By Matt Straub
The Major League Baseball trade deadline has always been a frustrating time for me. I see teams totally mismanage their week, and by extension their futures, out of the need to do what’s been done for years. Last year, the Yankees and Red Sox revolutionized the trade deadline by getting major league players back for other major leaguers, the way trades are done in other sports. They made trades which helped fill needs by trading players they no longer needed, the way a trade should be done. Instead, too often teams hold themselves to the tradition of trying to fit into a “buy” or “sell” mode.
It is the sellers who too often make huge mistakes by feeling the pressure of having to do something. In 2014 the Red Sox decided they had to sell, so they gave up two big pitchers. Jon Lester was going to be a free agent, but Boston made no secret of its desire to resign him. Why not keep him then and hope he gives you a hometown discount? Any chance of one disappeared when they shipped him to Oakland. John Lackey, through a quirk in his contract which kicked in when he was injured a few years earlier, was set to make just $500,000 this year. He threatened to retire instead of playing for so little, but the Red Sox could have called his bluff or worked out a new deal which still saved them money while making him happy, since the team had all the leverage. Instead of sticking it out with both pitchers, the Red Sox traded both, then spent this offseason trying to get pitching help, which they still need today.
The same thing is happening this year, and it’s maddening because of how many more ways there are into the playoffs than there once were. The Tigers know they aren't going to keep David Price after the season, so part of me understands why they want to trade him before they lose him for nothing. They are, however, just four games out on the loss side and expected to get Miguel Cabrera back in the next two weeks. With a loaded, albeit underperforming roster, the Tigers were anything but done. And yet they are selling. Instead of doing what Boston and New York did last year and get serviceable help for 2015 (even if Boston failed on many levels), they got kids who will help them, they hope, years from now.
This is my biggest problem with the whole concept of selling. If you’re the Marlins, or the mess the Red Sox have turned themselves into now, and you know you're a ways off, I have no problem with going young, getting prospects, and waiting on them. Too often, however, teams who are having bad years forget how quickly fortunes can turn in baseball and give up on a chance to contend next year in exchange for kids who may or may not work out in the future.
As someone who has covered a lot of minor league baseball, I can tell you most of the "big prospects" you hear about will never be heard from again. Sometimes they become stars, as all the young Mets pitchers have this year, but for every prospect who becomes an All-Star I'll find you two "untouchables" who never made it. So Detroit, a team which has a shot to make the playoffs, gives it up in the hope those young players pan out someday. In baseball, a sport too-often determined by exploding elbows, the future should be now for most teams. Even if you're out of it this year, look at the team you have and see if it could win next year.
Look at the Texas Rangers. They entered Thursday with the same number of losses as the Tigers. They, however, made a much different decision about their future, trading half their prospect list for Cole Hamels. Even if he doesn't get them into the playoffs this year, the Rangers will have Hamels, and a hopefully healthy Yu Darvish, to make them formidable next year. This is exactly what the Tigers should have done. Do what you can to improve now and use the improvement for next year if nothing else. Even if you don't think you're going to make the playoffs this year, you don't have to "sell" by gutting your team for guys who may never replace them.
If the Red Sox and Yankees taught us anything last year, it was how to make beneficial trades which are more than just sales for the sake of selling. The Sox themselves taught us how selling to sell can leave you with even bigger holes to fill in the future.
If your next chance to win is five years away, sell. If you have any chance of competing in the short term, go for it. The Rangers did it right this week. The Blue Jays went for it in a major way, adding Price and a huge bat in Troy Tulowitzki. Those players don't guarantee you the playoffs, but at least those teams took a shot. I will never be mad at the Red Sox for trading prospect Jeff Bagwell in 1990. They needed a reliever, got one, and made the playoffs. Bagwell ended up working out, but you never know. They went for it. The Kansas City Royals were cruising this summer, but added more to try and ensure their chances, and they have a much smaller budget than the Tigers.
The Tigers, meanwhile, could join the Red Sox from a year ago on the list of trade deadline disasters. They gave up on Price and their season, even while knowing Cabrera was coming back. Now they'll enter the offseason with a losing record and a hole in their rotation. Well done.
Let's wrap our first baseball insider column with a look at some teams who have a chance to show the Tigers how it's done in the next 24 hours.
New York Yankees: I don't expect them to trade a huge prospect, since they're already leading the division, but I do believe they'll add a pitcher to help ensure they win the division and have some depth in October. The big names are gone, but someone like Mike Leake or one of the relievers still on the board could help. You don't need much starting pitching if you have enough relievers to turn to your bullpen in the sixth inning, and another reliever could be easier to get. Aroldis Chapman would be a great get. John Axford is an under the radar guy who could help.
New York Mets: Breaking down how badly the Mets have messed up the last two days would take an entire separate column, but there's still hope. The Cubs have young hitters to sell, the Rockies still have the other Cargo, Carlos Gonzalez. Justin Upton, who just hit a huge home run against the Mets Thursday, should not be allowed to leave Citi Field. The Mets can get another big bat without giving up one of their rotation pitchers. They have to.
Minnesota Twins: This is one team I believe could make the mistake of thinking a young core guarantees future success. You haven't been relevant in years, you have a chance now, make something happen. They can't afford a huge name, but they don't need too much to compete for a wild card. They just can't stand still.
Chicago White Sox: Once they got hot and decided not to sell Jeff Samardzija, the White Sox had to become buyers. They're two games out of a wild card and have two outstanding pitchers who make them scary in a one-game playoff or short series. The worst thing you can do is stand pat. If you're going for it, go for it. Get your big guns some help.
Houston Astros: Getting Scott Kazmir showed they're trying to win, but getting to the playoffs and winning them are different things. Adding more gives them a legitimate chance to contend in October, and they have the young kids to do so.
Chicago Cubs: They've done such a good job of building something, but they keep talking about 2016 and 2017. Waiting could be a mistake. Too many things can happen, especially with young teams. They have tons of big bats, they need to trade one for another pitcher, even if it's one more big reliever.