By July 25th of last year, there had already been some major trade fireworks bottle-rocketed off across the MLB landscape. Manny Machado was on the Los Angeles Dodgers already, while the likes of Brad Hand, Zach Britton, Jeurys Familia, and Nathan Eovaldi had already been shipped to other teams.
A quick glance at the ‘Top Stories’ section at MLB Trade Rumors right now not only doesn’t list a single completed trade, it doesn’t even include a single rumor about one. DFA’s, injuries, front office extensions, and surprising interest among readers in the decline of Matt Harvey’s once promising career, but not a single blip about the MLB trade landscape.
But here we are, just six days until July 31st, in the first year in which there is no August waiver-trade period. So, where the hell is everyone?
As if the frigid free agent market of the last two winters hadn’t given a hint that teams had become unwilling to unload major assets for any single player, perhaps we’re beginning to see that shake out now. The Athletic’s Eno Sarris touched on that specifically earlier today in a piece I highly recommend you check out.
Rentals aren’t bringing back what they used to in trades.
The market values years of control. If you’re selling free-agents-to-be, you’re not going to be shopping in the top-100 prospects bin. Once you leave the top 100, the likelihood you’ll get even a useful bench part drops below 25 percent.
In other words, if you’re a team with rental players on the trade block and the offers you’re getting don’t move the needle, is there still any real drive to trade them just for whatever you can get?
It’s a concept the Cincinnati Reds both know well and are going through at this very moment. In part because of how little teams valued veteran players both on the free agent market and in their final years under contract, the Reds virtually cornered that market this last winter. That’s how they ended up with many of their major trade chips at this particular deadline, pending free agents like Yasiel Puig, Tanner Roark, Jose Iglesias, and the like. Nobody was really willing to pony up to get them, so the Reds did - at a best offer that still wasn’t much of an offer, respectively.
Now, we’re rolling that valuation trend into a one true trade deadline concept that we’ve not seen in the modern baseball landscape. With the lack of an August waiver-trade period, teams aren’t afforded the luxury of another 25, 26 games to figure out which direction they should go in this particular season. They get to decide the fate of their season with some 55, 56 games remaining on the schedule, and the fact is that there isn’t a single front office staff in baseball that’s gone through that kind of process before.
So, we’ve got a learning curve, a trend of valuing short-term players less and less than ever, and a pervasive tactic that knows that holding on to young, controllable talent is the most valuable thing in all baseball. Add-in the murkiness of the National League standings right now, and you get a trade deadline run-up that has lacked any action whatsoever.
The Cincinnati Reds, at 46-54, still tend to think they’re still in it. At 8 games back in the tightly packed NL Central and 7.5 games back of a Wild Card spot, that’s not completely unrealistic, though it’s not exactly something on which to bank. Still, the mentality that a team like that - especially one flush with the kind of rental player cache that once moved every needle at the trade deadline - isn’t about to put up a For Sale sign in the front yard is indicative of the inaction as a whole. If these Reds aren’t sellers, who really is a seller?
The Baltimore Orioles, on pace to lose a billion games, are sellers. The only problem? They don’t really have anyone who moves the needle to sell - that’s how you end up on pace to lose a billion games. The same can be said for the Miami Marlins, who have already hemorrhaged their prized assets on the front-end of a rebuild, and while obvious ‘sellers’ at this juncture don’t have much else to move a needle. The Kansas City Royals are in a similar spot, save for wunderkind Whit Merrifield - a player on such an incredibly team-friendly deal that it would take an overpay to see him move. Pair that with an opposite-end-of-the-spectrum view of the Dodgers, New York Yankees, and Houston Astros, and the trade landscape can be described thusly:
The haves have everything.
The have-nots have nothing.
Everyone in between thinks they’re close enough to contend this year, and if that’s the case, none of them are trading from their core.
The larger question, I suppose, is whether six games can change any of that. The Reds, obviously, are one of the teams clogging this trade drain at the moment, and who knows if whether a streak of wins or a streak of losses against the reeling Rockies and Pirates will spur any action for them. Hell, perhaps a string of wins against the two before the end of July 31st will kick both of those two teams into sellers, though both still seem to want to hold out hope for a 2019 turnaround.
The reality is that there’s been no movement, there’s increasingly little time, and there hasn’t been any sort of market set for the kind of players that most likely move this time of year. Will the prospect hoarders flinch on a rental? Will the rental-sellers start agreeing to take lottery tickets as return in lieu of bona fide young players around whom they want to build? Or will the swirling storm of external trends and factors turn this year’s one true trade deadline into the first year of a no-trade deadline?
If that’s what you’re interested in finding out, there may not be a better barometer than the Reds to watch.