Ranking the 2021 Trade Deadline deals

July 31st, 2021

The 2021 Trade Deadline is in the books, and if it felt like it was the wildest Deadline you can remember, well, know that the facts back you up. Ten different players who made the All-Star Game in Denver a mere two weeks ago were traded, the most in history. Over the last two days, 32 different trades moved more than 80 different players. Seemingly all of them involved the Cubs or Nationals.

Yet for all the moves we did see, some of the most surprising returns were from teams that did little. The Padres, shockingly, didn’t add a starting pitcher. The Red Sox did little. The Rockies, absolutely stunningly, did nothing at all, and Trevor Story doesn't sound happy about it.

But because so much did happen, we’ll rank the most impactful, based on some level of stat-based subjectivity. (For our purposes, “Deadline deals” will include notable trades officially finalized on July 29 or 30. Sorry, Adam Frazier.)

1) Dodgers acquire P Max Scherzer and SS Trea Turner from Nationals for four players

Like there could possibly be another choice here. Everyone on the planet knew the Dodgers were going to find a starting pitcher, because Dustin May is out for the year, Clayton Kershaw is on the injured list, it’s all but impossible to imagine Trevor Bauer pitching here again, and Julio Urías is about a week away from having thrown as many innings this season as he did in the last three seasons combined (138 2/3).

What we might not have expected was for them to fill that need with a future Hall of Famer in Scherzer, who even in his age-36 season has been fantastic, posting a 2.76 ERA and a 34% strikeout rate that’s basically the same as he’d had in his first six years with Washington. What we definitely didn’t expect was for them also to collect Turner, who is at worst a top-three shortstop in baseball right now, to play second base.

It’s one of the biggest Trade Deadline deals ever, in all likelihood, and the Nationals kick-started a rebuild by picking up some big ready-now names in Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray. But the Dodgers did more than just add another ace to their rotation; they ensured the rival Padres and Giants, also each clearly interested in Scherzer, did not.

2) White Sox acquire P Craig Kimbrel from Cubs for 2B Nick Madrigal and P Codi Heuer

"Who closes between Kimbrel and Liam Hendriks," will be the immediate question, and the answer is: Who cares? The White Sox have maybe two of the five best relievers in baseball, together, at the same time. Throw in Ryan Tepera, acquired from the Cubs earlier this week, dominating lefty Aaron Bummer and flame-throwing Michael Kopech, and the White Sox now have five of the 50 relievers (minimum 25 innings pitched) with 30% or higher strikeout rates.

Oh, and they had the American League's best starting rotation, too. For a team that already has a division title essentially wrapped up, this is entirely about reinforcing for October (and gaining the ability to pick up Kimbrel's 2022 option, if they choose to do so). The 2021 White Sox pitching staff, which already had the highest strikeout rate in baseball, is now absolutely stacked.

Of course, it didn't come cheaply. Though Madrigal is out for the season with an injured hamstring, the former No. 4 overall pick, who can't be a free agent until after 2026, had mostly lived up to expectations in his first 83 games in the Majors, showing truly elite contact skills (just 24 whiffs in 324 plate appearances) with little power, making him a good-but-not-great 112 OPS+ kind of hitter. That's immediately a solid starter at the keystone for the next five years, though it now raises questions about the future of Nico Hoerner, who can play other spots. (Heuer, for what it's worth, was very good in 2020, and has pitched better than his 5.12 ERA this year.).

3) Giants acquire 3B/OF Kris Bryant from Cubs for two prospects

Once news came out that the Dodgers were doing that trade, it was clear the the shockingly successful Giants were going to do something to keep pace, and that something was to … make the big move that always seemed like it would be a perfect fit. With both corner infielders (Brandon Belt and Evan Longoria) injured, and left field offering underwhelming performance, Bryant’s ability to play all over the field at various different times was the perfect solution to keep San Francisco’s magical season going. After a down (and now easily ignored) 2020, Bryant is posting a 134 OPS+ season that is almost exactly his career average. It's hard to imagine a better match of player and need.

4) Blue Jays acquire P José Berríos from Twins for P Simeon Woods-Richardson and SS/CF Austin Martin

Here you thought that the long-awaited return of the Blue Jays to Toronto would be the biggest news of the day? The Jays, 9.5 games out in the AL East but a more manageable 4.5 games out in the Wild Card, surrendered two of the top 70 prospects in baseball (Martin was the No. 5 overall pick just last summer) in order to add Berríos not just for this year’s push, but for 2022 as well.

