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Who Got Better At The MLB Trade Deadline?

gfoster (Geoff Foster, sports editor): The trade deadline has come and passed. All the pieces are now in place for the remainder of the season. So let’s talk some baseball!

I think this deadline period was pretty quiet up until Wednesday, when there was a whole flurry of movement at the 11th hour and it got kinda wild. Obviously there were a few big names that didn’t end up moving, too. (Hi, Thor.) But of the moves that did happen, it mostly seemed like the rich got richer. Let’s start with Zack Greinke to the Astros. This staff is ridiculous now with him, Justin Verlander and Geritt Cole. Are they World Series favorites now (if they weren’t already)?

ari.levin (Ari Levin, sports intern): Vegas says yes.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): I thought it was funny the headlines that said the Astros had “now become” World Series favorites with this move. They already had the most wins above replacement1 of any team in baseball before doing this. Now they’re even stronger.

ari.levin: Unless you’re a Diamondbacks fan, you have to be excited about the possibility to watch Greinke in a playoff, maybe even a World Series game. He’s certainly never been surrounded by such a good team.

The Astros now have a filthy rotation, as you mentioned, Geoff. Cole’s 101 mph fastball gets paired with Greinke’s 70 mph curveball. In an elimination game, you might see both.

travis.sawchik (Travis Sawchik, sportswriter): Yeah, the Astros are the clear favorite — and maybe they already were. The Astros have had a lot of success in getting more out of pitchers like Verlander, Cole and Ryan Pressly in past trades (and Charlie Morton via free agency). I don’t know how much more value you can extract out of a potential future Hall of Famer like Greinke, but I am curious to see what they do with a talented arm like Aaron Sanchez. The underperforming Sanchez is the type high velocity/spin arm they prize. There is more there, possibly, with a pitch mix or sequencing tweak.

ari.levin: For Greinke, he gets a chance to add a signature moment, which could take him from being a likely Hall of Famer to possibly getting first ballot recognition.

neil: Yeah, Travis, the Sanchez deal sorta snuck under the radar (both because of Greinke and because Sanchez has been so bad of late), but you could see the Astros being the team to potentially turn him into a successful reclamation.

ari.levin: At 35, Greinke feels like the kind of pitcher who will age very gracefully since he doesn’t rely on high heat. He’s still signed through 2021, as is Verlander. So this isn’t necessarily going all-in on 2019 for the Astros.

travis.sawchik: Since all teams value players in similar ways nowadays, it’s tougher to straight-up win trades. But if you can add value to players to acquire like the Astros, like the Rays (hello, anniversary of the Chris Archer deal), I think that’s the biggest area for competitive advantage in today’s game.

Agreed, Ari. Greinke is as good as any mid-30s pitcher to age well with his variety of stuff and command.

gfoster: Houston is filthy rich with pitching. Even after the big three and Sanchez, you have guys who are due back from injury at some point, like Brad Peacock and Lance McCullers. Once everyone is healthy — even if it’s next year — they won’t have rotation spots for everyone left.

ari.levin: A lot of these trades come off as a win-win. The Diamondbacks get a lot of future value since they weren’t competing this year anyway — value that the Astros are willing to give up to help their odds of winning this year.

And they don’t really need to “add value” or “unlock” anything with Greinke — he’s already been really, really good this season.

travis.sawchik: Arizona did well, but some of those pieces were redundant for Houston. Seth Beer, for example, probably didn’t have a path to future playing time. And Houston might be the best player development team in baseball, so they’ll just go and create some more future prospects.

ari.levin: I’m just sad that Greinke won’t hit anymore — he sports a .271 average and a whopping .583 slugging percentage this year!

gfoster: Our model still has the Dodgers as the slight World Series favorite, but they were fairly quiet all things considered. Do you think L.A. missed a chance in this arms race among the superpowers?

The Dodgers biggest move was acquiring … wait for it … Jedd Gyorko.

travis.sawchik: It seemed like teams were really trying to pry away the Dodgers’ best prospects, like Gavin Lux and Keibert Ruiz, and the Dodgers weren’t willing to go there, whereas the Astros were willing to keep their elite prospects like Kyle Tucker and Forrest Whitley and make a major upgrade. There’s a tricky present-future balance at the deadline, and more and more teams aren’t willing to trade too much of tomorrow for today. For instance:

ari.levin: The Dodgers will be OK. They still have Hyun-Jin Ryu, Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler. I think they did the right thing by not overpaying for Felipe Vazquez from the Pirates.

travis.sawchik: That’s an awful lot to ask for a reliever, even an elite one like Vazquez.

neil: Although the Dodgers are also one of those drafting and player-development machines (much like the Astros) that you would think could reload their system more easily than most after making a deadline deal.

