Here’s how to interpret baseball trade chatter
It’s often been described as baseball’s Christmas.
The trade deadline can be fun, nerve-racking, and for a team about to rebuild, game-changing. Only a small percentage of the proposed trades you see reported ever happen, but that’s because deals are really hard to make.
A smaller-market team giving up the face of its franchise has to hit it right whenever it trades a big-name player. That pressure is on Orioles general manager Dan Duquette in this non-waiver trade season, which goes from now until the end of the month, with the featured player being Baltimore shortstop Manny Machado. This season will be interesting because there are far more teams who want to cash in their stars for prospects in order to begin tanking, or rebuilding as some would rather call it.
The Orioles must hit it big on Machado, closer Zach Britton, relievers Mychal Givens and Brad Brach, and even outfielder Adam Jones, their greatest assets. It’s tricky because Machado, Britton, and Jones are free agents at the end of the season. All could be rental players. So, what do you give up for a potential rental?
Duquette has seven or eight teams who have made offers or are about to make offers. When I asked Duquette on Monday if he was close to anything on Machado, he said, “We’ve been talking and working with several clubs.”
You can tell who’s ready to deal by how teams have their scouts positioned. In Machado’s case, the Orioles are looking for young players, so they have scouts positioned in the organizations of those teams who have expressed interest. The Orioles have been scouting the Cubs, Braves, Phillies, Cardinals, Indians, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, and Brewers — all of whom appear to be interested.
When pitching prospect Justus Sheffield made a start for the Yankees’ Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre affiliate over the weekend in Pawtucket, scouts from the Rangers and Mets were on hand. As another scout pointed out, as soon as Sheffield’s outing was over, the scouts left the ballpark. It’s no secret that Texas is looking to deal veteran lefthander Cole Hamels, and the Yankees are trying to obtain Jacob deGrom from the Mets.
The positioning of scouts is normally the giveaway on trade talk.
Most general managers are at least willing to tell the media that they are looking to trade and usually what they’re looking for. In cases where the GM won’t go that far, it’s an easy guess as to what the team needs. Presidents of baseball operations and/or GMs aren’t allowed to talk about players they may be seeking. First of all, it wouldn’t make sense from a competitive standpoint to reveal the players you’re looking to obtain as you’re trying to keep as much information away from your rivals. Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski is a strong believer in this. Just hours before he pulled off the Chris Sale deal he was telling a room full of reporters at the Winter Meetings that he wasn’t necessarily looking to do anything big, which is when the radar of every reporter in the room went up.
Second, there are strict tampering rules about discussing another team’s players. The executives are certainly free to make offers on those players, but discussing them publicly is a no-no. Some GMs are willing to discuss the names off the record to a reporter.
Scouts talk among themselves. If there’s a scout from the Braves watching Sheffield, for instance, and he knows the Rangers and Mets have scouts there watching Sheffield in particular, word gets around and reporters are able to get out to the public that the Rangers and Mets are interested in Sheffield as a piece in a Hamels or deGrom deal.
It also gets tricky in terms of what type of scout is in the stands. Most teams assign scouts up to three organizations to follow. A scout might be making his normal rounds to watch Pawtucket or Portland play. But this time of year, major league scout may also be looking at someone specifically. And many times, with a major player such as Machado or Hamels, a team will dispatch more than one scout to a game so they can get a couple of opinions.
When the Red Sox dispatch Frank Wren or Allard Baird or Tony La Russa or Eddie Bane to a game, it’s usually to watch someone specifically. It’s not only to make an evaluation of how that position player or pitcher would impact the team, but whether the outlay of prospects is worth it.
GMs and presidents will tell you that a great percentage of these talks never materialize into full-fledged trade talks. Sometimes they are put on hold for another time and get resurrected. If you remember the first Hamels deal by the Phillies, Philadelphia’s GM at the time, Ruben Amaro Jr., had his scouts positioned in the Red Sox, Dodgers, and Rangers organizations mostly. Amaro tried tirelessly to obtain a package from the Red Sox and asked for anyone and everyone from a group that included Blake Swihart, Mookie Betts. Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and others. At the time, Red Sox GM Ben Cherington rejected all overtures even though the Sox had interest in Hamels at various times over a two-year period.
According to Amaro, he asked for Cody Bellinger from the Dodgers and was rejected, but he thought the Dodgers were the team that might have pulled something off if the deal with the Rangers wasn’t so compelling.
“Hundreds of names were discussed,” Amaro recalled. “The work my scouting staff did was incredible. We had mounds of information on every prospect in the organizations of all of those teams. We loved the Red Sox’ talent, but years later I discussed with Ben what a great job he did not giving those guys up, and the Dodgers for not giving up Bellinger.”
Trade talk usually starts at the GM level and then there’s a filtering of responsibilities to the scouts, who watch and make their evaluations. When those evaluations are complete the exchanging of names begins until the deal fails or its completed when compromises are reached.
It can also incorporate special assistants to the GM, coaches, and managers. Sometimes agents are involved if there’s a no-trade clause, as there is now with Hamels. There are so many people involved that nowadays it’s virtually impossible for organizations to keep things quiet and away from the media and public. But every once in a while it happens.
Last season when the Astros were hunting for a pitcher, it was clear that Justin Verlander was the target based on the frequency with which Astros scouts were in attendance at Verlander starts with the Tigers, while Detroit scouts were frequenting Houston’s system. This year, it’s obvious the Astros need another reliever, and they’ve been watching Cincinnati’s Raisel Iglesias and Britton quite often. They also have an affinity for White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu. The White Sox have been going over the Astros’ system with a fine-tooth comb.
Besides their interest in deGrom, Yankee scouts have been watching Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell (a clear long shot) and Detroit’s Michael Fullmer to add to their rotation. Between deGrom, Fullmer, J.A. Happ, and Hamels, it appears the Yankees will be able to add a frontline pitcher to their staff. The Yankees were also considering Mike Moustakas as a first base candidate, and lo and behold Moustakas played first base against the Red Sox on Saturday and Sunday with a Yankees scout watching.
In the offseason, however, the Yankees danced with the Pirates for a long while on Gerrit Cole and decided not to pull the trigger. It likely would have cost them Gleyber Torres, and they’re sure glad they didn’t give him up. Yankees GM Brian Cashman has vowed to walk away from any deal where his comfort level for giving up prospects isn’t good. From what we’ve been able to determine, third baseman Miguel Andujar is in play for the right young pitcher. Sheffield and righthander Chance Adams also could be had for the right pitcher, but Torres is off the table. Period.
So, the trade deadline could be an exercise in how the Orioles can rebuild by trading Machado. Could the Rangers get some of the prospects lost in their first Hamels deal? How far will the Yankees go in obtaining that final piece for their rotation?
The rumors and scenarios are already starting to filter out in the media. Of course we’ll try to connect all the dots to find that big surprise.