The Winners and Losers of the 2021 Trade Deadline

This past week was one of the most action-packed trade deadlines in recent history. A perfect storm of motivated sellers with strong cores and contenders looking to avoid a one-game play-in led to a pile of big names changing teams, with marquee prospects coming back. With the caveat that instant reaction pieces like this one are educated guesses at best — we don’t know how any of the players traded will turn out, or what other offers teams made — let’s assign some winners, losers, and overall head-scratchers.

Winners

Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers got the best pitcher and the best hitter traded at the deadline, and they did it in one trade. The NL West will be the hardest-fought division in baseball, regardless of who wins; all three contenders are in the top eight in baseball by actual record, Pythagorean record, and BaseRuns record. This is a Glengarry Glen Ross situation; first place is hugely important, and the prize for second place is a single-elimination game against your fellow divisional loser, with one of the best teams in baseball heading home with only one playoff game in the books.

By adding Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, the Dodgers accomplished two things. First, they managed to upgrade a roster that already had very few holes. The more talent you start with, the harder it is to find an upgrade, and many of the available players would have been marginal upgrades at best in Los Angeles. With Scherzer in the fold, no other starter who moved could have cracked their playoff rotation, and Turner lets them put All-Stars at every position on the field when the team is fully healthy.

Just as important, however, was the blocking value of the move. When it looked like Scherzer was on the way to San Diego, I wrote a transaction analysis of that deal that focused on how much of a boon adding Scherzer for a one-game playoff would be — it would be worth, per my rough math, a three percentage point better chance of winning that game as compared to starting Yu Darvish. If the Giants had acquired Scherzer, the upgrade from Kevin Gausman would have been even steeper. If the Dodgers end up in the Wild Card game despite their best efforts, they won’t have to face one of the best pitchers of our generation there — and both rivals will have to turn to lesser starters rather than Scherzer as the regular season wears on.

The trade didn’t come without a cost, but I think the Dodgers made the right decision to sacrifice future value for current improvement. Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray are both excellent prospects, but they weren’t going to be playoff difference-makers this year. Weird as it sounds, their potential future regular season contributions also don’t matter all that much to Los Angeles.

Since the start of their divisional run, the Dodgers have won the West by 11, 6, 8, 4, 11, 1 (2018 was weird), 21, and 6 (in pandemic-shortened 2020) games. Most years, a win or two of extra value doesn’t matter that much to them. Replace Gray with a worse pitcher, and eh — it stings, but it’s unlikely to be the difference in the division. This year, every last win will count.

Getting the most out of your entire organization — whether it’s stars, top prospects, or organizational depth — is what the best teams in baseball all do. The Dodgers are doing that this year, and that’s before we get into the fact that they paid a lesser price in prospects, relative to their haul, than the other teams who added at the deadline. That’s why the Dodgers are the biggest winners of the deadline in my eyes.

Chicago Cubs
The Cubs have been in a weird spot all year. They traded Yu Darvish in the offseason, but otherwise behaved like they wanted to squeeze one last run out of their 2016 World Series core. A long losing streak put paid to that idea, however, and the Cubs pivoted expertly into selling everything that wasn’t nailed down.

There’s nothing inherently noble about a teardown. This Cubs team won less than they surely hoped to, though the curse-breaking 2016 season makes up for plenty of woes. There’s no guarantee that the next great Cubs team will be made up of the spoils of this selloff, or even that the Cubs will be competitive again on the right timeframe for these moves to matter. This certainly wasn’t an outcome you’d root for as a Chicago fan if you paused time after the 2016 World Series.

All that said, the Cubs were in a bad situation (albeit one at least partially of their own making), and they made the most of it. Wishing the team did more with its core is all well and good, but those years are sadly gone. In the here and now, a huge swath of the team was bound for free agency, ownership was reticent to spend, and Jed Hoyer turned those players — great players, all — into a tantalizing group of prospects and recent graduates to start over with.

