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The Year the Trade Market Went Crazy

The trade market this year was extreme, even by recent standards, in terms of the returns sought for just moderately useful major leaguers. Where is this all leading?

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Cleveland Indians
Andrew Miller, Cleveland’s biggest addition.
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Morning, all.

It is August, suddenly. I suppose I should have seen it coming, considering August tends to show up in August, pretty much the same time every year, and yet in the context of this baseball season, it seems almost impossible it’s gotten this late this early, doesn’t it?

Perhaps it’s simply because there’s really been no long winning streak for the Cardinals this year. Or perhaps it’s because so much of the team seems unsettled at pretty much all times. But there’s something about this season that has felt...idle. This Cardinal team still feels like it’s trying to find itself, trying to actually grab first gear but keeps sliding over into third by mistake and stalling out at the light. And it feels like we still don’t really know anything about this club. Carlos Martinez has been excellent, but not in the way we thought, with his strikeouts suddenly reverting to the levels we saw from him as a reliever that made many people doubt he would translate to the rotation. We have an all-star shortstop who was basically the very embodiment of waiting for the other shoe to drop, right up until the moment the other shoe was dropped, by Andrew Cashner, right on Diaz’s hand. Do you have any idea who this club’s first baseman really is? Because I sure don’t.

Maybe it’s injuries, maybe it’s the fact this season has been so full of false starts and the sort of two-steps-forward, one-step-back pattern of wins and losses that it still feels like we’re waiting for the real Cardinals to show up, for good or for ill; the club that will properly tell us how good they are and whether we should be pinning our hopes on them.

Maybe it’s fitting that in this extended bout of Capgras Syndrome we call the 2016 baseball season, August came so early that standing here just past the second trimester mark feels more like the first trimester mark, two days past Memorial Day instead of staring down Labor Day, and pretty soon now we should know exactly what kind of ballclub it is we’re watching. Those can’t possibly be back to school sales popping up everywhere; the Cardinals are just starting to figure things out.

It is also, now, a fact that the non-waiver trade deadline (aka the trade deadline that actually matters, with a few very notable exceptions over the years), is now in our collective rearview mirror. The Cardinals themselves made only one relatively minor move, picking up Zach Duke to help stabilise the bullpen and offer another setup arm, which is needed largely because the other setup arms have all been mostly crap. That’s the bad news; that Duke is closer to necessity than luxury is a less than ideal situation for a club that has had a fairly stable core in the ‘pen the last few years. The good news is that John Mozeliak, as has generally been his wont in the past, went digging through the clearance section to find Duke, and just may have pulled out a decent bargain, considering what other top talent went for this particular trade deadline.

And it’s those returns on notable major league talent that I think will be the long-term lesson we all take from the 2016 season: the trade market, for at least this year, was crazy.

Actually, ‘crazy’ may not be strong enough. The trade market in 2016 was flat-out batshit insane.

A couple years ago, I wrote a column (no clue what it was called, or a good way of locating it, so sorry, but no link), that was mostly related to the second wild card play-in game, and the cooling-slash-killing effect I thought it would have on the trade market. With so many clubs in the mix, at least on the verge of serious playoff contention, I believed, the whole market could easily devolve into something resembling total paralysis. Too many clubs caught in between, not enough sellers, and just a general prevalence of holding patterns would lead to teams being unable to make the deals they needed, and we would see the death of the trade market as we have known it.

Well, a funny thing happened in the time between when I wrote that column and today. Not only were my fears-slash-anxieties-slash-musings about the end of liquidity in the trade market proven incorrect, literally almost the exact opposite effect has occurred. The last few trade deadlines have been incredibly active, with 2015 probably the most remarkable, in terms of both the quantity and quality of players who changed clubs, that we’ve seen in a very long time. I’m still shocked, honestly. Not that I was wrong; I’m wrong constantly, and seeing as how I very rarely know shit about shit, to put it bluntly, the likelihood of my continuing to be wrong on a daily basis for the rest of my life is extremely high. But the fact that we’ve seen so many teams who are barely in contention at all willing to make short-sighted, occasionally actively damaging trades in an attempt to vault into the Selig Memorial Classic, is kind of baffling to me. It might be that I’m a spoiled, entitled Cardinal fan used to playoff baseball, but the notion of spoiling your future for a chance to lose in the first round of the playoffs — or even in the fake playoff one-game extravaganza — seems mildly ludicrous.