ari.levin: Vazquez is a valuable reliever for the Pirates, but momentum built against trading him, even though he’d probably net a lot of value, especially for a reliever. Keep an eye on how his value changes over the rest of the season. The Pirates might regret not selling high. I think it’s unlikely the Dodgers will regret missing out, especially at those asking prices.

gfoster: The Dodgers just didn’t really have any needs. But what about the other quiet team, the Yankees? They do have needs. Their starting pitching is nowhere near the level of Los Angeles and Houston. Was this also a case of them not wanting to move their top prospects?

ari.levin: The Dodgers still have the highest team Elo rating, but a lot of their increased World Series odds comes from the fact that teams 2-6 in rating (Yankees, Astros, Red Sox, Indians, Twins) are all in the AL. They don’t have to face any of those to get to the World Series.

travis.sawchik: The Yankees were a contender that could have really used a starting pitching upgrade. Apparently no one wants Clint Frazier? Feels like he’s been a trade chip for several deadlines now.

ari.levin: Here’s a chart of how much each time bought and sold at the deadline, in terms of projected rest-of-season WAR:2

The Yankees look like clear losers here.

neil: Well at least the New York media is taking the Yankees’ lack of a bombshell move with calmness and perspective.

ari.levin: There’s a lot of recently underperforming talent in that rotation that could be in line for a rebound. Plus Luis Severino is hoping to come back soon. There’s a good chance they look back and are happy they didn’t give up future value in a reactionary move to a few bad starts in a row.

gfoster: But along the same lines, Masahiro Tanaka is not pitching as well as he did at the beginning of the season, and some of that could even out with certain pitchers regressing in second half.

ari.levin: They clearly missed out on some targets they wanted, Shane Greene especially, and looked like they were outbid by other teams for pitching.

gfoster: I can’t believe they didn’t get anyone. Even beyond Trevor Bauer, Thor and Greinke, there were plenty of names out there they missed on. Robbie Ray, Matthew Boyd, Zack Wheeler, etc.

ari.levin: Of course, you just know that Terrance Gore is going to have a memorable highlight this postseason.

travis.sawchik: Apparently all the sellers knew how badly the Yankees needed a starting pitcher. The good news is that relievers are taking on a record share of innings this year, just under 41 percent, and the postseason is even more of a bullpen game, where the Yankees are still very good.

neil: Second-best in baseball according to relief WAR, in fact.

gfoster: Let’s look at that hypothetical ALCS. Game 1: Verlander vs. Tanaka. Game 2: Greinke vs. James Paxton. Game 3: Cole vs. Domingo German or J.A. Happ, or maybe Severino.

ari.levin: And the offense is still producing, even with half the lineup on the IL.

neil: At full strength, that lineup still looks extremely scary.

gfoster: Luke Voit may be out for the season, though.

ari.levin: Last year’s wild-card game feels like a model for how the Yankees could manage this postseason. Not necessarily a deep start, but just throwing out dominant pitcher after dominant pitcher for one or two innings at a time.

travis.sawchik: Paxton sticks out as a guy that has to be better and has maybe suffered from some poor luck on balls in play (.371 BABIP this year vs. .310 for career). As Ari noted, perhaps Severino can get back near 100 percent. Maybe the Yankees are gambling on internal starter improvement. But on paper right now, they’re really out-armed by Astros.

gfoster: What do you think about the Atlanta Braves’ moves? They really overhauled their bullpen but could have maybe used a starter or maybe an outfielder. Did they do enough?

neil: I liked the bullpen moves for a team that ranks 27th in relief WAR. But they are in more of a dogfight for the division than they thought they’d be a month ago, and Washington also improved its own bullpen (although it was funny to see them fight back to force extra innings, and then blow a game in relief literally as the deadline was passing).

ari.levin: There wasn’t really an outfielder available, was there? Other than Yasiel Puig and maybe Nick Castellanos.

gfoster: The Indians got two! In Puig and Franmil Reyes.

neil: Atlanta was a team that could have used starting pitching, and there was a ton of that floating around.

ari.levin: The Braves weren’t going to give up a Trevor Bauer.

travis.sawchik: The Braves did bolster their bullpen and operated like a traditional contender at the deadline, but in looking up and down their roster of arms, even with Mike Soroka having a very good season, I don’t see a lot of dominant, high-strikeout arms — which I love in the postseason.

ari.levin: I don’t know how confident I am in Josh Donaldson hitting cleanup. But it looks like Adam Duvall might be back in a big way.

travis.sawchik: It’s Astros-Dodgers — let’s just install a CFB bowl system this year.

neil: They are the Alabama and Clemson of MLB.

travis.sawchik: I wonder if the strength of the Astros and Dodgers was another reason some teams, like the Twins, didn’t do major deadline shopping. Instead the Reds and Mets, each with less than 20 percent playoff odds, are buying some of the top starting pitchers?

