How Active Teams Won the Trade Deadline

You don’t choose the window, the window chooses you.

Apparently, only 11 MLB general managers understand the most important concept of front office-ing. Out of all 30 teams at the deadline, only 11 seemed to truly know what they were doing and only 11 teams truly improved.

The Nationals, Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Rays, Diamondbacks and Indians all sensed an opportunity to win in 2017 and acted on it. The Rangers and A’s sensed that they needed to build for the future and acted on it. The White Sox continued a fire sale that will pay off soon.

Every other team? Yikes.

About 3 weeks ago, I wrote about how the idea of ‘standing pat’ at the deadline is stupid and useless. You either feel you have a team that can make a playoff run or you feel you don’t. And based on that feeling, you act accordingly at the trade deadline. Standing pat and doing nothing creates mediocrity and irrelevancy.

And, out of the 29 teams that won’t be celebrating a World Series in 2017, 21 of them – excluding intentional sellers Oakland, Texas and the White Sox – just solidified that status with an apathetic trade deadline approach. Yeah, I’m primarily looking at you, Houston Astros. Enjoy 2017 as your ‘what could have been’ season.

But I’m not here to talk about the teams that failed the deadline, I’ll get to them some other time. I’m here to talk about the teams that won the deadline and the common approach that they all shared.

Activity won the trade deadline, and I will personally guarantee that one of the 7 buyers I listed above will be standing alone at the end of the season as 2017 World Series champions.

In the National League, the 3 best teams have clearly separated themselves. The Nationals, Cubs and Dodgers all understand that they have both pressure and rosters ready to make a deep playoff run in 2017, and they all acted like it in July, operating with the precision and aggression conducive to a World Series winning approach.

The Cubs, experiencing a World Series hangover that saw them enter the All Star break under .500, were able to stay afloat for the first 3 and a half months of the season due to a weak NL Central. However, instead of trusting the team already in place to get things going, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer bolstered what few roster holes they had and have kick-started a sleeping giant.

Since acquiring Jose Quintana on July 14th, the Cubs are 14-3 and have leapfrogged the Brewers to take control of the NL Central. Having filled the three discernible roster holes that they had – left handed reliever, backup catcher, starting pitcher – with micro-precision trades, Chicago appears set for another playoff run and has put itself back on track for more future success after appearing unsteady.

Out in Washington, the bullpen appears to be the only problem. The Nationals are 63-42 and hold a commanding 13 game lead over the second place Marlins in the NL East. However, with 14 blown saves and a 4.38 ERA entering the All-Star break, some clear help was needed in the bullpen.

GM Mike Rizzo and the rest of the Nationals’ front office acted accordingly, making trades for A’s relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madsen along with Twins’ closer Brandon Kintzler. By adding 3 back end arms and addressing the dire bullpen need, Washington has secured itself a more stable playoff position and can feel good about their chances of finally making good on the promise of a World Series run that they have teased their fans with for so long.

Since the break, the Nationals haven’t blown a save and hold a much improved 3.05 team bullpen ERA. Problem solved thus far.

With a 75-31 record on August 2nd, the Dodgers have something seriously special going on. That .708 winning percentage has them on pace for 114 wins, just 3 shy of setting a Major League record. Clearly, this is a tremendous team having a tremendous season.

With an approach reflecting that, the Dodgers didn’t mess around at the deadline. They tried and failed to acquire Zach Britton from the Orioles. However, when that fell through, Andrew Freidman, Farhan Zaidi and the rest of the Los Angeles brass launched into plan B.

Plan B consisted of power relievers Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani along with Texas Rangers’ ace Yu Darvish.

The Dodgers have a sparkling farm system that has been carefully built by a patient and stingy front office. Their traditional refusal to trade prospects has yielded them Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger’s respective 2016 and 2017 breakouts. However, understanding that 114 win teams don’t come around very often, Los Angeles rightly decided it was time to bite the bullet on their traditional mold and deal away some future talent.

