Hopefuls face hard choices
After underachieving the first four months of the 2015 season, the White Sox went on a seven-game winning streak near the end of July, prompting general manager Rick Hahn to make a difficult decision at the trade deadline.
Stand pat with the Sox miles out of first place in the American League Central but only 3½ games out of the second wild-card spot, or move impending free-agent pitcher Jeff Samardzija for prospects.
Hahn chose to go for broke, keeping Samardzija and showing faith in the Sox roster.
“The team’s play over an extended period made us more comfortable with letting it continue to build and show itself with what we felt is its true colors,” he explained of his decision. “Hopefully it will continue over the next several months.”
The Sox wound up going 27-34 from Aug. 1 on to fall out of wild-card contention, and Samardzija left as a free agent. The Sox did get draft-pick compensation after making a qualifying offer to Samardzija and used it to select reliever Zack Burdi, who has yet to make it to the big leagues after Tommy John elbow surgery last year and recent knee surgery.
Was Hahn thinking with his heart instead of his head, hoping the hot streak could continue and the Sox would go far in the postseason?
It’s hard to say because we don’t know what other teams were offering him. But we do know he doubled down in 2016 by acquiring veteran pitcher James Shields from the Padres for prospect Fernando Tatis Jr., a deal that backfired and directly led to the sell-off of Chris Sale and Adam Eaton and the start of the long rebuild.
As we approach the 2019 trade deadline, Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi finds himself in Hahn’s shoes. After spending most of the season stumbling under .500, the Giants had won 17 of 21 entering the weekend to move into wild-card contention with Wednesday’s deadline in sight.
With one of the greatest postseason pitchers of any era in Madison Bumgarner and two of the more coveted relievers in Will Smith and Tony Watson, Zaidi must quickly decide whether to go for a wildcard spot or restock the system.
Complicating matters is the fact this is the first one-and-done deadline, meaning Zaidi can’t unload players who clear waivers after July 31 and get something in return.
The trade deadline has become bigger and bigger over the last decade, thanks in part to the spreading of rumors on social media and the inception of the MLB Network, which devotes hours and hours to discussions of potential deals.
This year’s deadline doesn’t have as many big names in the rumor mill as some in the recent past. Bumgarner, the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard and the Blue Jays’ Marcus Stroman are the three marquee names.
But it has plenty of contending teams looking for starting pitchers, including the Yankees, Astros, Braves, Phillies, Cardinals and Brewers, and one more dependable starter could help any of them get to the World Series.
Fans know the deal too. Bumgarner and Stroman received standing ovations from their home crowds during their most recent starts this week, knowing it could be the only chance to say goodbye.
Bumgarner appears likely to stay with the Giants now surging. One anonymous Giants player told USA Today: “If you trade Bumgarner now, this clubhouse will go ballistic.”
He also can veto trades to any of eight teams on his no-trade list, though doing so would mean he would get a qualifying offer from the Giants in November. That could hurt his potential market, as free agents Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel discovered the hard way last winter.
Stroman seems much more comfortable with his deadline fate, saying after his last start: “I feel like I’ve pitched pretty well in the best division in baseball. There’s been no willingness from the front office to sign me, so I’ve just come to terms with it and I’m ready to dominate, wherever that may be.”
Syndergaard also understands he’s on the block, tweeting: “Here come them trade talks” with a GIF of “Star Wars” character Lando Calrissian telling Han Solo: “You might want to buckle up baby.”
Outside of the six division leaders, six American League teams and seven National League teams entered the weekend in the wild-card hunt. That’s 19 of 30 teams with a shot at playing in October, though some may be fake contenders.
“This is the strangest market that I can remember,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said last week. “Just with the number of teams seemingly in it, within five games of a playoff spot. I’ve had way more conversations with teams that are more on the fence and haven’t decided if they’re going to be on the buy side or the sell side.”
The biggest move thus far was made by the Red Sox, who acquired veteran Andrew Cashner from the Orioles for their fifth starter spot. The Red Sox are light years behind the Yankees in the AL East and have the highest payroll in baseball with plenty of luxury-tax implications, so how much more they’re willing to invest in another acquisition for a wild-card race remains to be seen. They could use a first baseman like the White Sox’s Jose Abreu, though the White Sox aren’t expected to deal him.
“We’re still in a position to sit back and see how things go,” Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told WEEI.com. “There’s not a lot of needs, per se, that we have with the club because we’re leading the league in runs scored. You can always get better. We’ve got five starters going out there, they can always get better. Of course you’ve got more guys in your bullpen and people constantly point to that.”
Almost every contender, including the Cubs, is seeking bullpen help, and a glut of relievers is seemingly there for the asking, including the Padres’ Kirby Yates, the Pirates’ Felipe Vazquez and the Tigers’ Shane Greene.
Teams that may have been on the verge of being sellers recently have switched to being prospective buyers, as Cardinals general manager Michael Girsch conceded Thursday before his team moved into a first-place tie with the Cubs in the NL Central.
“It pushes our viewpoint off the midpoint to the buyer side,” Girsch told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Whether that comes to fruition is hard to say. Who knows at this point? Certainly (the winning) has changed our perspective. That is no longer the question.”
The Dodgers have always been aggressive buyers, acquiring Yu Darvish in 2017 and Manny Machado last year. They have the best record in baseball but need bullpen help like everyone else.
“That continues to be our mindset,” Friedman said. “We’re just going to stop if it reaches the point of stupid. And I would hope that’s what our fans would want us to do.”
Not that “stupid” is always a bad thing. Sometimes it pays off. The Cubs dealt top prospect Gleyber Torres to the Yankees for closer Aroldis Chapman in 2016, when President Theo Epstein famously asked: “If not now, when?”
Chapman helped the Cubs win a World Series before going back to New York, and watching Torres become an All-Star with the Yankees was the price the Cubs knew they had to pay.
“We would be stupid if it guaranteed we would win a World Series,” Friedman said. “But it doesn’t. That’s the problem.”
There are no guarantees at the trade deadline, which is why it’s so fascinating to watch baseball’s movers and shakers decide whether to move and shake.
Is Madison Bumgarner making his last appearances with the Giants? Hard to imagine him in another uniform but San Francisco will help its retooling quite a bit by moving him.