Nick Madrigal is the biggest piece they got back, and while he doesn’t precisely mesh with what the Cubs are trying to do (win, but maybe not next year), he was too good to pass up. Madrigal ranked 44th in our Trade Value series, but even if you’d put him lower on your own list, a high-floor middle infielder with a huge amount of team control is a great addition to the team. A ton of pieces lined up to make things work. Madrigal won’t be available this year; the Cubs don’t care about that, while the White Sox do. The Sox also acquired Cesar Hernandez to fill Madrigal’s spot, and Hernandez will be back in 2022, so they had a logjam at second. Finally, Craig Kimbrel’s return to dominance made him a unique trade chip; no one else at the deadline could offer one of the best few relievers in baseball, so the Cubs were dealing from strength.

Aside from that trade (where they also got Codi Heuer, an intriguing reliever), the Cubs mostly held serve, getting fair value for excellent players on expiring contracts. Four of their top 15 prospects weren’t on the team as of last week, and that doesn’t even count Caleb Kilian, a Double-A pitcher with eye-popping run prevention numbers but middling stuff who I’ll be watching closely over the next year. Hey, I’m easy to predict: if you put up wild minor league numbers, I’ll pay attention, even (especially?) if you don’t do it in a conventional way.

Washington Nationals
The Nationals made some minor trades (Kyle Schwarber, Daniel Hudson, Josh Harrison, Jon Lester, and Yan Gomes), but this grade is really for getting Gray and Ruiz. It’s very hard to get prospects this good at the trade deadline in the modern game; whether you want to give credit to the Nationals for driving a hard bargain or the Dodgers for recognizing when it was time to pay up is irrelevant.

The Nats should be competitive again next year; Gray and Ruiz can play now, Juan Soto is awesome, and they’ll have salary room and potentially a healthy Steven Strasburg. I’m still not enamored with the team’s farm system, but angling for a quick turnaround via two near-ready prospects fits quite well with Soto’s current dominance (and the team’s looming deferral-related money troubles).

Losers

San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres
I like the move the Giants made on Friday, adding Kris Bryant to fill in across the diamond and add some thump to the lineup. I also like the cost; by waiting the Cubs out, the Giants seemingly got a bargain. The Mets gave up a better top-line prospect (Pete Crow-Armstrong) to get a less-appealing hitter (Javier Báez). I give Farhan Zaidi an A for execution.

The Giants couldn’t control their surroundings, however, and that will cost them as well as the Padres. The Dodgers brought out the heavy artillery at the deadline, and kept the rest of the NL West from adding Scherzer to some already-threatening teams. The route to the World Series runs through Los Angeles, and that means that the teams in their division are losers by default.

Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies were battling both the luxury tax threshold and the Mets. They tried to thread the needle by hunting cheap pitching, but in my estimation, it cost them. After nearly acquiring Tyler Anderson before the Mariners pounced, they sent out prized pitcher Spencer Howard for… well, for not much! (Like Madrigal, Howard, graduated off prospect lists earlier this season.)

Ian Kennedy is a nice pitcher, and he’ll bolster Philadelphia’s bullpen, but it needed more bolstering than one solid arm. Kyle Gibson is a hilarious mismatch with Philadelphia’s sieve-like defense, even with the return of Freddy Galvis; Gibson thrives on letting opponents put the ball in play, while the Phillies are one of the worst defensive teams in baseball. It’s an odd mix, one that was borne more out of a desire to match salaries and take available bargains than some underlying view of how the team should look. They’ll be kicking themselves, too, when they read the Mets section later on.

Tampa Bay Rays
I didn’t include the acquisition of Nelson Cruz, as it came a week before the deadline, but if I did, I could see bumping the Rays up to neutral. The entire AL East upgraded for the stretch run, but it mostly feels offsetting; that kept the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays out of the winner column for me. The Yankees upgraded the most, but they have the worst record, while the Red Sox added the least but started from the best place. The Rays net sold after adding Cruz; they sent out Diego Castillo and brought in Jordan Luplow, JT Chargois, and DJ Johnson.

