Biggest Questions Remaining After the MLB Trade Deadline

Jon Tayler

In years previous, the trade deadline has served as a kind of separator, or at least an inflection point. Contenders gearing up for the stretch run and the postseason made big moves to bolster rosters; as a consequence, the league landscape shifted—sometimes slightly, other times like an earthquake had rumbled through.

But this year’s edition of the July 31 madness was a subdued affair, shaken up only by Houston’s audacious Zack Greinke trade. Normally, Aug. 1 functions as a kind of resettling, in which the direction of baseball’s best teams becomes more clear. After a deadline in which most teams made small moves if they did anything at all, though, we’re left with more questions than answers as to what’s next for a lot of MLB’s notable clubs and division races. Here are the biggest ones in the wake of the deadline.

How do the Yankees fix their rotation?

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After a deadline where the Yankees failed to add a single starter despite a rotation that’s posted a 5.97 ERA since June 1, Brian Cashman deployed the familiar spin of injured players returning being as impactful as any trade. Ordinarily, he’d be right. Luis Severino is better than any starter New York could have acquired, and slotting Dellin Betances into the bullpen once he’s healthy gives Aaron Boone more ways to shorten a game and take the pressure off a beleaguered rotation.

But both players have missed the entire season to date with arm problems, both have experienced setbacks along the way and both are still weeks away from major league action. Severino is also unlikely to return as a regular starter, as he simply doesn’t have enough time to build up his stamina; maybe he functions as a three-inning bulk guy or opener, but six-plus innings per turn is unrealistic. How much of a boost can he really provide? New York’s more realistic recourse is hoping for better performance from its struggling quintet.

Did the Dodgers have to add bullpen help?

In Los Angeles, the strategy will be that quantity can create quality. Once the calendar turns to October, the Dodgers could slot Kenta Maeda, Julio Urias and Ross Stripling (and maybe the currently injured Rich Hill) into regular relief roles, as the team’s playoff rotation likely won’t extend beyond Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-jin Ryu and Walker Buehler. Similarly, top prospect Dustin May (who was called up on Thursday) and fellow youngster Tony Gonsolin could earn high-leverage innings late.

Still, the problem with Los Angeles is that, with Kenley Jansen struggling, the team doesn’t have a singular, established high-leverage option. Pirates closer Felipe Vazquez would have been that arm, but his price was prohibitive. Instead, the Dodgers will have to hope that someone in that aforementioned group of starters can play up in relief—a big maybe for a team trying to end a 31-year championship drought.

Is the second wild-card still worth it?

Despite a glut of teams alive in the wild-card race, only the Indians took a big swing in terms of deadline trades. The rest stuck to marginal upgrades if they did anything at all, while the Diamondbacks—one of the few NL wild-card contestants with a positive run differential—gave up Greinke and turned their focus to 2020.

Perhaps that’s a reflection of how undesirable a wild-card spot—particularly the second one, which puts you on the road for a winner-take-all game—has become. A Division Series date with the best team in the league is rarely a recipe for World Series success, though other teams have run that gauntlet and come out on top. But that’s likely a big part of why the deadline was so quiet, as those fringe contenders ultimately landed on not going all-in if the division was an unrealistic goal. That, too, was probably behind the hybrid deadlines for the Giants and Mets, who both bought and sold, ostensibly to be flexible but likely an admission that spending your chips on a longshot is a fool’s gamble.

Was that the right call? The only sure answer will be in the standings at season’s end. But it’s clear that for most teams, the answer to whether the second wild card is worth it is a resounding no.

Who’s in charge in the Central?

The Indians have steadily closed the deficit in the AL Central, shrinking the Twins’ lead to three games as August begins. Cleveland had the more impactful (albeit riskier) deadline, too, swapping out Trevor Bauer for Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes, dinging its rotation but improving a shallow lineup. Minnesota, meanwhile, invested only in bullpen depth, trading for Sergio Romo and Sam Dyson but failing to land either rotation help or an elite reliever.

Even if the Twins could (or should) have done more, though, they’re still the favorite thanks to a weaker schedule. Per FanGraphs, Minnesota’s remaining strength of schedule is an AL-best .468—in other words, the opposition going forward is a collective 75-win team—and it will play 29 of its final 55 games against the White Sox, Royals and Tigers. Cleveland only gets that awful division trio 16 more times going forward. That said, the Indians and Twins will go head to head 10 more times before the year is out.

As for the NL, the Cubs and Cardinals are tied for first, though Chicago had the bigger deadline, landing Nicholas Castellanos. The ex-Tigers slugger is exactly what the Cubs need for their lineup: a righthanded hitter who crushes lefties (.347/.415/.611 against them this season, .300/.354/.514 for his career). St. Louis sat the deadline out, reportedly rejecting a swap of Tyler O’Neill or Harrison Bader for the Mets’ Zack Wheeler—understandable, though he would’ve added needed rotation depth. And while the Brewers are lurking just one game out, they settled for lower-cost players like Drew Pomeranz and Jacob Faria, failing to add difference makers to the rotation and bullpen.

As such, FanGraphs has the Cubs as the Central favorite, though with division-winning odds of just 59.3% and a projected win total of 87. The remaining matchups will be key. After finishing a three-game series with St. Louis on Thursday, Chicago won’t face its longtime rival again until the end of September, when the two will play each other seven times in the final 10 days. The Brewers, meanwhile, will get seven more cracks at the Cubs and nine more against the Cardinals.

Should the Red Sox have done something?

You can understand Dave Dombrowski’s predicament. His team has been uneven all season, is effectively dead in the AL East (where Boston trails New York by 10 games) and faces a postseason path of a one-game playoff followed by a Division Series matchup with either the Yankees or the Astros. In the face of that, a quiet deadline where you don’t sacrifice the future for a small chance at a title seems practically prudent. The numbers agree: FanGraphs gives the Red Sox have the second-worst playoff odds of the AL contenders at 44.6% (only Oakland is lower) and World Series odds of 3.8.

Boston’s biggest issue was a bullpen that could be fixed, and despite Dombrowski’s complaint that teams were asking for too much, other contenders—notably the Nationals and Braves—acquired relief help at minimal cost. It seems strange to give up on a Boston team with a talented core when the team is just 2 ½ games out of the second wild-card and has only the A’s and Rays in the way. There’s no doubt that this Red Sox squad has been a disappointment, but the solution didn’t seem impossible, making Dombrowski’s dud of a deadline that much harder to explain.

Are the Astros the slam-dunk World Series favorites?

By adding Zack Greinke, Houston filled its biggest hole, adding another starter to a thin rotation and building a postseason 1-2-3 of Greinke, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. What’s more, the Astros also snagged bullpen help in the form of Joe Biagini and possibly Aaron Sanchez. The latter—a Cy Young contender in 2016—has arguably the most upside of any deadline acquisition, and all he cost was a fifth outfielder in Derek Fisher.

Looking at Houston’s roster, I’m hard-pressed to find any problems. With Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer back and Yordan Alvarez up, the lineup is a destroyer from top to bottom. Greinke fills a vacant rotation spot Houston had repeatedly tried and failed to fill. The bullpen is deep, and if the Astros can work their usual magic with the high-spin curveballs of Biagini and Sanchez, it becomes that much deeper. The Astros’ defense is top of the league in Defensive Efficiency, turning more balls into outs than any other club in baseball.

If you want to pick nits, the Astros’ bench isn’t much to write home about, particularly offensively, but that doesn’t matter when you have the hitters they do. Houston acted decisively to address the biggest thing standing between it and a second World Series title in three years. In doing so, the Astros are now deservedly the favorite to win it all.

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