September 18, 2021

An Historic Trading Deadline–Can It Happen Again?

August 2, 2021 by · Leave a Comment 

If ever a Major League Baseball team traded eight players from its Major League roster in a single day, I can find no mention of it. And yet that is what the Washington Nationals did on July 30, 2021. The Chicago Cubs dealt nine on the same day, which was documented as the highest number there by pundits in the Windy City. It was quite literally as though a tornado swept through the Nationals Park and Wrigley Field and lifted off Dorothy, Toto and everyone in the house, and sent them spinning away all at once.

The New York Times asserted that it was the wildest trading deadline in the long history of the game. Every team moved at least one player and most traded several. Washington was hardly alone in its rush to move merchandise and re-stock the shelves. The NYT counted ten players from the July All-Star Game who were traded on July 30, and opined the two busiest teams, the Nationals and the Chicago Cubs, “scattered pieces of their souls across the baseball landscape.”

Is what we saw on Friday a new normal? What was the driving force behind the wild trading deadline and will it still be operative next July? Answers to those questions in a minute. But first, the local news.

The most notable piece of the Washington baseball soul ripped away was Max Scherzer, the greatest baseball pitcher of his era, whose tenure with the Nationals included two no-hitters, two Cy Young Awards, and a World Series win for the team. He struck out 20 players in a single game in 2016 and led the league in strikeouts for three years running, culminating in 300 strikeouts in 2018. But it was his ability to lead the team to the World Series in 2019 that will stick with every Washington Nationals fan that has a soul. He was the winner of Games One of that World Series and began Game Seven. He was given the ball to start the two most important games of the Series because he was the best Washington had.

As beloved of fans as Max Scherzer is in Washington, a notable rival might be shortstop, Trea Turner, who has hit leadoff for the team since coming over from the San Diego Padres in another landmark trade that DC fans will long remember. Turner is one of those rare .300 lifetime hitters, at least for now, and he set the table for Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon, and Ryan Zimmerman when the Nationals won only the second World Series in Washington, DC baseball history. It was rumored that his contract demands at the end of 2022 would be unreasonable, and so he too was gone.

But eight players moved? How can such a thing be believed?

Going around the diamond, the Nationals traded their catcher, Jan Gomes, second baseman, Josh Harrison, shortstop Turner, left-fielder Kyle Schwarber, and four pitchers. Schwarber was the player who belted 16 home runs in 86 plate appearances during June 2021 to lift the Nationals into first place, a position they relinquished only after Schwarber was injured and could not play. It was that injury that led to the collapse of the 2021 Washington Nationals and to the sell-off of talent. Anyone wishing to second guess the moves has to start there. What if Schwarber had remained healthy?

The death knell came when Stephen Strasburg, the MVP from the 2019 World Series, announced that he was undergoing season ending surgery just days ahead of the trading deadline. Without Strasburg in the rotation, even the return of Schwarber was not going to right the ship. Scherzer was the only reliable arm and he could not bail water on a ship sinking far too rapidly for one person to save.

The scope of Washington’s record sell-off is simple and straight forward. Every one of the players traded, except for Trea Turner, was free to leave Washington at the end of the 2021 season via free agency. Trea Turner had only another year before he would be free to pack his bags. Had the Nationals held onto their talent, they would have had nothing to show for it. Only Scherzer and perhaps Schwarber would have been awarded a qualifying offers, and rolling the dice on a competitive balance pick has less certainty than what the Nationals got back on July 30.

Which means that Nationals fans will need to turn the page, however quickly they can manage the task. It will begin with embracing the new talent, the ones who may begin appearing any day at Nationals Park, in a Washington baseball uniform, just a mile from the Capitol Dome. In return for eight of its best players, the Washington Nationals got back 12 players. Which of them might ever replace Max Scherzer or Trea Turner? Is there a future Cy Young Award winner in the group or someone that will lead Nationals teams to World Series glory again? We cannot know the answer to that question, but it is surely on the minds of DC fans as they survey the damage.

