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Sunday, August 14, 2022

What did the 2022 MLB trade deadline show us? Five things we learned

Juan Soto headed for the land of fish tacos. Luis Castillo can now lead the league in Starbucks instead of strikeouts. And another wild trade deadline shop-a-thon is in the rear-view mirror. But what should we take away from what we saw?

We saw the impact of the new postseason format take hold of sellers and buyers, as the deadline clock ticked. We saw teams make powerful statement deals, even though their chances of winning their divisions are slim and minuscule. And as always, we couldn’t help but notice what trades some teams didn’t make.

So to try to make sense of it all, I surveyed a group of bright front-office minds and agents. Now here come Five Things We’ve Learned from the 2022 Deadline.

1. Get ready for Ohtani-palooza

Is it weird to start a column like this with a guy who wasn’t traded? It might seem that way at first glance, but we like to think of ourselves as forward-thinking around here. So we want you to be prepared for the No. 1 topic of conversation for the next 15 to 18 months:


In other words, the big news is not that the Angels couldn’t bring themselves to trade away Shohei Ohtani at this trade deadline. As one longtime American League exec put it, “I never had one moment where I thought they were going to trade him.” But it’s what happens next that will keep us all in business for the next year and a half.

What does the future hold for Ohtani, as free agency looms after the 2023 season? I asked that question to folks from front offices around baseball. The one thing they agreed on: They don’t see him as a long-term Angel.

Does he get traded this winter? That might seem like a likely scenario from afar. But I found three AL executives who are skeptical that the Angels can bring themselves to trade him at all, and certainly not before the 2023 deadline.

EXEC NO. 1: “My guess is that they hold him and assess where they are next year in midseason. I don’t think they have it in them to trade him this winter.”

EXEC NO. 2: “I think Shohei Ohtani will be everyone’s No. 1 target next July.”

EXEC NO. 3: “I think he becomes a free agent and they just play it out to the end. Arte (owner Arte Moreno) is afraid to ever trade him.”

Does he get traded at the 2023 deadline? I actually had a hard time finding anyone who even thinks the Angels can summon the courage trade Ohtani next summer — except for Exec No. 2, who said:

“The only reason is that they know they have no chance of keeping him. He’s not coming back.”

Why Ohtani and the Angels aren’t the same as Soto and the NationalsOn one level — the old it’s their only shot to start the rebuild level — it might feel as though the Angels are in the same position many organizations have been in with many stars as their teams’ glory years faded. But this is Shohei Ohtani we’re talking about. He’s different from everyone else. Ever.

An official of one club used the example of the Red Sox trading away Mookie Betts, another player whose old team decided (rightly or wrongly) they couldn’t sign him long term.

“When you’re trading Mookie Betts,” he said, “you’re trading a star player, but you’re mostly only trading his talent on the field. You’re losing his star power, obviously. But you’re mostly trying to justify why you’re better off trading away a dollar and taking four quarters.

“But with Ohtani,” the exec went on, “you’re doing that with a guy who’s a position player and a pitcher and this incredible attraction who makes you real money. So on the field, you’ve got to replace him with two All-Star players — a hitter and a pitcher. And off the field, you’ve got to try to regenerate the revenue he brings you, not just here but internationally. So that’s an impossible problem — with no solution.”

So what happens when he becomes a free agent? Maybe there’s a scenario where the Angels put a more complete team around Ohtani in 2023, everyone stays healthy and they have a big, exhilarating postseason run that inspires him to stick around — for the most humongous contract ever. But what happens in an alternate universe, where next season goes even remotely like this season? (Angels fans should cover their eyes now and just skip ahead to the next section.)

“I don’t think he’s an East Coast guy,” said another exec. “My first instinct is to say Dodgers or Giants. But I actually don’t think he would go to the Dodgers just because it would look like he’s sticking it to the Angels. I could see him going to Seattle. But West Coast. That’s my guess.”

How good is that guess? We’ll find out by Valentine’s Day 2024. But in the meantime, if we all collected five bucks for every time we hear the word, “Ohtani,” between now and then, we could buy the Angels.