neil: That was some outside-the-box deadline thinking.

gfoster: I don’t understand the Bauer deal from the Reds’ perspective. I thought they were going to flip him. That and the Marcus Stroman deal were the most perplexing to me.

ari.levin: Bauer has another year of arbitration, so it looks like they’re going all-in on 2020 while holding out some hope of making a late run now.

travis.sawchik: The Reds might have been looking ahead to this offseason, which looks pretty thin on starting pitching from a free agent standpoint.

neil: The Reds are probably a better team than their record gives them credit for, with a +29 run differential.

travis.sawchik: Yeah. I’m curious why the Reds gave up arguably their best prospect in Taylor Trammell for Bauer, who only has another year of control left and is going to be expensive as he’s going to be arbitration-eligible for a fourth time, which should yield something close or north of $20 million.

gfoster: Likewise, Stroman also seems like a 2020 play.

neil: And in Brodie Van Wagenen’s mind, the Mets are underachievers as well.

Just poised for that 2020 turnaround!

ari.levin: Yeah, the Mets … I don’t understand.

I also can’t quite figure out the Giants moves.

neil: The Giants seemed to want to have it all possible ways.

ari.levin: They sold on Drew Pomeranz, Ray Black, Sam Dyson and Mark Melancon. But they also brought in Scooter Gennett on an expiring contract and kept their two highest-valued assets in Madison Bumgarner and Will Smith.

neil: Buy, sell, embrace their recent run, start to reload… Not sure that lukewarm mixed strategy ever really works.

travis.sawchik: I thought the Indians did well to get two outfielders, a potential future starter in Logan Allen, and two other lottery tickets for eight months of regular-season control over Bauer (who they weren’t going to pay in 2020). If, IF, Kluber comes back near 100 percent, they are interesting.

gfoster: The Mets, Reds and Giants are having identity crises in real time.

neil: You can understand it in the markets where the Mets and Giants play. For Cincinnati, maybe they’re seeing an opening in what has been one of the few divisions not on lockdown by a dominating superteam.

ari.levin: It also makes sense from the perspective that Trevor Bauer is a really good pitcher, and it’s worth having him.

travis.sawchik: To the Reds’ credit, Castillo-Bauer could be pretty formidable top of a rotation in 2020.

As for the Mets, they are an awful defensive team in the infield, and Stroman is a ground-ball pitcher, so I don’t see how that is going to work.

ari.levin: I did find that Pomeranz trade to the Brewers very interesting.

Pomeranz, the No. 5 overall pick in 2010, has had good spurts in his career, including an All-Star selection in 2016, but he hasn’t put together a full season or really lived up to his potential.

Now he joins his sixth MLB team and seventh organization (the Indians traded him to Colorado before he made his debut). So the “change of scenery” probably isn’t at play. But he’s definitely a guy to keep an eye on. He’s struggled this year — a 5.68 ERA in 21 games — but has terrible home run rates this year that should regress, and it’s notable that the Brewers wanted him and gave up a pretty good prospect. Pomeranz may find success in the bullpen, where he wouldn’t have to worry about establishing his subpar fastball.

gfoster: I liked Cleveland’s moves. I think if Kluber comes back, their rotation still has enough with Shane Bieber and Mike Clevinger. In a way, Bauer was disposable and they are obviously tired of his antics. (Side note: They were maybe worried that Bauer was a distraction so they traded him for … Puig.)

neil: Is Bauer really good, though? He is certainly durable. But aside from that one season (2018), he’s been more “pretty good” or “above average” than “lights-out dominant.” This isn’t exactly a Max Scherzer/Chris Sale/Corey Kluber type we’re talking about here.

ari.levin: Pretty good, durable and consistent are valuable things in a pitcher though. How many starters can you truly say that about?

But Trammell was the top prospect traded at the deadline, so it’s giving up a lot.

travis.sawchik: Bauer has accumulated the 11th most pitcher WAR since the start of 2017. Bauer might never be in the elite tier, but no one has thrown more innings (or pitches) this year. There’s some value in that durability. And he’s certainly better than he was prior to 2018, as he’s since added a plus slider to go with his other pitches. For what it’s worth, he claims he pitched the first half of this year through an ankle injury. We’ll see. Still, Trammell is a lot to give up. It’s curious that the Padres liked Trammell THAT much.

gfoster: Any other deals that surprised you or stood out?

ari.levin: I was really interested in the Zac Gallen trade to the Diamondbacks for Jazz Chisholm. Gallen, 23, has pitched really well in seven starts so far: a 2.72 ERA and 43 Ks. But that’s a small sample size of course. And Chisholm is the higher-ranked prospect, No. 59 according to MLB Pipeline. Even though he’s struggled this season in AA, he does have 18 home runs. Plus, he’s still just 21 years old.

