x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

MLB general managers scurry before deadline

Baseball teams traded prospects for pricey players, or vice versa, depending on their play-off hopes, to beat the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31.

Ubaldo Jimenez shook hands with teammates and left the dugout, after allowing four earned runs and four walks in the first inning against San Diego on Saturday, while his move to Cleveland was being negotiated.
Ubaldo Jimenez shook hands with teammates and left the dugout, after allowing four earned runs and four walks in the first inning against San Diego on Saturday, while his move to Cleveland was being negotiated.

When the first inning ended on Saturday in San Diego, Ubaldo Jimenez, the Colorado Rockies pitcher, strolled off the mound and into a mosh pit of congratulatory handshakes and back pats from his teammates and coaches.

He had just allowed four earned runs, with four walks.

Huh?

Only in the final hours of July do such bizarre scenes unfold in Major League Baseball. Play-off-contending teams pry away reinforcements from those in surrender mode to beat the non-waiver trade deadline on the 31st.

On occasion, the deal goes down in the middle of a game. Most teams hesitate to deploy a player like Jimenez as negotiations heighten for fear that any injury would scotch a swbournap, but the Rockies inexplicably handed the ball to their erstwhile ace while packaging him for shipment to the Cleveland Indians. It is a good thing it did not take four innings for them to work out the details, or his earned-run average (ERA) might have risen even higher.

At this time of year, general managers go around the table, real or metaphorical, and say "I'm in" or "I'm out." The GMs are responding to this question: "Are you in or out of the play-off race?"

If you are in, you go shopping for pricey additions to fill a need, then put up prospects in your system as currency to pay for them. Should a significant trade happen, you recite this mantra to your fans: "It kills us to give up these promising kids, unearthed by our brilliant scouts, but the future is now for us." (If your acquisition is a "rental," meaning a player with an expiring contract, you try to avoid addressing the risk of mortgaging your future for someone who will be gone within three months.)

And if you are out? You start unloading salary by shedding your roster of its few decent players in exchange for raw prospects from bullish teams. You tell your supporters, "This will position us to compete for a title down the road." (Even though you have no clue whether the road runs for five or 500 kilometres. Or if it is a road to nowhere.)

The New York Yankees know only one way to play this game. Every late July since 1998, they fitted a big-name newcomer for pinstripes. (Why not 1998? They had a division lead of 15 games, so they were inclined to keep the chequebook closed.)

The most stunning occurrence last weekend was what did not happen. The Yankees stood pat, choosing not to overspend for Heath Bell, the San Diego Padres closer, or anyone else after some serious window shopping.

Still, the Yankees are in, unlike the Houston Astros, who essentially told their fan-base to tune them out until 2015 or so.

Already on pace to lose 108 games, Houston had two players who kept a lousy team from resembling a minor-league team. They traded Hunter Pence, hitting .308, to Philadelphia, and Michael Bourn, at .303, to Atlanta.

In return, the Astros welcomed seven minor-leaguers and a part-time starter, Jordan Schafer, who is laid up with a broken finger.

Hmmm. Maybe they are following a blueprint that has clicked before. Okay, roll back to last year, when pitcher Roy Oswalt got a goodbye party in Houston.

He proceeded to lift the Philadelphia Phillies within a game of the World Series. As for the players the Astros received, one was promptly traded, another is stuck in the minors and pitcher J A Happ is the proud owner of a 6.01 ERA.

Houston's American League twin last season was Seattle. The Mariners dispatched eventual World Series pitcher Cliff Lee to Texas. The Rangers, trying hard to keep from snickering, handed over a minor-league infielder, plus first baseman Justin Smoak (currently hitting .218) and pitchers Blake Beaven (1-2, with only four appearances) and Josh Lueke (12.54 ERA).

Please hold the line for Mariners' season tickets - for the 2016 season.

There is plenty to like about the prince-for-paupers trade system. Woeful teams with free agents, who would otherwise flee after the season, get something, even scraps, instead of nothing. Teams such as the long-suffering San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers invigorate their fans with nice pick-ups, notably outfielder Carlos Beltran to San Fran and set-up man Mike Adams to Texas.

This go-around, the longer-suffering Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians switch sides and, for once, parted with prospects to pursue the play-offs. Pittsburgh imported seasoned hitters, Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick. Cleveland sacrificed three gems from down on the farm for Jimenez.

Still, the process is weird, illustrated by Jimenez's dugout greeting on Saturday after the worst opening inning of his career. Turned out, it was well-wishes related to the trade.

Jimenez had picked up the scent of a pending deal while warming up. "When I got to the mound in the first inning," he said, "I couldn't even throw a strike because I didn't have my mind in the game at all."

Jimenez need not worry about reliving such distractions. At least not until next July.

sports@thenational.ae