It’s the time of year when the general managers take over baseball. The media and fans will spend as much time speculating about what’s going on in the front office as they do watching the action on the field. The GMs are stepping to the plate. It’s trading deadline time.
For those with only a casual knowledge of baseball, teams have until July 31 to trade players without exposing them to what’s called the waiver wire. Beginning Aug. 1, other teams can put in claims on players who are traded, thereby quashing the deals.
That’s makes the July 31 deadline crucial. Yes, trades can be made later in the season — and are — but the procedure is far more complicated. Add in the factor that some teams are coming to realize at this point that their 2015 campaigns are hopeless, and are willing to move high-priced veterans in favor of younger talent, and the stakes become very high. No wonder Eric Bland, the fictional GM of my humorous short story THE TRADING DEADLINE, went through such emotional turmoil.
A real-life example of how it’s not easy to be a major league general manager: A.J. Preller of the San Diego Padres.
His predecessors embarked on a a multi-year plan to improve the team from within the organization and built a strong minor league system. By 2014, however, it was clear that the players who had moved into the big leagues weren’t good enough to compete. The Padres were that deadly combination of bad and dull. The general manager was fired late in the season and replaced by Preller, a relatively young man who helped build the Texas Rangers teams that went to the World Series twice a few years ago.
He and the Padres owners realized that a shakeup was in order, so during the off-season he made a series of trades and free agent signings to pick up All-Star OF Justin Upton, front-of-the-rotation P James Shields, a onetime MVP candidate in slugging OF Matt Kemp, top closer Craig Kimbrel and 2014 All-Star C Derek Norris. He also brought in two youngsters whose promising careers were derailed by injury in 3B Will Middlebrooks and former Rookie of the Year OF Wil Myers. The price for the haul was relatively low — players who had been unproductive in San Diego or were still in the minor leagues.
Fast-forward to this writing, when the general managers are preparing to wheel ‘n’ deal. The Padres have a won-loss record of 43-49, are 9 games out of the lead in the National League West division, and 6 1/2 games out of the second wildcard playoff position. Their record is just three games better than last year’s group, and their position in the playoff pecking order is only slightly improved.
So much for all the big moves.
Now Preller is catching heat for collecting players with salaries bigger than their ability (Justin Upton’s brother Melvin Jr.) and whose best days are behind them (Kemp). Justin Upton has been the lone bright spot. Shields and Kimbrel have been mediocre. The gritty Norris is better-than-advertised at throwing out would-be base stealers, but his receiving skills are questionable and his hitting has faded under the strain of playing his grueling position nearly every day. Middlebrooks doesn’t look like a starter on a playoff-quality team and Myers is hurt again.
Meanwhile, wouldn’t you know it, some of the Padres who were traded away are doing quite well for their new teams. C Yasmani Grandal appeared in the All-Star Game and CF Cameron Maybin might have been the next guy on the roster if someone on the National League team got hurt. Minor league hurlers Joe Ross and Matt Wisler were called up to their big league teams and SS Trea Turner is skyrocketing through the Washington Nationals organization.
For a great example of Monday morning quarterbacking, there’s this. Grantland usually offers better material. And Preller is not alone. The other two teams that made splashes in the off-season were the Chicago franchises. The White Sox are 42-46, 11 games out of the American League Central lead and six back in the wildcard standings. The Cubs are in better shape, 47-41, and while nine games out in the National League Central, they currently hold the senior circuit’s second wildcard position. The Cubs also had a nucleus to build around with 1B Anthony Rizzo, SS Starlin Castro and a potentially great rookie coming up in 3B Kris Bryant.
Preller’s next two weeks will come down to whether he should live with his mistakes and hope for improved performance from his players, or start over. He desperately needs a SS, a C who can spell Norris and a lead-off hitter. Between now and the trading deadline, we’ll be closely watching him and his counterparts.