MLB trade deadline: Why we might see less action than usual this year

USA TODAY Sports

Tonight while I was working for MLB Trade Rumors, and I came across this article about what the Phillies might do at the trade deadline. A couple immediate responses:

1) I'm glad Ruben Amaro Jr. doesn't work for the Pirates. He doesn't sound confident or decisive enough to decide whether to have the tuna salad or the ham sandwich for lunch, let alone to correctly assess his team's playoff chances and figure out what to do about it.

2) If the Phillies were in the NL Central, it would be a lot more obvious that they should be sellers.

The Phillies aren't the only poorly-constructed team with a GM who's unwilling to admit it. There's also the Royals, whose GM Dayton Moore recently said all kinds of head-scratching stuff about what his team plans to do at the deadline. Moore is a special case -- not only is he arguably the worst GM in baseball, but he's had a long time to change the Royals' fortunes, and he hasn't done it. Selling would be an admission of failure on his part. So now he's 2007-era Dave Littlefield, out looking for his Matt Morris.

The broader point here, though, is that the current competitive environment throughout baseball will not encourage many trades in the next two weeks.

Here's each division's run differential so far this year.

AL East +171
AL Central +2
AL West -124

NL East -120
NL Central +167
NL West -96

The best baseball this season has, overwhelmingly, been played in the AL East and NL Central. The best teams so far (including the Red Sox, Rays, Orioles, Cardinals, Pirates and Reds) have overwhelmingly come from those two divisions, and all six of those teams have good shots at making the playoffs, not only because they've played well, but also because there are two Wild Cards now. The Yankees also aren't out of the playoff race, and they obviously won't be selling.

Then there are the other four divisions. The AL Central is still relatively competitive, but only because the Tigers have underperformed their Pythagorean record by five games. That little statistical accident is the reason Dayton Moore can say, with a straight face, that he doesn't think he should be selling. The Indians are still in the race, the Royals are pretending they are, and the Twins traditionally don't trade a whole lot.

The AL West's run differential is terrible, but that's partly just because of the Astros. The A's are legitimate, and the Rangers probably are too. The Angels are ten games back, but they have a lot invested in their current team, and I haven't seen much indication that they plan on selling. The Mariners say they aren't likely to sell. And the Astros just don't have much left to offer.

The NL East and NL West have not played well, which should have a cooling effect on their trade activity. The Phillies and Nationals are still on the periphery of the playoff hunt, and the Nationals have enough talent, and enough controllable talent, that selling would probably be silly for them anyway. The Mets, meanwhile, are anticipating a big payroll boost next year. In the NL West, the Dodgers and Rockies haven't played well, but they're still in the race. The Giants are on the periphery, too, despite allowing 39 more runs than they've scored this year.

If runs scored and allowed had been distributed a little more equitably throughout baseball's divisions to this point, and if the Tigers hadn't underperformed their Pythagorean record so badly, teams like the Phillies, Rockies, Giants and Royals would be clear, slam-dunk sellers. If their GMs hadn't been on the job so long, the Phillies, Royals and Mariners would probably be sellers. And if their teams weren't built so ambitiously, the Blue Jays and Angels would probably be sellers. (I'm not at all sure what the Blue Jays will do.)

The only obvious sellers here -- and this doesn't mean all these teams will actually sell, just that I don't see any obstacles preventing them from doing so -- are the White Sox, Astros, Marlins, Cubs, Brewers and Padres. If you're a fan of one of these teams, this is a great situation. The Cubs are the team that seems best positioned to take advantage of this dynamic, and between all the upcoming trades and all their spending in the international market, I'd be having a lot of fun right now if I were a Cubs fan.

But if you're one of the contending teams, like the Pirates, you're in a tough spot. The Astros and Marlins don't have much to offer, and none of the sellers have a ton to offer. Because of that, I might expect this year's trade deadline to be a bit quieter than we imagine, not just for the Pirates, but for many other contending teams. They can still get, say, a reliever; that's always pretty easy. But bigger deals will be tough. Neal Huntington has always been a relatively active GM, but he'll have his work cut out for him this year.

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