At 1 a.m. ET Thursday, 15 hours before the non-waiver deadline, I exchanged texts with a general manager.
"This is the toughest market to read and get tractions on deals that I can remember," the GM said.
"Lots of frustrated people," I replied. "Based on what I’m hearing, tomorrow could be a dud unless things change quickly."
Brilliant foresight on my part!
Deadline Day was anything but a dud. No, it was a day that shook the industry, a day in which seven current or former All-Stars were traded, matching the highest total on July 31 since 1995, according to STATS LLC.
A total of 12 deals were completed, and three involved some of the game’s biggest names: David Price, Jon Lester, John Lackey and Yoenis Cespedes.
Just imagine if the Phillies, Pirates, Blue Jays and some of the game’s other wallflowers had joined the fun.
As one GM put it, the market was driven by the precipitous declines of two would-be contenders: the Red Sox and Rays. Both embarked upon significant transformations, making franchise-altering moves.
The other jolt, let’s face it, came from Athletics GM Billy Beane, who was not content simply to add pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel earlier this month.
No, Beane had to nab Lester, too.
The month-long drama reminded me of a scene from the book "Moneyball," after Beane had grabbed Nick Swisher with the 16th pick of the 2002 draft.
"He’s got Swisher in the bag: who else can he get?" author Michael Lewis wrote. "There’s a new thrust about him, an unabridged expression on his face. He was a bond trader, who had made a killing in the morning and entered the afternoon free of fear. Feeling greedy. Certain that the fear in the market would present him with even more opportunities to exploit. Whatever happened now wasn’t going to be bad. How good could it get?"
The Samardzija-Hammel trade was the trigger, the equivalent of the Swisher pick. The Lester trade was another opportunity to exploit — the fear in this market was trading prospects, and even when Beane barely had any left, he preyed upon everyone else’s trepidation to stun the industry again.
Maybe the Athletics will win the World Series, maybe they won’t — Beane’s critics will keep holding him to that absurd standard, missing the point.
He is the sport’s leading protagonist, the bond trader making a killing, the shark who is three steps ahead.
THE SLEEPY NL
The arms race in the American League used to be between the Yankees and Red Sox. Now it’s between the Athletics and Tigers. Beane told reporters that after the Tigers acquired Price, Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski jokingly texted him and said, "You have one minute to acquire Chris Sale."
The Cardinals were the leading aggressor, acquiring Lackey and right-hander Justin Masterson. The Nationals (IF Asdrubal Cabrera) and Braves (RP James Russell, CF Emilio Bonifacio) made decent complementary moves. And the Dodgers, for once, showed restraint, honoring their pledge to hold their top three prospects.
This might be an over-generalization, but most AL teams give off a more assertive vibe than their NL counterparts. The Phillies once were an exception. The Marlins, who made a bold play Thursday for right-hander Jarred Cosart, often go for it when they’re contending. The Brewers and other clubs have their moments.
Still, the Yankees and Red Sox in the 2000s set the tone for the AL, forcing even low-revenue teams such as the Rays to become more creative.
Which leads to a question:
What happens when the Cubs, led by club president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer, finally get good?
Epstein, Hoyer and Co. did not help build the Red Sox into a powerhouse by being shy. They compete in a mostly conservative division in which the Cardinals and Pirates are especially protective of prospects. And the Cubs, one of these days, will flex their financial muscles again.
Put it all together — large-market resources, a burgeoning farm system, an AL sensibility — and the Cubs actually might be dangerous before long.
EVERYONE IS AN EXPERT
We live in a fast-paced, 140-character age. But when it comes to evaluating trades, the best course usually is to reserve judgment.
In other words, it’s probably best to refrain from panning the Rays’ return for Price: left-hander Drew Smyly, infielder Nick Franklin and Class-A shortstop Willy Adames.
The package certainly lacks the "wow" prospect that the Cubs landed for Samardzija and Hammel. But who can be certain that Addison Russell, the shortstop prospect Chicago got, will be better than Adames, or that the other players the Cubs acquired, righty Dan Straily and outfielder Billy McKinney, will be better than Smyly and Franklin?
Now, it’s true that Price carried much more value than Samardzija and Hammel. But the Tigers benefited from a gap in the market for Price. The Athletics grabbed the Cubs’ deal, then Lester. The Dodgers, Cardinals and Pirates were unwilling to part with top prospects. It is not clear whether other teams were serious.
Could Rays GM Andrew Friedman have landed a better deal last offseason? Perhaps, but he was in the process of building what he thought would be the Rays’ deepest, most balanced club.
