Is August 31 the new July 31?
The last two non-waiver trading deadlines have been boring. Bud Norris was the most significant player acquired on July 31 this season, a far cry from seasons past, when we've seen players like CC Sabathia and Matt Holliday and Mark McGwire -- season- and franchise-altering players -- change hands for perceived giant prospect hauls on or just before July 31.
Nothing in this year's post-waiver trade period compares to last year's Dodgers-Red Sox blockbuster, when the rough salary equivalent of Forbes' valuation of the Oakland Athletics moved from Boston to Los Angeles. But many teams waited until late August to fill holes we typically see filled with July trades, and these moves will make an impact in the final month and into the playoffs.
* * *
The Pirates, despite the brilliance of their season, came into August with distinct weaknesses. Their first post-waiver strike -- the addition of Marlon Byrd and John Buck for a pair of actual prospects in infielder Dilson Herrera and reliever Vic Black -- fixed the biggest, a gaping hole in right field. Byrd's at-bats will replace the likes of Travis Snider, Josh Harrison, Andrew Lambo, and even Felix Pie. The Pirates' .692 OPS from right fielders ranks 23rd in the league; Byrd can fall off significantly from his .848 mark to date and still serve as an upgrade.
Pittsburgh had just one major hole remaining: a lack of pop at first base. The club's .735 OPS from the position ranks 18th in the league, and no current playoff team ranks lower. Garrett Jones -- .239/.297/.419, 13 home runs -- has not pulled his weight as the left-handed half of the platoon. Enter Justin Morneau, pried loose from Minnesota at the last second for marginal outfielder Alex Presley. Morneau's season -- .259/.316/.426, 17 home runs -- has been disappointing, and it appears more and more that the MVP-winning version of Morneau left us with his concussion in 2010.
But Morneau is mashing right-handed pitching -- .281/.345/.487 and 15 of his 17 home runs -- and that's precisely what Pittsburgh needs. Gaby Sanchez has held up his end of the platoon, hitting .251/.355/.405 in 297 plate appearances, mainly against left-handers. Pairing the two not only gives Pittsburgh more strength in the starting lineup, but adds depth to the bench as well. The Pirates are looking more and more like a complete team as they barrel towards .500 and the playoffs.
* * *
Division foe St. Louis also attempted to patch their biggest hole, the bullpen, with a salve from within the division. The Cardinals acquired former Brewers closer John Axford from Milwaukee for hard-throwing relief prospect Michael Blazek.
The top tier of St. Louis's bullpen has been excellent -- Edward Mujica and Trevor Rosenthal have been one of the toughest setup-closer combinations in the league. Seth Maness, Kevin Siegrist and Michael Wacha have come up fresh from the farm and excelled as well. But it's a bullpen that lacks experience and could lack depth, particularly if the club needs to call on Wacha to start.
Axford solves both problems. He pitched the Brewers to the playoffs in 2011 and excelled in postseason action (one run allowed in seven innings). More importantly, he turned into a reliable bullpen arm for the 2013 Brewers after a bout of dead arm to open the season tanked his numbers beyond repair. Axford allowed nine runs in four appearances to open the season, and those four horrible appearances remains the driver behind his poor 4.37 ERA. The Brewers gave him three days off, and since he returned, Axford owns a 3.10 ERA with 50 strikeouts against 21 walks in 52 1/3 innings. Escaping Miller Park should do some good for Axford, too -- 16 of his 25 career home runs have been served over Milwaukee's hitter-friendly fences.
* * *
The Dodgers were the only other National League contender to make a major move as the August deadline approached, as the club acquired Michael Young from the Phillies for minor league arm Rob Rasmussen.
Some will say this move was all about the clubhouse, since Young is renowned as a great clubhouse guy by nearly everyone he played with. Former teammate and up-and-coming baseball writer Gabe Kapler even called him a "top 5 all-time teammate." Having another positive voice in a clubhouse can't hurt -- and it might even get everybody to shut up about Yasiel Puig's supposed transgressions for a minute.
On the field, this trade would be questionable if the Dodgers were planning on inserting Young into the regular starting lineup. According to the Los Angeles Times, though, that's not the plan. Young will play a reduced role, mainly serving as a pinch-hitter who can give them a start at third base if needed. Young supplies the Dodgers with an important emergency backup behind Juan Uribe. Uribe has been quietly good this season, as he owns a .268/.326/.393 line with sharp defense at third base. But if Uribe -- not exactly in prime physical condition -- were to go down, the Dodgers lacked other backup options. Jerry Hairston Jr. has seen his OPS collapse to .599 in 2013. The club needed a safety valve, and Young gives them exactly that, at a cheap price and with clubhouse benefits to boot.
* * *
In the American League, the major moves come from Wild Card contenders trying to keep their offenses afloat. Tampa Bay finally picked up proto-Rays outfielder David DeJesus, Baltimore won the chance at reviving Mike Morse's season, and Cleveland did the same with Jason Kubel.
The Rays and DeJesus have been linked in trade rumors for years. The chase across the league finally ended when Washington dealt the free agent-to-be for a player to be named later on August 23. DeJesus doesn't do anything particularly well, but he has been average or just above average nearly across the board for the last few years, and the result is a quality, underappreciated player, capable of giving league-average performance across the outfield positions. DeJesus's acquisition lets the Rays keep the likes of Sam Fuld on the bench in his proper place as a defensive replacement or pinch runner. Expect Joe Maddon to use the added depth with aplomb down the stretch.
Cleveland is all but out of the American League Central race, but they remain in striking distance of the Wild Card -- 3.5 games back entering Monday's play -- despite going just 4-6 over their last 10 games. Jason Giambi has provided some great moments this season, but he's hitting just .187/.277/.380 and has been serving as the club's primary DH against right-handed pitching for the past month. Kubel is the potential solution. He hit just .221/.292/.324 for Arizona this year, but in 2012 he slugged 30 home runs and posted an .833 OPS. The Diamondbacks gave Kubel just four starts in August, so Cleveland has little to lose by at least seeing if he can regain his old form with more regular playing time.
The Orioles, similarly, retain a shot at the playoffs -- they trail Tampa Bay by just three games thanks to Oakland's sweep of the Rays this weekend. Baltimore boasts the most runs scored of any non-division leader with 640, but the designated hitter spot has been a black hole all season. The club has tried 10 different players in the slot and has mustered just a .668 OPS from the designated hitter, 14th in the American League, besting only Cleveland. Morse debuted in left field Sunday, but he will likely spend most of his time at DH for Baltimore.
In 2012, the power that earned him the moniker "The Beast" in 2011 had fallen off sharply. He fell from 31 home runs to 18, his slugging percentage dropped by 80 points, and even his doubles total dropped sharply, from 36 to 17. The trend continued for Morse in 2013 with Seattle, as he hit just .226/.283/.410 in 76 games as he failed to power the Mariners lineup as expected when the club brought him in over the offseason. Still, Morse's .693 OPS with Seattle would be a 25-point increase over the Orioles' DH line this season, and perhaps hitting in a more homer-friendly ballpark like Camden Yards can give Morse the spark he needs.
This largely sums up the dynamic of the August trading deadline -- contending teams slinging marginal assets across the league in a hunt for lottery tickets. These players are all fundamentally flawed, and their value beyond this year tends to be slim-to-none. But as September heads into October and individual games begin to take on bigger meanings, every roster spot counts. With more playoff teams, there are naturally more contenders with holes to fill. Get used to the August trade activity: it's a reality of the new, post-Wild Card game MLB.