Every year, as the calendar approaches the final days of July, teams around the Majors begin to feel the heat with regards to the Trade Deadline.
We’re a little more than a week away, so we spoke with a half-dozen front-office executives to see where their heads were as we race toward July 30.
The common theme? Don’t expect a whole lot to happen this week. Then buckle up.
“It’s July 20, and it feels like we have nothing but time on our hands right now; we’re gearing up for a frenzy on July 30,” one American League general manager said. “It’s a little unfortunate that it seems our industry gravitates so much toward those deadlines. I would expect this year to be no different.”
One-third of the league consists of presumptive buyers, while another third appears to be on a selling path. The key to the Deadline -- as always -- is the 10 or so teams on the bubble, making any major movement among those clubs unlikely until the last possible minute -- if they opt to make any big moves at all.
“In 10 days, things can really get odd; just look at the Cubs,” another AL executive said. “I think you’ll see some teams do nothing and just try to figure it out. They’re not going to buy players and trade off prospects if they’re not sold that their team can compete.”
The market for rental players appears to be stagnant; it's players with additional years of control beyond 2021 who have generated the most interest.
“There are a lot of teams who are definitely in it and think they don’t need a rental to win, so they’re not paying a ton for those because they feel that’s not the difference between winning and losing,” the AL GM said. “To be a seller in this market, if you think you could be back in it next year, they’re disinclined to trade players with control and go back into a full reset and rebuild. That makes for a lack of movement.
“Plus, a team has to truly believe that’s the one player that puts them over the top. Most teams are reluctant to approach a trade from that perspective.”
Oddly enough, a rental trade made five years ago may be having as big an impact on this year’s market as anything that has happened in 2021. The Cubs’ acquisition of Aroldis Chapman from the Yankees in July 2016 -- a deal that sent Gleyber Torres and three other players to New York for the closer and his expiring contract -- has become the gold standard of July moves, leaving some owners wondering where their Torres -- who was Chicago’s No. 1 prospect and a Top 25 overall prospect -- can be had.
“It leaves the rest of us hunting those types of returns,” the AL GM said. “We’re seemingly reluctant to acknowledge that’s likely a return too good to be true.”
With rental stars such as Kris Bryant, Trevor Story, Javier Báez and others there for the taking, buyers are hesitant to trade a big piece of their future for two months of a player’s services. The Cubs believed Chapman was the missing piece, but Theo Epstein also had a 108-year curse hanging over his franchise’s head, making the Cubs’ scenario a unique one, to say the least.
“If you have an impact player, your owner says, ‘Where is the Gleyber Torres return?’” the GM said. “I’m not sure there’s another deal like that that’s going to happen in the near term. It distorts expectations; owners may not be aware of every deal, but they seem to be aware of the ones that worked out for the sellers.”
Rather than seeking a monster deal for a prospect such as Torres, a National League executive said, teams with impending free agents should have one simple goal in mind.
“You know you’re getting a comp pick if you keep him, so that’s the bar,” the exec said. “You don’t have to get a king’s ransom; you just have to beat that pick.”
“Teams with a guy like Berríos, where they think they can compete next year, may view it as they can get better Major League talent for the guy in the offseason,” an NL GM said. “If the Twins don’t change their asking price, nobody is going to pay what they want for Berríos. I’ll be shocked if he gets moved.”
Unlike Bryant, Story or Báez, however, a pitcher such as Berríos is in high demand for a number of contenders. There isn’t a team out there that wouldn’t benefit from the addition of a pitcher or two (or three), resulting in high asking prices with more than a week to go until the Trade Deadline.
“Even prices on fill-in No. 5 starters right now are ridiculous,” an NL executive said. “There just aren’t that many pitchers out there.”
“Pitching is king in July,” an AL exec added.
Bryant, Story and Báez might have the star appeal that others lack, but as usual, relief pitching appears to be the greatest need around baseball. With that in mind, prices for a solid late-inning reliever could very well exceed what teams get for their rental stars.
“The crazy thing is there may be middle- to late-inning relievers who return as much as those stars because every contender is looking for bullpen help,” an AL executive said. “Not every team is looking for a shortstop, first baseman or third baseman. Every team needs pitching.”
Another AL executive believes that contenders -- or even bubble teams -- could “over-trade” before the end of the month, trying to account for the rash of injuries that has hit MLB this season.
“I don’t think the injuries are going to slow down,” the exec said. “We barely played any Spring Training games last year and then had a 60-game schedule. This year we played 30 Spring Training games, so we’re already about 120 games in with 70 more to go; we’re playing three times as many games as we did last year. Teams that may have traded for one pitcher may now trade for two or three, then keep rotating the spots at the back end of the bullpen.”
One possible trend this month? Package deals. For teams such as the Cubs, who have Bryant, Báez, Kimbrel, Zach Davies and Anthony Rizzo among others to deal, sending multiple players to a contender in a trade could be the way to go. The same goes with the Pirates (Adam Frazier, Richard Rodríguez, Tyler Anderson), Rangers (Gallo, Gibson, Ian Kennedy), Rockies (Story, Jon Gray) and others, giving buyers an opportunity to fill multiple holes on their roster with one move.
“It’s one-stop shopping,” an NL exec said. “It makes sense.”
Another trend that might develop over the next 10 days is trading for a player despite the lack of an obvious fit. According to sources, at least one team has reached out to the Rockies about Story with the idea of playing him in center field, while a couple of NL teams have toyed with the idea of dealing for Nelson Cruz, a DH who hasn’t played an inning in the field since 2018.
“Everyone is trying to be as uber-creative as they can to try to win,” an AL executive said.
Creativity is good, but multiple executives pointed to a more prominent reason why teams are finding it so challenging to match up in a deal.
“Prospects,” one NL executive said. “Nobody wants to trade them.”
An AL executive believes big-market teams in particular are hesitant to deal their prospects, even though about 50 percent of every team’s roster is made up of players acquired from outside the organization through trades, waivers, releases or free agency.
“Prospects get you fired,” the AL exec said. “If all you think about are prospects, you’ll be gone eventually because you need to perform at the big league level. Why not trade for the guy that has already proven that they can do it? I don’t think a lot of teams think that way, to go for it if they see a window. They’re happier to sit back and let things play out, which is dangerous territory. People just don’t want to trade prospects anymore.”
But they will. It’s only a matter of time.