Would Friedman have benefited from trading Price earlier in July? Perhaps, but Beane might have been his only fervent suitor — and Beane, perhaps to his detriment, preferred to flip Russell for two pitchers rather than one (imagine the A’s with Price and Lester — yikes!)
In the end, Friedman’s choice was to trade Price at the deadline or trade him this offseason, and if he had waited until this offseason, with Price due up to $20 million in his final year of arbitration, the GM might have been even more stuck.
Yes, the Rays thought they would do better when they decided to trade Price. But it’s foolish to condemn a trade when 99 percent of us never have seen Adames play, or understand just how many teams coveted Franklin.
"I’m guessing the people crushing Andrew haven’t won 90-plus games five of the past six years with one of the game’s lowest payrolls," one GM said. "I would think that he deserves the benefit of the doubt."
CLUBHOUSE MUTINY IN ST. LOUIS?
That might be an overstatement, but based upon texts I received from several major-league sources, a number of Cardinals players made no secret of their unhappiness with the trade of right fielder Allen Craig and right-hander Joe Kelly to the Red Sox for right-hander John Lackey.
Craig was popular in the Cardinals’ clubhouse. His replacement, Oscar Taveras, is not held in the same regard. But how long was GM John Mozeliak supposed to wait for Craig to snap out of his season-long funk, improve upon his .237 batting average and .638 OPS?
The Cardinals had perhaps grown too comfortable. Mozeliak recently signed catcher A.J. Pierzynski, a notorious irritant, to help provide an edge. And, from a baseball perspective, Taveras, one of the game’s top prospects, simply needs to play.
"We’ve had a tight clubhouse for many years, a lot of homegrown players who have been together a long time," Mozeliak told me after the trade. "I would definitely say (the trade) was definitely something that surprised some people.
"When you have a young team, sometimes you don’t see these types of trades happening while you’re competing. It caught some people off-guard. But time will heal all wounds."
TRADER JACK IS BACK!
Yes, I noticed that Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik made two solid deals just days after Jon Paul Morosi and I wrote that he "mostly has exasperated trade partners with his negotiating style."
We struggled with the decision to publish the story — GMs often complain about each other when they fail to complete trades. But the criticism of Zduriencik was so rampant, we felt it had news value.
The story ended with us writing, "The next four days could amount to the most significant test of Zduriencik’s tenure in Seattle. He will either defy the criticism of him within the industry, or spark renewed questions about whether he is fit for the job."
Well, Zduriencik acquired not one but two much-needed right-handed hitters, getting outfielder Chris Denorfia from the Padres for outfielder Abraham Almonte and minor-league pitcher Stephen Kohlscheen and center fielder Austin Jackson from the Tigers for Franklin.
Jackson is under control through only next season, but one rival GM who earlier had tried to acquire Franklin said that Zduriencik made a better trade with the Tigers.
"Great deal for Jack," the GM said.
HOLDOUTS TURNED TRANSIENTS
It’s pretty much official now.
Agent Scott Boras’ strategy of holding out shortstop Stephen Drew and first baseman Kendrys Morales didn’t work.
I say, "pretty much official," because the possibility still exists that Drew and/or Morales will finish strongly and score impressive contracts as unrestricted free agents.
But at this point, what are the odds?
Both Drew and Morales rejected $14.1 million qualifying offers to sign for less money — Drew for $10.093 million with the Red Sox, Morales for $7.409 million with the Twins.
Both got off to miserable offensive starts. And then both were traded, Drew to the Yankees, Morales to the Mariners. Oh, and by the way, Drew now must play second base for the first time in his professional career.
Drew has rebounded offensively of late, producing an .888 OPS in his past 13 games. If he proves competent at second, he even could enhance his market value. But he and Morales have only two months to salvage their seasons.
The time that both players missed proved more damaging than many expected. Perhaps Drew and Morales just should have signed before Opening Day, even if it again meant getting subjected to draft-pick compensation.
It certainly worked for Ervin Santana and Nelson Cruz.
THE DEAL THAT WASN’T FOR DETROIT
Yes, the Tigers nearly got left-handed reliever Andrew Miller, too.
The Red Sox received inquiries on Miller from 10 to 12 teams, according to a source with knowledge of their trade discussions. The Tigers, Orioles and Brewers were the three finalists, the source said.
In the end, the Red Sox chose the Orioles’ offer of left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez, the team’s No. 3 prospect according to Baseball America, for two months of Miller and what, maybe 20 regular-season innings?
The deal looks like an overpay, but the addition of Miller should turn the Orioles’ bullpen into a legitimate strength — no small achievement on a day when the Blue Jays did nothing and the Rays got considerably weaker.