Commentary

A dud of a deadline

Three driving forces behind this year's lackluster trade market

Originally Published: July 23, 2013
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

"Here's a story you should write," a high-ranking large-market executive was saying the other day. "There are no players anymore.

"I mean that," he said. "There's a real shortage of players."

All right, so he didn't quite mean that there are literally "no players." Every big league roster still has 25 of them, same as it ever was. Count 'em up for yourself.

What he did mean was this: It's July, and -- now that Matt Garza has dialed up Allied Van Lines -- there are practically no significant players to trade for. Maybe you've noticed that.

So keep that in mind as you click on Rumor Central 18 times a day and gear up for another fun-filled baseball trading deadline, OK? It's a major stretch to call any player currently on the market a true "difference-maker." And that's causing some serious frustration in front offices around the majors.

"It seems like all the talk has been about Garza," one AL executive said. "And he's a good player. But he's certainly not a great player. I don't see a lot of great players out there. To be honest, I don't see any."

An executive of another team spoke about a recent conversation with his manager. First, the manager asked about possible impact bats to get.

"I just don't see one," the exec said.

So then the manager asked: What about the starting-pitcher market?

"Very limited," the exec replied.

The manager rolled his eyes and asked: Any relievers out there?

"More quantity than quality," the exec told him.

So there you go. This isn't just a bunch of grumbling being done to tone down expectations in the media. This is, honestly and realistically, what trade deadline season has come to in this day and age, where rumors about the impending address changes of Bud Norris and Kevin Gregg are covered like the royal pregnancy.

And how did we get to this point? Where did all the players go? Well, there are three major forces at work.

Factor No. 1: Deal the wild cards

That second wild-card spot in each league may make for fun Septembers. But the trading deadline still comes in July. And for July purposes, it isn't quite so much fun -- because the buyer-to-seller ratio has gotten completely out of whack.

And how out of whack is it? We find ourselves barely more than a week from the deadline, and deadline shoppers continue to report that the list of official "sellers" stands at just nine teams: Cubs, White Sox, Marlins, Brewers, Astros, Twins, Mariners, Mets and Padres.

And in truth, only the first five teams on that list are in aggressive "sell" mode. The other four -- the Twins, Mariners, Mets and Padres -- actually seem to have very little they particularly want to sell.

Now, is it conceivable the Phillies, Rockies, Royals, Giants, Blue Jays and Angels could slip onto that list of sellers a week from now? Obviously, it is. But for all six of those teams, said one exec, "it's going to be tough to get to the other side of that fence."

Why? Because it's either not in the DNA of their front offices, or not how it works in their market, or both. So it's very possible that when the deadline arrives, there still could be twice as many buyers as sellers. And that's never good for business.

Factor No. 2: Labor rate

We're now about a year and a half into baseball's newest labor agreement. The good news is: It's brought us labor peace on Earth. And that's a beautiful thing. The bad news? It has devalued the worth of the old-fashioned rent-a-player more than ever before.

Oh, there are still hired guns on the market. And the Cubs just got a very good return for Garza. But with no draft-pick compensation attached anymore to any free agent who gets traded in midseason, there's less incentive than ever for teams to overpay to get a guy like that.

"It used to be," said one NL exec, "that your minor league staff would sit there and say: 'We hate moving our young players, but at least we get a draft pick.' Now they say, 'We really hate losing our young players for a guy who's only going to be here for two or three months.'"

That may sound like just a subtle difference. But it's creating dramatically different conversations inside front offices everywhere. If you're trading away a prospect who even remotely resembles Jean Segura (whom the Angels dealt last July for rent-an-ace Zack Greinke), there had better be a Cy Young on the other end of that trade.

But as we've mentioned, there's no starter even close to Greinke's orbit this July -- unless something dramatic happens in the next week.

Factor No. 3: Sharing the wealth

We now live in an age where more than $400 million in revenue-sharing money changes hands every year. And you know how that affects the trading deadline? It means more teams than ever now sign more of their best players to long-term deals. That's what.