Instead of cuddling up in a corner with their precious prospects, the best team in baseball sacked up, dealt some away and got better because of it. The Dodgers’ are now easily in pole position to win their first World Series since 1988 because of a superb trade deadline and it was beautiful to watch.

I also have to give props to the Diamondbacks for going and getting JD Martinez. Arizona is currently in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011, and although they don’t appear good enough to take down the Cubs, Nationals, or Dodgers, they have separated as the best of the rest.

Their move for Martinez showed a clear approach. Arizona believes that they just have to make the playoffs to have a shot. The Diamondbacks didn’t deplete the farm system chasing after rentals, they made a calculated move in order to smartly capitalize on a winning team without mortgaging their future.

Those 4 teams all guaranteed themselves a playoff spot by simply having a clear plan and being active at the deadline.

In the American League, the story wasn’t so much about separating the gap between playoff teams as it was closing the gap.

The Astros, to this point, have made themselves a clear front runner in the junior circuit. Sports Illustrated, 3 years ago, declared them the 2017 World Series champions and Houston has apparently taken that to heart.

However, some chinks in the armor have shown through over the course of the past month or so and Houston is only 8-8 since the All Star break with a disturbing 5.64 team ERA.  Sensing an opportunity to close ground on the previously invincible looking Astros, the Yankees, Red Sox and Indians all pounced.

New York reeled in the most prized possession of the trade deadline in Sonny Gray. Boston nabbed themselves Eduardo Nunez and Addison Reed, thus far solving their 3rd base issue and adding another power arm to an already stacked bullpen. And Cleveland moved for strikeout machine Joe Smith from Toronto, further solidifying a bullpen that has already shown itself as a dynamic October weapon.

Hell, even the plucky Tampa Bay Rays acquired Lucas Duda and Steve Cishek to fortify their troops for a possible Wild Card run.

The gap that Houston had previously created between themselves and the rest of the American League is now all but gone. Old fashioned aggressive dealing by Dave Dombrowski, Brian Cashman and Chris Antonetti closed it and just made the junior circuit playoff picture a whole lot more interesting.

And on the selling side, Texas and Oakland nailed it.

Instead of waiting until the offseason and possibly only getting a compensatory draft pick, the Texas Rangers opted to pull back 3 prospects for walk year ace Yu Darvish. Prospects are already one of the most volatile commodities in baseball, but prospects that haven’t even been drafted yet take it to another level. Texas secured themselves a much more comfortable return by trading Darvish to Los Angeles, even if they didn’t get back the ideal package of prospects they were looking for.

Oakland did similarly with their trades of Sonny Gray, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madsen. Knowing they aren’t ready to win right now, the A’s have no use for those 3 players. Instead of letting their value waste away on a losing team, Oakland acquired high quality future talent from the Yankees for Gray, and also got prospects back for Doolittle and Madsen.

With 2 more years of control, could Oakland have easily held onto Sonny Gray in hopes of having him ready to lead a winning team soon? Absolutely, but Billy Beane isn’t stupid enough to think that his team is going to need a player like Gray right now or even in the immediate future because he knows that the A’s won’t be ready to win during Sonny Gray’s contracted tenure.

So, he planned for the future.

It boggled my mind while watching the trade deadline unfold that only 11 out of 30 teams seemed to have a clear plan and know what they were doing. In a seller’s market, only Oakland and Texas truly took advantage of a seemingly voracious appetite for pitching.

Understanding that playoff opportunities aren’t to be taken for granted, Tampa Bay and Arizona (and Kansas City in a way, but that’s a more unique situation) made calculated deals to maximize the teams they have now without selling away their futures.

And with pressure to win now and rosters conducive to that plan, Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Chicago and Washington went all in and have essentially set the playoff picture.

