Neither a Buyer nor a Seller be
Why you shouldn't expect a lively trade deadline this year
The winter. Do you remember when there was a winter? When trades and free agent acquisitions and waiver claims and whatnot were actually taking place, before these glacial eons of plague days came down upon us. Well cast your memory back there, lord, and if you can remember the winter that was, you might recall that as the Giants acquired one low-risk, low-cost bounceback candidate after another, the tagline at the end of each Breaking News article was some variation on: “or he might provide real value at the trade deadline.” Phrases like “Drew Pomeranz 2.0” or “Mauricio Dubon redux” grew in abundance as pundits parsed the Giants’ thought process in accumulating a bounty of one-year contracts that seemed ripe for flipping on the resale market for precious, precious prospects.
Which was a good plan! Chapter One in Rebuilds for Smarties is clearly titled: “Step 1: Acquire More Talent.” But facts on the ground have, it seems, laid waste to all of our winter plans (like my plan to fly to Scottsdale in mid-March and lay eyes for the first time on Marco Luciano URGGGGH!!! — sorry, had to get that out), and this one might be no exception. Between plan and execution, 2020’s brand of Weirdball is almost certain to take some of the vigor out of the new August 31 trade deadline (assuming that the season makes it that far, which is possibly a foolish assumption).
The convoluted season that baseball is desperately trying to launch appears likely to see one of the slowest trade years on record, as three separate factors converge to make deals much more difficult than normal:
The (Weird, Mangled, Unpredictable, Possibly Not Happening) Shortened Season
The (Compound-Complex) 60 man Rules
The (Nonexistent) Scouting Process
Each of these factors on their own would make trading slightly more complicated, but together? Prepare for the extended version of “60 Days with Drew Smyly,” folks! Let’s look at the hows and the whys of this situation:
The (Weird, Mangled, Unpredictable, Possibly Not Happening) Shortened Season
There’s a whole cottage industry of baseball articles right now exploring the wackiness we might be expecting this year in just 60 games — Will we have a .400 hitter? Will anyone reach 25 HR or 50 RBIs? Will a relief pitcher lead the league in Wins?
For our purpose, the most important aspect of a 60 game season is that it doesn’t really have time to push anybody out of the race. There’s lots of different ways to illustrate this, but let’s take a simple one: here’s the National League standings after 60 games in a recent season.
Ah, remember those halcyon days gone by when the Giants were above LA in the standings, even if by just a half game? Now realize that the season this was from ended in the Giants losing 90 games and firing nearly everybody of importance in upper management while the Dodgers went to (and lost) their second consecutive World Series (both of which they lost, in case I didn’t make that clear before).
Perhaps it’s better to look at those standings in this way:
Between the two, you get the idea. Sixty games into the 2018 season, 10 of the 15 teams in the NL were within two games of a playoff spot. Feeling generous? Stretch it out to four games and loop the Pirates in for an 11th club. And this snapshot in time is from the end of the road, not the halfway mark when decisions about being “in or out” would have to be made this year.
The sprint season that’s being set up will give just about everybody (outside the 1988 Orioles) the sensation of being in the chase, and consequently less likely to sell off important pieces. The Giants view themselves as contenders; there’s little that’s likely to happen in the first 36 games to convince them otherwise.
That’s the impact a 60 game season could have on the Supply side, but what about the Demand? We’re at the doorsteps of a season in which nearly everybody is questioning whether it can or should take place. When each and every player (coach, trainer, bus driver, video technician) is faced with the personal decision of whether or not to take part. Whether the risks are worth the rewards. Uncertainty is dripping off the season like condensation off a summer drink. Any potential buyer has to account for the chance that the season will suddenly come to an end because a mass breakout of COVID on one or more teams will render them incapable of playing. They’ll have to account for the chance that the player they’re acquiring will themselves turn up a positive result for the virus and miss a significant portion of the remaining season. They’ll have to account for the chance that a player who thought long and hard about whether to participate in this season to begin with, might change their mind and opt out — because a family member suddenly became sick, because the circumstances in their home changed, or because the idea of flying across the country to a clubhouse full of some 40 brand new people who they haven’t interacted with all year seems more threatening than the teammates they’ve spent months or years with.