travis.sawchik: What are the Marlins doing?

ari.levin: This is basically a case of the Marlins trying to sell high, while the Diamondbacks seem to be banking on the current trends. Either could look very smart or foolish in a few years. It’s a little hard to understand from both sides, but it also kinda makes sense.

neil: I liked the fact that we even had a prospect-for-prospect challenge trade! You don’t see those all too often at the deadline, where it’s more about contending teams dealing prospects for veterans and vice versa.

travis.sawchik: Chisholm has, perhaps, a higher floor but can he reach that in playing for the Marlins?

ari.levin: The Marlins made a similar young-pitcher-for-hitting-prospect trade with the Rays, sending reliever Nick Anderson and starter Trevor Williams for a top-100 prospect and noted opener Ryne Stanek.

The two highest-ranked prospects that moved this week after Trammell (per MLB Pipeline) both went to Miami. Don’t look now, but the Marlins have a very interesting farm system. Fangraphs now suddenly has them fourth.

neil: I also thought the Cubs made a nice move to pick up Nick Castellanos from Detroit. They needed another consistent bat, and he is a solid hitter who has sort of been working under the radar on a very bad Tigers team.

ari.levin: Mike Leake to the Diamondbacks is another move, like the Stroman and Bauer trades, where a noncontender picks up an asset that could help in the future.

travis.sawchik: I’m curious to see Drew Pomeranz as a reliever with the Brewers. If the market for top-end relievers is too expensive, perhaps it was inspired to look at Pomeranz and that curveball in the bullpen where his velocity should increase, too

In 92 1/3 career bullpen innings, Pomeranz has a 2.83 ERA, and he’s been great in relief in a small sample this year.

ari.levin: The biggest acquisitions by projected rest-of-season WAR, from FanGraphs’ depth charts:

1) Trevor Bauer: 1.6
T2) Marcus Stroman:1.1
T2) Zack Greinke: 1.1
T4) Yasiel Puig: 0.8
T4) Mike Leake: 0.8

neil: Stroman and Greinke tied for second. With one, we’re talking about shifting the World Series odds; the other probably won’t contribute to a playoff team. Smh.

ari.levin: I’m a big fan of the “take an average starter and throw him in the bullpen” strategy rather than overpaying for a Felipe Vazquez (see: Fernando Rodney, 2016).

travis.sawchik: It was an unusual deadline in many ways. As a GM, I wouldn’t want to over-invest in chasing a second wild-card spot (a one-game play-in).

ari.levin: I’m just sad the Will Smith for Will Smith trade never materialized.

gfoster: Before we wrap up, I’m going to throw in a Minnesota Twins question for the benefit of Sara Ziegler, our assistant sports editor. Minnesota’s once-comfortable lead in the AL Central is now slim, and the team in the rearview (Cleveland) was busy. They got a couple solid relievers. Was it enough?

travis.sawchik: The Twins still have 77 percent odds to win the division, according to our model, and I think they will hang on, but I do think the Indians are a real threat to catch them if they get a healthy Kluber back soon and Jose Ramirez continues to be more like 2018 Jose Ramirez, as he’s been in recent weeks. I would have liked them to see add more pitching, though I do like the Sam Dyson pickup. He’s a sneaky good reliever.

ari.levin: The Twins are also on track to become the first team to finish a season with over a .500 slugging percentage, and they’re on pace to obliterate the home run record. But how will they hold up in a series against the Astros’ new rotation?

travis.sawchik: I do suspect the Twins would rather build pitching going forward (see Martin Perez and Kyle Gibson improvement) rather than pay for it in cash or prospect treasure

That would be a fun full-on, where-is-baseball-in-2019 series that the Astros would win.

ari.levin: Well, the Astros are also averaging 1.6 home runs per game, a pace just three teams have ever finished a season with but *SIX* have so far in 2019.

travis.sawchik: And the Astros have the second-lowest strikeout rate in baseball as a lineup. Wild.

gfoster: All right. I will spare the Twins (and Sara) the hypothetical ALCS game-by-game rotation matchups vs. Houston. I don’t know how much more interesting these moves make August and September — as most division battles besides the two Central divisions seem nonexistent. But I do think what happened this week will have a big impact on October. Thanks everyone!

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Using JEFFBAGWELL (Joint Estimate Featuring FanGraphs and B-R Aggregated to Generate WAR, Equally Leveling Lists), our custom average of the WAR versions found at FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com.

  2. According to the FanGraphs metric.

Geoff Foster is the sports editor for FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Travis Sawchik is a sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Ari Levin is FiveThirtyEight’s sports intern.

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