When October rolls around and the teams playing include the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Indians, Cubs, Nationals and Diamondbacks, everyone will see that activity and aggression won the trade deadline. No team has ever won the World Series by sitting pat in July, and no team that isn’t listed above will be raising a trophy this year either.

Thanks for reading…

-Ryan

How Active Teams Won the Trade Deadline

MLB Playoffs: The 2-0 Panic Index

Welp, so much for baseball’s issue with too much parity, I guess.

Excluding the Game 2 that has yet to happen between the Dodgers and Nationals because of an untimely rainout this afternoon, every single Division Series so far is two games to zero in favor of one team. Some results have been surprising – Toronto over Texas, anyone? – while others have been rather predictable – the Cubs are winning and the sky is blue, things are still normal.

When a team is down 2-0 in a best of 5 series, panic mode should be fully activated because one more loss means the season is over – something Buck Showalter apparently didn’t fully understand on Tuesday night.

However, some teams should be panicking much more than other teams should be panicking. So, without further adieu, I present you with Ryan’s 2-0 panic index. I don’t have a scientific system here so just bear with me, it might be rough.

San Francisco Giants Panic Meter: 4 out of 10

Look, the Giants knew what they were getting into before this series even started. The Cubs won 103 games, have the motivation of breaking a 108 year curse, and have Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo hitting 3rd and 4th in their lineup.

If we excluded the fact that this was an even year and these were the Giants, San Francisco would be hopelessly doomed in this series before it even started. But, alas, these are the Giants and this is an even year so, call me crazy, but I think the Giants still have some magic left in them.

Kontos - Scott Strazzante - SF Chronicle.jpg
Photo by Scott Strazzante for the San Francisco Chronicle

Madison Bumgarner is pitching game 3 at home. This is as close to an automatic postseason win as you can possibly get during the MLB Playoffs. The man has a 1.94 ERA in his playoff career and has thrown 23 consecutive scoreless innings during the postseason.  Put him in front of a raucous San Francisco crowd and you might as well just chalk up a game 3 win for San Francisco.

If Bumgarner loses on Monday night and the Cubs sweep the Giants, we all just have to admit that it really wasn’t the Giants year this year. However, if you’re wondering why I have the Giants at a lowly 4 out of 10 on the panic index, let me ask you this. Do you remember 2012?

Down 2-0 to the Cincinnati Reds, the Giants won a momentum shifting, 2-1 game in 10 innings to pull themselves right back into the series before winning the next two games to advance to the next round.

If the Giants of the past have taught me anything, all it takes is one win to snatch momentum and confidence to your side, and the series becomes up for grabs. And, with Bumgarner pitching in the postseason at AT&T Park, it’s hard to not like the Giants chances of grabbing that momentum changing win.

The reason the panic meter isn’t any lower right here is because we have to look beyond game 3, and it looks really rough for San Francisco.

Should there need to be a game 4, Chicago has their own postseason stud, in John Lackey, toeing the slab. The Giants will counter with left handed Matt Moore, and the Cubs sport a team OPS of .807 against left handed pitching this season.

Do I understand that Madison Bumgarner is also left handed and thus has an equal chance of succumbing to the Cubs’ crushing of lefties? Yes, I do, but do you also understand that he is Madison Bumgarner and this is the postseason?

I rest my case.

To me, this series breaks down into how the cookie of game 4 crumbles. Bumgarner will win game 3, but how will the Cubs respond? Will they be the Cubs and crush a lefty in game 4? Or will the Giants continue to sell their souls to the baseball gods and continue this crazy run?

Either way, after game 3 on Monday night, we’ll have ourselves a series.

Boston Red Sox Panic Meter: 7 out of 10

Well, this certainly isn’t how Boston had the final playoffs of David Ortiz’s career being scripted. Not only are they down 0-2 to the Cleveland Indians, but David Ortiz, Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts are a combined 3-25.

Ouch.