Every trade has risk inherent in it. Giants fans, who’ve complained bitterly about Sidney Ponson or Carlos Beltrán over the years (though feeling rather nonchalant about Sam Dyson), certainly know this. But this year the risk of any player acquisition will skyrocket with multiple strands of uncertainty. And the calculation for how much a team is willing to pay to take on all that risk is likely to plummet accordingly.
And when slack demand encounters half-hearted supply? You have a recipe for a lot of tire kicking but little car purchasing.
The (Compound-Complex) 60-man Rules
We’ve touched on this before, and there are elements that are still not clear to me (as for instance, the issue of whether teams can waive players off their 40-man but still maintain them on their 60-man). But there are a couple of truths that we’ve all gotten comfortable with at this point:
Players who aren’t in the 60-man pool can’t be traded
It’s much harder to take players off the 60-man than it is to put them on.
So far, as we’ve seen with the Giants pool, the prospects who are being selected by their teams are the best the organizations have to offer, their top-rated, future-star types. The B and C level guys who so often make up trades aren’t getting the invite to Summer Camp. Last year the Giants acquired Mauricio Dubon, Jaylin Davis, Kai-Wei Teng, Prelander Berroa, Tristan Beck. Of that group, almost certainly none but Dubon would have been part of a 60 player pool this time last year. Davis was the Twins #23 prospect in the Prospect Handbook prior to the season while Teng and Berroa were outside the top 30 entirely. Beck was the Braves #17 prospect. These are the types of guys currently trying to figure out what Indy League or Sandlot game they can get into to keep their skills sharp; the ones whose contracts are currently frozen. For your classic mid-level reliever or back-end starter deal, this is the whole package. And even in blockbuster deals, these are the guys who round out the package before everyone gets to “Yes.” A season without B and C prospects available is a season without trades.
“But wait!” you say, “there are loopholes. Players can be added on, players can be named later.” And yes, indeed, there are.
Players can be added to the 60-man pool in order to trade them. Teams might well be leaving a slot open in case someone on the waiver wire tickles their fancy and utilizing the open slot in this way certainly makes sense. “You want a Tristan Beck? Why, we just happen to have a Tristan Beck riiiiiiiiiiiight……wait for it………HERE!” For more complex deals, like the 3 for 1 Dyson trade, this seems like a less workable approach. Teams might well leave one slot open for flexibility during the season, maybe two, but three seems like pushing the envelope a bit. More likely teams would need to release a player on their pool in order to open a spot, or possibly try to include said player in the trade return. So instead of offering up one’s Jaylin Davises, they push their Abiatal Avelinos instead. Basically the Sunday night Seafood Stew Special strategy as related to baseball trades.
San Diego and Oakland just this week showed the value of the PTBNL in the current environment, helping Oakland offload Jorge Mateo who was out of options and unlikely to make their team. But there are limits to how much this mechanism helps.
Teams have six months to put the Name in their PTBNL. With a deal near the August 31 deadline, that gets you into late January 2021. And while we certainly hope that MLB will have un-frozen minor league contracts by then, teams will still be acquiring players who have been a year removed from game action with no stats or contemporaneous scouting looks to recommend them. So, as is likely the case with Mateo, this approach mostly works best if a team is looking to acquire some org depth.
Which leads to:
The (Nonexistent) Scouting Process
And now the coup de grâce. There will be absolutely no information coming out the alternate camp sites for teams trying to swing a trade. There will be no scouting looks. There will be no video. There will be no stats or box scores from whatever activity is taking place there. The alternate camps are going to be a total black box.
You’re hoping to swing a deal with talent-rich and success-hungry San Diego and want to know what strides CJ Abrams has taken in his development this year? Well, sidle up and let AJ Preller tell you all about it, and then take him at his word because that’s the only source of information you’re going to have on the topic (yes, I’m putting my thumb on the scale by making my scenario choice be a GM who was once suspended for having separate internal and external medical reports for his players).
As front offices seek more data — better data — on which to base their decisions, how comfortable are they likely to be agreeing to trade targets in the blind? With virtually no knowledge of the players’ current physical condition or any insight into what development might have taken place working out with, and scrimmaging against, major league veterans every day? How does a Next-Gen GM decide between Team A and Team B’s offers when all the scouting reports are a year old and the Trackman feed has gone silent? Will they take the plunge? Or kick the can towards a more informed trade season down the road?
