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Is trade deadline paralysis the new normal?

Increased parity minus August waivers equals plenty of waiting.

Detroit Tigers vs New York Yankees Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

When it comes to player transactions, baseball falls pretty far down on the excite-o-meter. Baseball trades and signings rarely offer the same kind of game-changing drama that they do in basketball or even football. Even the most active GM in baseball, Jerry Dipoto, pales in comparison to the madness exhibited by, say, the Los Angeles Lakers.

But one moment in baseball that manages to scratch that armchair GM itch is the period preceding the July 31 trade deadline. It’s not so much about the prospects for me—though that is fun—but the drama of marquee players trading one uniform for another, the thrill of teams going all in for a chance at a World Series title. It’s a compelling narrative, and it gets me every time.

Unfortunately, this season, the thrill is gone.

Okay, that’s a little melodramatic, and yes, I did it solely for the reference. But this year’s trade deadline has been pretty boring.

Forget the rumors for a second. We are two days away from the July 31 deadline, and so far, the biggest, real, actual trades have been for…Sergio Romo, Eric Sogard, and Marcus Stroman.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with trades like these—sometimes, the most under-the-radar moves are the most impactful, as Marco Scutaro can attest to. Still, this deadline hasn’t exactly lived up to the hype surrounding it. It remains to be seen if we’ll get the flurry of trades that twittering prognosticators have promised, but a lovable reliever and a utility player in the middle of a breakout season don’t exactly make a compelling hot stove. (Stroman being the obvious exception, of course.)

There are two reasons I can see explaining this year’s deadline. Compared to last season, the level of parity in 2019 is truly extraordinary, with more than a third of the league still in contention—including, somehow, the San Francisco Giants. Although only one division seems to be reasonably up for grabs in the American League, five teams—six, if you include the Texas Rangers—have a decent shot at a wild card spot.

In the National League, it’s even crazier. Again, only one division is actually competitive at the moment, but no less than six teams—including, somehow, the Giants—are angling for a wild card spot. Even teams like the San Diego Padres, the Colorado Rockies, and the New York Mets are just one Giants-esque hot streak from being in this thing.

This sustained competitiveness across the league has necessarily muddled the waters about who’s buying, who’s selling, and who’s buying and selling. (Side note: If the Giants don’t sell, I will eat my own brain.)

In and of itself, parity isn’t a problem. The month of August usually clears up any question of playoffs for teams on the cusp, at which point teams can turn to waivers to fill any remaining holes.

Except this past offseason, teams and players came together to inexplicably bargain away August waivers, making the July 31 deadline an actual…well, deadline. That means teams have one fewer month to evaluate their playoff chances and trade offers. Without the extra room for error, it behooves teams to wait it out as long as they can.

Even then, it’s unclear if teams will be as willing to pull the trigger as previous years. So much can change in a month (see the September 2018 Giants), and the risk of making a big trade without the fail-safe of August waivers to recoup some value may very well operate as a disincentive for teams who would otherwise test the market. That’s partly why the Arizona Diamondbacks have basically ruled themselves out of the wild card race despite only trailing by 2.5 games. Why take the gamble of losing prospects if you won’t have the chance to salvage value in August?

That leads to a third reason, which I only include here because I think there’s something to it, though it’s pure speculation. No doubt teams have noticed a certain Los Angeles–based team making a series of high-profile trades the last few years with little to show for their troubles. Combine that with a growing emphasis among front offices on long-term value over short-term gains, it feels fair to wonder if teams will give up on blockbuster trades as just another crapshoot in a game of numbers and projections.

For now, we can only wait and see. At least we won’t have to wait long.