Making sense of the 2018 MLB trade deadline

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

The word “deadline” in the manner it is used today appears to have originated in Civil War times. It referred to the boundary – sometimes drawn in the dirt with a stick, I guess, I wasn’t there – for prisoners held in the field. Crossing the line would bring dire consequences. They did not call it the firm-scolding-line.

Eventually the term softened, coming to represent the moment at which local merchants could no longer trade their goods – flour, molasses, gunpowder, etc. – for a situational lefty and international bonus pool money. Thankfully, nobody was getting plugged with a musketoon, except for maybe the guy with his thumb on the prospects scale.

A hundred-and-fifty years later, we’ve abided another deadline, this one drawn from the forehead wrinkles of general managers, they separating the rational from the frantic, the lock from the fluke, the good side of the line from the one where they end up in the dirt. Baseball’s trade deadline is notable for its finishing pace, dissimilar from its routine pace. A game that every day of the season must be hustled along, the commissioner waving it through as if it were a drowsy teenager late for his school bus, goes feverish for a few caffeinated hours on the final day of July. Good for the blood flow.

Starting pitcher Chris Archer was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday. (AP)

So, in those final minutes, Chris Archer of the Tampa Bay Rays packed for Pittsburgh, from one I-think-I-can franchise to the next, and Baltimore Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman was traded to a new start and career traction in Atlanta, and the Orioles continued the self-demolition by sending second baseman Jonathan Schoop to Milwaukee. There was no real crazy. There was no serious reach or retreat. Too much imperfection in the National League, perhaps, and too much inevitability in the American League.

As it happens, in order to understand where the game stands come the evening of July 31, it helps to check first with the Yankees. They were manning fronts that would determine the coming few months along with the years that followed, and while that still left them six games behind the Red Sox, which is the point of this whole thing, they were at least interesting, and potentially brilliant, and maybe not.

Over not quite a week, the Yankees traded for left-handed starter J.A. Happ, right-handed starter Lance Lynn, who could wind up being a reliever or both, left-handed reliever Zach Britton and first baseman Luke Voit. It cost them nine players, few, if any, that would have an impact on the rest of the summer. They accumulated nearly $4 million in international bonus money. They kept a respectable distance from the luxury tax threshold. They aired out their 40-man roster. They protected their important prospects. And they appeared to improve themselves on the baseball field, the one they’ll play on today, which is important too.

Where that left them otherwise was out on the larger gets – or potential gets – of the deadline period, the types of talents (at the types of prices) the Yankees typically chase and often acquire. The difference this time being a healthy respect for tomorrow, and so it was the Dodgers who acquired third baseman Manny Machado (and Brian Dozier), the Red Sox who got Nathan Eovaldi, the Brewers who added Mike Moustakas, the Indians who added Brad Hand, with the likes of Jacob deGrom, Zack Wheeler, Adrian Beltre, perhaps even Bryce Harper either not moved or not even being shopped, it gets hazy in those final hours.

(The Rangers, not competitive for a second season, held extended conversations regarding Beltre with, according to sources, four teams – the Diamondbacks, Brewers, Red Sox and Indians. General manager Jon Daniels was said to be asking for an impact player or significant relief on the remainder of Beltre’s $18 million salary. The Diamondbacks subsequently traded for Eduardo Escobar, the Brewers for Moustakas. The Red Sox pivoted toward pitching. That left the Indians, who merely balked at the asking price.)

If you count Lynn, the Yankees pulled in two relief pitchers, as they would, as relievers were at this deadline the most sought-after upgrades and the most plentiful. General managers like relief pitchers nowadays at fan-boy, personalized-shirsey levels. The only thing they like more than relief pitchers, in fact, is more relief pitchers.

By the Tuesday afternoon deadline, if you were a contending team and hadn’t picked up a reliever or two it was probably because you’d accidently left your phone off the hook. In the era of oft-broken starters who throw fewer innings, particularly come October, there becomes a requirement for sheer numbers, the thought being there must be a decent one in there somewhere.

Second baseman Jonathan Schoop joins a crowded infield in Milwaukee. (AP)

Therefore, bullpens are fairly inexpensive and can be built up and torn down and rebuilt on an hour’s notice. So, Seattle, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Arizona got three of them. Each. Hey, never know. The Braves, Astros and Cubs, like the Yankees, got two. The A’s got one, Jeurys Familia, from the Mets. Even the Pirates, a peripheral player in the NL Central, acquired a reliever in addition to Archer; Rangers right-hander Keone Kela, who has 24 saves and is under team control through 2021.

Funny thing about that, too. Two deadlines ago, when they were on a run of three consecutive postseason appearances, the Pirates were losing momentum, but still only three games out of the second wild card. It’s a precarious position in a precarious game, but when you’re the Pirates and you’ve gone a generation between hopeful periods, a few games behind with two months to play is cause for celebration, not surrender. The Pirates, of course, surrendered.

They traded their closer, Mark Melancon, to the Nationals. They, in return, received two pitchers – Felipe Lopez (who would become Felipe Vazquez) and Taylor Hearn – and a freefall into third place, 25 games out of first in the NL Central. Dark times were upon them again, along with the slow trudge back to relevance. Along comes midsummer 2018. The Pirates again are on the edge of relevance, 3 ½ games behind the second wild card. Vazquez is an All-Star. Hearn is in Double-A, where he has a 3.12 ERA and 107 strikeouts in 104 innings. And, on Monday, Hearn is traded to the Rangers for a rising closer (Kela) who has 24 saves and won’t be a free agent until after 2021. At which point, Pirates fans rejoice, or should anyway, it can be hard to tell. And now, six months after trading ace Gerrit Cole to the Astros for four players, they acquired Archer from the Rays for three. So, these things take time.

The Angels sighed and began their process for 2019, trading away their starting catcher (Martin Maldonado, to the Astros) and second baseman (Ian Kinsler, to the Red Sox), thus all but ensuring another October-less season for Mike Trout. The Red Sox are waiting on Dustin Pedroia. The Angels are waiting on relevance.

The Nationals sighed and kept at it. As the weeks passed and the deadline neared, speculation grew they would consider trading Harper, who, like eight of his teammates, can be a free agent at the end of the season. This, of course, would not have been wise, seeing as a decent week of baseball is all that stands between the Nationals and life in the NL East. And unless the Nationals have designs on surrender, Harper is one of the ways that happens. The Nationals really had no choice but to be stubborn, to believe, to stand on the side of the line nearest the musketoon, where the sanity more often resides.

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