During the runup to Major League Baseball's non-waiver trade deadline, a central theme invariably emerges. In 2016, the media hyperventilated over the fate of three difference-making relievers: Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Mark Melancon. The year before that, David Price, Johnny Cueto and Cole Hamels all changed addresses before July 31. It was an eventful summer for aces on the move.
Until the Diamondbacks shook things up with a trade for outfielder J.D. Martinez on Tuesday, the most prominent storyline for this year's deadline was "fear of commitment."
Amid an onslaught of speculation and rumor-mongering, we had seen two deals of significance in July. The Chicago Cubs showed they're serious about overtaking Milwaukee in the NL Central by adding starter Jose Quintana in a deal with the White Sox, and the Washington Nationals filled an acute void in the bullpen by acquiring relievers Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle in a trade with the Oakland A's.
Between those news flashes, teams on the buyer and seller side of the equation have alternately talked and dithered as they await a sense of clarity. Circumstances have conspired to convince a lot of MLB executives that this will be a late-evolving deadline, with a mad scramble of deals in the waning days and hours.
The current state of inertia reflects the muddled state of the standings. In the National League, the Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers are steamrolling toward division titles, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies have seized the wild-card initiative, and the Cubs are finally showing signs of shaking off their stupor in an effort to chase down the Brewers. Everybody else is either a spectator or on the verge of being a spectator.
"In the American League, everybody is kind of bunched up together," said an executive with one of the wild-card aspirants. "You can have a bad week, and all of a sudden you thought you were in a good spot and now you're not. That makes it tough to really stick your neck out. On the other hand, when everybody is bunched together, the impact of anything you acquire may be magnified.
"I think it's a question of how much a lot of these teams want to ante up when they're in a questionable position. Just look at the AL West teams in the wild-card hunt. Barring the most epic collapse in the history of baseball [by Houston], the division is out of reach. So how much are you willing to ante up to chase the wild card only?"
And how motivated are the juggernauts to take the plunge? The Dodgers and Astros, who are on a pace to win 112 and 109 games, respectively, are poised to win their divisions by double-digit margins. The Astros suffered a hit Tuesday with the news that Carlos Correa will miss six to eight weeks with a torn thumb ligament. But Correa should be back in top form by the postseason, and Houston has the ability to fill from within at shortstop with Marwin Gonzalez or Alex Bregman.
Behind MLB's twin powers, a lot of teams are trying to balance short-term gratification with carefully crafted long-term plans. The Yankees remain committed to their youth movement even after sending former first-rounders Blake Rutherford and Ian Clarkin to the White Sox to acquire Todd Frazier, David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle. The Twins and Brewers, contending teams ahead of their timetables, have expressed a hesitancy to deal prospects unless they can get controllable assets in return.
So the sellers keep pushing -- and waiting. The Giants have a roster full of veterans with hefty salary obligations and no-trade clauses. The Padres are rife with bullpen pieces. And the Tigers will continue to discuss reliever Justin Wilson, catcher Alex Avila and former Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander in the aftermath of the Martinez deal with Arizona. The classic buyer's market scenario is playing out in Boston, where the Red Sox have mobilized their scouts to watch the available third basemen in action. Two potential targets dropped off the board when Miami's Martin Prado went down with an injury and the Yankees swooped in and traded for Frazier. But the Red Sox can still choose from a menu of options that includes San Francisco's Eduardo Nunez and Oakland's Jed Lowrie. They even have their pick of two Pirates -- David Freese and Josh Harrison.
From the outset, this deadline was noteworthy for an absence of star power. Unless the Texas Rangers decide to listen intently on Yu Darvish and Hamels or the Tigers show a willingness to discuss Michael Fulmer, the best starter available will be Oakland's Sonny Gray, whose recent medical history is a caution flag for some potential suitors.
"It's going to be interesting," a National League GM said. "My guess is that Oakland is going to have a hard time getting what they want, expect or had in their head a year and a half ago. I think the world has changed a lot in that year and a half."
Talent evaluations evolve, priorities change and trade-deadline themes evolve from one year to the next. Gray's world -- and the perception surrounding him -- has changed over the past 18 months. The world is about to change for lots of other players over the next 12 days.