To do all of this, they also lost an interesting prospect, Peyton Battenfield, who looks solid as a starter when previous looks had implied relief risk. They also didn’t catch a break from one or another rival mortgaging the future for a long-shot run; the Blue Jays sent out quite a bit to get José Berríos, but by doing so they’re making their existing core more potent for at least this year and next (they were desperately lacking for pitching). The Rays didn’t hurt themselves this deadline, per se. They just lost ground in the present without getting any obvious future advantages in the bargain. It’s a very Rays thing — 27 moves that add together to gain value — but it feels like the wrong time to get cute.

Head-Scratchers

New York Mets
The Mets had a very weird weekend, and it started with the trade deadline. There’s nothing wrong with acquiring Javier Báez and Trevor Williams, even if reports that they juiced up the prospect return in exchange for salary relief don’t make much sense for a team that should be spending money rather than prospects at the moment.

Things got worse when the team announced only hours after the deadline that Jacob deGrom had a setback in his recovery and won’t be available until September at the earliest. The Mets knew deGrom would need extra time before the deadline, though they wisely delayed the announcement, so they could have gone for some extra pitching help to tide the squad over until September. Instead, they’ll have to make do with what they have — though on that front, at least, they got encouraging news in Carlos Carrasco’s return to action.

It’s not that the Mets’ situation got worse. The Braves and Phillies didn’t do enough to improve; our playoff odds still have the Mets as roughly two-in-three favorites to hold on, roughly where we had them before the deadline. But the team didn’t show as much urgency as you’d expect given what they knew about their ace’s availability, and I don’t understand why.

St. Louis Cardinals
Like the Cubs, the Cardinals started the year with playoff aspirations but saw them fade as the Milwaukee Brewers took flight. Unlike the Cubs, the Cardinals weren’t in a position to trade players on expiring contracts; Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina are St. Louis icons, and most of the rest of the interesting players on the Cardinals are either young and controllable or old and on long deals.

Still, there were options. Andrew Miller has been excellent since returning from injury, and lefty relievers always draw interest. Kwang Hyun Kim has been effective this year, and fifth starters who can moonlight in relief (he opened 2020 as the team’s closer) fetch good value at the trade deadline. If they wanted to get crazy, Giovanny Gallegos would be sought after.

Instead, they made some strange moves that didn’t help them compete now or build for the future. Lane Thomas felt extraneous given the team’s packed outfield, but Jon Lester isn’t moving the needle when it comes to making the playoffs this year; he’s been quite bad in D.C. this season and projects to be roughly replacement level the rest of the way. J.A. Happ projects marginally better, but he’s also been awful this year, and he cost the team John Gant (not a huge deal) and an interesting relief dart in Evan Sisk.

These trades didn’t sink the Cards’ future, but they didn’t help the present either. You want to be doing something, but these two trades just feel like movement for movement’s sake. With the Brewers getting better this year and the Cubs building for the future, the Cardinals lost on two fronts.

Colorado Rockies
The Rockies didn’t make any deadline trades beyond moving Mychal Givens, which is really weird. They have five players leaving after this year, and two (Trevor Story and Jon Gray) were hot commodities going into the week. Story is having an off year, which surely depressed the offers the team received for him, but the Mets would probably prefer Story and Gray to Báez and Williams, which also gives a rough idea of the caliber of return the Rockies could expect.

If the team didn’t want to trade Story, that’s their prerogative. Trading Nolan Arenado was extremely unpopular in Colorado. But unlike Arenado, Story is gone after this year — an extension is out of the question at this point. Not only that, but they ticked off Story while doing it. “I’m confused, I don’t have really anything good to say about the situation and how it unfolded,” he said. That’s not exactly a good look for a team that already had a reputation for alienating its stars.

If the offers they received didn’t exceed what they’ll get in compensatory picks, fine. You can’t control what other teams offer you. But several teams think the Rockies never seriously considered dealing Story, and their ask was reportedly monumental. If that was the case, they clearly didn’t communicate effectively with Story. While they’ll get their comp pick, the PR fiascos are piling up in Colorado, and it’s not as though they’re doing a lot of winning, or a lot of prospect-hoarding, to make up for it.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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mariodegenzgz
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mariodegenzgz

I don’t think the Rockies doing nothing counts as a head scratcher, honestly. Anyone who follows this franchise could’ve told you weeks in advance that nobody important or homegrown was going anywhere, logic be damned.

rhswanzey
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The plan is to wait nine years for dumb luck to produce two above average regulars a couple years apart, then spend $100,000,000 on second tier relief pitching

Richie
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Richie

Dang you, beat me to it.

