So that just happened. Or, rather, it didn't happen.
We all wanted something to happen, but that's likely a product of the fact that we all expected everyone else to make things happen, which they didn't do, either.
Nothing happened. Nothing could happen. A dude named Bud Norris got traded from a team nobody cares about to a team nobody's really worried about; the Red Sox duped a Bigoenesis-worried Tigers team into joining them in a mass swap that allowed them to pick up an aging, aching arm with $30 million left on his contract in exchange for their 5th best infielder; and the Angels traded their part-time 3B to a division rival for a former 1st round bust.
That, friends, was our deadline day. Spare parts begat spare parts in hopes that a different team mechanic could make a carburetor out of a broken hex wrench and three bent washers.
Nobody traded a '66 Mustang for a brand new Ferrari. Nobody traded the unassembled parts of a Dodge Viper for one of the 18 existent Dolorians, either.
Good lord, you didn't even see a '88 Accord (which I still swear was one of the best cars ever built) swapped for a shiny new Dodge Neon.
Nothing. We saw absolutely nothing.
While we've lamented the fact that the Reds and their flailing offense haven't been publicly active in rumors over the recent weeks, there's some joy to be found in acknowledging that they were far from the only team that realized that everything on the market kind of sucked. Thankfully, both the Pirates and the Cardinals also failed to make any trades of relevance, so the path to the playoffs hasn't been further muddied by the final day in July.
The bigger question here, however, is why that has grown to be the case. The decline of the July 31 trade deadline is threefold.
The Most Recent CBA
Remember the days of "Type A" and "Type B" free agents? Remember when guys like Ramon Hernandez, Mark Kotsay, and Rich Aurilia could be freely moved mid-season, and the acquiring team could pick up high draft picks at season's end for guys whose contracts were due to expire mere months later by simply acquiring them, using them, and letting them walk?
Well, that's been wiped clean.
Nowadays, if a team has a veteran post-arb player who is heading for free agency, trading said player forfeits both their and the acquiring team's ability to offer them a qualifying offer after the season, thereby forfeiting a potential Top 40 pick in the upcoming year's draft, and increasingly that's become something front offices are less willing to do. If you have Player A on your 4th place team, and a few teams kick the tires on him without offering bona fide prospects in return, why bite when you stand to have a high comp pick in the upcoming draft that will likely be a higher ranked prospect than what you're being offered?
This is why guys like Hunter Pence weren't on the market, because the San Francisco Giants realized they'd get more future return by keeping him than they would by trading him.
The Second Wild Card
Five teams now have access to the playoffs in both the American and National Leagues, and as a result, there's a much larger portion of the baseball landscape that considers themselves either in "contender" or "close to contending" categories. Everyone thinks they're close enough to be buyers, so nobody is truly a seller, and as a result, only the teams that are crappy enough to not even be close to "close to contending" are willing to sell, and nobody wants players that bad.
Justin Ruggiano anyone? No?
So the market stagnates, marginal players like Alex Rios, Bud Norris, Old Michael Young, and Broken Jake Peavy get hyped as "big catches," and nobody really bites as they're hesitant to accumulate huge salary for marginal improvement.
It's not quite the "everyone gets a trophy" problem, but it's very much the "everyone gets a chance at a trophy" problem; if you have a chance, you want to take that chance, despite the odds against you.
New Contract Patterns vs. Old Contract Patterns
Within the last 2 decades, Major League Baseball has watched average annual salaries explode, and while teams in 2013 are every bit as willing to commit huge dollars to players as ever, the nature of contract structure has shifted greatly even from just 10 years ago.
Guys like Evan Longoria, Jay Bruce, Elvis Andrus, and Matt Moore never used to sign multi-year contracts before reaching Free Agency (much less before reaching their arbitration years), but now they do, and that drastically changes both the willingness and frivolity of trading young players for old players in the modern MLB landscape.
Only 12-15 years ago, no team wanted to pre-pay their young players to stick around, but every team wanted to be able to throw millions of dollars at post-arb free agents due to their recently proven abilities to stay successful well into their 30's, but that has nearly inverted in the post-steroid era; now, there aren't teams waiting en mass to sign free agent players in their 30's who developed outside their watchful eyes, and if those types of players end up on the market while signed, they're given almost pariah status in what returns are offered up. Teams have migrated towards signing their homegrown players to long extensions (Mauer, Votto, Longoria (x2), Verlander, King Felix, Andrus, and Braun* are examples), and as a result, both the Free Agent market and the trade market have suffered from a lack of top-flight names that demand prospects in exchange instead of salary relief in exchange.
If young, signed players who would previously have been hitting free agency (like Longoria, Bruce, and Andrus) are now both nearly off-limits and coupled with large contracts, they're less desirable than the mid 20's established players of yore...and if a generation of players signed into their mid to late 30's are less productive now than their predecessors of similar characteristics and can't be traded for pennies on the dollar, then, well, you have no movement.
Such was the case this July 31, unfortunately. Many teams still think of themselves as 'in the race,' many have players they can't trade for more than the comp pick value they'd see in 9 months by letting them walk, and many more can't find cheap, controllable players to replace the aging, overpriced veterans who already saturate both their own payrolls and the existing trade landscape.
That's how the Reds ended up with 35 year old Ryan Ludwick as their big offseason Free Agent signing in the first place, and that's also exactly how they ended up counting on him as the difference maker at the trade deadline. They both need him and couldn't trade him if they tried, and because that's the same situation faced by nearly every team in Major League Baseball, they couldn't find a suitable upgrade.
We all grew up watching scenarios unfold that consistently allowed teams to make improvements from outside their organization mid-year to augment their playoff runs by simply trading unproven young players for previously signed older players; that model has fundamentally changed, however, and the era of the playoff defining mid-year trade may well have been pushed to the wayside. You'll still see the occasional mid-season "big name" change addresses (a la Alfonso Soriano), but you'll see far, far fewer good young players change hands in the process.
While the offseason trade market will continue to thrive, the era of the Blockbuster trade deadline deal has gone the way of Blockbuster Video itself; there will be salary dumps and the exchange of veterans, but they will be much more sales than actual trades from here on.
That's disappointing, but that's business.