The moons aligned.
With Robinson Cano suspended without pay for half a season, Seattle suddenly had $12 million freed up. Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto trades more than any GM, and his most frequent dance partner is the Rays — the teams have made nine trades since Dipoto became GM in 2015.
Dipoto has further motivation for aggressiveness. His contract expires after the season, and Seattle has gone the longest in any of the four major pro sports without reaching the postseason (since 2001). Plus, the Rays have shown they are open for business 24/7 — and will talk any player in their employ at any time.
So, the Mariners and Rays were the right teams at the right time to break the unwritten rule about not doing a significant trade before the draft. On May 25, Seattle obtained Alex Colome and Denard Span from Tampa for pitching prospects Andrew Moore and Tommy Romero. Plus, the Rays agreed to pay $4.75 million of the roughly $10.2 million still owed Span, whose lefty bat went into the lineup with Dee Gordon switching from center field to his more familiar second base to replace Cano.
Will other teams go early (the draft ended Wednesday)? Or wait until July, namely late July, as usual, because: 1) Losing teams do not want to concede too early as they hope for a turnaround while not wanting to send a message to ticket buyers that they have surrendered. 2) Clubs laser focus on the draft and do not want to allocate attention or scouting personnel for trades. 3) Buyers want to know the full extent of what they need and what the market is going to be before acting.
Mainly, people and industries tend to need deadlines to force action, and the non-waiver trade deadline is not until 4 p.m. on July 31.
Yet, this season all but begs teams to act differently because:
1. This is the era when teams have rethought and altered so many traditions, in part because front offices are deeper in manpower and more willing to view each issue with fresh eyes. These baseball ops departments are deep enough — in personnel and ideas — that they can walk and chew gum simultaneously (handle the draft and an early trade market).
2. While teams often want to wait to fully know who they are, this is a season of distinct paths: Six teams were on pace for 96-plus wins, six for 95-plus losses and just six to win 70-something games.
3. Yet, all six divisions were in play. The biggest gap between first and second was 3 1/2 games in the woeful AL Central, in which only Cleveland is over .500. The five NL West teams were within 5 1/2 games. In the NL, 12 of 15 teams were either in the playoffs or within 6 1/2 games of at least a wild card.
That suggests finding a win or two or three along the way is going to be vital, and waiting until July 31 to do your business and losing a month-plus of a potentially useful player could prove to be decisive in which teams reach the playoffs.
“Clearly, the longer you have players on the roster, the more impact they’re likely to provide,” Dipoto wrote in a text message. “I think more often than not the drag [until the deadline] comes from the seller rather than the buyer. Sensibly most or all want to make sure they’re maximizing the return, which typically requires time, research, scouting looks and competition among teams. The fact that most of the league goes underground from mid-May to mid-June for the draft doesn’t make it easier. In the end early deals probably come down to communication and relationships. Frequent interaction or conversation helps.”
Well, a few teams should get busy interacting. Take the Angels, for example. The Mariners already were playing better even without Cano, but were an MLB-best 9-2 since announcing the trade. That has catapulted them into first in the AL West. If you, like me, believe Houston is still the class of the division and will ultimately prevail, then a battle for the second wild card is clearly forming between the Mariners and Angels.
Normally, teams would not be aggressive to try to be the road team in a one-and-done playoff game. But the Angels feel the pressure of winning with Mike Trout, who has been to the playoffs just once.
The Angels have the AL’s third-worst bullpen WAR (Fangraphs) and can use at least a supplemental bat to help at first, second or right due to the underperformance of Albert Pujols, Ian Kinsler and Kole Calhoun. Baltimore’s Mychal Givens and Adam Jones, for example, or Cincinnati’s Raisel Iglesias and Scooter Gennett make sense.
But what makes the most sense is not to wait just because waiting is familiar. Sellers risk player performance dipping or injury wrecking value, and buyers risk missing out on the few wins that could be the difference between the playoffs or not. There is no reason to wait until July, not in 2018.
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