And, on top of everything, Cleveland has beaten Boston aces Rick Porcello and David Price, whose postseason demons have apparently followed him to Boston after Friday’s outing in which he gave up 5 runs while only recording 10 outs.

Things look pretty rough for Boston right now. Their two best pitchers have been tagged by Cleveland, the bullpen as thrown 10.1 innings over the past two days, the three best hitters in the lineup are hitting .120, and Boston’s game 3 starter, Clay Buchholz, posted a 7.20 ERA in two starts against Cleveland this season.

Tons of things to get excited about right there.

Red Sox - John Wilcox - Boston Herald.jpg
Photo by John Wilcox for the Boston Globe

But, the fact remains that Boston’s lineup can break out at any point in time. The Red Sox led the league in runs scored and OPS during the regular season by a wide margin. As generalized as it may be, this is an offense capable of breaking out at any point in time and putting up double digits in the run column.

Also, take a look at the back end of both rotations and what do you see? It’s a total crapshoot. Clay Buchholz and Eduardo Rodriguez vs Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer on 3 days rest. And, considering that Porcello only threw 4.1 innings in game 1, he could be available as a tandem option should Rodriguez get into trouble during his potential game 4 start.

Does it look dire? Yeah, it sure does, but baseball is weird and Boston can score. Until that offense has no more chance to score, Boston will be dangerous.

Texas Rangers Panic Index: 9.9999999 out of 10

Is Texas Toast still a thing? If it is, the Blue Jays will be eating a lot of it on Sunday afternoon.

The pieces were all there for a good pun and I just didn’t execute it. Shame on me.

Anyway, down 2 games to 0, Texas is toast.

Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels, Texas’ only two quality starters, got tagged in the first two games, while the vaunted Texas offense could only muster up 3 combined runs against Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ. Everything in Arlington is dark clouds and football right now, and the Rangers are dead.

Mitch Moreland.jpg
Photo by Louis DeLuca for the Dallas Morning News

Toronto has won two games, rather easily, with Marco Estrada and J.A. Happy pitching. Aaron Sanchez, the American League ERA leader at 3.00, is pitching game 3 for Toronto in front of the loudest crowd in baseball. And Texas will try to shut down a Toronto offense that has posted 20 runs in 3 games and a .866 OPS by trotting out……Colby Lewis.

Everything is self-explanatory in this series. Toronto has smashed Texas’ two best starters, shut down Texas’ offense without even using Aaron Sanchez yet, and is headed back home with a 2-0 lead.

Really, the only reason that this isn’t a 10 out of 10 on the panic meter is because baseball is weird and anything can happen.

But, I don’t buy that in this series. Texas is dead, bag it and tag it.

……….

There’s absolutely no way that I ever would have bought into the idea that three out of the four division series would include the first two games being won by one team – with the possibility of that fourth series being 2-0 as well.

Baseball has seemingly had a parity issue for the past few years, but these playoffs are doing their absolute best to dispel that notion. For context, in 2015, 3 out of the 4 division series were tied 1-1 after two games, and the same thing happened in 2014.

With as weird and random as the baseball playoffs can be, to have three teams winning the first two games of a Division Series is just strange; especially considering how tightly matched it appeared as though all of the match-ups would be.

Baseball is a weird and wonderful thing, and that’s why we love it.

MLB Playoffs: The 2-0 Panic Index

Ryan Riffs: ALDS Game 1’s

October baseball is just the best, isn’t it?

After two fever-pitch Wild Card games that already had the blood of baseball fans everywhere pumping, the real meat and potatoes of the MLB playoffs began today with the two American League Division Series matches beginning.

First up, in the 3:08 CT time slot was the juicy rematch of last season’s ALDS between the Texas Rangers and the Toronto Blue Jays. And Toronto wasted absolutely no time announcing their presence with authority and making it known that they are not about to be pushed over by their now bitter rivals.

