The hottest name on this year’s trade market, as expected, has been Orioles shortstop Manny Machado. Seven teams have reportedly made official offers for the young superstar, and at this point it appears as though the Brewers and Dodgers are the frontrunners for his services, with the Indians also in the mix. And though it’s not immediately clear what any of those teams offered, I expect that if Machado is traded by himself, the return will be less than inspiring.
At last season’s trade deadline, the Tigers traded one of the top power hitters in the game in J.D. Martinez. The prospects given up by the Diamondbacks in exchange were Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, and Jose King. If none of those players sound familiar to you, it’s probably because they weren’t interesting enough at the time for you to remember their names. After all, none of them ranked among the Tigers’ top ten prospects upon entering their weak farm system (Lugo ranks highest among those players at present, checking in at #12), and certainly none of the three were brought up in public trade speculation surrounding Martinez.
There’s more a big disclaimer here. First, many teams don’t pay attention to public top prospect lists; they have access to far more player data, so they’re almost certainly assessing player value more accurately than publications like MLB Pipeline or Baseball America. For all we know, Lugo could rank among Detroit’s top 150 favorite minor-leaguers in the game. Still, on the surface, none of the three prospects had ever done anything particularly remarkable, and the fact that the Diamondbacks landed one of the best power hitters in MLB without giving up any marquee players came as a surprise to many.
One possible contributor to this is the talent gap between MLB teams. Prior to the deadline last season, an extraordinary number of teams were already out of the playoff race. This season’s even more extreme in that regard; the Indians already own a seemingly insurmountable lead in the AL Central, and it’s become clear that no AL East team outside of the Yankees and Red Sox has any chance of making the playoffs at all. Even in the AL West, only the Astros, Mariners and Athletics can feasibly be considered contenders at all at this point, with the Angels perhaps having an outside shot if they can get healthy. Los Angeles aside, though, there would appear to be just six AL teams competing for five playoff spots down the stretch, and even the Athletics’ chances are suspect.
Even in the National League, many teams are starting to pull ahead of the pack, setting up a landscape with less mystery surrounding playoff probables than in seasons past. And if these teams have less competition, they also face less of an urgency to acquire impact pieces prior to the trade deadline. The Indians, specifically, are in a division with four teams likely to be sellers (the Royals, in fact, already started, receiving a weak return for Kelvin Herrera). Why should they give up any significant future value for a player like Machado, who they’ll only benefit from during the playoffs? Why should the Red Sox trade from their thin farm system when at the very least they’ll probably have home field advantage in the Wild Card game either way?
If those teams (who both have holes in the infield to some extent) probably don’t feel the urgency necessary to spend big (in terms of prospects) on a player like Machado, it could take yet another two bidders out of an already-weak bidding war. Thus, the laws of supply and demand are likely to drive down the value of any player who would become a free agent at the end of the season.
My overall point is that, in an MLB climate where divisions are so lopsided, any rental player this season is unlikely to command the type of return he might have in another era. That doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of activity involving these players, but logic tells me that an anxious bidding war for these rentals, the kind of competition that would yield an impressive return value, is unlikely to develop. It will surely be interesting to track players these players and see just how this storyline progresses.