The Hurdles to an Active Trade Deadline Are Real, But, Yes, There Will Be Some Activity

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The Hurdles to an Active Trade Deadline Are Real, But, Yes, There Will Be Some Activity

Chicago Cubs

In normal times, if we were just 20 days away from the Trade Deadline, this place would be RUMOR CENTRAL. There likely would’ve been some moves around baseball already, and we’d be obsessing about everything else in near daily Lukewarm Stove posts.

But that ain’t this year, and it’s because we – everyone around baseball, including the teams – just don’t know what’s coming next. All we know is there is a deadline on August 31.

Sometimes, when a situation in baseball presents a whole lot of unknowns, that makes it very difficult to predict what will happen. Other times, it is the very nature of the unknown that helps us make relatively easy predictions.

This year, you don’t have to be an MLB insider to predict that the August 31 Trade Deadline, and the trade season that precedes it, will be unlike any other Trade Deadline we’ve seen. To the extent there is action at all, it will be dramatically muted thanks to the combination of uncertainty about the season proceeding, uncertainty about what happens in the playoffs, uncertainty about the economic landscape, uncertainty about what contracts are “worth” going forward, and uncertainty about how disproportionately valuable prospects are going to become. And that’s all the pandemic stuff. Throw in the fact that players netted will get you a month’s less play, the fact that more teams are “in the race,” and the fact that there’s a new CBA to be negotiated over the next 16 months (putting another big wrench in the valuation process), and you could excuse any front office right now for completely shrugging away any confidence whatsoever in what the deadline might look like.

Deals will happen. I think you could easily see short-term relief arms dealt for extremely modest prospect/player returns. I think you *could* see big-leaguer-for-big-leaguer swaps that help each team and where the value of each player is pretty flat regardless of the future. I think you could see deals that are at the margins of the roster where the risk is super small.

But major acquisitions of controllable players? I doubt it. Big money dumps of rental veterans for top prospects? I doubt it. Huge contracts like Nolan Arenado’s moving? I super doubt it.

Hey, that’s just my opinion.

But if you read between the lines of Theo Epstein’s and Jed Hoyer’s comments on the subject, I think they’re likely on the same page: some moves, yes. Major moves, no.

“I still think there will be trades,” Epstein said recently, per Jordan Bastian. “But in a season where there’s no guarantee of seeing it all the way through — as much as everyone’s put into this and we have confidence we can do it, there’s no guarantee — it might impact the trade market to a certain extent. So, how that impacts volume of transactions, we’ll see. Teams would have to sort of value that factor similarly in order to get something done, which could happen, or it might represent an obstacle.”

“And, as far as our situation and whether we’d be able to do something, it’s day to day, man,” Epstein continued. “We’re going to be impacted by how successful we are in pulling off a season as an industry. We’ll be impacted by our ability to generate some revenue and our ability to control expenses. It’s unlike any other time, where, financially, obviously given what our revenue projections were and what they’re going to be, it’s about trying to limit the damage as much as we can.”

On the financial side of things, it’s not inconceivable that the vast majority of teams will have a mandate, flat out, that they cannot add any additional salary this year. Most, if not all, MLB teams are going to lose money this year, and while that does strike me as a good “investment” in the long-term value of these extremely valuable franchises (which will likely turn a profit again next year), it does not strike me as a situation where too many owners will spend out of pocket on one-month rentals in a season that could get shut down.

For the Cubs, I tend to think that means no big financial additions, and ALSO no big financial subtractions. Yes, at last check under the rules of the March Agreement, the Cubs are still projected to be over the luxury tax this year for the second time. Yes, in a past life, that would have been a potential problem. But the reason it would have been a potential problem – it would mean the Cubs would have another locked down, quiet offseason in order to avoid going over a third straight year in 2021 – has totally gone away. In this environment, I don’t think there’s any chance the Cubs would approach the luxury tax next year anyway, because I’m not expecting them to spend major money this offseason anyway. So 2021, thanks to the pandemic, is likely to be a “reset” year no matter what. Thus, all that talk about maybe trying to dump a contract at midseason (remember that stuff from early March)? It’s moot, in my opinion.

But, again, that doesn’t mean the Cubs will do *nothing*. To borrow from David Ross, if they’re giving out a trophy, teams are gonna want it.

Jed Hoyer echoed those sentiments on The Starkville Podcast:

Hoyer was talking about the rapid approach of the Trade Deadline – it’s less than three weeks away! – but you can take from his comments that same sense Epstein was evoking: yes, there will be activity, but no, I’m not sure it’s going to be typical.

As is often the case, and even moreso this year given how close trades will come to the postseason and how short your shot is in the first round (just a three-game series), shut-down relievers are going to be at a premium. That’s just about the one type of asset you could foresee being targeted aggressively among the selling teams. If there’s a quality relief arm on an expiring contract, and if you’re a team that knows you’re highly likely to make the postseason, then you might be willing to give up a decent prospect – even in this environment – to get that arm in the door before September. I think it’s pretty clear that’s where the Cubs will focus their own attentions. It’s *possible* they could even target a multiple-years-of-control guy, but only if the price (in salary) was minimal this year and next year, and only if the return in prospects is not over-the-top. Too much risk otherwise.

Stay tuned. In this condensed year, my guess is that it’ll take until the week before the deadline for rumors to start popping up, and at least some teams to have sorted themselves into the seller category. That’s the other part of this not to forget: with eight teams in the playoffs from each league, many of your “obvious” sellers are at this moment very much in playoff position. And even if their “true talent” level is much less than that, the season is too short for that to shake out perfectly. An overachieving “bad” team might just decide to go for it.

META: As for this place, well, we’ll do our usual thing such as the rumors and activity permit. I have to figure out what to do for the annual Make-A-Wish fundraiser, which I still very much plan to do, but I have some mild concerns about doing a 40-hour Blogathon during a pandemic (juuuuust in case I might contract the virus at the perfectly wrong time when I’ve artificially mucked up my body). I’m still thinking about what I can do to raise funds and provide people entertainment around the Trade Deadline.

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Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.