This will be the strangest trade market ever, yet look to some degree like a continuation of the offseason with questions about just how far the Cubs and Red Sox will go to prioritize the future and just how badly Cleveland wants to deal Francisco Lindor.
The complications, though, are many to forming this bizarre bazaar:
- With the season set to begin July 23, clubs will have barely more than a month to assess if they are buyers or sellers by the Aug. 31 deadline.
- With ticket/attendance-related revenue curtailed and perhaps obliterated, more teams could look to get out of contracts, but fewer might be positioned to take on money this year or next, when there is no sure things about crowds in 2021 either.
- Teams will be particularly reluctant to give up prospects, especially for walk-year players, when the COVID-19 pandemic can shut the game down at any point. Think of the Dodgers giving up prospects for Mookie Betts in the offseason and now — at maximum — having him for 60 regular season games before he can be a free agent. Imagine trading for a player Tuesday and having the season shut down for good on Wednesday. Plus, prospects translate into inexpensive labor in a near future that could be financially challenging for many clubs.
Conversely, with no minor league season there are no current assessments of prospects. As one team official said, “If a team is offering me a prospect, more than ever I am going to be asking, ‘What does he know about this guy that I don’t.’ ”
- It is never a great moment to have to tell a player he has been traded. How about during a pandemic? Imagine having to join a socially distanced team in progress and having to decide whether your family will join you or not. Will there be organizations who think that is too cruel to do to anyone?
Despite the obstacles, when I asked executives what they think, they anticipate competitive folks will find a way to try to make their rosters better, and teams desperate to shave payroll will do the same. So what should be eyed:
Cubs/Red Sox: They have mirrored each other — recent champions who tied up lots of future money on veterans, especially in the rotation as both organizations have had trouble developing quality (inexpensive) starters. Neither surrendered for 2020 (at least not publicly), but both put fixing their finances and prospect bases ahead of fortifying for a playoff run.
The Red Sox traded Betts and David Price to the Dodgers, and with ace Chris Sale lost after Tommy John surgery, Boston’s playoff chances dwindled further. If MLB had gotten its way, seven teams per league would be in the 2020 playoffs. But with just the familiar five, Boston would have to finish ahead of at least the Rays or Yankees to have a postseason chance. If the Sox decide after a few weeks they are not likely to do better than third in the AL East, they could become prime traders.
J.D. Martinez has two years at $38.75 million left after this year. Do NL teams think the DH is in play for 2021-22 as well to make the field for Martinez’s services larger? How much would Boston pay down on Nathan Eovaldi (two years, $34 million)? Jackie Bradley Jr. is a free agent after this season.
The Cubs did not do a massive trade (though they checked around quite a bit on Kris Bryant). They are trying to be proactive knowing they cannot keep all of their championship core, and free agency beckons after this year or next for Bryant, Jon Lester, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, Jose Quintana and Kyle Schwarber. Left thumb surgery for Quintana further weakens a depth-challenged rotation, making it tougher for Chicago to contend in 2020.
Francisco Lindor: Betts, Lindor, Bryant and Nolan Arenado were prominent in the winter trade market. Only Betts moved. It is possible that at some point Bryant and Arenado go, too. But of the group, Lindor plays for the smallest market team and is looking at a contract of around $25 million in his 2021 walk year. If Cleveland moves him now, an acquiring team still gets him for the sprint this year and all of next year, increasing his value somewhat.
How much does Cleveland’s front office get pushed to reduce payroll because — after dealing Corey Kluber in the winter — Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger, Brad Hand and Carlos Santana could be in play beyond Lindor, one of the majors’ top 10 players. As one AL executive said, “Perhaps the biggest question this year is what is your owner’s economic tolerance and how much does he push to cut payroll?”
The Field: What will probably be most attractive this year is talented players, not making a ton in 2020, possessing service time beyond this year, just in case the schedule gets shut down.
Detroit starters Matt Boyd and Michael Fulmer fall into this category. With Casey Mize and Matt Manning on the verge of reaching the rotation, Detroit could be in position to trade starters for young positional pieces. Miami might have the same situation to make dealing Caleb Smith more palatable. Orioles reliever Mychal Givens is regularly in demand.
Then there are players for which teams will more than ever have to either eat money and/or take on a moneyed contract and/or not expect much in return. Think, starters Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija (Giants), Jordan Zimmermann (Tigers) and Alex Cobb (Orioles), and Royals closer Ian Kennedy. Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager is trickier because he not only is owed $18 million next year, but his 2022 $15 million option converts to his control if the lefty-swinger is traded.
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