Place competitive people in a competitive environment and they historically act competitively.
Which is why one AL assistant GM, when asked if he thought there would be a lot of action before the Aug. 31, 4 p.m. deadline, said, “I think there will be. Teams have holes, and there is still an expectation that you are to fill those holes and have the best team possible for the playoffs or playoff run.”
Yet, I asked that question of 10 executives who will be involved in deadline decision making. And you just read the lone quote expecting a lot of action.
To understand the viewpoint of the other nine executives, think of the deadline as the Olympic men’s 110-meter hurdles. Just rather than 42 inches high, the hurdles will now be 50 inches. And rather than 110 meters, the race is 150 meters. And rather than 10 hurdles, there are 15.
It is the familiar warped — and remember that the Summer Olympics were canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The deadline was pushed back a month, not canceled, but there are certainly a lot more, um, hurdles. Remember the scene in “Bull Durham,” when there is a mound gathering and Crash Davis has to explain to the arriving pitching coach why the delay. Well, the pitcher’s eyelids are jammed and he is being unnerved by having his father in the crowd, and they need a live rooster to take the curse off the first baseman’s glove, and no one knows what to get Millie and Jimmy for a wedding present. The Kevin Costner character summarizes: “We’re dealing with a lot of [bleep].”
That is what I thought about when an NL assistant GM texted me why there will not be a lot of trade activity: “All the incentives are muddied or erased. Buyers have to price in cancellation odds, plus the changes brought by the new playoff format. Plus there is a chance a veteran player could opt out if asked to change scenery at this point. Sellers of elite talent have the same floor [draft-pick compensation]. So [trade] matchups are simply less likely. Plus, a whole host of teams who were set to be buyers/sellers during 162 [games] may not be in the same place now.”
Let’s look at those hurdles:
— Open with humanity. Players are already being asked to sacrifice quite a bit. Most are enduring monkish lives hermetically sealed with teammates and families. Now imagine telling someone who has been doing that since the beginning of July that they have to join a new team in a new city with new teammates and decide whether to move a family as well. Or as one AL personnel head said, “Not a conversation I want to have.” Will some teams decide the gains are not enough to ask someone to switch teams amid a pandemic?
— Ah, yes, the pandemic. More than 20 players have opted out of this season. What assurance does an acquiring team have that the player it just yielded prospects to acquire won’t depart too? The Cardinals and Marlins have been ravaged by COVID-19, what if a team obtains a player and suddenly they are not even playing? Or what if the virus infects the game so badly that commissioner Rob Manfred has to shutter the season?
More executives have grown optimistic that a season will be completed, as protocols and routines have improved and most teams have avoided the virus. Still, normal factors, like that a player can get injured after acquisition, can chill some teams. Add these other unique 2020 factors and it gets chillier.
Teams can do player-to-be-named-later contingency trades as hedge. So, for example, you get better Prospect 1 if the season is played to conclusion and Prospect 2 if not. But, a player to be named later cannot be on an active major league roster until he is named. The trade must be completed within six months, thus, no chance to watch the prospect play even in spring training next year to determine which one you want. And if either side disputes it, the automatic settlement is cash not to exceed $100,000. So it can be done, but there has to be a lot of trust between the trading clubs beyond all the other factors.
— And how would you determine which prospects you like? No minor league games are being played this year. To help facilitate trades, MLB set up that teams can get video and some tracking data — like spin rate and exit velocity off games/workouts at satellite sites. But that is obviously not under normal game conditions.
“There is risk in trading assets for a player that you have very little current info on,” an AL assistant GM said.
One top NL executive pooh-poohed the saying that every team has loads of scouting information on a player, and someone you liked when you saw them in March before the game shut down, you will still like as long as the medicals prove out. But this executive argued:
— “It already was harder than ever to trade prospects, now it will be much harder still.” The reason: There is no attendance-related revenue this year. There may be the same or significant reductions from normal next year. Which led the executive to say, “Most of us are preparing as if we are going to be told to lower payroll next year, so trading away players who could come up and help next year who are making near the minimum, that would hurt like never before.”
It also means it is harder to add payroll, so potentially available players who have sizable contracts for 2021 — such as Baltimore starter Alex Cobb or San Francisco starter Johnny Cueto — will be hard to move unless the sellers are willing to eat a substantial portion of that. Which perhaps they will, knowing they have to cut payroll where they can.
— But who are these sellers? With 16 teams making the playoffs, that leaves a lot of clubs thinking they are in play over the next few weeks even while under .500. And just how motivated will buyers be? The first round will be more of a crapshoot than ever as a best-of-three, probably played before no fans and in neutral sites. So, as one NL head of baseball operations said, “There’s reduced incentive to go all-in [to try to win a division] if you’re one of the 3-4 best clubs.”
– So, who could move this market despite the hurdles? An NL personnel executive said, “If there’s a club with a shot that hasn’t been to the postseason in a while, I could see them pushing to get something bigger done.” That would be clubs such as the Padres, Reds and White Sox — combined 30 years without the playoffs.
The Red Sox and Astros hired former Rays executives to head their baseball operations, in part, to try to deal with farm systems reduced and payrolls raised to win the World Series. So these could be motivated sellers. But players who make money — such as Boston’s Nathan Eovaldi and J.D. Martinez — will be tough to deal. The same for Houston’s Zack Greinke and George Springer, who is coming up on free agency with Michael Brantley and Yuli Gurriel. Red Sox closer Brandon Workman was described as one of the most likely players to be dealt, because he is good and pitching is even more likely to be the focus with how staffs are being challenged this year. But Workman also is a free agent after the season who will not get a qualifying offer and has only about $390,000 due after Aug. 31.
The most common trade expected was one involving surplus on one side — for example, the Yankees trading a Miguel Andujar or Clint Frazier with their abundance of bats — to a team that may have a player not making much money in an area of abundance. But that is a hard matchup to make happen. An AL GM anticipated the competitive folks will all make familiar phone calls before the Aug. 31 deadline, but, “Anyone who is making big money beyond this season I think will prove difficult [to trade]. So more likely only cheap players or expiring contracts is my guess.”