What the Baseball Sellers Buy

(Kirk Thornton via Unsplash)




“The rich get richer and the poor get—children,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby. Nothing illustrates the truth of that more than the stage of the Major League Baseball season called the trade deadline.

Baseball generates more of a hullabaloo about trading players than any other team sport. It is America’s oldest team sport and the tradition of trading players is deeply embedded in its culture, in its method of operation, in how it sells itself to its fans. It has had this practice, strange as it might seem to the rest of the working world, longer and more intensely than professional basketball, football, or hockey. Trades generate excitement in baseball. Its devotees live for them, agonizing over sportswriters’ predictions about them. All baseball fans aspire to be general managers.

The trade deadline works something like this: the baseball commissioner can set any date between July 28 and August 3 as the deadline for trades during the season. It used to be that teams could still make trades after that date through the waiver process, an interesting administrative procedure unique to baseball that I need not trouble you with here because teams can no longer go that route.

You make a trade by the deadline or you must wait until the end of the season. For a playoff-bound team, it is a chance to strengthen weaknesses, and bolster the mighty; for the also-rans, it is a chance to stock up for the future by getting the best younger, cheaper players from the contending teams in exchange for your established expensive players who are not doing you any good because you can continue to do without them what you were doing with them: lose games. In the trade game, you want to be a buyer, not a seller, a winner, not a loser. But everybody gets something: the winners buy more potency; the losers buy hope.

Fans of the St. Louis Cardinals are nonplussed, perhaps even offended, by the idea that this year the Cardinals are sellers, in last place, and what adds insult to injury, in the central division, usually considered weaker than the eastern or western divisions of the National League. The Cardinals won this division by seven games last year with pretty much the same cast of characters who are languishing more than a dozen games below .500. In fact, since 2013, the Cardinals have won the division six times. I suppose Cardinal fans have a right to be spoiled or to feel entitled. Those of us who grew up with teams of more uneven excellence can only envy such assurance. But as the old saying goes, pride goeth before a fall, even if, in this case, it may be brief, if the Cardinals really have retooled as a result of the trades they made.

In this strange season, where the Cardinals’ management, at one point, blamed their new catcher for the team’s failings as if no one else was on the field with him and because he was not Yadier Molina, where Cardinal manager Oliver Marmol publicly castigated his bodybuilding outfielder Tyler O’Neill for rounding third base too gingerly on a rainy night and being thrown out at the plate, perhaps the team itself feared from the beginning that it would be bad this year. This kind of stuff seems like a team that was not sure of itself. It felt like the early onset of panic.

Essentially, the Cardinals traded some spare parts—players with expiring contracts, players who did not figure importantly in their future—Flaherty, DeJong, Hicks, Montgomery, Stratton, and Cabrera. In return, the Cardinals got a passel of minor leaguers that the experts at The Athletic think was a respectable haul. We shall see.

The Cardinals feared or respected their fans enough not to do a complete rebuild and sell off most of the current team. This compromise might work. The current success of the painfully rebuilt Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds says otherwise. But it is always better to travel hopefully than to arrive.