In the days leading up to this year’s trade deadline, which expired Friday at 4 p.m., MLB finally got what it so desperately craves.
For a sport perpetually trying to speed things up, this time the action was fast and furious, akin to the same frenzy we’re used to seeing from the NFL and NBA during those blink-of-an-eye free-agent periods.
Once the general managers emerged Friday from their war rooms, they looked physically worn out. When Mets president Sandy Alderson and acting GM Zack Scott addressed the media Friday in the Citi Field auditorium, it was as if they had just finished playing one-on-one basketball downstairs.
Why the insanity this year? A few reasons.
As of Saturday, 20 teams were within 5 1⁄2 games of a playoff spot. And if you tighten the focus, nine clubs had a 71.8% chance (Mets) or better of qualifying for the postseason, with another two above 47.6% (Yankees), according to FanGraphs.
Also, the rebuilding franchises, primarily the Cubs and Nationals, were hungry for prospect capital, to the extent that they were eager to pay down existing contracts for the remainder of this season. That was a factor, as even big-market clubs — with the exception of the Dodgers — strived to stay below the luxury-tax threshold of $210 million.
"I would say it was different in several respects," Alderson said of the deadline. "One was the number of teams actively seeking to improve. And I think that’s a great sign for baseball. In years past, teams maybe have been looking at a wild-card spot — one game in or out — and not really been motivated to improve, hoping they can get there but not really investing in the possibility of a wild card.
"I think some of the races are close enough that there’s been broader motivation among clubs, and that’s a great thing from a seller’s standpoint. From a buyer’s standpoint, probably not, because the more buyers in the market, the higher the prices. And I think that’s what surprised me this year, the amount of talent that was moved for relatively short-term, potential free agent-type assets."
Overall, 10 players who were selected for this year’s All-Star Game changed teams, the most ever among that class. And in the deadline period’s final two days, 32 trades went down, involving more than 80 players total.
By the time Saturday rolled around and everyone had arrived in their new destinations, it felt as if we’d still need a few more days to figure out who was playing where. And for anyone holding tickets to see the Cubs at Wrigley Field in the next two months, you might want to consider a visit to Bears training camp instead.
Anyway, here are some winners and losers from the deadline. As always, it could be years until we see which teams actually made the right calls on either playoff chances or prospect futures (record, games behind and FanGraphs playoff odds included).
1. Dodgers (62-43, 3.0 GB, WC leader, 98.8%).
Who else was going to top this list? The Dodgers always seem to get who they want, and this year, they not only stole Max Scherzer away from the clutches of the division rival Padres but got the Nationals to include MVP candidate Trea Turner in the deal. That’s what happens when you’re able to stockpile prospect talent, and giving away two of the top ones in catcher Keibert Ruiz and pitcher Josiah Gray, as well as another pair further down the rankings, won’t even faze the Dodgers. Neither does the money, apparently, as adding another $16 million pushes the Dodgers close to $275 million for 2021. Oh, and they got lefty starter Danny Duffy from the Royals, too.
2. Yankees (54-48, 3.5 WCGB, 47.6%).
Despite their underachieving first-half performance, Brian Cashman was always going to be a buyer after Hal Steinbrenner’s $200M investment in this year’s club. And he attacked the team’s biggest weakness by doubling down with two trades in the span of 24 hours for a pair of lefthanded-hitting sluggers in Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo — and also got their salaries paid for to stay under the threshold. Interesting to note that Cashman said he’d been trying to get Gallo since March and thought he was close back then. The last-minute addition of Andrew Heaney provides some rotation insurance; dumping Luis Cessa and Justin Wilson to clear more salary was no big loss.
3. White Sox (61-43, +9.0 GA, 99.6%)
With a sizable division lead, the White Sox clearly weren’t thinking about the AL Central title at this deadline. They’re already eyeing October, which is why they chose to make a solid bullpen even better with the trades for Craig Kimbrel and Ryan Tepera — from the Cubs, no less! Adding Kimbrel to go with closer Liam Hendriks (14.18 K/9) was a major coup with everyone looking for relief help, and to take advantage of their North Side rival’s rebuilding process to steal the summer spotlight is just an added bonus.
