NEW YORK -- More than a handful of teams benefitted last winter from slow-playing the free-agent market and waiting for the asking prices to fall inevitably. This is how the Phillies landed Jake Arrieta on a three-year contract, how the Red Sox eventually snagged J.D. Martinez on a five-year deal and how the Twins grabbed Logan Morrison, Lance Lynn and others from baseball’s bargain bin.
Well, some executives increasingly believe the summer trade market will mirror what happened with free agency -- that if you remain patient, there will be such a high volume of players available that contenders will get really good deals, particularly as sellers increasingly become desperate to dump salary.
“I don’t know if we have the best collection of prospects to deal,” said one evaluator, “but I don’t think we’ll have to have those, either. I think that as we get closer to the deadline, we’ll have a lot to choose from.”
That’s one observation about the developing trade market, with 30 days remaining before the July 31 deadline. Here are eight more:
• The Toronto Blue Jays’ deal of Steve Pearce to the Boston Red Sox serves as a starting gun for what should be a busy month of dealing for Toronto, a team with a lot of assets to deal. With the San Francisco Giants uninterested in discussing any Madison Bumgarner trade proposals and the New York Mets indicating that they would have to be completely overwhelmed to talk about Jacob deGrom or Noah Syndergaard, the Jays’ J.A. Happ is arguably the best and the most cost-efficient starting pitcher currently on the market. Not surprisingly, Happ is also attached to what is said to be a high asking price. The 35-year-old lefty has held opponents to a .211 average this season, with 106 strikeouts in 97 innings, and because he’ll be eligible for free agency after this year, Toronto is almost certainly going to move him. “He’s a guy you’d be comfortable starting in a Game 1, 2 or 3 of the postseason,” said one rival evaluator.
The Jays are also talking to other teams about right-hander Marco Estrada and could deal almost all of the veterans from their bullpen -- John Axford, Aaron Loup, Tyler Clippard, Seunghwan Oh -- as well as outfielder Curtis Granderson.
• The Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves are buyers. Because the Washington Nationals have not seized control of the NL East in the way most evaluators expected, the front offices in Philadelphia and Atlanta will be active.
The Phillies are a big-market team with a small-market payroll of under $100 million, and they could be have more flexibility to add money than any other contender. For example: If they have interest in a reunion with Texas Rangers lefty Cole Hamels -- and some teams are not enthusiastic about Hamels’ potential performance -- Philadelphia could be willing to take a lot of his remaining salary for this year rather than pay with prospects. They have also had a dialogue with the Royals about third baseman Mike Moustakas, who is owed about $3.25 million for the rest of this season.
The Braves are still trying to figure out what their focus should be, given various needs, but it’s safe to say Atlanta will pursue bullpen help (like most contenders) and wait to see where the prices fall on starting pitchers. The Braves do not have the same sort of flexibility to take on payroll that the Phillies have.
• The Cleveland Indians want to add at least one really good, late-inning reliever who will be under team control beyond 2018. After this season, the Indians will lose bullpen stars Andrew Miller and Cody Allen to free agency. The Indians know that surviving the October steel-cage match with the Astros, Yankees and Red Sox will be incredibly difficult, and while Cleveland's bullpen performance has improved since it starting feasting on its AL Central brethren, it will need more bullpen weapons for the postseason.
• The Red Sox have the highest payroll in baseball and are already over the luxury tax threshold, meaning there will be additional levies on every bit of player salary they take on between now and Aug. 31. But the Boston farm system is extremely thin at the highest levels, and the best way for the Red Sox to improve might be to take on a reliever dumped by another team in salary savings. Rival officials think the Red Sox will make their move in the last days before the deadline, or in the August waiver period.
• No matter who has the dominant voice in the Mets’ front office, sources say the Mets are indicating they would have to be overwhelmed by an offer to trade either deGrom or Syndergaard, and a deal is highly unlikely. Theoretically, the Mets have three internal candidates for general manager -- former general manager Omar Minaya and current assistants John Ricco and J.P. Ricciardi. But the expectation is that ownership will look outside the organization for the next GM hire, and Minaya -- an advisor trusted deeply by owner Fred Wilpon -- will have a major say in who is the long-term successor to Sandy Alderson.
• The Los Angeles Angels play nine of their next 29 games against the Mariners, and how they fare might have a big impact on whether the Angels surrender assets to augment their team before the deadline. They worked aggressively to make the team better this year, but pitching injuries have decimated them again, and they have hemorrhaged games in the standings.
• There is still time for Zach Britton to rebuild some of his trade value for the Baltimore Orioles before the deadline, because this is the time of year when small sample size -- two or three consecutive dominant outings -- can change perception. But Britton has really struggled, with six walks in 7⅔ innings and six earned runs allowed -- or two more earned runs than he allowed through the entire 2016 season.
• Hector Rondon has gotten five saves for the Houston Astros in the past four weeks, and he has allowed just one homer and nine walks in his 30 innings this season. But it’s probably way too soon to say his emergence has settled the back end of the Astros’ bullpen -- keep in mind that Rondon was the closer for the Cubs in 2016 when Chicago decided it needed to fork over Gleyber Torres to the Yankees for the finishing World Series piece in Aroldis Chapman. The Astros will keep an open mind about bullpen additions in the weeks ahead, especially left-handers, but an elite-level southpaw like a Chapman or Andrew Miller might not necessarily become available.
News from around the major leagues
Some of the player poll results compiled by USA Today for a piece published the other day should concern not only Major League Baseball, but the players, as well. About two-thirds of the players polled indicated they believe a work stoppage will be needed to help take back ground lost in recent Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations.
Which begs the question: How would the players -- or anyone -- know? Because the two sides have not been talking.