None of these are insurmountable obstacles, certainly not in and of themselves. But the synergy matters. Each of these factors makes a meeting of minds more complicated. And more complicated matters struggle to find resolution. Taken all together, this is some wet powder to try to light. No doubt, somebody will find a way to shake some action. Bullpen depth will be moved around. And who knows, as the seconds wind down, maybe someone will dare the bold stroke, the less-informed gamble. But from my view, the smart money will be on a quiet trade deadline in 2020, if deadline there’ll be.
Anyway, it’s not that bad. Remember, even if he never provides the org with Mauricio Dubon Redux or Jaylin Davis v2, Kevin Gausman will always be a guy who did this with the Giants:
As often happens in life, memories may have to be enough.
60 Man Pool Updates
Since last we spoke, the Giants have been busy adding players to their official 2020 player pool — as we anticipated they would.
They initially announced a group of 51 players — which didn’t include COVID-positive prospect Hunter Bishop. Once 1st round pick Patrick Bailey officially signed he became the 52nd member of the pool. Then came a group of four: top prospects Will Wilson and Luis Toribio, the whip-armed RP Camilo Doval, and Catcher Chadwick Tromp (camp Catchers being always in demand). And then finally came OF Alexander Canario (who, by one report, had been in a dour mood over his omission). That’s 57 players, with Bishop presumably making #58 once he returns two negative test results. (Luis Madero has also tested positive for COVID and while I think technically that means he’s not counted in the pool, he does have to be added back in once he passes safety protocols, so let’s just keep him in the count).
As I noted last week, the process of adding Non-Roster Invites to the 40-man once the opening day roster is set might open new holes in the pool, creating opportunities for players such as Seth Corry, Sean Hjelle, or Luis Matos.
In the meantime, it’s interesting to me to see in this process some insight into the Giants own internal ranking of their prospects. Each year the various outlets rank prospects and all teams respond with some variation of “well, that’s not the way WE view them.” But in adding prospects to the 60-man pool piecemeal we’re getting some inkling of the Giants own pref-list when spaces are short and each decision closes the door on one potential external acquisition.
The view isn’t perfect — the first four were announced together, Bailey couldn’t be added until his signing was official and the prospects already on the 40 man (e.g., Webb, Dubon, Davis) are a band apart — but following the order of inclusion we have an internal ranking that looks something like this:
I’m not sure exactly what to do about Doval. He’s an electric arm, but I’m not sure the Giants were signaling they value him as a top 10 prospect. Possibly, he hedges the chance that Adon becomes a 40 man victim and is lost, and so an inconsistent, monster-stuff arm on the 40-man is replaced with another inconsistent, monster-stuff arm available to be added to the 40-man if the time comes (but not wasting options if it doesn’t). Still, Doval is here and Corry isn’t which is….interesting and maybe enlightening. There’s no real way of determining where in that mix Davis, Dubon and Webb would like, but my guess is they’re all above Wilson for the team. Wilson getting the call prior to Toribio, Canario and Matos is certainly eye-opening and a definite indication of how the club orders that group in my opinion. They certainly appear to be serious that they had him valued very close to Bishop and seem to separate Bishop and Canario distinctly. In the long run, it’s perhaps not that meaningful as the Giants aren’t likely to be trading any prospects away anytime soon, but we try to glean drops of information where we can, and I like this sliver of a window into the mind of the braintrust. I’ll tuck it away in the back of my mind.
Over the weekend, the Giants announced the signing of four more draft picks, 2nd rounder Casey Schmitt, compensation picks Nick Swiney and Jimmy Glowenke, and 5th rounder Ryan Murphy.
High School LHP Kyle Harrison has been reported to have agreed to a $2.5 million deal which would be $1.8m overslot for his pick. Swiney signed at $223,300 overslot so in the other five deals the Giants need to claw back just over $2 million in underslot savings. If a team goes 5% over the total bonus pool the penalties include future draft choices — a penalty no team has ever been willing to pay under the current system — but up to 5% the penalty is simply tax dollars on the overage which the Giants have traditionally been willing to pay. That 4.99% overage allowance gives them another $460,667 to work with.
So assuming the reported $2.5m figure for Harrison is accurate (and that my math is correct), we can expect to see RJ Dabovich sign for somewhere in the range of $400-422k, providing the additional $85,000 necessary to stay under the 5% penalty line. Once that deal is official, we’ll see Harrison put his John Hancock on the line.
And in closing for today, I’ll just leave this here…