With Wilpon gone and Angelos finally aging out, is Monfort now the worst MLB owner? I guess Artie Moreno is in the same, bad ballpark. But whomever the 3rd worst is, he’s light years ahead of Monfort.

jsdspud
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jsdspud

You forgot about Bob Nutting in Pittsburgh

Pirates Hurdles
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Pirates Hurdles

I’d argue that cheap Bob is better, because at least he is hands off. The Rockies idiocy seems to reek of Monfort.

dozingoffdad
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dozingoffdad

I tend to agree with this. Nutting puts a fairly significant roadblock in the way of assembling a competitive team and that’s setting a ridiculously low payroll limit. Other than that, though, he stays the hell out of the way. There is precedent for a low payroll team doing well, but it’s been a while since a meddlesome owner was able to consistently succeed.

Nutting’s greatest strength may be that he doesn’t really seem to care about baseball.

hittfamily
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hittfamily

At least Monfort spends money, albeit poorly. The Rays went to the World Series last year, then cut payroll. They currently have the 3rd best record in baseball, and they sold at the deadline. $tuart $ternberg is the worst owner in baseball.

bglick4
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bglick4

He wins. Consistently. The point isn’t to spend money, the point is to win. I wish they’d have bought too, but it’s hard to argue with their decade of success.

TheGarrettCooperFanClub
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TheGarrettCooperFanClub

Swept the Red Sox this weekend and took back 1st place in the division. They’re fine.

Jross
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Jross

Who did the Ray’s sell? They added Cruz, the best bat on the market, and all his salary.

AltitudeSchmaltitude
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AltitudeSchmaltitude

I’d prefer someone with a plan (even if he’s cheap) than an idiot.

Dmjn53
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Dmjn53

Sternberg’s team consistently win. They have the 5th most wins in baseball since 2009. At the end of the day it’s about winning, not spending the most money. Don’t confuse a low payroll with incompetency

Gho5tRun3r
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Gho5tRun3r

The hate on Sternberg is wildly exaggerated. The real issue is not wanting to spend team money on a stadium. But his running of the organization to keep it from weighed down by huge contracts so we can stay flexible all while still winning? That’s not even close to being the worst owner in baseball.

sogoodlooking
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sogoodlooking

If you look at Steve Cohen objectively, and not just with enormous relief at the Wilpons’ departure, he’s up there: The Jared Porter fiasco, the inability to find an actual GM, the disinclination to replace Luis Rojas, the failure to do what every other team knows to do when drafting a risk like Kumar Rocker, putting Chris Christie on the Mets Board of Directors, the ongoing fiascos in the health department where they didn’t notice for six weaks that a ligament had torn away from Nimmo’s finger or their continuing to play Alonso after he was HBP’ed on May 5th, letting him hit .125 for two weeks before IL’ing him; playing Cameron Maybin, dealing for Rich Hill, the foolishness of getting Baez and no meaningful pitching help…

Ben’s being kind. It wasn’t a head-scratcher, it was an absurdity.

Then there’s having $100m to spend while having a strong, 40 WAR nucleus including the GOAT by peak, and still as of Opening Day not having a team near the Dodgers and Padres tier—in fact right now they’re half a game worse than the Reds. Add to that the various choices made, where they overpaid for Lindor by $60m acc to Zips even if he reverted to his 2016-2018 form; where they paid $40m for a backup catcher; where they actually thought Pillar and Almora were 4th and 5th OFers on a team with an often-injured starting OF; where they actually thought David Peterson was a #4 starting pitcher…

Cohen’s running a very weak show in Queens.

Jason B
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Jason B

“Head-scratcher” is exactly where the Rockies were probably expected to land given the constant flux in the front office…and perhaps a best-case scenario!

