Anyone that has found their way to this particular plot of internet land is surely familiar with the essentials of the classic summer baseball trade. Good teams acquire useful players from bad ones. Familiar readers have the next key elements down: teams are focused not only on player performance, but on contract rights (in a nutshell: how many years and for how much money?). Attentive MLBTR-ists are also aware of the importance of a whole host of other considerations.
No matter where you are on the spectrum, you probably know that baseball teams have 25 players in uniform at any given time. Most are likely at least vaguely familiar with the concept of the 40-man MLB roster, which consists of those 25 on the active roster along with others that are on optional assignment or the 10-day injured list.
Those basic roster tallies are some of the simplest concepts influencing the transactional market for MLB talent. They can also operate in subtle ways, particularly as they interact with other rules. This year’s most-visible off-field rule change was the creation of the One True Trade Deadline — which, as we explored in depth recently, appears to represent a complete and exception-free bar to the trades of MLB players after July 31st. Long before the explosion in importance of August trades in the seasons leading up to its banishment, the artist formerly known as the revocable waiver trade period provided an important backstop for contenders. You may not have sat back waiting for a major addition, but you knew you could snag a necessary depth piece if a need arose. Not so anymore.
This poses a bit of a dilemma for contenders. They can make educated guesses, but cannot foresee precisely what needs will arise beyond the month of July — after which time they will be limited to acquiring players on minor-league contracts via trade (a potentially useful backstop but rather limited in terms of quality) or MLB players via waiver claim (a complete crap-shoot and, in some cases, untenably expensive). Building depth is obviously of importance … yet teams also cannot stuff their MLB rosters beyond the bounds of the 25 and 40-man limits, thus limiting the volume of MLB-caliber players they can compile. And that’s all before considering the need to utilize 40-man spots on players who are only (or mostly) of value in the future.
So … with no do-overs, what can a contender do to make sure it’s covered? In structuring a slate of acquisition targets, teams will need to look for somewhat creative ways to build in a bit more depth now than they might have in years past. The details will obviously depend upon each organization’s preexisting slate of internal options, but all will share a general interest in obtaining readily stashable players.
Here are a few classes of players that might hold a bit more appeal than usual — or, at least, which might be mined for useful depth pieces that can be filed away in the recesses of the rosters …
Optionable Players: This one’s sort of obvious in that non-core players are always more appealing when they can be optioned, thus allowing teams much greater flexibility in dealing with roster contingencies that arise. But the ability to send a 40-man roster member down to the minors now takes on even greater potential importance as a deadline strategy. It’s possible to imagine a team acquiring a solid, optionable middle reliever and stashing him right away at Triple-A, utilizing other players on the active roster until a need arises or rosters expand in September. Of course, such players necessarily still occupy valuable 40-man space, so they’re not truly stashed.
Outrighted Players: It’s generally presumed that a player who’s viewed as a trade chip should be showcased at the MLB level in advance of the deadline, but putting a guy on the 40-man can also kill his trade appeal. It goes without saying that a player who cleared outright waivers earlier in the season isn’t going to be seen as a major addition for a contender. But such players can be useful stashes — if, at least, they don’t need to be placed on the MLB roster of an acquiring team unless or until there’s a need. Consider Dan Straily, who was punted from the O’s 40-man and took up an assignment at Triple-A, where he has quietly turned in quality numbers through five starts in the tough International League. Or Diamondbacks catcher John Ryan Murphy, who’d be a worthwhile depth piece for teams worried about being caught thin behind the dish. The Yankees already made a move of this kind. Under the new deadline rules, outrighted MLB contracts (there’s a distinction from minor-league contracts) cannot be traded after July 31st.
Outright-able Players: No, we’re not suggesting that an under-water contract is a positive asset. But a big salary can help a player make it through outright waivers, before or even after the trade deadline (at which point such players can be claimed, but likely wouldn’t be if their contract is too expensive). The new deadline rules can in this sense function to make it more appealing for a contender to take on an underperforming contract to facilitate the acquisition of another player. Even if you don’t have immediate use for the overpriced player, he might be a useful depth option that wouldn’t otherwise be available if you outright and stash him after the deal goes through. For this scheme to work, such players would have to be ineligible to elect free agency while keeping their guaranteed money, meaning we’d be looking at guys with less than five years of MLB service. Players like Mike Montgomery, Travis Shaw, Delino DeShields Jr., and Adam Conley might represent possibilities. It’s admittedly a narrow opening, but that’s sort of what we’re looking for here — outside-the-box means by which teams can find just the right piece to squeeze in some post-July protection.
Players On 60-Day Injured List: This might be the most interesting possibility for a truly new angle on the deadline. In past years, players on the 60-day injured list would generally have been held back in hopes they’d return to action in August and morph back into a trade piece. Now, we could see them moved by the end of July, even if it’s not entirely clear when or even whether they’ll make it back in action down the stretch. You’re allowed to trade for injured players, even if it doesn’t typically happen very often. Indeed, such players can shift directly from the corresponding injured list of one team to that of another, which means that players on the 60-day injured list need not even temporarily occupy a 40-man spot. Clubs can assess injury expectations, in some cases by watching players on their rehab assignments, and reasonably project those players’ timelines and potential value as a depth option. A few conceivable options that are or could be put on the 60-day IL include Hunter Strickland (if he’s not activated before the deadline), Josh Harrison, Tyson Ross, Edinson Volquez, Nick Vincent, Nate Karns, and Luke Farrell. Some of the injured guys are also candidates to be outrighted, which adds to the roster-stashing options but obviously also suggests they aren’t going to be taken on unless other financial elements or other players are also involved.
Players On 10-Day Injured List: When contemporary baseball thinking met the 10-day IL, we saw an explosion in the number of players hitting the shelf. Now, names are constantly shuffling on and off the list of walking wounded. That can create some opportunities for attentive teams. Such players still require 40-man spots and would ultimately need to be restored to the active roster once they are healthy and have run through their rehab time. But with September active roster expansion not far off, and lengthy rehab clocks available to work with (20 days for position players, 30 for pitchers), a creative club might add a piece knowing that the new addition ought to be available down the stretch and won’t force the team’s hand from a roster perspective — even if they’re out of options. Such players can simply be designated or pushed to the 60-day IL as needed in August and beyond. Dee Gordon, Clayton Richard and Jesse Biddle are possible examples. Beyond the roster-stretching possibilities, players on the 10-day IL that are expected back in relatively short order — say, Zack Wheeler or Shawn Kelley, to take two prominent examples — are generally much likelier to be dealt in July despite their health status than would’ve been the case in years prior.
Underwhelmed? Well, that’s sort of the point. We’re looking in the margins here. Teams obviously aren’t going to be going wild chasing down these sub-groups of players. If they feel exposed in certain areas — organizational catching depth, say, or passable middle-relief arms — they’ll also look into dealing for players on minor-league deals (before or after the deadline), sign up the few available free agents, and/or mine the indy ball (or even international) leagues for players. Still, the above categories afford a few additional avenues for dealing with the new limitations in the era of the unitary trade deadline.