Shoehi Ohtani pitching against the Marlins in July (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

2. The Padres are the Yankees of winning the deadline

As I was extolling the all-time go-for-it deadline haul of Padres president of baseball operations A.J. Preller to one executive, he stopped me in mid-extollization.

“Face it, man,” he said. “The Padres have won a truckload of deadlines and a whole lot of offseasons. They’ve been that team that everyone was talking about. But there’s been one month of the year where nobody was ever talking about them. And you know what it is.”

OK, so that was harsh. But there is this truth alert:

• If we don’t include the 60-game aberration season of 2020, the Padres haven’t won a playoff game in 16 years (Chris Young over Jeff Suppan and the Cardinals, Game 3, 2006 NLDS).

• Not counting 2020, the Padres haven’t won a postseason series since the 1998 NLCS.

• Even if we count 2020, they’ve won four postseason series in the history of their franchise, now in Season No. 54. Their good friends, the Dodgers, have won 21 series (and a wild-card game) since then!

So fine. There’s some truth in that Month We Never Talk About Them stuff. But the beauty of sports is that past disappointment is never a guarantee of future disappointment. Every franchise eventually has its moment. (AUTHOR’S NOTE: Jacksonville Jaguars aficionados can direct complaints about that conclusion elsewhere.) And for the Padres, this feels like their moment.

No team has ever traded for a bat at the deadline like Juan Soto. No team has ever traded for a new closer as dominating as Josh Hader. Also joining the band: Josh Bell and a Reds escapee, Brandon Drury, who mashed a Slam Diego special in his first at-bat as a Padre.

So something spectacular has a chance to happen here. And how is that not what deadline shopping is supposed to deliver to any town?

“I actually think it’s super fun,” said the same exec who rained on this party earlier. “I can’t wait to watch them. They’re in position to make some real noise this year, and beyond. I’m not totally sure how good they are. But I appreciate that they’re doing it.”

Which doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to ask …

Does this make financial or baseball sense? Five years ago, the Padres had an Opening Day payroll of $69.6 million. And now they’ve blown through the luxury-tax threshold for the second straight year. They play in the 22nd-largest media market in baseball. So wow.

“I don’t know how they’re paying for it,” said one exec.

“I can’t understand San Diego’s business model,” said another.

But a third exec said: “I give their ownership group a ton of credit. They’ve financially committed to building an incredible major-league product. So obviously, they’re thinking that if you invest in building a strong brand, the money will all work out in the long run. … And I also think that if I owned a team, I’d be thinking it’s fun to win, so what’s the most fun thing we could do for me and our fans to watch? Let’s do that.”

Well, in that case, why not trade for Juan Soto? That sure looked like fun Wednesday night, even if Preller now has a lot of work to do to refill the tank of organizational talent he just drained to make these deals.

“I’ll say this about A.J.,” said one of the execs quoted earlier. “He’s one of the best acquirers of young talent in our game, and he’s one of the best at being willing to give up that talent to bring in major-league players he has a chance to trade for. And he doesn’t seem concerned about the cost if it makes his major-league team exponentially better. It’s a very noble way to operate — because his job would be a lot safer if he just held onto those players.”

3. The Braves are becoming a behemoth

Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos unleashed his annual torrent of deals at this deadline (for Raisel Iglesias, Jake Odorizzi, Robbie Grossman and Ehire Adrianza). They’ll be joining a team that won the last World Series … and has the best record in baseball (40-15) since June 1 … and is riding the talents of the likely National League rookie (Michael Harris II) and rookie pitcher (Spencer Strider) of the year.

So once again, any team that runs into the Braves in October is going to have a monster matchup on its hands. But all that is merely the subplot to the other news the Braves just made:

Atlanta Braves — signed 3B Austin Riley to 10-year, $212 million extension

That little entry in the transactions column has been the talk of baseball (non-Juan Soto division) — but not merely because it’s the largest contract in Braves history. It’s because the Braves now have locked up Riley, Matt Olson, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies with four extensions that are wayyy below their potential market value.

