As the 2018 season hits the quarter mark, contenders and pretenders are beginning to separate themselves around the Majors.
Every team that played .537 baseball or better in 2017 reached the postseason. Entering play Tuesday, 14 teams had a winning percentage at least that high, while eight teams checked in with a mark of .400 or lower.
With the haves and have-nots defining themselves earlier than usual, could the market heat up long before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline?
"Teams are already kind of sniffing around," one National League executive said. "The teams out of contention, they may not be actively looking to make deals yet, but they're definitely gauging the market already."
May is typically too early to begin engaging in trade talk; most conversations don't reach the lukewarm stage until after the Draft has come and gone in early June. According to a few decision-makers, some teams are already starting the wheels in motion.
"Right now is when you kind of take the roll call of what might be available, then you start dispelling your evaluators to different teams and organizations to get a better sense of what you might be acquiring," one American League general manager said. "That's the mode we're in right now. I've already spoken to a couple clubs."
That's not to say any deals will be consummated this month -- or next month, for that matter. With so many teams in the mix for postseason spots -- 21 of the 30 teams were within five games of at least a Wild Card berth as of Monday night -- simple math says that more than half of them will wind up on the outside looking in come October.
"It's hard to believe teams will be that aggressive so early when so much can change," an NL GM said. "You might be playing well now, but you still want to see more."
Even a serious injury to a star player on a team with postseason aspirations doesn't necessarily spark a trade this early in the season. Corey Seager's season-ending injury launched plenty of speculation about a potential deal for Manny Machado, but the Dodgers opted to work with what they had in their organization, at least for the short-term future.
"Like anything, teams want to exhaust every opportunity to fill their holes from within," the NL GM said. "Most teams spend the bulk of their money during the offseason and have limited money during the season. Paying 70 or 80 percent of the salary now rather than one-third [with a late-July acquisition] is less desirable."
When might the market heat up? Although major trades don't typically take place in June, they've been known to happen from time to time.
Three years ago, the D-backs dealt Mark Trumbo to the Mariners in a five-player trade on June 3, while the White Sox acquired James Shields from the Padres on June 4 the following season. Last year, the Rays traded for Adeiny Hechavarria on June 26 in a deal with the Marlins.
So why don't more deals take place before the calendar turns to July?
"Being in the position of a seller, it's simple economics; the more supply that's out there in the marketplace, the harder it is to get the price you want," the AL GM said. "If you find a buyer early on, you have a better chance of executing a deal. A lot of buyers might think, 'If we just wait until the end of July, the market will be saturated and the prices will come down.' You'll have these two philosophies. If you want to be a seller and move money, you'll probably be better off trying to find something earlier."
"Look at what Jay Bruce and J.D. Martinez got last year; there weren't huge markets or huge returns for them," a second AL GM said. "So if you're a potential seller, are you inclined to move quickly because you think there's a finite number of good prospects that will be traded at the Deadline? Or are you inclined to wait, because aside from getting a windfall for someone like Manny Machado, might you get more desperate suitors the closer you get to July 31?"
The second AL GM noted that with the Yankees, Red Sox and Astros off to big starts and a general consensus that the Indians will find a groove and win the AL Central, four of the five spots in the AL might already be sewn up.
"It feels like there are four teams that are prohibitive favorites to garner four of the five spots," the AL GM said. "Will those teams vying for that fifth spot push their chips in, or might they be inclined to take a half step back?
"Is there going to be a feeding frenzy on the fifth spot, especially knowing you'll have to go through two of those four to get through the AL? If you're going to go through New York or Boston and then Houston, you better be a pretty damn good team."
If there's a lesson to be learned when it comes to buying any earlier than necessary, look no further than last year's Twins. Minnesota dealt for left-hander Jaime Garcia on July 24, hoping the acquisition would help make up the 2 1/2-game spread from first-place Cleveland. Six days later, the Indians led the AL Central by seven games, prompting the Twins to ship Garcia to the Yankees after just one start.
"So much can change -- on both sides," the NL GM said. "A buyer today could be a seller in a month. Also, a buyer may have one need today and it could be something totally different come July."
As for the teams that already appear to be looking ahead at 2019 and beyond, there's one more reason they might not make many moves in the coming weeks: Several of those clubs are deep into rebuilding plans, so they've already dealt many of the big-name players who would be attractive to teams looking to bolster their postseason chances.
"Some of the teams that are already out of it and may be inclined to sell, how many more real tradable assets do they have?" the second AL GM said "We may look back and say those teams made their big deals last July or this past offseason."