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"Every team now -- big-market or small-market, big-revenue or small-revenue -- wants to have one or two players, at the very least, for its fans to hang onto," said one longtime exec. "And the result is, when you get to the trade deadline, those players are now signed and they're not available. So it's a lot different than it used to be."

That's "good for the stability of the sport," the same exec went on. But for clubs out there shopping for help in the July heat, it's not so good.

The White Sox aren't dealing Chris Sale. He's signed. The Cubs aren't dangling Anthony Rizzo. He's signed. The Mariners have never felt pressured to move Felix Hernandez. They signed him.

So what we have here is an environment where teams (A) are keeping their best players off both the trade market and the free-agent market, (B) are less interested than ever in trading their prospects, and (C) are dreaming those dreams of contending deeper into the season than ever before.

Now all those forces have converged on this particular deadline scene more powerfully than in any July we can recall. And when free-agent hunting season arrives in a few months, you'll be hearing this tune once more.

What, then, is the impact of this player shortage as we head up to this trade deadline?

"It means the sellers will do well, I guess," said one exec. "Or teams will decide they already have that player, either in their system or on their team."

The lack of appealing hired guns to deal for also is motivating more clubs to shop for non-rentals -- players they can control beyond this year. But even that group -- headlined by Jake Peavy, Alex Rios, Norris and Soriano -- isn't what it used to be.

"It's still possible to make those kinds of trades -- just not for a team's top one or two guys," said one of the executives quoted earlier. "Those players very rarely get traded anymore. There are exceptions. The Marlins are an exception, for example. But they've already traded their best guys."

So where does that leave these deadline shoppers? Right back where we started this discussion:

There are no players anymore.

And what, ultimately, is the moral of that story?

"It's the same moral to every baseball story," one front-office man said. "Develop your own, and keep them healthy. Stay out of it [both the deadline frenzy and free-agent auction] if you can. Develop your own championship team. And if you have to get in, get in to patch it, not build it."

Ready to Rumble

• How has the Biogenesis affair affected the trading deadline? Well, first off, we've been hearing for several weeks that the Brewers were "open for business" and willing to listen on Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Francisco Rodriguez, John Axford and, when you get right down to it, about half their roster. Yet they never dealt any of those players.

So what's up with that? An executive of one team that's spoken to them regularly said the other day he was convinced that was because of Ryan Braun.

"They're talking, but I don't know if they're ready to do anything yet," the exec said. "The impression I got was, they'd like to know what's going to happen with Ryan Braun."

Well, now they know. They know he'll be gone for the rest of this year. And they know they'll have him for all of next year. So theoretically, this should be just the sort of clarification the Brewers need to move forward.

• But other teams say the Brewers have other forces at work. In Lohse's case, they surrendered a first-round pick for signing him, and clubs they've spoken to say they believe the team has factored that into its price tag. And past history also may be an element in their asking price on Gallardo and K-Rod.

"One of the problems with dealing with Milwaukee," said an AL exec, "is that [their] trade for Segura last year was so one-sided that they want another tilted deal. Not going to happen."

• Had the Brewers marketed Gallardo in any one of the previous four seasons -- when he was joining Justin Verlander and Hernandez as the only pitchers in the sport to rip off 200-strikeout seasons in each of those four years -- they might have reeled in a Greinke-esque haul. But he's not that guy anymore.

Gallardo's velocity is down about 2 mph. His strikeout rate (7.2 per 9 IP) and WHIP (1.42) are at career-worst levels. And three scouts who have seen him recently all described him as just a No. 4 or 5 starter.

Two years ago, said one scout, he was "close to an ace. [But] lots of pitches on that arm from then to now. He can really pitch, but his stuff [has gone] way back."

• Biogenesis also will hang over Texas' trading plans over the next week. Clubs that have spoken with the Rangers say they're shopping for an outfielder who can (A) cover them if Nelson Cruz gets suspended for his ties to Biogenesis but (B) also give them some options next year if they lose both Cruz and David Murphy to free agency. They've maintained continued interest in Rios, among others. But we keep hearing that the $12.5 million Rios has coming next season, coupled with his .253/.296/.347 quasi-implosion since Memorial Day weekend, are making it challenging for the White Sox to get back a haul even close to what they'd expected.