Smiling Politely
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Smiling Politely

Well said–the Rockies, organizationally, are a head-scratcher

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

The logic was this. 1) They got killed in the media for trading Arenado, so they needed a return that wouldn’t get them killed for trading Story (or Gray). 2) If they give Story a QO they’ll get a comp pick. 3) Story is having a lousy year by his standards, and so the offers were probably more buy-low than good, so much that they thought they’d rather take their chances with #2 and avoid #1.

I think we can pick apart some of the flaws of this pretty easily. I agree that #1 is not a good reason. #2 is a good reason but it’s contingent on him signing a contract worth more than $50M. If he signs a pillow contract they get a pick in at the end of the 2nd round instead of the end of the 1st which is a huge difference. #3 is definitely true but the Cubs did pretty well by offering to pay down the contracts in their trades, so there seems to be some lack of imagination there.

In other words, I think they had a logical reason but I think their logic was flawed, so I think is a bit less egregious than it looks at first glance. If they extend Gray, I know that’s a counterintuitive move but it’s so hard to find pitching in Colorado I don’t mind that either.

mariodegenzgz
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mariodegenzgz

I think the problem for me is the fact that Báez got so much back for the Cubs when Story is a superior player, and the fact that they apparently didn’t even entertain a trade of Bard or Cron. Keeping Gray makes sense, but they also could’ve traded him with his consent and then resigned him back in the offseason. Dick Monfort wouldn’t want his precious kids to leave tho.

Anon
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Anon

Cron is the one that baffles me. They have zero reason to keep him and Boston desperately needs someone competent at 1B. I mean, they would have gotten back a lottery ticket of a prospect so it’s not like it would have been a franchise changing trade, but you save a few hundred grand and get a young guy who maybe turns into something. How do you not make that deal?

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Schoop didn’t move either. I think the market on these lower-end guys at 2B/1B was really limited.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

You can talk yourself into and out of a lot moves and non-moves, and that’s what the Rockies did. But also, Story has been pretty lousy this year! Baez also has tons of experience shifting all over the field, even in the same series (and same game too, IIRC), so there was some certainty there.

Between those things and the fact that the Cubs basically paid as much as they needed to in order to get a good return, I think that it’s not a surprise that Baez went for more than Story was getting offered. I think, realistically, the problem was that there was a lack of imagination and probably a lack of information in the front office. In a fully staffed front office maybe someone makes the case that they should pay it down, or someone gets wind of what the Cubs are doing. But pretty much everyone reported that nobody knew who to even contact in the Rockies’ front office for trades, so I bet that information and exchange of different viewpoints was severely lacking.

will1331
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will1331

How sure are we that Story will be a better player than Baez over the next 2 months? Baez has shown more power this year, but obviously more swing & miss. There xwOBAs are very similar, though Baez’s surface numbers have been far better. Have also seen some rumors that Story is hurt due to some uncharacteristic throwing issues. And not for nothing, but Baez is simply more entertaining.

That said, you have to think Gray & Story return more than Williams & Baez. Simply mismanagement by Monford.

Phil
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Phil

I think there is a slight issue with expecting a comp pick for Story (and Gray) – the expiring CBA.

Is Story going to sign with a new team before the CBA – are teams going to be willing to spend before they know how much baseball there will be in 2022/what the luxury tax penalties and thresholds are going to be? And comp picks might not exist or be significantly changed in the new CBA – or a strike/lockout goes on long enough for Story to be able to sign after the deadline has expired (like Kimbrel and Keuchel did).

AltitudeSchmaltitude
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AltitudeSchmaltitude

The other element at play is the GM is an interim, having spent most of his career in amateur scouting, nowhere near the front office or trade negotiation. Can sense a lot of “all those analytics nerds were trying to pull a fast one over on me and I wasn’t going to have it” in his responses.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

This is another good reason why the brain drain in the Rockies’ front office was a problem. They lost pretty much everyone over the last 18 months or so. This included their GM, two assistant GMs, a whole lot of scouts, and a lot of other people where we don’t know their names. None of these people were replaced. Sure, they weren’t that good but I bet all the guys who did analytics-nerds stuff left as part of that.