Baseball’s trading deadline: A mid-summer crapshoot

Sometimes you wonder if maybe for some folks the game within the game is more exciting and greater fun than the game itself.

That seems clearly the view of that increasing multitude of baseball fanatics who more and more dote obsessively and mindlessly on the game’s wheeler-dealer machinations as the non-waiver trade deadline arrives in a sheer if curious frenzy at the end of every July.

Fantasy baseball has much to do with it as legions of dreamers, thwarted by the limitations of their physical skills, gravitate to the playing out of their grand illusions on a board game that might be called “You, Too, Can Be a GM”.  And why not, as such nerdy eggheads as Brian Cashman, Theo Epstein, Alex Anthopoulos, and A.J. Preller become models of the rakish species. None of them could hit or throw a curve ball, either.

But there’s always been such an in-season moment rife with drama, expectation and, yes, fantasy.  In one’s gilded youth it was the 15th of June that featured the magic hour and it was a date set in cement for about a half century. Every year there’d be a couple of thunderbolts handed down.

One of that era’s more spectacular deadline transactions was the opus concocted with literally an hour to go in 1951 by the Dodgers, then dearly belonging to Brooklyn, and Chicago’s eternal Cubs. Brooklyn got the classy Andy Pafko along with Johnny Schmitz, Al Walker, and Wayne “Twiggy” Terwilliger for Gene Hermanski, Eddie Miksis, Bruce Edwards, and Joe Hatten. Eight players on the move and all of them certified major leaguers! Now that, my friends was a good, old-fashioned and real baseball trade. It was also fairly typical of the times as all four chaps the Cubs got stuck with quickly proved to be well over the hill while Pafko was solidifying a Dodger lineup still ranked among the best in NL history.

One year later, it was the Red Sox who stole the June show with one of the largest and most controversial capers ever; a nine-player blockbuster shipping the beloved Johnny Pesky along with Moose Dropo, Freddie Hatfield, Don Lenhardt, and Bill Wight to the Tigers for Hoot Evers, Dizzy Trout, Johnny Lipon, and the distinguished George Kell, who ended up in the Hall of Fame. It did not go down well with what then passed for The Nation but proved, in the long run, less consequential than first appeared with only Kell and Dropo lasting much longer as players of consequence.  More importantly, the deal essentially proclaimed the break-up of Boston’s bogus post-war juggernaut that had been so long on promise and bombast, but so short on results.

Actually, more than six decades later not that much has changed other than the date of the deadline and cast of characters. The mid-season extravaganza still gives teams one last major opportunity to re-structure, re-direct, or re-build. Then, as now, some teams seek to clean house and plot the future while others strive for that perceived missing link needed to vault them over the top. The former remain the also-rans while the latter are more-or-less the contenders. But above all, the process remains a crapshoot.  

What is most different now is the huge role that money plays.  Not that money hasn’t always been a factor, mind you. In the good old days the poorer-than-a- church-mouse franchises like the A’s and Browns would cop out for cash every year, selling their best and brightest to the wealthy teams as fast as they could be developed.

The difference nowadays is that even the fat cats watch their budgets and trim where possible, as all teams – even the richest – struggle to keep their astronomical payrolls under control, if only to avoid the crippling luxury tax. Parity is truly a force in today’s game, mainly because of the luxury tax. Only the Dodgers remain mindless runaway spenders. And even they were prowling this last month seeking to dump dumb contracts.  

So it was that this year’s deadline sweepstakes were, not surprisingly, possibly the lustiest yet. Officially beginning with the All-Star break and lasting about three weeks, it featured 43 trades moving close to 200 players, including 21 all-stars and dozens of the game’s very best minor league prospects, with 29 of MLB’s 30 franchises involved. Only Arizona’s Diamondbacks refused to budge and partake.

Usually among the busiest in this wacky scramble, your Red Sox were the second-least involved this time, executing only one obscure deal for a retreaded minor league pitcher of little repute. That alone speaks volumes about the state of things this season for the heavily over-stated Boston Red Sox.

So, who won? Who Lost? Who knows? says I.

The only exercise more pointless than trying to predict who gets traded and to whom – the dizzy business that  dominates the media in the days leading up to the deadline – is the declaring of which team did  best and emerges most improved – the dizzy business that dominates us the days immediately thereafter. We’ll know soon enough how all the frenzied give and take affects pennant races, but the delivering of final grades isn’t possible until we see how many of those dozens of alleged  prospects shuttled to and fro pan out. Or don’t pan out, as is more often the case.

In the meantime, here are some stray points, ramifications, curiosa, whatever, to keep an eye on:
• Will the Royals regret their massive change of tune? After three decades of painful folly, Kansas City rose again, thanks to a wonderful crop of home-grown talent ripening at long last. Now suddenly they have radically changed course, opting to purge their rich farm system to acquire rentals they pray will reap a championship. If Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist lead them all the way to the Promised Land, no one will gripe. But if they don’t …!

• What’s wrong with Yoeneis Cespedes? In precisely one year the highly touted Cuban phenom has been passed like the veritable hot potato from Oakland to Boston to Detroit to the Mets. It’s the rare bird in this game’s long history who has donned four uniforms in one year. His numbers are strong, yet none weep when Senor Cespedes departs. There’s a story there anxious to be told.

• How, after his last two seasons on the DL, could Shane Victorino have any trade value?

• Are the Miami Marlins still in the major Leagues?

• Last winter, San Diego’s whiz-kid general manager, A.J. Preller, ran amuck like some deranged kid in a toy store, collecting a roster of hot commodities on the players’ market with trades and free-agent strikes. This summer, his team adrift, he placed his off-season collection back on the market while obviously over-pricing them because he couldn’t peddle a one of them. How can A.J. Preller keep a job in the major Leagues?  

• It’s a no-brainer to agree with the consensus holding Toronto’s pick-up  of Troy Tulowitzki (assuming he doesn’t get hurt again) and David Price (assuming he doesn’t underachieve like he did in Detroit a year ago) improves the Blue Jays, making them scary down the stretch. On the other hand, they have eight games to make up (as of the writing) and may need to pass the Yankees to make post-season. It says here that as long as Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion keep hitting in the .230s, it won’t be as easy as it looks.

• And lastly, speaking of those Yankees, what a gamble they are taking sitting pat on their hand and declining to draw from the deck, as it were. The Yankees have at last embraced the old-time religion, refusing to spend goofy or ransom their farm system. It’s official! And if they fizzle between now and October, everyone will say they were idiots. But if I were them, I’d deem it a gamble worth taking.