The MLB non-waiver trade deadline has passed, and it featured a lot of deals; 14 teams can be counted as buyers, and many of those that aren’t are in the midst of hard, AstroBall-style rebuilds. Those teams that wanted to clean house found a rich market for their expiring and/or unfavorable contracts.
There are ulterior circumstances dictating the decisions of the buyers, some of whom won’t even count themselves as legitimate World Series contenders. Only a handful of teams (Dodgers, Cubs, Red Sox, Yankees, Astros, maybe the Indians) are built for the here and now, envisioning deep October baseball. Others, like the Mariners, are on the fringe, and some will be varying levels of good in the future — think the Phillies or Braves. A few are just here because they have a shot at playing meaningful baseball.
For those hoping for that winner-take-all Wild Card game, the trade deadline is a difficult tightrope to walk. Uncertainty abounds for buyers without a realistic shot at their division. Playing that one-off game in which anything could happen, and, in the AL, you are all but guaranteed a trip to Boston or New York, is a challenging concept on which to bet future assets.
Teams don’t want to give away valued players if they’re going to get buzzsawed by the Yankees anyway. Those fringe teams, then, would prefer to avoid expiring deals, hoping for players on longer contracts to avoid mortgaging the future on a hopeless proposition.
The flipside to that is the players under contract for 2019 and beyond often cost more in terms of prospects and assets. The Rays stole top MLB-ready prospects Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows from the Pirates in exchange for starter Chris Archer, who boasts a 4.31 ERA. Archer is on a club-friendly contract until 2021. He was the gem of the pitching market.
Pittsburgh, who stumbled into Wild Card contention despite their notable winter selling spree, gambled on their core. Meadows especially is a promising player, and for a team that dealt Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole (a better, younger version of Archer) in the offseason, he was supposed to be a centerpiece.
The Pirates are your typical middle-of-the-pack buyer walking the tightrope. They don’t project as a pennant contender, and they don’t have a clear, defined star, but they are a small-market, money-strapped club. It’s not easy to make the playoffs in this league. Especially for a team like the Pirates, you can’t waste opportunities to play October baseball.
Thus, the conundrum for mid-level buyers. Many of them are in small-markets and want to sell tickets. The Brewers and Rockies have little chance of signing one of the marquee free agents this winter, and it’s not easy to find a homegrown star. As the Astros proved, it can take complete teardowns to locate the next Carlos Correa. (The Orioles and Royals, among others, are betting on the Astros’ method.) Teams like the Pirates have to hold desperately onto any chance of playoff contention.
At the same time, they have to be wary of going too far into a campaign that only sinks you into mediocrity. Every team, even the small ones, wants to win a championship. Trading assets that could help you do that in the future for a shot at, possibly, going as far as an NLDS matchup with the Dodgers is dangerously close to a fool’s errand.
Fans have limits with accepting that constant small-market mentality — that, hey, we’re probably not going to the World Series any time soon, so let’s take a shot at a Wild Card game. It may not be that defined of a predicament, and this is not to say that the Mariners and Rockies can’t continue to build, but these questions have to be asked.
And so the Pirates will play out the season with Archer and reliever Keone Kela joining a team that may or may not be good enough to overtake the Braves for the second Wild Card spot. For most of these mid-level teams, it’s a bet they have to make.