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Complications Abound in the 2011 Trade Market

There is an East Coast bias in the standings this year, and it’s affecting the trade market. There are four teams in baseball with 50 or more wins, and they’re all from their respective East divisions. The Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, and Braves appear as dominant as their records indicate. Each either holds a division lead or a decent-sized edge in the Wild Card standings. That could complicate matters when it comes to meting out the buys and sellers later this month. If the Wild Card is unattainable, we could see fewer teams acting the part of contenders.

Another issue plays into the slow market this year: there are only 10 teams that are four or more games under .500, and only eight teams haven’t yet reached 40 wins. That doesn’t make all those close-to-.500 teams buyers, but it will certainly make them less reluctant to trade significant players.

The issue of dominance in the east affects at least a half dozen teams. The Rays beat the brunt of it, as has been the case for the third best team in the AL East for the past three-plus seasons. At 47-39 they have the third best record in the AL, but they’re currently out of a playoff spot. Since they’re within 3.5 games of the Wild Card they still stand a chance, but they have limited funds with which to add players, and both the Yankees and Red Sox are veritable powerhouses. They certainly aren’t sellers, at least of significant players (e.g., James Shields), nor are they active buyers. In another division they might scrape together a few dollars to help shore up a weakness, but with those two teams ahead of them it just doesn’t seem likely.

The other two divisions in the AL feature some close competition. Three teams are within 3.5 games of the Central lead, and given how much ground the White Sox have made up in the past month it’s easy to see them further closing the gap. In the West the Angels and Rangers are tied atop the division, with the Mariners just 2.5 games back. Perhaps in another environment we’d see more activity from these teams, but with the Wild Card not a realistic possibility, at least not as we approach the trade deadline, these teams might be reluctant to make a significant prospects-for-players deal. The future cost of those prospects might not be worth the trade-off, since there is only one playoff spot for each set of three teams.

The NL features a similar picture, minus the third dominant team in the East. There are four teams within four games of the NL Central crown, and two teams are going at it for the NL West title. Perhaps the Giants or the Diamondbacks will make a big move, since they’re two teams competing for two spots. In the Central, though, the picture is much less clear. While it would in one way behoove the Cardinals, Pirates, Brewers, and Reds to make a deal and perhaps establish dominance in the division, it is in another way a difficult move to justify. That’s four teams going for one playoff spot, making the odds longer for each team. Trading significant prospects for veterans and then missing out would be a major failure for the organization.

The preceding assessment is based not only an intuitive feel for the standings, but also of the current activity in the market. We haven’t seen any trades of even modest impact to this point, and there doesn’t appear to be anything imminent. Every time my MLB Trade Rumors RSS feed beeps I check it in earnest, yet find little more than low-level rumors. It appears that teams are playing it safe this year. This is not only related to the closeness of the division standings, but also of there being so few remarkably bad teams. There just doesn’t seem much to sell.

As we get closer to the deadline the outlook will certainly change. Perhaps at that point the Cubs, Dodgers, Marlins, Astros, A’s, Twins, and Orioles will be more willing to party ways with useful veterans. But browse their rosters for a moment. How many players would they be willing to trade at all, and how many would they benefit even modestly from trading? The Dodgers, for instance, aren’t trading Matt Kemp or Andre Ethier, and probably won’t get anything good at all for Casey Blake. Further, how many of their players are actually tradable? Take the Cubs, for instance. They have a few players they’d love to trade, Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano, but they’ll find zero takers there. It seems these complications are more prevalent this year than in the past, and it could dampen the market.

The one caveat here is that the dampened market might embolden one team to make that big move in an attempt to get ahead of the pack. If the rest of the league is acting timidly, maybe the Reds or the Tigers dip into their prospect barrel and swing a big, unexpected deal while their opponents stand relatively pat. That’s what we all want to see; the more activity at the deadline the better. But chances are it will come from just one team that sees a specific opportunity. There’s just too much caution at this point to expect significant dealings.

In the next three weeks we’ll absolutely see players change hands, but it probably won’t be game-changing names. Maybe Kansas City deals Melky Cabrera or Jeff Francoeur, and maybe Oakland deals one of its many outfielders, but none of them is going to turn one of those divisional rivals into a powerhouse. They might not even be full-time starters in their new homes. There’s a chance for something big, an unexpected move from one of those teams in tightly contested races. But given what we’ve seen so far and the names we’ve heard as available, it doesn’t appear very likely. We could be in for a low-activity deadline.