With the draft officially in the books, we are now officially entering MLB’s trade season. Most teams prefer to take the first couple of months to evaluate what they have at the big league level, allocating their time and scouting resources to lining up their draft boards rather than considering significant trades in April and May. Once the draft ends, though, focus shifts to the 2015 roster, and teams begin to make decisions about their direction for the rest of the season.
In this age of parity, driven in part by the existence of the Wild Card play-in game, most teams now try to make a run at the postseason, or at the least, don’t surrender their chances unless they are left with no choice. And this year, the stars are aligning to create perhaps the most extreme seller’s market we’ve seen in a very long time.
In the American League, every single team still has a puncher’s chance at the postseason. The spread in the standings from the top spot (KC, .596 Win%) to the 14th spot (BOS, .450 Win%) is only 8.5 games, and while the A’s would normally be assumed to be dead in the water with a .393 winning percentage, their BaseRuns Win% is .556, 8th best in baseball; this is not a team that is going to continue losing six out of ten games going forward. They’ve probably dug themselves too large of a hole to climb out of, but it wouldn’t be that surprising to see them win 15 of 20 and climb right back into the AL West race.
The AL is the land of mediocrity, with no really great or terrible teams, and expected regression pushing things even more into the middle over the last few months. At least one or two teams will break out of this pack and win 90 games, but it’s pretty reasonable to think that any of these divisions could be won by a team that ends up with fewer than 90 wins. And along with two Wild Card berths serving as a fall-back plan, that possibility makes it unlikely that any non-Oakland AL teams decide to fold up their tents and move talent for prospects this summer.
Over in the NL, it’s a pretty different story, with a clear separation between the contenders and the pretenders. Pretty much all of the worst teams in baseball reside in the senior circuit, and this is where the talent that will be made available this summer will come from. But when you drill down to the specifics of what the National League also-rans are going to sell, the picking still look particularly slim.
The Phillies are definitely going to be sellers, and they have one particular piece who will attract significant attention in Cole Hamels. They’ll also likely move Jonathan Papelbon and Aaron Harang, both of whom are useful enough to be worth trading for but aren’t exactly going to change the fortunes of a team in the second half. And they could move Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, or Carlos Ruiz, but with replacement-level performances and significant contracts, those guys might end up just staying put instead.
The Brewers are also definitely going to sell, but to this point, the public reports suggest that they’re only interested in moving the players that are the reason they need to sell in the first place. They’ll trade Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, and Aramis Ramirez to anyone who wants them, but those are all just salary dumps of overpriced role players who probably shouldn’t start in a playoff game. Carlos Gomez is their one significant asset who apparently could be available and will draw real interest.
The Marlins could be sellers, but their best players are young guys who aren’t particularly close to free agency, so even if Miami does admit that this probably isn’t their year, you’re looking at Martin Prado, Dan Haren, and Mat Latos as potential trade chips. The D’Backs are in a similar position, a non-contender with a roster full of young players who are under team control. Even if they do decide to sell, they’re marketing the likes of Addison Reed, Brad Ziegler, and Oliver Perez. You could put the Braves in this category as well, as they’ve already sold most of the things they want to sell, and also might be left just marketing the likes of Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson.
That leaves us with just the Rockies and Reds, neither of whom looks like a serious threat to make a run in the second half, but are hanging around close enough to .500 to keep ownership convinced that it’s possible. These are the two franchises that could really move the needle, putting the likes of Troy Tulowitzki, Johnny Cueto, and Aroldis Chapman on the market. If both teams decide to sell, then there might be enough supply to meet the trade deadline demand for upgrades, but if either (or both) decide to hang around and try and make a run in the second half, there just won’t be many upgrades out there for buyers to actually acquire.
So that leaves us with two definite sellers, one of whom is apparently not interested in moving their few players that could actually make a contender better, along with a half-dozen potential sellers, three of whom have already purged their rosters of the kinds of quality veterans that buyers will be looking for. Realistically, we’re probably looking at having roughly 20 to 22 teams looking to add talent this summer, and somewhere between five and eight teams actively serving as the supply to that demand.
While they might lament their team’s inability to contend, the Rockies, Reds, and Brewers should actually be excited about the idea of kicking off their rebuilds in this environment. Beyond just the normal trade deadline markups, this summer season looks to be particularly seller-friendly, and the the prices that teams might be able to hang on the pieces they’re selling are likely to be astronomically high. If the Rockies really won’t trade Tulowitzki in this market, where there might not be another significant power hitter available, then they should just never trade him.
With so few sellers in the market, I would expect we might end up seeing a pretty long waiting game, and deals might get pushed back closer to July 31st than they have been in prior years. Buyers are going to want to see if guys like Cueto, Chapman, and Tulowitzki hit the market, or if the Brewers realize that this is perhaps the time to trade Jonathan Lucroy, and if both Colorado and Cincinnati hang around the Wild Card race long enough, those decisions could end up going down to the last week in July.
And that means that any buyers looking to strike early are going to find a market stacked against them. Lots of buyers, few sellers, and almost no talent available. Ruben Amaro couldn’t have scripted this any better, and as long as Cole Hamels stays healthy for another six weeks, he’ll get a very strong return for his ace. But beyond Hamels, it isn’t clear that any other significant player will definitely be on the move this summer.
Contenders, I hope you like your current rosters or the high-minors help you might be able to promote in the second half, because if your plan is to make a bunch of splashy trades in order to bolster your playoff run, the pickings are going to be slim and the prices are likely to be extraordinarily high.
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