10 biggest questions for the MLB trade deadline

The days of posturing, pretenses, bluffs, deception and even out-and-out lies are about to end.

It’s that time of year where every Major League Baseball club’s front office must call and turn over their cards.

In or out?

And if you want to win, just what are you prepared to do?

Gone are the days when everyone wanted to win, no one intentionally tanked, and when teams’ mantra was World Series or bust?

These days?

Well, in the words of one veteran executive: “I don’t think it’s about winning the World Series, anymore. I think most teams are just satisfied to just make the playoffs. They’d rather draw their 2.5 million fans, get their TV ratings, and be a contender every year rather than to go all in to win the World Series.’’

Yes, you remember those days, when Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy led the San Francisco Giants to World Series championships in 2010, 2012 and 2014 and no one really cared that they didn’t make the playoffs in those odd-numbered years.

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Now, general managers and executives would prefer hoarding prospects and thumping their chest for being on the cover of Baseball America, rather than trading away a prospect who turns into an All-Star, no matter the instant reward.

They’re afraid of being Theo Epstein, the Chicago Cubs president who acquired All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman from the New York to win the 2016 World Series champion, even though it cost them 2019 All-Star infielder Gleyber Torres.

“If not now, when?’’ said Epstein, the architect of three World Series champions.

Boston Red Sox president and GM David Dombrowski once traded future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson in a package for veteran starter Mark Langston during a playoff run in Montreal. Here we are 30 years later, and he hasn’t stopped going for the gusto. He never let prospects stand in the way of acquiring Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer and David Price in Detroit, or Chris Sale or Craig Kimbrel in Boston. The deft moves to acquire Nathan Eovaldi, Steve Pearce and Ian Kinsler last summer led to the Red Sox’s World Series championship.

“For me, if you have in your heart you can win a World Series,’’ Dombrowski told USA TODAY Sports, “you do everything you can to win it, by whatever means. But there’s been a general change in [trade] philosophy over the years.

“One big thing is that there is so much scrutiny attached to players that you give up these days. There’s so much media coverage that everyone knows these players. Years ago, nobody knew who these prospects were. So there’s hesitation to make bigger moves.

“It’s changed also with the wild card. It used to be as long as you got in, you were fine, because you play a best-of-five wild card. Now, with a one-game wild-card, anything can happen. To me, that’s a difference maker.’’

Take a look around, and how many legitimate division races are even left with 10 weeks left to play?

The Cubs are the lone division leader that doesn’t have at least a six-game lead in the NL Central. The Los Angeles Dodgers may clinch the NL West before Labor Day with their 14 ½-game lead.

The National League has 10 teams within five games of a wild-card berth, while the American League has five, but if you’re hopelessly out of the division race, are you really going to push your cards all-in for a one-game playoff game against Max Scherzer and the Washington Nationals?

Besides, this hardly is a star-studded deadline. Unless something dramatically changes, the only true impact players on the market may be starter Madison Bumgarner and closer Will Smith of the San Francisco Giants.

And neither will entice any team to surrender their top prospects like the days of David Price, CC Sabathia or even Andrew Miller.

It could be the dullest of dull deadlines if something really crazy happens, like if the Giants keep winning.

“It might be tough for the Giants to trade Bumgarner,’’ one veteran NL executive said. “They’re just 4 ½ games out. What if they get closer? Their fans will be furious. I’m not sure they can do a deal now without waiting a little longer.’’

Madison Bumgarner, 29, could be the hottest commodity on the trade market. (Photo: John Hefti, USA TODAY Sports)

The Giants will either wait, or hurry up and trade Bumgarner, Smith and relievers Tony Watson and Sam Dyson now, just in case they get any closer in the wild-card race, having won eight of their last 10 games.

The Giants’ decision to completely unload, which seemed all-but-certain months ago, is among the top questions entering these final two weeks before the lightning round.

Here are the top 10 questions posed in an informal survey of a dozen baseball executives and scouts.

1. Who is the most valuable commodity on the trade market?

It’s a virtual toss-up between Bumgarner and Smith, with no clear-cut consensus. Bumgarner isn’t the MadBum of old, going 5-7 with a 3.86 ERA this season, but good luck finding another player on the trade market who has his postseason pedigree. 

Smith, 30, is the nastiest closer on the market, has been successful in 23 of 24 save opportunities, is a strikeout pitcher, is leftt-handed, and is only earning $4.2 million this year. While Bumgarner, who earns $12 million, could potentially start twice in each postseason series, Smith could pitch every game with the built-in off-days. You make the call.

2. Who are the other top pitchers on the trade market?

Matthew Boyd, Detroit Tigers: Boyd could garner the most prospects by any pitcher since he’s young, cheap, talented, and under team control for three more years. The Tigers certainly will command a huge return for Boyd, 28, who just became only the fifth pitcher in Tigers’ history to strike out 10 or more batters in three consecutive games.

