The season is barely three weeks old and the trade deadline is basically two weeks away. And if you want a sense of how making deals — just like everything else in 2020 — will be significantly different, consider what Rays general manager “Trader Erik” Neander said Friday:
“Two weeks out from the deadline I don’t know if we’ve ever spent as little time on it as we have this year. And that’s the honest answer.”
The biggest challenge, both in assessing needs and evaluating options by the new Aug. 31 deadline, is the small sample size. Teams typically will wait six or even eight weeks before making critical evaluations about their own players, thus determining what improvements are needed and viable, with roughly four months to decide what to do by the usual July 31 date.
“Rarely do we make strong decisions after a three-week trial or whatever you want to call it,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “This is unique.”
Factor in the long layoff and accelerated prep that players dealt with to get the 60-game season started in late July — plus how many have been slowed, injured or missed time due to COVID-19 cases or related causes such as testing or exposure — and it’s hard to gauge how close to top 2020 form they are, what a team has and what can be done to make it better.
Neander said the basic philosophy will be to rely on the evaluations they had of players, their own and others, going into the season, barring significant obvious change, such as a drop in velocity or loss of running speed, given the limited amount of play.
“Every game counts a lot more,” Neander said, “but it also leads to us being vulnerable to being fooled or tricked when it comes to our assessment of players if we’re only looking at 2020 in isolation.”
For an example, just look back at how the performance, and the perception, of the Rays offense changed over the past two weeks.
In their first 13 games they scored only 52 runs — including an 0-5 road trip with 13 total — and ranked 22nd in the majors. In the next seven games they scored 55 runs, and went into play Friday tied with the Dodgers for most in the majors.
Another factor in the decision-making, Cash said, is getting a better read over the next week on the status of their own injured pitchers, specifically reliever Oliver Drake (biceps), and starters Yonny Chirinos (triceps) and Charlie Morton (shoulder).
Knowing what they can expect from them, and whether to expect anything from sore shouldered Brendan McKay, may determine how much priority they put on seeking pitching, which seems their most obvious need to address. Catching could be another, but that seems unlikely given limited options for improvement.
Among other factors to be sorted through are changes to the financial aspects of making trades.
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With only 27 days of regular-season play after the deadline, and salaries reduced by roughly two-thirds already, the costs of paying an acquired player will be considerably less. But does that also make the acquisition cost lower? Or will trading teams want a higher premium in the return for the apparent bargain? And nobody knows what the financial landscape will be for 2021.
Options also may be limited.
With the playoff field expanded to 16, teams may be less likely to become sellers and prefer to take a chance on getting into the tournament.
Plus, only players in a team’s 60-man player pool can be traded directly, which could impact the usual veteran-for-prospects deals. Players not in a pool only can be dealt on a to-be-named basis, which brings some risk since they haven’t been seen (some even by their own teams since March), and can’t change teams until after this season, at the soonest, pending some league bureaucracy.
With scouts relying on video since they aren’t allowed at games, inside info is reduced. (The Rays are among the teams opting into a shareable video database of player workouts at the alternate training site.) And there are protocol and testing issues to navigate in bringing in a player from a different team (and maybe after being on a commercial flight), and perhaps a human element of uprooting players amid the pandemic.
As challenging as making a deal seems, the Rays — who typically are active leading up to the deadline, or in the old August waiver period — have already had some general conversations and will be open to explore ways to get better.
“There’s a fine line to walk between being disciplined and being stubborn, but we think we have a really good team,” Neander said. “We really like our team as is. If there’s a way to make it better we certainly want to look into that. But we want to make sure it’s not a knee-jerk reaction.”
With Morton on the injured list, it’s of note that his 2021 option, under reworked terms, stays at $15 million if he misses 24 or fewer days (for non-COVID-19 reasons), thus being active at least 43 of season’s 67 days. If he is active 22 to 42 days it drops to $10 million, and if less $5 million. … Newly promoted reliever John Curtiss clarified he is not technically “an aspiring country singer-songwriter” as his media guide bio states, just that he plays guitar “moderately poorly,” is “completely retired” from singing and has written “hundreds of bad” songs. … Were the @mlb Twitterers seeking a Tom Brady re-tweet when posting after Thursday’s 17-run outburst at Boston “Impressive offensive performance by Tompa Bay,’' with the winking emoji? … Cool that Big League Foods is producing candy branded for the Rays and all teams as an MLB licensee, not so much shipping samples to the Trop in a box labeled Tampa Bay Devil Rays sour gummies. … The Rays had the Joe West/Hunter Wendelstedt umpiring crew for 14 of their first 21 games. … Assigned to a Tropicana Field porch perch for the games, Fox Sports Sun in-game reporter Tricia Whitaker tweeted she is still getting her steps in, using a mini-elliptical between innings. … Cash does a pretty good job in his new TV commercial for Crown Automotive. … The Rays remained atop Baseball America’s updated farm system rankings, with Wander Franco still the No. 1 prospect and five others in the top 100: Brendan McKay, 15; Vidal Brujan, 53; Shane Baz, 76; Shane McClanahan, 90; Xavier Edwards, 92. …. Of course the Yankees blamed Aaron Judge’s latest injury on the “pounding” he took playing four games in three days on the Trop turf. … The Rays could put an interesting basketball team on the court with pitchers Aaron Slegers (6-feet-10), Tyler Glasnow (6-8) and Pete Fairbanks (6-6); pitching coach Kyle Snyder (6-8), first baseman/DH Jose Martinez (6-6).