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August 3, 2015

Rubbing Mud

The Non-Transaction Analysis

by Matthew Trueblood

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The trade deadline has come and gone; hopefully you've read all the good writing we did about all the exciting trades that happened last week. Here's something about which you probably haven't read yet, though: comprehensive analyses of all the biggest moves that didn't go down.

San Diego Padres
Did not acquire anything from anyone in exchange for RHP Ian Kennedy, OF-R Justin Upton, OF-L Will Venable, or RHP Joaquin Benoit.

A month ago, no player in baseball seemed more certain to be traded than Justin Upton. It didn't happen. All indications, even in the hours and minutes leading up to the deadline, were that the Padres would soon get very active, and that Upton would be among their slew of interesting trade chips. In fact, given his impending free agency, it seemed a sure thing. Ditto for the lower-profile Kennedy, Venable, and Benoit. Despite their inability to assemble a team with all the components necessary to really contend (a left side of the infield, for instance, or a competent defensive outfielder, or an above-average left-handed batter), the Padres seemed loaded with pieces that might entice buyers as the deadline drew near, and in the cases of these four players, the high expected demand was matched by strong incentive to make a move on the part of the Padres. After all, these four are unlikely to help the 2016 Padres in any bigger way than by being dealt away for someone the team can employ for that season.

A.J. Preller waited for the market to come to him, though, and the more we learn about the July trade market in the two–Wild Card system, the worse that strategy looks. The earlier players have been traded over the last four summers, the better the team trading them away has done. Without exception, sellers' markets have turned to buyers' markets during the three or four days leading up to the deadline in each of the last few seasons. That happened again this year, and Preller's refusal to accept the free-falling value of his trade chips paralyzed him.

That's not what the San Diego spin machine half-heartedly spat out, of course. Preller and his front office spread the word, as quickly as possible, that they held firm in an effort to save and turn around their season. Winning 10 of their final 14 games before the deadline made that a nearly tenable argument, and might even have been the thing Preller counted on to give him some leverage in last-minute negotiations. Ultimately, though, the clock struck 4 p.m. Eastern on Friday, and things looked like this:

The Padres are miles from being a real contender, and narrowly beating the miserable Marlins in two out of three games did nothing to change that. They're not going to compete; now, they're also not going recover any of the huge future value they surrendered this winter in order to build this clunker of a team by spinning off these four expiring contracts. If Preller is really lucky, teams will claim all four of these players on waivers this month, and he'll be able to squeeze something out of those teams in exchange for them. It's more likely than not, though, that Upton finishes the season in San Diego, departs in free agency, and nets the team nothing but a draft pick at the end of the first round. At least he can bring that; the other three won't even merit a qualifying offer. This is a colossal gaffe by a general manager whose first year on the job has been more aggressively damaging than that of any executive in recent memory. Preller doesn't seem like a guy who was promoted one level past his talent level; he seems like a poker player on tilt. And he's running out of chips.

Did not acquire anything from anyone in exchange for RHP Craig Kimbrel, James Shields, Andrew Cashner, or Tyson Ross.

This set of non-moves makes much more sense. Indeed, it was really hard to figure out why so many reports had the Padres so ardently shopping this quartet. Shields is just a bad investment Preller might have hoped to offload before it could do further damage to his budget and roster management. (That contract is back-loaded, and really turns ugly after this season, especially in light of Shields' struggles this year.) There was no real value to be gained by moving him, though; the Padres would have had to eat a bunch of money to get a trade done.

Kimbrel's trade value is complicated, but almost certainly lower than it was in April, when Preller gave up prospects and a competitive-balance pick for the right to take on the reliever and a bunch of bad money (attached to Melvin Upton Jr.). There were reports that Preller was fixated on getting a good, young shortstop in a Kimbrel deal. The best offer he got, apparently, was from the Yankees, who were willing to let him pry away low-A shortstop Jorge Mateo (great wheels, maybe a decent glove, probably never going to hit in the majors). That's not worth Kimbrel, so good on Preller for turning Brian Cashman down. On the other hand, Kimbrel's low market value is a reminder of how badly Preller was beaten in the original deal.

Cashner and Ross are good starting pitchers with enough blemishes on their respective records to hold their arbitration awards down. It was strange that they were ever on the market, and while their availability signaled Preller's desperation, the fact that he didn't ultimately pull the trigger on a trade is to his credit.

Chicago White Sox
Did not acquire anything from anyone in exchange for RHP Jeff Samardzija.

I don't know, maybe baseball executives aren't as smart as we think. That's one way to read the White Sox's decision to hang onto Samardzija at the deadline, despite their 9 percent playoff odds at the time of the deadline. Even that number was inflated, driven by winning seven straight games in the week leading up to it. A single streak like that, in the larger context of a season like the one the White Sox have had, should only fool talk radio hosts. Rick Hahn should know better than to take one hot streak and jump to the conclusion that his team has turned things around. Maybe he does; maybe he was overruled by Kenny Williams or Jerry Reinsdorf.

Whoever was at fault, though, the Sox blew an opportunity to land a package similar to the ones David Price, Johnny Cueto, Scott Kazmir, and Mike Leake fetched. Samardzija is no Price or Cueto, but he offered more upside than Leake and more reliability than Kazmir, and ultimately, his trade value would have been roughly equal to that of those two hurlers. He could have brought back something significant, something that would bolster the team as it looks to really recharge and step into the power vacuum that looks likely to develop in the AL Central next season. Holding onto him just because the team picked a bad time to go on a hot streak is criminally misguided, regardless of who bears responsibility for it.