Texas’ one problem entering this series was their starting pitching. It’s held up very well all season long despite a rash of injuries to Yu Darvish, Colby Lewis, A.J. Griffin, Derek Holland, and a bunch of others. But, entering the division series, there remains a massive drop-off in talent level after the duo of Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish.

Plenty of teams have shown that it’s entirely possible – not just possible, but viable – to win a World Series while riding two horses at the front end of a playoff rotation. If you think about it, in the Championship Series and World Series you need to win 4 games to advance. If those two horses that you rely on at the top of your rotation each pitch 2 games and win both, you’re through.

So, Texas really had no reason to not feel confident in the work that Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish would be able to do. It all feels completely different now, though.

After seeing Hamels get absolutely blown up by Toronto, the Rangers have some serious issues. If, quite possibly, the most important cog in the Texas pitching machine is as ineffective as he was on Thursday afternoon, it’s hard to not think Texas is doomed for another crushing series loss at the hands of the Blue Jays.

However, what could have been an absolute disastrous situation was somewhat salvaged by Jeff Banister’s brilliant maneuvering and a herculean effort from Alex Claudio.

After giving up an RBI single to Josh Donaldson with only one out in the top of the 4th inning, Banister opted to pull a clearly ineffective Cole Hamels in favor of Claudio, and it appeared as though Texas was in for a long afternoon.

What Texas needed from Claudio was exactly what they got and then some; innings. Claudio came in and delivered 3 and 2/3 scoreless innings that got Texas all the way through the 7th inning only having used two pitchers. Considering the quick turnaround – Game 2 is a 12:08 start the next day – the fact that Texas only ended up using 4 pitchers on a day where their best starter was obliterated and could only record 10 outs is absolutely massive.

Game 2 is a must-win for Texas.

They absolutely cannot go to Toronto down 2 games to zero with both Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish having picked up the losses and realistically expect a comeback. So, with Darvish on the mound for Game 2 and Sam Dyson, Matt Bush and Tony Barnette all fresh and available out of the bullpen, Texas is surprisingly set up pretty nicely for a bounce back win.

What could have been an absolute disaster was salvaged by a terrific long-relief performance from Alex Claudio, and if the Rangers can manage to get back into this series they will have him to primarily thank.

As for Toronto? Man, can those boys hit.

The offense that Baltimore was able to mostly suppress before a certain managerial move blew everything up showed up in Arlington on Thursday afternoon ready to mash.

As lauded as last year’s Blue Jay offense was, this year’s is exponentially better, in my opinion. Out of the leadoff spot is the .693 OPS of Ben Revere and into the leadoff spot is the .859 OPS of Devon Travis.

Every spot in the lineup is dangerous and serves as a legitimate home run threat. The most dangerous Toronto offensive player in the Wild Card game on Tuesday night was Ezequiel Carrera, the Jays’ number 9 hitter that went 3-4 and warranted Buck Showalter using 4% of his roster just to get out.

I understand that it’s just one game, and one game does not a good team make, but I severely underestimated the Jays. I figured J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada’s cinderella regular season runs would end in the playoffs and Toronto wouldn’t be able to slug their way through the American League. So far, I’ve been wrong about both. Estrada was brilliant today, throwing 8 and a third innings of 1 run baseball and completely stifling a potent Texas lineup, and the Jays posted 10 runs.

With Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion all but guaranteed to leave the team in free agency during this offseason, this postseason is shaping up to be the Blue Jays’ last hurrah for a while. And they seem to be making the most of it so far.

……….

Terry Francona is a genius.

Last Sunday night on a local radio show, I took some heat for picking the Cleveland Indians as my World Series champions. It seems completely insane, but what Terry Francona showed during game 1 of the Indians Division Series matchup with the Boston Red Sox is exactly why I picked Cleveland.

Andrew Miller is the perfect bullpen weapon. Left handed, can dominate a hitter on either side of the plate, and doesn’t have a designated role. When Miller was acquired from the New York Yankees in a midseason trade, it was the idea of Indians GM Mike Antonetti that Francona would be able to deploy Miller in any given situation and have a dominating bullpen arm to put out fires at any point in the game.