• Texas is also one of a half-dozen teams that have checked in on the Marlins' Justin Ruggiano, whose playing time is about to decrease with the call-ups of top prospects Christian Yelich and Jake Marisnick. Among the other clubs that have been linked to Ruggiano: the Phillies, Yankees and Giants.

Phillies

One team the Phillies would seem to match up with is the Marlins, on Ruggiano, Steve Cishek, Mike Dunn and Ryan Webb. But the Phillies are looking to make a deal without including Jesse Biddle, Maikel Franco, Cody Asche or any of their top tier of prospects. And the Marlins are telling teams they won't move anyone else unless they get an offer they feel they can't say no to.

• If the Phillies have a rough week in St. Louis and Detroit, on the other hand, they could sell -- with Michael Young pretty much a lock to get moved if they go that route. ("The next week," said one exec who spoke with them, "will determine Michael Young's fate more than anyone else on their roster.") But even if they do decide to listen on Jonathan Papelbon, other teams increasingly view him as practically untradable.

"He's just not that valuable with that contract," says one AL exec. "If the Phillies want premium players back, they'd have to take half the contract [which has two years, worth $26 million, remaining, plus a vesting $13 million option]. I don't see any team giving up an A-list prospect and taking that entire contract. You'd be taking the worst two or three years of a bad deal and giving them a premium prospect. That just doesn't make sense."

Braves

• Despite weeks of poking around for left-handed bullpen arms, the Braves don't appear close to any sort of deal. Among the names other teams say they've targeted: The Cubs' James Russell, the Angels' Scott Downs, the Marlins' Mike Dunn and the Mariners' Oliver Perez and Charlie Furbush.

• Teams that have checked in with the Nationals say they're having a tough time formulating their deadline strategy. Why? Because they need to get better offensively -- but they're set at every position. There has been some murmuring among other teams that the Nationals might listen on Drew Storen if the right deal came along.

• The Red Sox continue to be linked to both Jake Peavy and K-Rod. But one thing is clear: They will add pitching in the next week. "They have a guy in every ballpark where anybody is throwing who could help them," one scout reported.

• Finally, where does Biogenesis go from here? What Braun's case tells us is that it's now headed in a whole different direction than we'd anticipated even 48 hours ago. We thought we were looking at a bunch of appeals -- of virtually every suspension -- that could drag all through the offseason. Instead, we're about to see many, many players follow the Braun playbook.

"I think we're looking at a landscape where virtually every case will be settled by a plea deal," said one attorney who works in baseball. "You're going to see a lot of pleas. You're going to see a lot of deals."

That's a reflection, on one hand, of how much evidence baseball's investigators have amassed. But it's also a reflection of how much the leadership of the players' union has evolved on this issue -- as a direct result of how player sentiment has shifted. Over and over, since the Braun announcement, players and agents have told us: "This would never have happened without Michael Weiner."

As seriously ill as he is, it's a testament to the remarkable character and leadership qualities of the head of this union that he continues to fight to do the right thing -- for his players and for his sport -- at a time when he could easily be focused on other things.

It can't be said enough these days: Michael Weiner is one of the best things that's happened to baseball in the 21st century.

Astounding Facts of the Week

• Why would the Yankees be so interested in trading for Alfonso Soriano? Loyal reader Chris Isidore has an excellent theory:

Home runs by Soriano in July -- 8
Home runs by the Yankees in July -- 7

Yeah, that about covers it.

• Meanwhile, the Brewers may be waving sayonara to Ryan Braun for the rest of the year. But at least they still have Caleb Gindl -- all 5-foot-7 of him. According to the Sultan of Swat Stats, SABR home run historian David Vincent, Gindl made history Sunday:

By becoming the shortest player ever to hit a walk-off for his first career homer.

Before Gindl came along, four 5-foot-8 guys shared that record:

Bennie Tate, Senators -- Aug. 11, 1926
Billy Parker, Angels -- Sept. 8, 1971
Dave Criscione, Orioles -- July 25, 1977
Tim Raines, Expos -- May 1, 1981

Tweet of the Week

Finally, this just in from the great @FrankCaliendo:

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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