In Tony Clark’s meetings with players in spring training, the idea of a future work stoppage was raised time and again, with talk of a labor war. But this seems more than a little premature, because nobody really knows what the union actually wants for adjustments, or what the reaction of MLB would be -- and there would certainly appear to be plenty of intermediate options to explore before anybody has to drive over a negotiation cliff with a strike or a lockout.
For example, right now there seems to be gathering momentum within the sport for the adoption of the designated hitter for the National League. That would be a good thing for the union, an additional 15 landing spots for veteran hitters at a time when the older sluggers have increasingly struggled to find jobs. The union could asked to attach this to a roster expansion that MLB was more than willing to talk about during the 2016 negotiations.
Also, commissioner Rob Manfred has been pushing for rules to augment the pace of action and offense, whether it be a discussion about shifts or relief pitchers or a pitch clock. This could all be a great thing, because the conversation could present some leverage for the players: Manfred wants something, so the union can ask for something in return.
Finally, some players gave voice in spring training about the issue of tanking in baseball -- front offices slashing payroll and effectively designing failure to have the best shot at the talent at the top of the draft. Well, there are plenty of folks on the management side who share that concern, and it could be that MLB would embrace some anti-tanking measures.
But we cannot possibly know this now because the two sides are not talking.
As each day goes by, the union loses time to address these issues and find solutions, and perhaps put the players in a better position for the upcoming offseason or the 2019-20 offseason, or for when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires.
Clark cannot know what’s possible unless there is engagement between the union and Major League Baseball.
Recently, Clark reached out to agents and asked for input and thoughts. But there needs to be a greater sense of urgency because of what’s at stake. The union leadership must be properly prepared; its agenda must be well-defined and vetted through thorough discussion and analysis.
And the players must be better educated about what’s possible, what is needed and what is being discussed. An agent was shocked in the spring when some of the experienced players he represents were unaware of the existence of the union’s executive board, which theoretically advises and works with Clark.
One player representative suggested that on a regular basis -- once every few days, or at least once a week -- the union leadership should send group texts to all players in English and Spanish to advise them on the latest relevant developments. “They need to know what’s going on,” said the rep. “There’s not a lot being communicated to the players so they understand (what’s at stake).”
The union is comprised of really competitive people who are ready for a scrap, as the poll indicates; the solidarity of the players was a powerful force for decades. But that was in place because of decades of diligent conversation by former union chiefs Marvin Miller and Don Fehr, and there is so much foundational preparation that Clark must affect before any serious consideration of a labor war begins -- including the enormous risks. If that doesn’t happen, then the true power of the union will be in jeopardy.
• When J.D. Martinez was with the Tigers, the guy who lorded over the hitters’ meetings was Miguel Cabrera, who would respectfully listen but wouldn’t necessarily draw much out of the conversation that he could use. On the prism of preparation, Martinez is on the other extreme of Cabrera, because he wanted all the information possible -- he wanted the feedback, the conversation about hitting. Through his release from the Astros, how he adapted afterward and what he learned in Detroit, Martinez learned about hitting, and along the way, he learned to teach it to others.
Diamondbacks Manager Torey Lovullo encouraged him to help others, and now that Martinez is with the Red Sox, he is at the epicenter of the Boston world of hitters. Manager Alex Cora says that when Martinez met with Red Sox officials at the winter meetings in Orlando, he listened to Martinez talk about hitting and about his self-evaluation, and he thought immediately that the slugger would have no problem adjusting to the Boston market because of his focus on his work. “This is going to be all about baseball with him.”
Mookie Betts, a relentless source of questions and energy, began picking Martinez’s brain earlier this year, and others joined in; during games, there is a constant byplay, a constant conversation.
“Guys see what he does in the video room,” said David Price, who pitches Sunday for the Red Sox on Sunday Night Baseball, “and I think guys kind of pick up on his routine. Everything he does, there’s a purpose behind it.”
• A number that speaks for itself: The Mets’ cleanup hitters had combined for 29 RBIs through Friday’s games; the Dodgers’ pinch-hitters had combined for 26 RBIs.
Baseball Tonight Podcast
A special Call to the Legends as former player and White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson tells stories from his career, including anecdotes about Ted Williams, Arnold Palmer and that time when he thought he was going to fight Thurman Munson.
Friday: Karl Ravech on the College World Series, Sammy Sosa’s denials and some interesting numbers from the USA Today poll of players; Nate Bukaty of WHB Radio in Kansas City on the possibility that the Royals will sign convicted child molester Luke Heimlich; and the Boston Herald’s Steve Buckley about the Red Sox-Yankees series and the historic significance of this year’s race.
Thursday: Arizona manager Torey Lovullo on the return of Robbie Ray, the emergence of Paul Goldschmidt and the impact of J.D. Martinez; Bob Nightengale on the Dodgers’ interest in Manny Machado; Dave Schoenfield on the Brewers and Jacob deGrom; Sarah Langs plays The Numbers Game.
Wednesday: Boog Sciambi and Chris Singleton with their first-half impressions; Dan Shulman on J.A. Happ and the forthcoming changes to the game; and the latest Power 10 rankings.
Tuesday: Rays manager Kevin Cash explains the pitching philosophy of Tampa Bay this year and the use of humor in his work; Jerry Crasnick on why the adoption of the DH is inevitable; Sarah Langs plays The Numbers Game.
Monday: Before conversations with Max Scherzer and Phillies manager Gabe Kapler, Tim Kurkjian discusses Bryce Harper’s recent success, Juan Soto and an interesting decision by Kapler; Todd Radom’s weekly quiz.
And today will be better than yesterday.