And in game 1, with two outs in the 5th inning and the Indians protecting a one run lead, Francona made the surprising move to replace Trevor Bauer with Miller. After wiggling his way out a self-made jam in the 5th inning, Miller proceeded to throw two innings of dominant baseball, shutting down the Red Sox and striking out 4 batters before handing off the torch to Bryan Shaw in the 7th inning.

Sensing a high leverage situation, Francona made a quick move to his best reliever, not saving Miller for a theoretical save situation while leaving an ineffective Bauer in or putting in a lesser reliever. And it was completely refreshing.

Miller was brilliant, posting a +.132 WPA in an average leverage index of 1.36, and spanning over the potentially sketchy innings between the end of Bauer’s start and the dominant back end of Cleveland’s bullpen.

And then, in the 8th inning, after Miller’s replacement, Bryan Shaw, gave up a leadoff home run to Andrew Benintendi to cut the Cleveland lead to 5-4, Francona made the move to his closer, Cody Allen, for a 5 out save.

Again, in the highest leverage situation of a playoff game, Francona went to the best reliever he had available to maximize run prevention and make a one run lead stand tall.

Allen was brilliant, pitching 5 outs of scoreless ball to pick up the save, striking out four and posting a +.220 WPA while working in an average leverage index of a bullet sweat inducing 2.43.

This, right here, is what a bullpen is supposed to be.

Francine pushed all of the right buttons, and it wasn’t luck. He used his best relievers in the optimal spots to maximize run prevention and win a very tight game. It was absolute perfection and only served to further emphasize my reasoning for picking Cleveland to win the World Series.

In tight postseason games, bullpens mean more than ever, and if Cleveland’s continues to get managed as brilliantly as it was in game 1, they can and will ride it all the way to the shiniest trophy in sports.

Also, with Cory Kluber on the mound for game 2, and a much weaker starter in Trevor Bauer toeing the slab for game 1, Francona’s trigger finger was probably much quicker in this game due to the fact that his confidence is higher in Kluber’s ability to pitch a more effective game than Trevor Bauer.

Cleveland, up 1-0 in the series and with their ace pitching tomorrow afternoon in game 2, are in a terrific position, which only furthers Francona’s brilliance in his usage of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen tonight. As is generally the case when down 1-0 in a best of 5 series, tomorrow’s game is a near must-win for Boston, as the back end of both rotations are very weak and Cleveland showed tonight who the superior will be if this series breaks down into a battle of the bullpens.

……….

Today’s action felt so refreshing to me.

There were so many ‘new’ teams that it felt good to see on the postseason stage. Instead of more Kansas City or Detroit or Houston or New York, we got to see Cleveland and Texas and Toronto. The storylines and intrigue within the American League series are fascinating and have very effectively pulled me into the action so far.

I really wish I could say the same about the National League, but I can’t.

Dodgers-Nationals? No, thanks. The Dodgers are as stale as moldy bread, having made the playoffs in each of the past 4 seasons, and Washington is, quite possibly, the most dry team in baseball, with no storylines or intrigue backing them. This series is so ‘blah’ that I almost don’t want to watch it. But I will anyway because I love baseball and I know I’ll miss it desperately over the winter.

As for the Cubs-Giants series, I’m beyond sick of San Francisco. If you can’t already tell, I like seeing fresh, new faces on the playoff scene, and the Giants – much to their organization’s credit – are the exact opposite of a fresh, new face.

I’m sick of all this “even year magic” stuff and I think it’s about time the Cubs did something productive during the playoffs. So, while the American League playoffs draw me in and really get me excited, the National League is a snoozefest and I almost couldn’t be less excited for it.

But, baseball is baseball, and it will all likely be absolutely brilliant.

Buckle up.

Ryan Riffs: ALDS Game 1’s