It’s a huge price to pay, especially considering the Dodgers gave up two highly-regarded prospects (and two lesser ones, to be fair) for a year and a half of Turner and the next two months of Scherzer. Still, Berríos, 27, is a huge get for a Blue Jays team with a lot of offense and tons of pitching problems, which they partially addressed with other moves for Brad Hand and Joakim Soria. The 2022 Toronto rotation is already shaping up, with Hyun-Jin Ryu, Berríos and Alek Manoah, plus whatever possibility they can retain the resurgent Robbie Ray; it also allows them to rely less on Nate Pearson to remain healthy and productive at the same time, a likelihood that seems increasingly less certain.

For the Twins, the return looks extremely impressive, though it all raises considerable questions about 2022. Without Berríos, are they a contender? And if not, what does that mean for Byron Buxton, Kenta Maeda and others?

5) Yankees acquire OF Joey Gallo and P Joely Rodríguez from Rangers for four prospects

Yes, fine, Gallo strikes out a lot, though not enough to prevent him from having a 138 OPS+. Allow us to quote ourselves from a look at how he’d fit into his new home:

"When the topic comes up of how Gallo’s high-strikeout, high-power style will fit into a Yankees lineup that has plenty of that, how it does not add any lineup diversity, realize that it actually does. The Yankees have no good lefty bats; he's 40% better than average this year. The Yankees outfield defense is quite poor; Gallo, surprisingly to many given his size, is among the best outfield defenders. The Yankees ground into the most double plays in baseball (97); Gallo has hit into only nine in parts of seven seasons."

He’ll be divisive, but he’s the kind of player the Yankees badly needed. He is, also, not a free agent until after 2022. Maybe the Yankees still have a chance this year, and maybe they don’t, but this is one that will help them next year, too.

6) Mets acquire SS Javier Báez and P Trevor Williams from Cubs for OF Pete Crow-Armstrong

Earlier this week, Báez said how much he’d enjoy playing with Lindor, and that’s exactly what ended up happening, giving the Mets a replacement shortstop for the next few weeks while Lindor heals, and a new double-play partner for the remainder of the season after that. It’s been an odd pair of seasons for Baez, who had a wretched .238 OBP last year and a still-poor .292 OBP this year, but has still shown good power by popping 30 homers across 150 games anyway. Obviously, the appeal here is going to be watching him and Lindor do magical things on defense, like this:

Williams will add some needed pitching depth -- though he hasn’t had an ERA below 5.00 since 2018, and was at least for now sent to Triple-A Syracuse -- but this all comes at the high cost of Crow-Armstrong, the 19th overall pick in the 2020 Draft. He’s injured, currently, and years away from contributing, anyway, though Mets fans might be forgiven if they still worry about trading away highly drafted prep outfielders. Still, they’re going to need the inconsistent Báez to find some of that magic over the next few months in order to not have to worry about what Crow-Armstrong’s future will be.

7) Yankees acquire 1B Anthony Rizzo from Cubs for two prospects

When one lefty bat isn’t enough, add two. That’s what the Yankees did by adding Rizzo to Gallo, because again, they had the second-fewest lefty plate appearances in baseball, and the ones they did have have been poor. On top of that, the first-base spot in New York, with Luke Voit missing much of the year due to injury, has been the second-weakest in baseball. By that measure, adding Rizzo, who’s still got a strong glove and a decent bat (even if, as he nears his 32nd birthday, he’s a lot more “good” than “great” at this point) is a nice improvement at a spot that badly needed one.

8) Red Sox acquire OF/DH Kyle Schwarber from Nationals for P Aldo Ramirez

It’s been clear for some time the Nationals would tear it down, and one of their many moves was to ship off the currently injured Schwarber to Boston, where he’ll play out the final two months of his one-year deal. Schwarber was off to a deeply unimpressive start for Washington (.218/.312/.404 through June 11) before going off on an obscene power stretch (16 homers in 21 games before being injured); the truth is likely somewhere in between. It’s somewhat unclear how Schwarber fits into the Boston OF/DH rotation, especially since first base is their biggest need, and he’s never once played there, but so long as he hits, they’ll figure it out.

9) Mariners acquire P Diego Castillo from Rays for P J.T. Chargois and 3B Austin Shenton.

