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August 2, 2004
With all the big trades that went down over the weekend, the biggest story was the one that didn't happen. Randy Johnson will make his next start in the purple and aqua and gold trim and...who the hell consulted on these clown costumes, anyway?...of the Diamondbacks. The Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Angels will all have to muddle through with what they have. Two of those teams picked up starting pitchers in other places, while the Red Sox tried to upgrade their pitching by improving their infield defense and scoring fewer runs.
The Johnson trade wasn't the only thing that didn't happen over the weekend. In fact, an unheralded big story was that so many contending teams wouldn't or couldn't make a trade that improved their ballclub.
Eyeballing the standings, you see that the A's, Angels, Cardinals and Astros completely sat this one out, the Twins and Padres actually traded away major-league players, and the Rangers and Braves made small acquisitions that won't make much of a difference in their chances. That's eight teams in various states of contention that basically stood still as the teams around them tried to get better.
In a few cases, the effect was the same. The Braves are in better shape today, having only acquired Tom Martin, because the Marlins took a couple of steps backward and neither the Phillies nor the Mets made up ground. (The Braves have a five-game lead in the NL East, by the way. If you saw that coming, drop me a line with some stock picks.) The Twins, who jettisoned Doug Mientkiewicz and the money he was owed, are still well-positioned because the White Sox's only move was to swap Esteban Loaiza for Jose Contreras, which is at best a lateral move, Contreras' monster contract notwithstanding.
There seemed to be not only a difficulty in getting the biggest trades done--no-trade clauses killed a number of big deals, and the lack of prospects in some farm systems hampered others--but also a lack of bulk in this year's deadline. We didn't see as many pickups of fourth outfielders and #2 right-handed relievers, trades that don't warrant headlines but can make a difference in the standings. There were a few of these--the Phillies and Marlins both made deals of this nature--but for the most part, this trade deadline was seriously deficient in trades.
Except, it really wasn't. I hate when the facts don't fit the story.
Year Trades made 7/29-7/31 2004 11 2003 12 2002 10 2001 12 2000 17 1999 11 1998 18
(It's all about Retrosheet, folks.)
This year looked a lot like the previous three, so perhaps it's just a perception problem, based on the memory of the rollicking trade deadlines in 1998 and 2000. While years like those are more fun for fans--come on, tell me that Friday and Saturday weren't a hoot--I'd imagine that your average MLB GM, bathing in risk aversion, would just as soon not have to make these kinds of decisions under that kind of time pressure.
The biggest reason for what seemed like a slow deadline period was the number of teams who actually have no chance of making the playoffs but who didn't seem to put a lot of effort into getting something for their veterans. There are any number of players who I expected to have moved north in the standings by now who haven't. Is there any reason for the Royals to still have Matt Stairs and Scott Sullivan? For the Devil Rays to still employ Tino Martinez? For the Pirates to have held on to Jose Mesa?
I recognize that in the real world, you need to put on a good show, but it's not like these teams are packing them in to begin with. Is losing Craig Counsell fans enough reason for the Brewers to not ship him off in exchange for a player who might someday play in a playoff game at Miller Park? In a market with more buyers than sellers, shouldn't useful spare parts have had more value, so much more that it made sense to deal them?
Now, the July 31 deadline isn't the last chance for teams to swap talent. Throughout August, players who clear waivers can be dealt. Years ago, clearing waivers was largely a formality; more recently, teams have been aggressive about putting claims in on players who their rivals might want. What I'm hearing is that this year the trend might reverse, with more players getting through, as the fear of being stuck with a bad contract increases. There's a sense that many teams would just let a player go if he's claimed, and that sense will make it harder to just block everyone in sight. This should lead to more player movement in August.
Just considering teams below .500, there are a lot of players who might gravitate to playoff teams in the next few weeks. In addition to the ones I mentioned above, I could see Justin Speier, Shawn Estes, Bret Boone, Ron Villone and Roberto Alomar move on. Bigger names could go as well, depending on how much some players decide they'd like to finish the year playing relevant games.
So those teams that sat on their hands this weekend--I'm looking at you, American League West--will probably have some other chances to get better, to acquire the player or players who we end up watching deep into October. If that gives us a few more days like Friday and Saturday, or even just a taste of that, it will make for a fun month, and some great pennant races.