so relatively milquetoast, there was no urgency to make a big splash or unload the entire roster if all hope was lost; someone could have a week where they go 6-2 in late August after being a subpar team and end up in that third spot.
Rather than sell off and get a return on Ohtani should he leave for nothing in free agency, the Angels’ ownership saw that they were just 3 games out and instead bought Lucas Giolito, CJ Cron, and Randal Grichuk. Does that put them over the top in the AL? Certainly not, but they’re banking on coasting to that third spot somehow. In that same division, the Mariners have been a major disappointment but somehow are also 3.5 games back; rather than really push for it and gain some ground on the Angels or Astros OR even blow it up and reconstruct the team around Julio for next year, they just had a minor sell-off of closer Paul Sewald and AJ Pollock.
The AL East, the most competitive division in baseball, had the big-name Red Sox and Yankees still deciding neither to sell or buy despite the Red Sox overperforming with some veterans that could be used on contenders and the Yankees being a last-place disaster that is pot-committed to Aaron Judge. Doing nothing may seem absolutely foolish to hardcore fans, but from the ownership’s perspective, they’re not dead yet!
The NL featured a Chicago Cubs team rumored to be selling Cody Bellinger and Marcus Stroman as major chips at the deadline, but they had two great weeks of baseball in which they went 8-2. They’re still a team that is remarkably average in-season record, but the vibes are great now! Suddenly they’re keeping Bellinger and Stroman and adding, taking more names off the market because this season-long team that’s been mediocre and got hot is now in a possible playoff position.
That “So, you’re telling me there’s a chance?” added element of this extra wild card spot is fun to provide hope to more teams, but the impact on the deadlines is probably going to limit movement going forward.
It was whelming.
Guy Who Did This #2: Team Purse-Clutching Prospects
With service time manipulation being relatively dead and prospects being able to make an impact quicker and at a younger age faster than ever, organizations have been far less willing to part with highly-coveted prospects in their organization to win now. The formula with teams like the Dodgers, Rays, or Braves has been that you not only need to have the superstar talent now but be able to build up a valuable farm system.
Recently, we’ve seen call-ups like Elly De La Cruz, Julio Rodriguez, Adley Rutschman, or Corbin Carroll completely turn the long-term outlooks of organizations around as top-rated prospects that their teams can extend and build around for the long term.
If you’re a team like the Dodgers, it would make absolutely no sense to deal away someone that can be developed now at such a young age for a few months of Shohei Ohtani or insert name of veteran free agent on the market here. The long-term hope in the team building around prospects and having as many chances at striking gold on a generational talent on a young, cheap deal has never been more valuable.
Now, despite selling off parts of the most-expensive offseason in sports history and “building towards 2025,” as Billy Epler said, the Mets are ultimately the ones that see that the most! Sure, they’re paying a large part of
the dead money to the Rangers and Astros for them to take on the ungodly amount of money Max and Justin are due, but they got prospect capital in return in Luisangel Acuna, Drew Gilbert, and Ryan Clifford. In retrospect, that’s just paying a large amount of money for teenagers and hoping they develop in the long term like Elly or Julio have!
It’s depressing in the short-term, but the long-term outlook in a copycat team-building league where the hope is in the farm system is, like Hansel, so hot right now.
The MLB is changing. These are the guys who did this.