The Mariners made a deeply unpopular trade within their own clubhouse when they dealt reliever Kendall Graveman (and recently-DFA’d reliever Rafael Montero) to the same Houston team they’re chasing in the AL West, though it did bring them infielder Abraham Toro, who homered twice in his first two games with Seattle. Two days later, they turned around and picked up Castillo from the Rays, who is both better than Graveman (Castillo has a 2.33 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 58 innings the last two years) and under control for three additional years. It’s an on-paper win. It might not matter if the Mariners players don’t see it that way.

This one, we’ll be honest, doesn’t make a lick of baseball sense for the challenging-to-win-the-division Rays, who subtracted their best reliever.

10) White Sox acquire 2B Cesar Hernandez from Cleveland for P Konnor Pilkinton

It was clear Chicago would go for some kind of infield upgrade once Madrigal was lost for the season, though most expected it would be Eduardo Escobar or Adam Frazier. Instead, it’s the perpetually underrated Hernandez, who has been doing the same thing for seven years now, which is to be a league-average bat with more pop than you think (he somehow has 18 homers this year) and average enough defense. It’s a minor deal, compared to some of the other ones, but it’s one that helps you get better.

11) A’s acquire C Yan Gomes and IF Josh Harrison from Nationals for three prospects

This one will be overshadowed by all of the much larger ones -- and even by Oakland’s own previous move for Starling Marte -- but this is quietly a good baseball move. Gomes has a 114 OPS+ in part-time play over the last two seasons, and he’ll give Sean Murphy an upgrade as a backstop partner over Aramís García. Harrison has a 121 OPS+ over the last two seasons, while seeing time at second, third and all three outfield spots. This isn’t a game-changer, which is why it’s low down the list, but it’s one of those smaller deals that often ends up mattering.

12) Braves acquire OF Adam Duvall from Marlins for C Alex Jackson; acquire OF Eddie Rosario from Cleveland for IF Pablo Sandoval; acquire P Richard Rodriguez from Pittsburgh for P Ricky DeVito and P Bryse Wilson; acquire OF/DH Jorge Soler from Royals for P Kasey Kalich

Let’s lump these all together, because the Braves -- having already acquired Joc Pederson earlier -- are clearly trying to reconfigure an outfield that’s without expected starters Ronald Acuña Jr. (injured), Marcell Ozuna (injured) and Cristian Pache (demoted), and there is a lot happening here. For good reason, to be sure; the July Braves outfield has been baseball's fifth-weakest.

Duvall had posted a 112 OPS+ for the Braves in 2019-20 and had 22 homers for Miami this year, making this a welcome return; Rosario had some strong years with the Twins but had done little for Cleveland this year before being injured on July 1. He should be back soon though, and he comes for essentially free given the cost of the little-used Sandoval. Soler is best used as a DH, though of course that's not an option in the NL for now; he has, however, slugged .561 in July. However Brian Snitker deploys his new toys, he will have better options than the Guillermo Heredia/Abraham Almonte/Ehire Adrianza combos he's been forced to use.

Rodriguez, meanwhile, could potentially add depth to the bullpen, though with a significant caveat. His spin rates have dropped precipitously over the last weeks, and in July, he's struck out just six of the 35 batters he's faced, allowing six runs.

13) Phillies acquire P Kyle Gibson, P Ian Kennedy, and P Hans Crouse from Rangers for P Spencer Howard and two prospects

The Phillies were clear that they would be acquiring pitching, because Zach Eflin is injured, and it’s hard to keep running out Matt Moore and Vince Velasquez (combined 5.87 ERA) much longer. Thus, pitching they did acquire, though there’s a tremendous question about what they’re actually getting. On the surface, you’ll see Gibson’s 2.87 ERA and his first All-Star appearance in a seemingly breakout campaign. You’ll see an upgrade over the incumbents, and that he's under contract for 2022, too. Fair.

But under the hood, it’s not that simple, because none of the underlying metrics support that there’s a real skill change here -- his strikeout rate is actually down from 2018 and ‘19 -- and he’s been awful over his last three starts (12 walks and 16 runs allowed in 17 1/3 innings) and he’s going from a pitcher-friendly ballpark and strong infield defense to a hitter-friendly park and one of baseball’s weakest defenses, though a reacquisition of Freddy Galvis was aimed toward that.

Kennedy, at least, is a reliever who can miss some bats. Philadelphia couldn’t let the Deadline go without adding pitching, but its entire situation here is full of red flags -- and it cost Howard, who was a Top 30 prospect in MLB as recently as last year, though Crouse is an interesting prospect in his own right.

