Last weekend, the first big domino of the 2021 trade deadline season fell. The San Diego Padres—otherwise known as the Galactus of Infielders—acquired Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Adam Frazier in exchange for three prospects. Frazier is far from a franchise player; his .324/.388/.448 slash line this year has been buoyed by a .359 BABIP, and his wRC+ (130) is substantially higher than his DRC+ (111), indicating that the Pirates dealt him at the height of his value. Nevertheless, Frazier is at least an average hitter who can play all over the diamond, making him ideal for the superutility role the Padres envision for him.
So what did the Pirates get in return for their best player, who’s under team control through 2022? Very little, all things considered. Of the three prospects headed back east, only one—infielder Tucupita Marcano—landed on MLB.com’s list of top 30 Pirates prospects. Marcano is a talented hitter who reached the big leagues at 21, but he hit just .182/.280/.205 in a brief cameo with San Diego this year, and his all-around game is still developing.
Whatever Frazier’s historical credentials, he’s versatile, cheap, and currently leading the league in hits. And the Pirates, one of the most closefisted teams in baseball, just had to throw in $1.4 million to get a prospect who barely even registered for the Padres?
The Frazier trade likely won’t be the splashiest of the deadline season, with superstars from Kris Bryant to Max Scherzer in position to potentially call a moving company within the next three days. But it’s representative of a trend that ought to trouble rebuilding teams: Blockbuster deadline deals aren’t bringing the returns they once did.
Any GM whose team is out of the playoff picture considers selling off current stars for the core of the franchise’s next incarnation, particularly if the current season looks less like a blip than the start of a trend. Even the most ardent anti-tanking, win-now advocates understand that team-building is a cyclical process—and an unpredictable and treacherous one at that. Not every team’s window is open every year (the Dodgers’ current decade-long heater notwithstanding), so clubs eyeing 2023 contention will sell off their older contributors and pending free agents to teams that are going all-in now, and in exchange receive younger players who are more suited to the former teams’ own timelines. Good players get to chase a title, good clubs maximize their odds of winning it all in the short term, and struggling clubs get hope for the future. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly back to Pareto optimality.
The seller’s Holy Grail is a trade that sends one veteran star out in exchange for a raft of players who basically complete the rebuild in one fell swoop. It’s been done in the not-too-distant past. At the 2007 deadline, the Texas Rangers sent Mark Teixeira and Ron Mahay to Atlanta for five young players, including Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus, Neftalí Feliz, and Matt Harrison. Four years later, the Rangers were polishing off their second straight AL pennant with Andrus as the team’s starting shortstop, Feliz as the closer, and Harrison as the no. 3 starter. In 1998, the Mariners traded two months of Randy Johnson for Freddy García, John Halama, and Carlos Guillén. Three years later, Seattle—with García and Halama in the rotation and Guillén at shortstop—won 116 games.
Teardown trades don’t even have to be that dramatic to work out in the long term. In back-to-back seasons, Cleveland sent Cy Young winners CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee to Milwaukee and Philadelphia, respectively, and received Michael Brantley and Carlos Carrasco, along with other less successful prospects. And in 2015, a moribund Brewers club sent Carlos Gómez and Mike Fiers to Houston for a package that included Josh Hader, Adrian Houser, and Brett Phillips, who three years later was flipped to Kansas City in a deal for Mike Moustakas. An outgoing star plus patience equals that star’s replacement.
But as the Nationals consider whether to part ways with Scherzer, and the Cubs prepare travel arrangements for the sainted quartet of Bryant, Javy Báez, Anthony Rizzo, and Craig Kimbrel, the instant-restock trades are getting rarer and rarer.
Last year’s trade deadline, coming halfway through a pandemic-truncated rump season that put six extra teams in the playoffs, isn’t really a generalizable precedent, but previous years show MLB teams’ reluctance to part with franchise-remaking prospects in exchange for one significant player.
The last GM to pull off an instant rebuild around the deadline was Yankees boss Brian Cashman, who in 2016 flipped Carlos Beltrán and relievers Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman to various contenders for a massive prospect return: Clint Frazier, Gleyber Torres, Justus Sheffield, J.P. Feyereisen, and others. All that for an aging DH and a pair of rental relievers. The following July, the Cubs sent José Quintana across town for a package that included Eloy Jiménez and Dylan Cease … and that’s basically the last time a buyer lost a win-now trade at the deadline.
That’s not to say teams haven’t paid steep prices for midseason acquisitions: The Astros spent quite a bit to acquire Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, as did the Dodgers for Yu Darvish and Manny Machado. (The Pirates’ 2018 trade of Chris Archer for Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, and Shane Baz made so little sense at the time it’s best not to try to include it into any leaguewide assessment.) But both the Astros and Dodgers were able to land three future Hall of Famers and a five-time All-Star without parting with prospects like Forrest Whitley, Kyle Tucker, Walker Buehler, and Keibert Ruiz. Like the Frazier deal, those trade returns all seem like there’s a top-25 prospect missing.
Offseason trades are their own category, but they too would seem to indicate that highly paid star players have been undervalued as of late. In fact, pennies-on-the-dollar salary dumps are so common now that you can tell which Ringer writer wrote about which transaction by the epithets that ended up in the headline. Zach Kram described the Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt deals as “shameful” and “a shame for baseball.” I pulled “disgrace” out of the bag for Mookie Betts and Giancarlo Stanton. And the Carrasco–Francisco Lindor deal might be the worst of all.
It’s hard not to connect all of this to the increasing stratification of the modern baseball landscape, in which only a handful of teams are willing to tickle the luxury tax threshold or play in the deep end of the free agent pool. These days, the majority want to reduce payroll first and foremost, with winning as a secondary goal at best. (Perhaps it’s a coincidence that we stopped seeing lopsided win-now trades around the time MLB went on its two-year free agent capital strike.)
With fewer buyers in the market for expensive star players, it’s hard to drum up enough interest to create a bidding war. Part of the reason the Astros got Greinke and Verlander for so little is they were willing to pay a substantial part of both players’ long-term contracts—and even then, they got Arizona and Detroit, respectively, to kick in tens of millions in cash to soften the blow.
Somewhere along the line, cost certainty and team control stopped being a means to an end in roster construction and became an end in and of itself. Team control has always been valuable—and in the case of deadline trades for star players, it’s been wildly overvalued for decades now—but only because having underpaid star players in one position allows the team to reinvest its financial resources in other places.
Some franchises, like Cleveland and Tampa Bay, have tried to field competitive teams despite ownership restricting their spending to a fraction of what that enterprise ought to take. That requires a near-constant roster turnover; such a club sells off its stars not on the eve of free agency, but several years in advance, and replaces them not with young prospects but MLB-ready players who will be cheap for a few more seasons. It’s not particularly difficult to exploit such a trade partner; in the past two years, the Padres have acquired Frazier, Darvish, Joe Musgrove, Blake Snell, Jake Cronenworth, Tommy Pham, Trent Grisham, Austin Nola, and Mike Clevinger by trading with teams that are willing to get a little worse if it means they get a lot cheaper. And they’ve had to let go of just one global top-50 prospect in the process: pitcher Luis Patiño.
So even though there are enough miscast and disaffected stars to fuel a spirited deadline frenzy this week, it’s unlikely that Bryant or Scherzer or Trevor Story is going to bring about the kind of prospect return that takes the sting out of their absence. Like the trades themselves, the modern deadline season is more complicated than it used to be. And while it suits the financial interests of ownership, it’s not quite as fun as the good old days.