The trade deadline has traditionally involved two factions: contenders desperate to plug a hole -- and possibly under pressure from ownership and fans to win now -- and the cellar dwellers looking to add future talent by dumping assets that don't figure into their long-term plans.
There are some subfactors to this dynamic, of course. Small-market teams are less willing to add payroll or trade prospects who could provide inexpensive talent down the road, and big-market teams may make incremental additions merely for the sake of doing something.
I believe it's time for general managers to re-evaluate this traditional line of thinking.
Say you're the San Diego Padres. You're 40-46 but only 4.5 games out of first place in the flaccid National League West. Your offense is fine. It's sixth in the NL runs scored, which is an excellent total considering it's playing in Petco Park. The problem is the starting rotation. You could try to get Ricky Nolasco or Matt Garza, and while those two are fine pitchers, Nolasco isn't necessarily a big upgrade and Garza comes with some health risk. The potential difference-maker for the Padres would be Cliff Lee (assuming the Phillies are shopping him and ignoring that Lee owns a complicated no-trade clause).
Traditional thinking says the Padres wouldn't be in the Lee market if it exists; he's too expensive. There's about $12.5 million still owed to him this season plus $50 million over the next two seasons and a possible vesting option. But why cede to the Dodgers the possibility of acquiring Lee? The Padres' farm system has suffered some injuries, but they have a young, inexpensive lineup and probably still have the minor league talent to swing a Lee deal. And if Lee doesn't work out this year? He still has a lot of trade value in the offseason. They're not making a $62.5 million commitment to Lee; they're making a $12.5 million commitment. Any team can afford that, if it so chooses.
The Indians are also grouped into the small-market operations, although their new local cable deal in the offseason was reportedly worth $400 million over 10 years. They're in the race; they need pitching. I'm not sure the Indians have the prospects to acquire Lee -- they're not trading Francisco Lindor -- but the same philosophy applies. Lee is a difference-maker, and they can always trade him in the offseason if they don't want to absorb his future millions.
An even more extreme case for Lee would be the Mariners. They're not in the playoff race, but they could actually -- believe it or not -- be developing a nice offensive core with Nick Franklin, Kyle Seager, Mike Zunino and Brad Miller. The rotation is a disaster behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, however, and all their pitching prospects have disappointed this year other than Taijuan Walker. The Mariners are in a terrific situation contract-wise. Hernandez (through 2019) and Iwakuma (through next season) are the only players signed to long-term deals. Seattle's trouble is attracting big-name free agents to the Northwest. So it has money to burn in the future but not a good avenue to spend it, especially with fewer top players hitting the free-agent market.
So why not trade for Lee? Sure, it will cost prospects, but how have they worked out in recent years for Seattle? If Lee is too expensive, use the same mindset and go after Kyle Lohse or Yovani Gallardo, guys signed beyond this season. Or go after an outfielder on the market like Nate Schierholtz, who has another season before he's a free agent. Sure, that's essentially "wasting" the money owed those players this season on a nonplayoff team, but look at the big picture: How did you acquire talent for the future? Plus, the trade market for these players expands in the offseason. In July, you're negotiating against fewer teams, so theoretically, the cost to acquire the player may be slightly less.
The Pirates are expected to be conservative at the deadline this year. Why? Because they're the Pirates? Because they're a small-market team that's still building? Ask the Nationals how playing for next year can work out. The Pirates have a good team that can win this year. Take a risk and the small financial hit. Is Jeff Locke really this good? Is Francisco Liriano actually going to keep this going? Trade for Lee. Win the division. Go for it. Can't afford him next year? Fine. Trade him to the Dodgers in December.
It's all about creativity. There was a time in the not-too-recent past when few trades were made at the trade deadline. That started changing in the late '80s and early '90s and really kicked in after the Blue Jays acquired David Cone in 1992 and he helped them win the World Series (although that was actually an August waiver deal).
The trade deadline doesn't have to be restricted to contenders. Any team should be looking to add talent.