Midsummer Musings: Active Trade Deadline Sets Apart MLB’s Haves from Have-nots

The unprecedented movement of players in July leaves a few teams stacked but many others devoid of just about any talent.

by Will Ennis | 8/13/21 2:00am

by Alexandra Ma / The Dartmouth Staff

This year, Major League Baseball experienced one of its most frenetic, star-studded trade deadlines ever. Ten current All-Stars, a record high, were exchanged at the deadline to make a total of 23 current or former All-Stars dealt. Another record-high 15 of those players were traded on deadline day alone. Even with the deadline pushed one day earlier, to July 30, this year, the 62 trades set an MLB record. In total, 158 players changed teams at this deadline, blowing the previous record of 128 out of the water.

All of this moving and shaking has left playoff-minded teams loaded up for the stretch run, while many rebuilding clubs have been torn down to shreds.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, reigning World Series champions and the favorite to repeat this year, swung the blockbuster of the deadline in trading for the Nationals’ Max Scherzer, one of the best pitchers of our generation, to bolster an already threatening starting rotation. If that wasn’t enough though, they also managed to acquire Nats’ All-Star shortstop Trea Turner in the deal, making one of the most intimidating lineups in baseball even better.

The Dodgers were compelled to make these moves by the level of competition in their division this year. As of Aug. 11, L.A. sits four games behind the surprise San Francisco Giants in the NL West and holds a lead the same size over San Diego. As the field stands today, the NL Wild Card game, which is between the two best non-division winners in the league, would be between L.A. and San Diego. And those other division contenders had active deadlines themselves.

The Padres, despite losing out on Scherzer, were able to add All-Star second baseman Adam Frazier, and San Francisco acquired none other than Kris Bryant—superstar third baseman and longtime face of the franchise for the Chicago Cubs. 

With that, let’s talk about those Cubs. The frantic additions made at the top of the NL West are indicative of the way contending teams sought to add talent at this year’s deadline, but the Cubs exemplify the other side of that proverbial coin.

Five years after snapping their 108-year title drought and now firmly beyond the reach of the postseason, the Cubs blew it up, trading away the pillars of the team that won that long sought-after World Series. 

First baseman Anthony Rizzo was sent to the Yankees, where he has played a vital role in re-energizing the team after a lackluster first half, bringing them within two games of the second-place bitter rival, the Red Sox, in the AL East. Closer Craig Kimbrel was dealt across town to the White Sox, anchoring a bullpen that received a lot of reinforcements at the end of the month. Then there was star shortstop Javier Baez, who was sent to the Mets, doubling down on their reloaded roster in a division where the top three teams are separated by one game. And, of course, this was all rounded out by the trade of Bryant to the Giants.

The deals I highlighted in the NL West and those pulled off by the Cubs are only a couple examples from what was the most active trade deadline of all time in terms of both the quantity and quality of players traded. 

This level of activity illustrates a larger trend across the sport: The distance between the haves and the have-nots of MLB is massive. Like in most professional sports, the worst thing an MLB team can be is mediocre. The order of the MLB draft is decided solely based on record—and not by a weighted lottery as in the NBA, for example—so a team’s record translates directly into their opportunity to add young, cheap and controllable talent in the draft. Thus, the prevailing logic is that if you aren’t good enough to truly contend for a championship, the most prudent course of action is to be as bad as possible to build the core of a team that could one day be competitive. The Cubs’ dismantling of a World Series winning team is the most remarkable example of this phenomenon in action.

But, through its flurry of moves, this deadline also revealed just how many MLB teams view themselves as contenders this year. The Yankees—before trading for Rizzo and Texas Rangers slugger Joey Gallo—sat at fourth place in the AL East, firmly outside of the playoff picture, in what was a difficult position to justify win-now moves. Early returns on their aggressive deadline have been good, however, with the team now within striking distance of a playoff berth.

At the tops of both the NL West and NL East are three teams fighting for playoff contention. Every single one of those six — the Dodgers, Padres and Giants in the West and the Phillies, Braves and Mets in the East — approached their deadlines with eyes to the playoffs, adding both depth and star players for the stretch run of the season.

So where does all this moving and shaking leave us? The disparity between good and bad teams is wider than it has ever been, a problem inherent to a league without a salary cap, which allows teams in big markets with obscenely wealthy owners to pay their roster whatever they want. 

At the same time, though, the amount of teams that made additions at the deadline this year portends a heightened level of competition. An usually high number of teams this year viewed themselves internally as playoff contenders, and the result of that is a wide range of clubs that have made upgrades to get to that level. The activity of this year’s deadline has set up a handful of very competitive division races — particularly in the NL West, NL East and AL East — and a playoff field that looks to be one of the most star-studded and exciting in a long time.

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