The Winners and Losers of the 2021 Trade Deadline by Ben Clemens August 2, 2021 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.