Trevor Bauer, Cleveland Indians: The Indians believe his value will be much higher now than this winter when he can earn at least $18 million in his final year before free agency, but won’t trade him unless they get a controllable starter who can help them now in return.

Zack Greinke, Arizona Diamondbacks: The D-backs can publicly downplay it all they want, but they’d love to dump the $64 million remaining on his contract after this season, and some of the $31.5 million he’s earning in 2019. He has been superb this year, but with his bloated salary, and 15 teams on his no-trade list, any trade will be complicated. It would be much easier for the Diamondbacks to trade lefty Robbie Ray, who’s earning $6.05 million and under control through 2020, and has piqued the Yankees’ interest.

Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays: The only way he’s still on the Jays’ roster on Aug. 1 is if he gets hurt. They are desperate to move him, and the Yankees make the most sense.

Zach Wheeler, New York Mets: The perfect summer rental as a pending free agent. The Mets have all intentions of keeping Noah Syndergaard, but Wheeler is the perfect trade chip, and responsible for less than half of his $5.975 million, he’s affordable to anyone.

3. Who will be the most aggressive teams?

The New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox Houston Astros, St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals received the most votes.

The common component?

They are all built to win now.

This is the Yankees’ most powerful team in a decade, and if they don’t land a starter in Stroman, Wheeler or Ray, they could load up on the bullpen and simply go with a bullpen-by-committee for most of the postseason.

The Cubs already spent $42 million on closer Craig Kimbrel, but would love to find an impact bat – ideally a leadoff or power hitter – and another pitcher, but their thin farm system makes it virtually impossible to pull off any blockbusters.

The Red Sox are near the highest luxury tax threshold of $246 million after acquiring starter Andrew Cashner from Baltimore, but if they can grab a late-inning reliever who’ll get them back to the playoffs, they’ll make the move, Dombrowski says, money be damned.

The Astros don’t plan on shelling out the money it will take to keep Gerrit Cole, who’ll be the top free-agent pitcher this winter, so they need to win now, and are seeking a starter and a reliever.

The Cardinals are experiencing their longest playoff drought in 20 years, and the heat is starting to mount on the front office. They must come up with a front-line starter, with Bumgarner appearing to be a perfect fit, if they’re going to have a chance to catch the Cubs.

The Nationals were dead and buried in May, but if they can beef up their bullpen at the deadline, and reach the postseason, they may be the most serious threat to the powerful Dodgers with a vaunted playoff trio of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin.

4. The Minnesota Twins will probably make the playoffs no matter what. What will they do?

They have been one of the most active teams on the trade landscape the past month, inquiring about anyone and everyone, scouts say. They should make the playoffs with or without a major deal, but if they’re actually serious about playing deep in October, they’ll grab a starter and a reliever.

All it took was money when Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel were on the market, and they passed.

Now, it’s going to cost them some of their finest prospects if they’re going to grab pieces to compete with the Yankees and Astros in October.

5. The Dodgers clearly are the best team in the National League, but will they make a move for October?

They have an urgency to come up another late-inning reliever to help bridge the gap to closer Kenley Jansen, and it would surprise no one if Will Smith is pitching to Will Smith in October. Yet, president Andrew Friedman has an entrenched track record of refusing to surrender top prospects, which stopped them from getting Justin Verlander and Cole Hamels in recent years, so no one expects him to change his philosophy now.

6. Who are the best position players on the market?

It originally looked like Whit Merrifield of the Kansas City Royals and Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox, but each will seemingly staying put this month. 

The Royals have put such a high price tag on the versatile Merrifiel, that they haven’t received a single offer. Abreu is a free agent at the season’s conclusion, but the White Sox value his leadership highly, and believe they can win next season, so they are trying to sign him to a short-term extension.

We’re left with perhaps the thinnest trade market for position players in decades, with the likes of Nick Castellanos of the Detroit Tigers; Hunter Renfroe of the San Diego Padres; David Peralta and Adam Jones of the Diamondbacks; Todd Frazier of the New York Mets; Kevin Pillar and Pablo Sandoval of the Giants; Justin Smoak, Freddy Galvis and Eric Sogard of the Toronto Blue Jays, and Corey Dickerson of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

7. Would the Texas Rangers dare trade their ace, Mike Minor, being just three games out of a wild-card berth?

Well, publicly, they are telling teams they can’t trade Minor as long as they’re in the race, but privately, they know his trade value will never be higher. He’s in the second year of a three-year, $28 million contract, and has pitched brilliantly for the Rangers, 8-4 with a 2.73 ERA. Yet, considering Minor’s history of injuries, they’ll strongly consider moving him if they slip any further in the wild-card race by July 31.

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