Olson: 8 years, $168 million (thru 2030*)
Acuña: 8 years, $100 million (thru 2028**)
Albies: 3 years, $35 million (thru 2027**)

*counting club option
**-counting two club options

“That’s their version of the Core Four,” said one NL exec.

But with apologies to Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada — who really should have copyrighted that term and slapped it on a cool T-shirt line — this Braves foursome is more than a catchy slogan. This group might not go on to win as many World Series as those Yankees. But by signing four club-friendly deals, these guys have put their team in position to do all sorts of things that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

How much did the Braves save? I went through this with an agent after Riley’s extension was announced. We didn’t settle on an exact amount. But let’s just say that as he went through each of those four contracts, he used the word “stole” a lot.

“Acuña, they stole,” the agent said. “Albies — even worse. And Riley, they stole. Forget the total dollars for a minute. He’s 25 years old. He’s trending, last year and this year, toward being one of the very best hitters in all of baseball. He’d be a young free agent, at 28 years old. So if you look at his free-agent value, is he a similar defensive third baseman to Nolan Arenado? No. But his free-agent years should start with a ‘3’ (as in $30-something million), and they got him for $22 million in those years.”

So by this agent’s estimate, the Braves wound up with anywhere from a $50- to $80-million discount on Riley. They saved upwards of $100 million on Acuña, and more if you compare his deal to the $340 million the Padres gave Fernando Tatis Jr. Add in another $50- to $70-million discount on Albies and a more modest savings on Olson, whose contract was closest to market value, and …

“You’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars,” the agent said, even as he was still being careful not to criticize any player for saying yes to life-changing money.

How does a team get four of those discounts? One of the executives I spoke with told me his team, and others, have done research on which franchises have the most success in signing players to “under-market” deals. The leaders in the clubhouse, until recently, have been the Diamondbacks (because spring training) and Padres (because San Diego). But the Braves have now joined that band.

“Hey, there are a lot of baseball players from the Southeast,” said the agent quoted earlier. “And they all want to play for the Atlanta Braves.”

How does this change the face of the Braves? All of a sudden, the Braves have a top-10 payroll in baseball — but are still more than $30 million below the first luxury-tax threshold. Meanwhile, their cash registers are ringing, via near-sellout nightly attendance and the booming success of The Battery district that surrounds the park.

“They’re doing extremely well,” the same agent said. “But they’re also positioned really well for long-term success. And it starts with their ability to sign those players for far less than they’re worth, which has allowed them to spend on other players.”

Think about the future of the NL East, where John Middleton’s Phillies have blown through the tax threshold and Steve Cohen’s Mets have roared through three tax thresholds. But it just might be the Braves who are set up for more profits and glory than either of them.

Luis Castillo pitched the Mariners to a win against the Yankees in the Bronx after the trade deadline. (Brad Penner / USA Today)

4. It’s winning time in Seattle

Some teams make trades that just shuffle players around. Other teams make trades that are more than transactions. They’re statements.

We now direct your attention to the Great Northwest. The Seattle Mariners just made a statement.

Across baseball, many people were stunned to see the Mariners trade three of their five best prospects to Cincinnati for Luis Castillo. But again, they weren’t simply making a trade. They were telling us something:

It’s time to end that 21-year playoff drought. It’s time to win.

“This was a deal that said: This is a team that’s ready to get to the playoffs,” said one exec. “And this is a team that doesn’t just want to get to the playoffs and be satisfied with that. If you’re going to get there, you should try to win when you get there.”

So what’s that thing you can trade for that helps teams win in October? Game 1/Game 2 starters are that thing. And enter Castillo, a starter who absolutely qualifies as a legit ace.

I just ruffled through decades worth of deadline trades by the Mariners. The last time they traded for a true ace at any deadline? How about 1989 … when they made a deal with the Expos for a wild, 6-foot-10, bat-misser (and plate-misser) named Randy Johnson.

