July 19, 2024

MLB trade market: Why it’s not so easy to swing a deal before the deadline


The MLB trade deadline falls on July 30 this year, and as is the case every summer, there figures to be a flurry of activity in the hours and minutes leading up to the 6 p.m. ET final call.

Deadlines spur activity, but there’s nothing stopping teams from swinging trades in mid-July or early July or even right now, before you reach the end of this sentence.

The San Diego Padres, preying on the Miami Marlins’ wretched start to the season, dealt for singles-hitting maven Luis Arraez on May 4, instead of waiting another 87 days to outbid other contenders.

That’s not the norm, of course. That was a perfect storm in which San Diego’s ever-aggressive GM, A.J. Preller, convinced Miami to jumpstart another rebuild. Teams typically engage in a lengthy self-evaluation process before they feel comfortable adding or subtracting, which leads to weeks of anticipation but limited action.

Those decisions, in which a club opts to buy or sell or do both or neither, are often made as late as possible. So what is it, exactly, that prevents front offices from executing deals earlier in the summer?

Human nature, for one. There’s never more heat to get something done than when an actual deadline is approaching. The same tenet holds every winter, when there’s zero momentum with the free-agent market, which is why some in the industry have floated the idea of a deadline to breathe life into the offseason.

Trade conversations used to gain steam after the draft in early June and gradually built until the end of July. Now, the draft takes place during All-Star week, a little more than two weeks ahead of the trade deadline. That muddies the timeline. Teams are talking, but it’s more about creating a foundation for eventual, more serious dialogue when the clock is ticking and the pressure is mounting.

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The most influential factor for the slow-developing market, though, is the larger postseason pool. There are currently three wild-card berths in each league. Nearly half the league qualifies for the postseason, and even more teams flirt with contention through July.

In the National League, entering play Thursday, only the Marlins and Colorado Rockies — two clubs destined for misery since the opening minutes of the season — sat more than a game and a half out of a playoff spot.

There’s a swarm of clubs in both circuits buzzing about the .500 mark. They could wind up buying at the deadline. They could wind up selling at the deadline. And they won’t feel the urgency to choose a lane — presuming they do at all — for another five weeks or so.

The New York Mets, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays, for example, could flood the market with attractive trade candidates if they can’t climb up the standings. On the flip side, will Preller allow the Arraez addition to be his lone flash of aggressiveness this season? Will an NL Central team other than the Milwaukee Brewers separate itself from the pack? Will the Houston Astros attempt to atone for a lousy first half by addressing their rotation or adding another veteran bat? Answers to these inquiries — ones GMs ask each other daily — aren’t due for more than a month.

At this point in the season, the sellers hold the power. They can wait until the deadline approaches to drive up the price tags on their players, to spark bidding wars. According to one executive we spoke to, even the worst teams — those with every intention of parting with any big leaguer of value — benefit from flexing their leverage muscles and waiting out the buyers.

Take Luis Robert Jr., for instance. He’s the Chicago White Sox’s most prolific position player, albeit an injury-prone one. He’s also the club’s top trade chip, a power-hitting center fielder with three and a half years of team control. The White Sox don’t have to deal him this summer. They could wait until the winter when there might be more suitors, or even until next summer. And they can practice patience to force suitors to act out of desperation.


Luis Robert Jr. could be a name to watch at this year’s trade deadline. (Jeffrey Becker / USA Today)

Chris Young sought to acquire relief help early last summer. The Texas Rangers GM sorely needed steady arms, as the team ranked 23rd in the league in bullpen ERA through the first three months. On June 30, they flipped rookie pitcher Cole Ragans to the Kansas City Royals for veteran reliever Aroldis Chapman.

Royals GM J.J. Piccolo quipped that if he knew he was getting his 2024 Opening Day starter in exchange for a rental reliever in a 106-loss season, he would have made the trade “three weeks earlier.”

Timing is critical. As one GM described, prices are sky-high in June because sellers prefer to wait to assess the full market, but there’s no way to do that until all of these undecided teams pick a side.

The Marlins, our trade news crew at The Athletic reported this week, are open for business and wouldn’t wait until the end of July if a team overwhelmed them with an offer sooner. Jesús Luzardo could be their most coveted trade candidate next month.

The Cleveland Guardians and Baltimore Orioles are two of a host of contenders eyeing rotation help. Baltimore starter Kyle Bradish is out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery this week, joining rotation mates John Means and Tyler Wells. Cleveland ace Shane Bieber underwent Tommy John surgery after just two starts this year.

The Los Angeles Dodgers placed pitchers Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Walker Buehler and Michael Grove on the injured list this week, not to mention Mookie Betts, who suffered a fractured hand. “We’re going to be fine,” LA manager Dave Roberts stressed. That’s exactly what a buying team would want sellers to think.

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But, really, how panicked is each club? One GM noted buyers are “very guarded” about their plans this time of year. Every executive is eternally panicked about pitching. No arm is safe these days, and that has fueled trade deadline strategies for years. In 2008, an underperforming Cleveland club shipped ace CC Sabathia, an impending free agent, to Milwaukee on July 7, partially out of fear that he could suffer an injury and head to free agency without netting the team anything in return.

Acquiring a player earlier does arm a team with extra production — the Padres gained an additional three months of Arraez’s bat — and it also prevents other teams from acquiring that player. If you wait until, say, July 29, most of the shelves might be empty. Or, there could be a late-emerging seller aiming to unload a player who fits perfectly into another roster.

The cat-and-mouse games shall continue for another five weeks. Until, as is the case every summer, the last-minute trade calls begin.

(Top photo of Luis Arraez: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)



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