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Toolshed: Aug. 31 Trade Deadline preview

How new playoffs, player pools, prospect deals could affect market
Lance Lynn ranks second in the Majors with an 8.0 WAR since the start of the 2019 season, according to FanGraphs. (Ray Carlin/AP)
August 28, 2020

This isn't going to be your usual Trade Deadline. Then again, this isn't your usual Major League season. Start with the date. This year's Deadline comes on Aug. 31 instead of at the end of July. Of course, that change was necessary after coronavirus protocols shortened the season to 60

This isn't going to be your usual Trade Deadline. Then again, this isn't your usual Major League season.

Start with the date. This year's Deadline comes on Aug. 31 instead of at the end of July. Of course, that change was necessary after coronavirus protocols shortened the season to 60 games, starting on July 23 -- eight days before the traditional Trade Deadline. Because of the push back, clubs will be making moves for only one month of baseball, based on feedback from a little more than five weeks of action.

See, weird. Or maybe just different.

This Toolshed previews the upcoming Trade Deadline from a prospect and Minor Leaguer perspective:

Assessing buyers, sellers

One of the biggest storylines of the 60-game season dropped right around its first pitch. The playoffs were expanded from five teams in each league to eight. That includes the three division winners, three division runners-up and the two remaining clubs with the best records. Add that all up, and 16 of the 30 clubs will make the playoffs this season. That alone seemingly creates a lot more buyers in a trade market than ever before while conversely limiting the teams that might be prone to selling ahead of next Monday.

The reality of this situation is perhaps even more muddied.

Entering Thursday, the American League playoff race was already in pretty clear form. The A's, Rays, Twins, White Sox or Indians, Yankees, Astros, Indians or White Sox and Blue Jays were sitting pretty for the AL's eight spots, in that order. (The White Sox and Indians had the same record as of Thursday and would be either the fourth or seventh seeds.) All eight of those teams have at least a 66.1 percent chance of making the playoffs, per FanGraphs. The club with the next-best odds is Detroit down at 11.1 percent. It's very likely the Tigers, Orioles, Royals, Red Sox, Angels, Rangers and Mariners could be too far gone, even if though there's still half a season to play.

The National League is much more complicated. The Dodgers, Braves, Cubs, Padres, Cardinals, Marlins, Rockies and Giants occupied the eight playoff spots heading into Thursday. The Brewers, Phillies and Mets sat only one game behind San Francisco for the final Wild Card spot. In fact, FanGraphs gave all three of those clubs better than 50 percent odds of making the playoffs, ahead of the Rockies, Giants and Marlins -- each of whom have been 2020 surprises in the early going. Even the Reds and Nationals -- each standing at 11-17 -- and D-backs have rosters built for an expanded October, even if the records don't reflect that yet. It might be the lowly Pirates who are the only clear sellers heading into the weekend.

Basic economics would tell us many potential buyers and few sellers would drive up prices across the board, but of course, very little is basic in 2020. With the lost revenue that comes with a 60-game season, clubs may not be as willing to take on much in additional salary, even if it comes prorated for this campaign. That could take certain big-contract players off the trade block. But if clubs are willing to take on salary, they might be less likely to send much in terms of prospects the other way.

That means rentals (i.e., players whose contracts expire after the 2020 season) might make for more common trade bait in 2020 than other years. For example, the Blue Jays picked up Taijuan Walker from the Mariners on Thursday for a player to be named later in hopes of shoring up the rotation. Walker, who has a 4.00 ERA over 27 innings, signed a one-year, $2-million deal with Seattle in the offseason, making him quite affordable and useful to Toronto. But even then, the Jays only will get a handful of starts from him down the stretch. Others looking to deal for rentals like Walker probably won't give up a premium prospect for 25ish games of production (or even less for pitchers).

The biggest, most prospect-heavy trade could be for someone like Rangers starter Lance Lynn. The 33-year-old right-hander remains one of the most reliable pitchers in the game and is due only $9.3 million next season, a bargain for a hurler who seems on his way to his second straight top-five AL Cy Young finish. With Texas well out of the running, the organization could see this as the right time to deal Lynn while he has some team control left and there are plenty of clubs -- like the Yankees and Braves -- who could use top-of-the-rotation help.

Also, keep an eye on Reds starter Trevor Bauer, who has a 1.65 ERA in 32 2/3 frames. The 29-year-old would be a rental considering he's a free agent in the offseason, but should Cincinnati deem it's ready to sell before Monday -- which is no guarantee given the talent on its roster -- it could ask for a pretty penny in terms of a prospect package because the club could recoup a high Draft pick by offering Bauer the qualifying offer in the offseason.

