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Steve Phillips

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Monday’s MLB trade deadline is a unique and complicated moment for general managers across the game.

Heading into play on Friday, there are 23 teams within 4.5 games of a playoff position. The key to any deal is finding a trade partner whose needs match yours. The fact that 16 teams (eight in each league) will make the postseason this year means that there will be far more buyers than sellers at the deadline. Basic economic fundamentals of supply and demand should apply. Or will they?

The increased demand alone indicates good return for the sellers, but that’s mitigated this year by the shortened window for players to impact their new team. With the regular season scheduled to end Sept. 27, a pitcher may make six starts, at most, to help his new team try to make the playoffs.

There are four further considerations, all stemming from the pandemic, that will pull down values:

1. Any player acquired in a trade will have to satisfy health and safety protocols before joining his new team. That could take several days of isolation before the player is cleared to take the field. 

2. What if the season gets shut down on Sept. 10 because of multiple COVID-19 outbreaks? A club isn’t going to give up a bunch of talent for a season that could be shut down on a day’s notice. Trades are buyer beware. You can’t undo a deal because of unfortunate circumstances.

3. Scouts haven’t been allowed in stadiums or at alternate sites to evaluate players and gather information. Teams have to gather all of the information off video and have no opportunity to network with players, staff and other scouts.

4. There has been no minor-league season this year. Deals at the deadline almost always include minor-league players. Teams do not have any recent scouting reports on prospects in other organizations. All the information is about a year old, which can lead to mistakes.

One might think that these limitations will lead to more major leaguer-for-major leaguer deals. A team that is strong in pitching but weak in offence trades away some of its major-league pitching to upgrade the lineup. But that team needs to find a trading partner has the opposite problem; a club that has poor pitching but good offence. That kind of trade is tough to pull off during the season because the offensive players also have to fit the positional needs of their prospective new team.

GMs also have to consider how winning a World Series be perceived this year. MLB won’t put an asterisk on the season, but fans won’t recognize it as a real championship (unless their team wins). Winning a 60-game season is not the same as winning a 162-game season. What if a sub-.500 clubs wins it all? Is it really worth going all-in on trades to win a season that won’t be respected? 

All of this suggests that the trade deadline will be rather slow. Clubs aren’t going to give up extraordinary talent when there are so many factors holding down player value. 

Blue Jays stay busy

The Blue Jays have already made a couple of deals. They effectively bought Daniel Vogelbach, a first baseman/designated hitter, from the Mariners. He has major power but a lot of swings and misses in his at-bats. The portly slugger did hit 30 homers last season, but he struggled miserably this year before being designated for assignment. He is a catch-lightning-in-a-bottle type of player.

The Jays also landed 28-year-old starting pitcher Taijuan Walker from the Mariners. Jays president Mark Shapiro leverage his good relationship with Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto to land one of the best pitchers available at this deadline.

Walker missed most of the past two seasons due to arm problems. He throws a fastball, slider and split-finger fastball. He’s has always had great potential, but he got injured just as it seemed he was going to blossom. He threw pretty well for Seattle and will likely get stronger the more he pitches. He will help the Jays.

Other available arms

The starting pitching trade market is led by Texas Rangers pitcher Lance Lynn. He has evolved into one of the top pitchers in the AL over the past couple of years. He had a great year in 2019 and is among the league leaders this year in most pitching categories.

There is a chance that the San Francisco Giants will move Johnny Cueto. He is a couple of years removed from Tommy John surgery and has another substantial season on his contract that could limit his desirability.

Dylan Bundy was traded in the off-season from Baltimore to the Los Angeles Angels. He has been much better on the west coast than he was on the east coast. Tough and competitive, he could help in the middle of a rotation.

The two wild cards in the starting pitching market are the teams in Ohio.

Cleveland appears to be working toward getting starters Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac back on the major-league team. Both pitchers violated health and safety protocols on a weekend road trip to Chicago and then lied afterwards until they were caught. 

Clevinger pitched in a game this week and was welcomed back warmly by his teammates. Both pitchers could be valuable trade commodities if anything changes in relationships within the clubhouse. Remember: Jays GM Ross Atkins and Shapiro know these two players from their time with Cleveland. They would be huge additions to the Jays as they both have multiple years of team control remaining.

Trevor Bauer could be made available if the Cincinnati Reds fall out of the race in the next few days. He is a free agent at the end of the season. Bauer is a bit quirky and rather opinionated, but the right-hander’s 1.65 ERA is among the game’s best. 

There is no dominant closer who will be available at the deadline. Trevor Rosenthal of the Kansas City Royals is intriguing now that he seems fully recovered from elbow surgery a couple years back. It took some time, but the former Cardinals closer looks like his old self. He is a free agent at the end of the year. The Royals also have veteran reliever Greg Holland, who could help a young bullpen.   

The Red Sox have already traded a couple of relievers and will likely trade one more in Matt Barnes. He has great stuff and would be a god fit for a team like the Blue Jays. Pirates closer Keone Kela would have been a nice addition to a team looking for bullpen help, but he is now on the injured list and not an option.

When it comes to position players, I don’t expect any big names to move. It could happen, but it would be a surprise. Most of the deals in this area will be for role players who can help in particular game situations.

The Mets could trade outfielder Billy Hamilton who could serve as a defensive replacement and pinch runner in an extra-inning game. Former Blue Jays outfielder Kevin Pillar is with the Red Sox. He and teammate Jackie Bradley Jr. are both available. They are tremendous outfielders but would be better as platoon players on a good team.