Arizona Diamondbacks
Did not acquire LHP Aroldis Chapman from the Reds in exchange for anything.

While the Diamondbacks' front office continues to make weird decisions, and even outright stupid ones like the Touki Toussaint trade, they do pleasantly surprise now and then. When rumors first filtered out that GM Dave Stewart and Chief Baseball Officer Tony La Russa were pursuing Chapman, it reeked of another weird Arizona deal. You could see them overpaying for Chapman from a mile away. They would cough up a bunch of value in order to sew up the end of the game, falling too much in love with that sense of security, worrying too little about the facts that:

  1. Chapman is a reliever, and not one of the league's most reliable high-volume ones;

  2. The team is in no position to really leverage the addition of a great closer right now; and

  3. Chapman is a free agent after 2016.

Ultimately, though, they didn't overreach. They made an offer, by all accounts, but the Reds didn't take it. Maybe Stewart and La Russa just dodged a bullet, but it seems likely that they simply offered what is fair for Chapman, and nothing more.

Cincinnati Reds
Did not acquire anything from the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for LHP Aroldis Chapman.

I really do suspect that the Diamondbacks made a fair offer for Chapman, but I'm not here to excoriate Walt Jocketty for not taking it. To the contrary: The Diamondbacks are a team loaded with pitching prospects. It's the strength of their system. The problem is this: The Reds don't need more pitching prospects just now. They just added four solid ones, in the deals that saw them send away Cueto and Leake. That added to a stockpile that already included a couple of high-investment draftees of recent vintage, plus a few arms they built up with offseason trades.

Value is value, and there would surely have been some threshold of quantity or quality that would have enticed the Reds to take the Diamondbacks' young arms off their hands. What Cincinnati really needs, though, is their next generation of quality position players. They couldn't have gotten any young, high-caliber position players from the Diamondbacks to justify a Chapman deal, so they're to be applauded for waiting out the market. Maybe this winter, Chapman will command more.

Did not acquire anything from anyone in exchange for OF-R Marlon Byrd.

Here's where I lose the thread with Jocketty. Maybe the late landing of Yoenis Cespedes on the trade market torpedoed Byrd's trade value, but if that's true, then Jocketty's sin is not having moved Byrd much sooner. The Reds aren't contenders—they were never going to be—and Byrd is a free agent at season's end. Not getting anything for him is a regrettable missed opportunity, though not, in all likelihood, a mortal wound, given the surely light return he'd have fetched.

Did not acquire RHP Zack Wheeler from the Mets in exchange for OF-L Jay Bruce.

This is a dodged bullet for a seller whose motivation was never clear. Bruce has two more full seasons on his contract after this one, and is still young and productive. There's no good reason the Reds should have been looking to move him, and to move him for nothing more than a pitcher recovering from what was reportedly an unusually complicated Tommy John surgery would have been inexcusable. It's not totally clear whether the Reds quailed at Wheeler's medicals, or whether the Mets balked at Bruce's price tag late in the process, but from Cincinnati's end, it doesn't matter. It's just a relief that they avoided a big mistake.

New York Mets
Did not acquire OF-R Carlos Gomez from the Brewers in exchange for RHP Zack Wheeler and IF-R Wilmer Flores.

Here's a case in which we know that Wheeler's medicals weren't actually a problem. The Brewers were ready to make this deal, but the Mets backed out, maybe over Gomez's hip, probably over the money he's owed in 2016. New York went on, of course, to move a lesser pair of young players for the third of a season between Cespedes and his free agency. Which would have been the better deal? Which should New York have done?

I think there's a strong argument that they ended up taking the better route. For all the malign Flores has drawn, he's a better shortstop (all things considered) than Ruben Tejada, and the Mets do have a real chance to make the playoffs this season. It's better that they were able to make a larger short-term upgrade than a smaller one for a longer span. That's doubly true because their hands seem much more tied when it comes to making salary commitments beyond this season. To wit:

Did not acquire OF-L Jay Bruce from the Reds in exchange for anything.

More than anything, the Bruce deal's doom seems to have arisen from New York's unease with the money Bruce is owed going forward. If that's true, it's another sad statement about the team's financial state, but not really a new one. If it really is true that the Reds scuttled the deal over Wheeler and his arm, or over the Mets' refusal to include a secondary piece, then there's little New York could have done to make the trade go through. Bruce might just have been the wrong fit for an organization trying to transition out of financial ruin and into a more viable future.

New York Yankees
Did not acquire a starting pitcher from anyone in exchange for anything.

My first inclination was to criticize this non-move. The Yankees have this surprising opportunity to win the AL East, but they seem thoroughly undermanned in their starting rotation. (Heck, they could have used some help on the positional side, too, but at least they made a gesture in that direction by dealing for Dustin Ackley.) Given that their success is being driven largely by aging hitters, I was of a mind to say that they ought to have struck while the iron was hot and landed a starter who could make them a real threat not only to attain October, but to do some damage there.

I'll go the other way, though. In the end, this Yankees team is playing with house money. They weren't supposed to be good this season, and they shouldn't go mortgaging a future that is finally starting to look brighter just to amp up this already-improbable winning formula. If they fall apart, they fall apart. In order to break the cycle of getting older, more expensive, more inflexible, and less sustainable for the long term, the Yankees eventually have to change up their model. This is an opportunity to do that, and they appear to have taken it. If they see opportunities to improve this month on the waiver wire, in deals that cost them (more or less) only money, they can do so. Handing over top prospects for the likes of Kimbrel or Cole Hamels only would have left them even older and creakier.

Matthew Trueblood is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

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