And the situation in Cleveland will continue to be a thing until the Deadline passes. Both Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac were notably optioned after they broke COVID-19 protocols, and while Clevinger has returned to the rotation for now, Plesac has yet to do so. (A brilliant debut by Triston McKenzie certainly kept him in a starting role for a while longer.) Cleveland could try to cut bait with either or both following some reported souring in the clubhouse around their behavior. Clevinger is the better pitcher of the two right now but comes with fewer years of control; he has two more years of arbitration after 2020 while Plesac has two more pre-arbitration years and isn't currently slated to become a free agent until after the 2025 campaign. Both could go a long way toward helping an Indians farm system that has a lot of young potential but currently features only one Top-100 prospect in Nolan Jones. The fact that the organization's pitching development system remains so strong could only make it easier to let go of two hurlers and fill in other holes, such as several in the outfield.

The hottest rumor on the mill for a while was that the Brewers were listening to offers for elite reliever Josh Hader, though The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal noted it would take a “bananas price" to move the lefty. Hader is due for arbitration in each of the three seasons after 2020, and those years of control only heighten the cost in a trade. Even in his limited role out of the bullpen, it would take a big prospect package -- and a further downturn in the Brewers' chances in 2020 -- for Milwaukee to move Hader. It's worth noting, however, that the Brewers have the worst farm system in baseball, and a Hader trade could go a long way in rebuilding the Minor League pipeline.

Roster rules and player pools

The 60-man player pool has become part of the baseball lexicon in 2020. That comes out of necessity since the lack of a Minor League season meant Major League clubs had to establish extended rosters at alternate training sites to keep non-Major League players fresh in case of illness, injury or drop in production at the top level.

However, trades provide another wrinkle to the workings of the new roster rules.

Only players included in the 60-man player pools are eligible to be traded during the 2020 season. Cynically speaking, that's one reason why clubs could have included top prospects on their alternate-site rosters, even if they never had much of a chance of seeing the Majors in 2020. (The non-cynical take is that those young prospects need supervised work at a time when there is no Minor League play.) The Mets, for instance, added Ronny Mauricio, Francisco Alvarez and Matthew Allan to their site in Brooklyn over two days on Aug. 15 and 16. All three are 19 or younger, have yet to play above Class A and rank among the club's top five prospects. (Update: they also added Brett Baty to the player pool on Friday, meaning all five of the Mets' top prospects -- including Major Leaguer Andrés Giménez -- are now eligible to be traded before Aug. 31.) The moves could be purely for development purposes, but it's a notable side effect that all three are eligible for any last-minute blockbuster that general manager Brodie Van Wagenen and the New York front office try to pull off before Monday.

All that said, there is a workaround that clubs have already taken advantage of this month. There have been seven trades in August that have involved players to be named later, the Walker-to-Toronto deal being the latest. PTBNL's don't have to be named until six months after the original trade becomes official, and at that point, the 60-man player pool requirement will be no more. Leaning on PTBNL's allow clubs to still get a deal done involving the mid- to lower-level prospects, i.e., those who might be swapped for rentals. The Player to be Named Later might end up being the most popular prospect come Monday, and in that way, it could be months before we can evaluate this Deadline fully.

Prospect for prospect swaps

One of the most shocking deals at last year's Trade Deadline was the Marlins-D-backs swap that sent Zac Gallen to Arizona and Jazz Chisholm to Miami. In the move, the Marlins swapped a Major League-ready arm in Gallen, who had full years of team control ahead of him, for a potentially higher-ceiling talent in Chisholm, who was at Double-A at the time. The rebuilding Fish essentially kicked the can down the road a little while the D-backs got long-term rotation help. A fascinating deal for both sides.

It's possible we'll see more like it before Monday.

Without Minor League Baseball, this has been a big year for prospects in the Majors as teams are deeming their young talents ready for The Show in droves. A heavier reliance on inexperienced, high-ceiling names could make top prospects legitimate Major League talents for contending clubs, provided they're willing to pay up in similar, maybe even less experienced prospects. The fact that prospects are much cheaper in terms of immediate Major League salaries also makes them even more attractive in the cash-strapped 2020 season.

Speaking completely hypothetically, the Angels, for instance, could trade No. 84 overall prospect Brandon Marsh, who seems unlikely to move past Jo Adell on the Anaheim grass in 2020, to a club in need of immediate outfield help -- perhaps Cleveland -- and bring back an impressive prospect return.

The Royals-Rays trade involving Brett Phillips and Lucius Fox was a low-grade version of this. Phillips graduated from prospectdom long ago, but remains under team control through the 2024 season (though he is out of options and would need to be designated for assignment if he isn't on the Major League roster). Fox was the No. 26 prospect in a loaded Rays system with only 15 games of experience above Double-A. Both are potential long-term bench pieces in their new homes with Tampa Bay taking on the more immediate production while Kansas City was willing to wait a little longer.

Something similar to Gallen-for-Chisholm might be a little too pie-in-the-sky to expect again during this trade season, but then again, anything is possible in 2020.

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.