Crowded NL could blow up MLB’s trade market

The National League is what we thought it would be. The weekend began with 14 teams either in a playoff position or within 4 ¹/₂ games of one. Wither the Marlins, who would have to climb 10 rungs just to reach horrendous.

In early May, I believe the Marlins and the Giants can already be eliminated from playoff thoughts. San Francisco can’t score and wants to think big picture/future anyway under new head of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi.

The Reds had the same record as the Giants to start the weekend. But their mindset, initiated in the offseason, has been to go for it. Cincinnati just brought up its best prospect, Nick Senzel, to try to energize an offense that looks better on paper than the field to date. The winter plan to upgrade the rotation has worked with imports Sonny Gray and Tanner Roark generally pitching well (another acquisition, Alex Wood, has been out all year), and well-regarded pitching coach Derek Johnson seemingly having an impact in his first season. Luis Castillo has blossomed into arguably the NL’s best starter.

If you wonder how the Marlins became this version, well, the new leadership under Derek Jeter has blundered plenty. But the old regime, in a futile attempt to make the playoffs, traded Castillo (mainly for Dan Straily), Domingo German (mainly for Martin Prado) and Chris Paddack (mainly for Fernando Rodney) and that trio entered the weekend a combined 10-3 with a 1.92 ERA.

Anyway, the Reds and a dozen other NL teams are in some form of contention. Among that group it is the Dodgers and the others, and will that dynamic of 10-12 teams scrambling for playoff spots trigger earlier than usual trade movement?

Traditionally, clubs do not focus heavily on the trade market until after the draft (June 3-5 this year) despite annual insistence from team executives that they are always ready to act. But I wonder if this year will be different.

Because the walls of tradition under modern front offices have collapsed pretty much everywhere else. Because a new rule for 2019 forbids waiver trades in August, meaning all the heavy lifting pretty much has to get done by July 31, which might mean trying to get some stuff out of the way earlier. And because of the tightness in the NL, where finding a few extra wins by going early with a trade could be the difference between 85 and 88 wins and a playoff berth.

FanGraphs was projecting 10 NL teams to win 80 or more games and only the Dodgers (94.4) were in the 90s. The four non-Marlins NL East teams were projected between 83.3 (Mets) and 86.5 (Nationals). We have seen indicators already of the edginess in the division. The Mets gave up on Travis d’Arnaud after 25 disjointed plate appearances despite a $3.515 million investment in him. The Nationals fired pitching coach Derek Lilliquist after 30 games.

The first act by one of these teams likely will be to push more aggressively for free agents Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel, though all indicators are this also will wait until after the draft to avoid losing draft pick compensation to do so.

But I particularly wonder if contending teams could get also-rans with expensive contracts to act sooner. For example, San Francisco’s Jeff Samardzija and Kansas City’s Ian Kennedy are both performing well. Those clubs could try to squeeze more value by getting closer to July 31. However, there is risk about health and performance holding up and, really, the key matter for both teams (especially the Royals) is getting out of future money.

Kennedy is owed $16.5 million this year and next. He was transitioned to the bullpen, where he is thriving (1.15 ERA, 12 strikeouts per nine innings). Would the Royals eat some money and/or absorb a contract to get Kennedy off the books for 2020, in particular?

Samardzija had a 6.25 ERA in 10 starts in a 2018 abbreviated by pectoral and shoulder injuries. He has lost some velocity, but relying more on his cutter this season the righty had a 2.53 ERA through six starts. He is due $18 million this year and next and, like Kansas City with Kennedy, San Francisco would probably have to eat money or take some on to deal Samardzija.

Keep in mind that the Giants already have Johnny Cueto signed for $21 million a year through 2021, and he is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Neither Samardzija nor Cueto is expected to be part of the next good San Francisco team and, at the moment, Samardzija is the only one healthy enough to be dealt.

In Madison Bumgarner, the Giants have arguably the best starting chip in the coming market, though that could change if teams view Toronto’s Marcus Stroman or Aaron Sanchez as more appealing because they cannot be free agents until after 2020 while Bumgarner is in his walk year, or the Indians get proactive and make Trevor Bauer available (also free after 2020). But with starters of that ilk or lower cost or more control (also think Detroit’s Matt Boyd and Texas’ Mike Minor), the sellers could probably wait nearer the deadline to heighten bidding.

The Giants probably could not be that patient with Samardzija, for example, if interest were expressed. As a righty flyball pitcher, Samardzija might not be ideal for a place like Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Ballpark. How about Citi Field, though, if the Mets decide they need depth? Or SunTrust Park, if the Braves want a more veteran type to mix with their kids?

The acquisition costs could be low right now, the buyers motivated to move sooner than later and the NL jammed with teams not wanting to wait to find the extra few wins that could be the difference between October play or not.

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