It is difficult for DC fans caught up in the moment to understand how bad their team had become from top to bottom. It is important to begin with the rot that was not visible on the surface. It begins with a Nationals minor league organization rated the worst in Minor League Baseball by numerous baseball trade publications, including Baseball America.  Baseball America cited the numerous trades made by the Nationals to put together the 2019 World Series team, as the source of the barren shelves throughout its minor league affiliates.

So what do the twelve new players portend? How good are they, and how well can they build back the once proud franchise that was in constant contention in the years from 2012 until 2019, when they won four NL East titles and reached the playoffs five times over eight seasons. The answer is not an easy one.

The first measure that provides any clue is the newest rating of Washington’s minor league talent. Of the twelve new players, Major League Baseball accords nine of them status in the teams Top Thirty Prospects and a tenth as just off that pace.  The most important trade is the one everyone will remember for sending Scherzer and Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Washington received back Kiebert Ruiz and Josiah Gray, both of whom were considered as the best two young talents the Dodgers had. They are now the best two talents in the Washington minor league organization.

Josiah Gray is likely to start a game at Nationals Park in the coming week, perhaps as early as Monday. Kiebert Ruiz will not be far behind. Two other players who landed at the doorsteps of Nationals Park on Friday, will also begin to make themselves known. Mason Thompson had just made his way through the San Diego Padres organization and had appeared in four games for the Padres in June and July of 2021. He was only recently converted to a bullpen arm, and it was his upper nineties fastball and deceptive slider that may allow him to slip easily into the role of late inning specialist for Washington. He could be closing games for Washington in the final months of the season.

Two other players are ranked in the top ten, based on who you read. Gerardo Carrillo is likely to join Mason Thompson in the Nationals bullpen before the season is over. He has similar stuff and may contest the closer role. Aldo Ramirez came over from the Boston Red Sox in the Kyle Schwarber trade and may have as much upside, as a starting pitcher, as Josiah Gray. He is only 20 years old and just finding himself, but the Nationals like what they saw of him enough to take him as the only piece from Boston for its very formidable slugger.

The larger question is why the trading deadline played out as a wild melee unseen in prior years? I would argue that the current system of free agency, burdened by the overly complex device meant to slow quell free agency: “qualifying offers,” is to blame? Teams do not want to watch expensive talents walk away and get nothing in return. MLB first attempted to derive value from departing free agents in the form of draft compensation. You lose a Max Scherzer, you get the first round draft pick of the signing team. That system worked too well and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) has worked to find something better over the recent bargaining agreements.

The current system–as it played out last Friday–seems to benefit the owners who got ample return for their free agents. The players might balk at so many name players being forced to pack their bags and play two months at the end of the season for someone new, and probably a team that is not going to sign them long term. The last piece is yet to be seen. Will Kyle Schwarber be moved to sign with Boston? That circumstance is far more likely than Starling Marte staying in Oakland. But we cannot know whether Trea Turner and Max Scherzer will remain in Los Angeles.

The bottom line is that the current system, and those before it, were designed by a team all struggling to meet myriad demands from disparate sources. It will happen again when the new CBA is bargained in the off-season. The fallout from July 30, 2021 will only be apparent then. And the question whether we will see this fanciful theatrical production again next year will be answered then. Personally, I liked the suspense and the action-packed drama that unfolded over roughly 48 hours. My team–the Nationals–were well-served by the process, in my opinion.

There will be many in the ownership group who will agree with that notion in all likelihood. Teams got real value for their free agents. But Max Scherzer? Did he like packing his bags in mid-season? Did it serve his purposes to play for Los Angeles in the run-up to his final contract negotiation? How those questions are answered will determine whether we ever see another July trading deadline like this one ever again. If the players cry foul, there will be a new horse, designed by a new team of misfits, to replace the old one. Maybe there are so many truly scary issues, that this one will be left alone.

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