4. Atlanta (51-53, 4.0 GB, 12.2%)
The shock of watching MVP candidate Ronald Acuna Jr. go down with season-ending knee surgery after the losses of ace Mike Soroka and Marcell Ozuna might have been enough for some teams to wonder if maybe this wasn’t their year. Also, flirting with .500 was another hint. But Atlanta chose to ignore all that, perhaps sensing the Mets’ vulnerability, and restocked with the trades for Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall and Eddie Rosario. Along with the instant offense, they added Pirates closer Richard Rodriguez, and suddenly Atlanta is very much in the hunt for defending its NL East title.
5. Giants (64-39, +3.0 GA, 95.2%)
Life is surprisingly good by the Bay this season, but the Giants didn’t stand pat in aggressively adding what may have been the perfect piece in Kris Bryant, a four-time All-Star and former MVP with playoff experience. The Giants were seeking to replace the injured Evan Longoria at third base and wanted some versatility, so they locked on to Bryant, who was hitting .267 with 18 home runs and 51 RBIs. The Cubs picked up Bryant’s remaining salary for this season, more than $6 million, for two Class A prospects, one of them ranked No. 9 in the Giants’ system. The Giants also added bullpen help in Tony Watson.
1. Rockies (45-59, 19.5 GB, 0.0%).
The Rockies couldn’t have played this deadline any worse if they had traded Nolan Arenado and given the Cardinals $50 million to take him. So . . . picking up right where they left off, baseball’s most puzzling operation got nothing for going nowhere this season, holding on to pending free agent Trevor Story until his value evaporated and sending mixed messages on the availability of Jon Gray in a market hungry for starters. "I’m confused and I don’t have really anything good to say about the situation and how it unfolded," Story told the Denver Post, speaking for just about everyone.
2. Nationals (48-55, 6.5 GB, 0.1%)
After they didn’t get their World Series victory lap because of the pandemic, the 2019 title now feels like a distant memory for the Nationals, who traded away eight players at the deadline and also learned that Stephen Strasburg will require career-threatening thoracic outlet surgery — two seasons into his seven-year, $245 million contract. Maybe the Nationals were primed for a rebuild anyway, with seven of the players dealt on expiring contracts, but Trea Turner still had another year left and the NL East remains mostly up for grabs this season.
3. Cubs (50-55, 12.5 GB, 0.0%)
OK, so it wasn’t happening for the Cubs this year. And sitting on all the talent left over from their 2016 title run set them up perfectly for the marketplace this summer. Selling off nearly a third of the roster, with seven of eight on expiring contracts, was the prudent baseball decision for 2021. Still, it’s pretty rough for a fan base to swallow, especially after buying full-price Wrigley Field tickets for the second half with the expectation of seeing Kris Bryant, Javy Baez and Anthony Rizzo — three of the team’s most popular players. None of them even had the chance to say goodbye. And seeing that video of Bryant wiping tears from his face after getting Friday’s pregame phone call in the dugout was a fitting end to this Cubs chapter.
4. Padres (60-46, 5.5 GB, WC leader, 80.8%).
If the season ended today, the Padres would make the playoffs, so you may be wondering what they’re doing down here. But this deadline turned out to be particularly frustrating for Huntington Station’s A.J. Preller, who saw the Dodgers steal Max Scherzer away from him when the Padres’ own deal reportedly was close to finished, then later Friday had Fernando Tatis Jr. suffer a partially dislocated left shoulder, similar to his two previous injuries to that area this season. The Padres did get Pirates All-Star second baseman Adam Frazier, but they needed another starting pitcher and now could end up facing Scherzer in the one-game wild-card playoff.
5. Mets (54-48, +3.5 GA, 71.8%)
Friday’s trade for Javy Baez should have been enough to get the Mets into the winner’s column if not for the distressing bit of news that surfaced shortly after the deal. With rotation depth still a concern, having to shut down Jacob deGrom again for two weeks — this time because of elbow inflammation — suggests the remainder of his season is very much in jeopardy despite the hope for a September return. The Mets say there wasn’t much they could do to mitigate deGrom’s setback: How do you replace the planet’s best pitcher? Instead, they got Trevor Williams and Rich Hill to provide insurance on the back end, which helps avoid penciling in the dreaded TBA. What they now need is a big offensive boost from Baez and the (relatively) prompt return of Francisco Lindor (oblique strain) to make up for whatever pitching deficiencies may linger.