14) Astros acquire P Phil Maton and prospect from Cleveland for OF Myles Straw

After earlier getting Yimi García from Miami and Kendall Graveman from Seattle, Houston continued to reinforce its thin bullpen by adding Maton, who had struck out 93 in 63 Cleveland innings over the last two years. That makes sense enough, though it cost them their starting center fielder in Straw, who had started 93 of the first 103 games there. Without a clear alternative, this might mean added playing time for Chas McCormick (114 OPS+ in his first 177 PA) and rookie Jake Meyers, who was pounding the ball in Triple-A (1.006 OPS). It’s a risk, but center field had been a weak spot regardless, so perhaps not much of one.

15) Dodgers acquire P Danny Duffy from Royals for player to be named later

Duffy is currently on the injured list with a left flexor strain, and he’ll be a free agent after the season, so the Dodgers might have relatively limited time to see what the Southern California native can do. But with Scherzer in town, this isn’t about an immediate rotation upgrade, either. This is about a potential multi-inning lefty weapon for late in the season or in the playoffs -- which is pretty much the role he had during the 2014-15 glory days for Kansas City. He can start if Urías gets overworked or gets moved to the playoff bullpen; he can join David Price in relief if that’s what’s needed.

The injury makes him a lottery ticket, but the possibility that Kansas City’s former ace might be the ninth-or-so best pitcher on a Dodgers playoff roster tells you a lot about Los Angeles’ embarrassment of riches.

16) Cardinals acquire Jon Lester from Nationals for OF Lane Thomas

As though the day for Cubs fans hadn't been painful enough, now they have to watch Lester, a hero of the 2016 champs, suiting up for the rival Cardinals. Of course, at 37 years old, he's not the star he once was, having posted a 5.16 ERA last year and 5.02 ERA this year. If you want to look at it in the most optimistic possible way, you might say that after getting torched in San Francisco on July 10 (8 runs in 2 2/3 innings), he's allowed just three runs over his last two starts. Those did come against Miami and Baltimore, two of baseball's weaker offenses, so consider that as well. Lester should eat up some innings, but St. Louis didn't do much of anything to make you think they can close a 7.5 game gap in the Wild Card.

17) Yankees acquire P Andrew Heaney from Angels for two prospects

The Yankees apparently took that entire “get more left-handed” idea seriously, adding the back-end lefty Heaney from the Angels after parts of seven moderately interesting seasons on the West Coast. Since he joined the rotation full-time in 2018, he’s made 78 starts and posted a 4.60 ERA, which isn’t all that interesting in itself, though all his underlying statistics suggest that his 5.27 ERA this year isn’t indicative of his performance. (The Angels defense has been quite poor this year, to start.)

There’s some things to like about his advanced metrics, and perhaps a change of scenery unlocks some potential, but this is mostly about eating up some innings so that Nick Nelson or Asher Wojciechowski types no longer need to start bullpen games.

18) Brewers acquire P Daniel Norris from Tigers for P Reese Olson

The Brewers also acquired John Curtiss from Miami, but we're more fascinated by Norris, who leaves Detroit six years to the day after he was acquired from Toronto in the David Price trade. Beset by injury and inconsistency, he's never really come close to living up to the promise he once had, and after making 29 starts in 2019, he's spent the last two years working out of the bullpen -- where, if you only looked at his 5.89 ERA this year, you'd wonder why he's valuable at all.

He might not be. But the Brewers have become one of the places where pitchers go to get better, and over the last few weeks, Norris has shown there's still some promise to dream on. (Over his last five outings, he's allowed one hit in 23 batters faced, striking out eight.) His velocity is up; his changeup is moving; we've seen the Brewers do this before with an oft-injured lefty starter who worked out of the bullpen with Drew Pomeranz. We're not saying they'll definitely do the same with Norris. We're saying he's a lot more interesting than he seems.

19) Cardinals acquire J.A. Happ from Twins for P John Gant and P Evan Sisk

File this one under “the day’s most confounding move,” in that the Cardinals traded Gant, who is 28, can’t be a free agent until after 2022, and has a 3.42 ERA, for Happ, who is a 38-year-old impending free agent with a 6.77 ERA. (And a prospect, in Sisk!) Now, it’s not that simple, of course, because sometimes ERA is a mirage, and that’s true in Gant’s case, because he had the second-highest walk rate in baseball and had been bounced from the St. Louis rotation. He is not as good as that 3.42 ERA would suggest. But he’s been decent in relief, and Happ just allowed nine runs to the Tigers. We don’t really get this one at all, from the St. Louis side.