In a season filled with firsts for Major League Baseball, the trade deadline, too, shall be unprecedented.
In fact, Monday’s final window for teams to swap players in time to join postseason rosters is not so much a crystal-clear day of reckoning as much as it is a choose-your-own-adventure exercise.
A season in which 16 teams make the playoffs and 25 of 30 – including the entire National League – enter deadline day within five games of a berth with roughly 30 to play means you can be pretty much anything you want to be.
Contender? Why not?
Rebuilder? Other teams have shamelessly packed it in with far greater prospects than some 2020 sellers.
Both? No rule that says you can’t play for 2020 while keeping a longer lens on the big picture.
Indians pitcher Mike Clevinger could be traded before Monday's 4 p.m. ET deadline. (Photo: David Richard, USA TODAY Sports)
So as the 4 p.m. ET deadline looms, here are the six teams whose behavior will most impact the market – and thus the playoff picture:
Quick question: Has there ever been a first-place team that could, with a straight face, trade both a Cy Young-caliber starter and MVP-level shortstop at the trade deadline?
Well, these Indians are willing to find out. Granted, the circumstances under which they’re dangling Mike Clevinger — he of the devastating three-pitch mix and penchant for pandemic adventures despite a hotel lockdown – are unique.
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The 29-year-old comes with two full years of club control after this and a strikeout pace of 10.4 per nine innings the past two seasons. Alas, this year’s sample is just four starts because he and fellow starter Zach Plesac were caught coming back from a night on the town just days after MLB instituted tighter protocols to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
But the Indians went 11-6 between the time those two were banished to their alternate training site and Clevinger returned to the mound, vaulting from third to first place. That’s how freakishly deep Cleveland’s pitching is, and assuming Plesac returns to their good graces, they scarcely would miss Clevinger for the remainder of this year.
The same can’t be said of Lindor, a free agent after 2021 and a player the Indians have painfully and publicly acknowledged they won’t be able to retain. As Sunday turned to Monday, it seemed certain Clevinger’s bags should be packed — perhaps to San Diego or L.A., perhaps the Bronx.
Trading Lindor, the charismatic franchise cornerstone, is fraught with far more peril.
And so the extent to which the Indians wheel and deal before the deadline may have as much to do with how the club assesses itself – and how crucial it feels shopping its best assets now may set it up for a more sustainable future.
Working a grand slam into your daily diet is a heck of a way to convince your bosses they should buy at the deadline. And so in Slam Diego, the future came quickly.
This is another rare convergence — a core of youthful superstars and veterans gelling at the right time, buttressed by an organization so overflowing with talented minor league depth that it basically was giving away players it knew it couldn’t cram onto the 40-man roster come November.
The early returns are nothing to smirk at: Mitch Moreland, Trevor Rosenthal and not one, but two catchers in Austin Nola and Jason Castro are perfect veteran fits to get a club not just into, but through October.
Monday’s grand finale figures to include pieces that, like Nola, will be viable into 2021, which may still represent the apex of the Padres’ internal “win curve.” Clevinger and the Rangers’ Lance Lynn — who’s signed through next year — both fit that description.
And the Padres still retain the organizational pieces to win any bidding they choose to enter.
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