This year, though, feels unsustainable in a way even the last few haven’t. We’ve seen the asking prices for certain segments of the trade market (pitching, primarily, especially relievers), increase steadily in recent years, but this year represents the most extreme seller’s market I can recall, and I wonder if we aren’t approaching a point at which clubs are going to be forced to realise how impossible it is to come out ahead going about things this way. Not because the prices being paid out by the buyers are prohibitively high, mind you; I think we’ve seen that if a baseball team wants to make a stupid decision, a little thing like the size of the stupid decision isn’t going to hold them back. But the imbalance between the benefits being gained by the sellers compared to the modest upgrades of the buyers seems like the sort of thing some economically-literate organisation is eventually going to look at and simply decide, “Um, no. We cannot be a part of this market. At least not on the buying side, anyway.”

The situation was, of course, exacerbated by the ridiculously small number of sellers in the market this year; perhaps a simple correction to have more clubs out of it and looking to unload in the future will take care of this problem. Then again, if every club is pretty smart now, and nearly every club is willing to sacrifice for the meagre scraps of October offered by the play-in game, and the bar to clear for said contention is so low, perhaps we really are heading for market paralysis after all, just in a more roundabout way than I anticipated. Or perhaps not. This is a tough subject to figure out.

Here is a fact: the New York Yankees completely rebuilt their farm system this year, based entirely on their willingness to sell off two high-end relievers and one very aged right fielder/DH. The Milwaukee Brewers were already on the path to having an elite farm system, but may now have the best collection of minor league talent in all of baseball after dealing away Jonathan Lucroy, Jeremy Jeffress, and Will Smith.

The Giants gave up a pre-arb league-average catcher in Andrew Susac and a two-time first round pick in Phil Bickford for Smith. Will Smith is a very good reliever, and under club control for three more seasons after this one. He’s also still a reliever, likely to throw less innings in those three years than a starting pitcher will in one season, and heading into salary arbitration, meaning he’s not going to stay all that cheap for long. Admittedly, Bickford has been a little up and down, but he’s still striking out close to 30% of the hitters he’s facing in High A ball at 21 years old.

The Cubs gave the Yankees an absolutely bonkers package of talent in return for a free agent to be closer with a domestic violence suspension in his very recent past. You can say the only reason the Cubs made the Chapman deal is because they’re desperate to win a World Series and have the talent to spare, but baseball trades seem heavily based on precedent. The mere thought of that deal entering into the realm of relief trade precedent is hard to imagine.

Overall, the Yankees pulled two top-25 overall prospects in Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier for dealing their two relievers, along with two more top-75 guys and some lottery tickets. They pulled a top-50 guy (though one who has struggled with his stuff since coming back from a leg injury in early May), in Dillon Tate in return for the one win of marginal value Carlos Beltran might offer the Texas Ranger the rest of this season. The Brewers grabbed a top-15 guy in Lewis Brinson from Texas as part of the Lucroy/Jeffress deal, as well as a top 50 (maybe better), prospect in Luis Ortiz. Oakland pulled a heist of a deal involving the Dodgers, receiving three top-50 prospects in return for Rich Hill’s ticking timebomb and Josh Reddick’s vanishing power and mile-long injury history.

As I said, maybe this all stabilises at some point, if we get a bit better balance between clubs contending and clubs willing to wade into the market and sell. But the level of value being ponied up by contenders this season feels completely unsustainable to me going forward. At what point does a smart front office look at the fact the Yankees now have one of the best farm systems in the game (and before anyone in the comments bothers to point it out, yes, I’m aware great farm systems don’t necessarily lead to great major league teams; the point has been made so often it’s just noise now, and ignores the tremendous value held in great minor league talent pools), by officially getting out of the business of seriously contending this year, and conclude that’s the way you win?

MLB seems very worried about tanking, in spite of the fact they have vanishingly few teams in the active tear down phase. And yet, at some point in time, if we continue on this route, it feels to me like tanking and selling off may simply become too profitable long-term not to do.