That was so long ago, the deadline wasn’t even in July yet. And that term, “true ace,” really only applied to the future Randy Johnson, not the 25-year-old guy they’d just traded for — who was 0-4, with a 6.67 ERA, at the time they dealt for him.

So this is a team that literally never trades for pitchers like Luis Castillo in the middle of a season. But it just did, for a difference-maker who changes how we look at the Mariners — not simply over these next couple of months, but also in his walk year next season.

“Sometimes, you have to overpay to get that player,” said a rival AL exec. “You know what this reminds me of, in a way? When the Nationals paid too much to sign Jayson Werth as a free agent. That was the Nationals saying, ‘We’re here, and we’re going to win.’ And that’s what the Mariners just said: ‘We’re here. We plan to win. And we’re looking to activate it with a real impact player.’ Are they as good as the Astros? No, because who is. But they’re good enough to beat you in a (postseason) series in the next two years.”

5. The new postseason format shook things up 

I asked this question of one longtime exec this week: What was the impact of the new playoff format?

His one-word answer: “Huge.”

So where did that impact show up? Let’s review.

Teams ignored the division standings. We’ve talked about the Padres. They were 12 games out of first place in the NL West on the morning of the deadline. We’ve talked about the Mariners. They were also 12 games out of first in their division. They made the biggest deals of any teams at this deadline.

The Phillies, Blue Jays and Rays were all buyers. They, too, were looking at double-digit mountains to climb in their division. But with three wild-card spots available in each league, that was all the motivation they needed to say: If we can just get in, anything can happen.

The best-of-three first round changed teams’ thinking. The old one-and-done wild-card game made for epic baseball theater. What it didn’t make for was epic deadline theater.

We had a decade’s worth of evidence that modern front offices now think so scientifically, they had long ago made the calculation that it was almost never worth paying those steep deadline prices — not if all you got out of it was a one-game coin flip to decide the fate of your whole season.

But now that those wild cards get to play a best-of-three series, the thinking of many teams has clearly changed. The Phillies (Noah Syndergaard) and Cardinals (Jordan Montgomery, José Quintana) are just two of the clubs that traded for back-of-the-rotation starters who, potentially, could pitch one of those three games.

The bye (and seeding) mattered. The Yankees and Astros both look like they’re headed for a few days off in October, via the new first-round byes. It didn’t stop both from being aggressive buyers at this deadline — because, as they both know, home field advantage in the ALCS matters deeply in this rivalry.

The Mets and Braves aren’t just fighting it out for first place in the NL East. The winner almost certainly also gets a first-round bye. So did the Mets do enough? “My biggest surprise,” said one exec, “is how unaggressive the Steve Cohen Mets were. They’re getting Jacob deGrom back, and then he’s opting out. So if not now, when?”

Obey the law of supply and demand. With a week to go until the deadline, there were still 19 teams within 4.5 games of some kind of playoff spot. That tilted this market toward the sellers … which made for whopping returns for auctioneers like the Nationals and Reds.

It isn’t just the Dodgers, Yankees and Astros who are built to win. One exec I spoke with started ticking off all the teams he could see winning a series — or four — in this postseason. It turned out to be a longer list than either of us thought.

In the AL: Yankees, Astros, Blue Jays, Mariners and a Twins team that significantly upgraded its pitching this week.

In the NL: Dodgers, Mets, Braves, Padres, Brewers, Phillies, Cardinals. There’s an argument to be made that all of them have a formula that could make them no fun to play in any short series.

“Any of those teams could win,” the exec said. “And that made for a really good deadline, because a lot of teams are in it.”

So for all the grumbling a few months ago that a 12-team playoff field would cheapen the tournament, we’ve seen how many teams were enticed by the opportunity simply to scramble to get in and then see how hot they can get.

“I can promise you this,” an exec of one wild-card contender said. “If we make the playoffs, we won’t say, ‘We made the last playoff spot.’ All we’re going to say is: ‘We made the playoffs.’”

(Top image: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photos: Jim McIsaac, Denis Poroy, Katharine Lotze / Getty Images)


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