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Real or not? Making sense of the MLB trade deadline

The Los Angeles Angels didn’t deal Shohei Ohtani and instead surrounded him with new additions. The New York Mets traded both Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, and threw in the towel for 2023. Those future Hall of Fame pitchers, by the way, just made the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers, respectively, a lot more powerful for the postseason.

Which clubs made the right calls? What should we believe (or not believe) about the rest of the baseball season? Now that the dust has settled from the 2023 MLB trade deadline, we asked our ESPN MLB experts to debate what’s real — and what’s not — moving forward.

Real or Not: The 2023 Angels are now legit contenders

Alden Gonzalez: Real. Look, I’m not going to sit here and pretend the Angels are world-beaters. Or even that they’re one of the six best teams in the American League. What I will tell you is that they have a chance. And to them, having a chance was enough to justify going all-in on a roster that many others consider inferior.

Before you trash them, consider the context: They had already decided not to trade Ohtani last summer. Then they decided not to trade Ohtani in the offseason. Then they vaulted their payroll to a franchise record in hopes of contending in what is potentially their final season with Ohtani. And when the trade deadline came around … they were still contending.

The Angels’ thinking can best be summarized this way: We’ve already gone this far. We might as well go all the way. Yes, there is a very real chance they miss the playoffs, then Ohtani leaves in free agency and the Angels come away with nothing more than a compensatory draft pick. Clearly, they’re more comfortable with that possibility than another grim alternative — Ohtani is traded, he makes a playoff run and wins an MVP with another team, and whatever chances the Angels had of signing him in free agency are whittled down to zero.

At present, the Angels aren’t good enough. But if Mike Trout gets back relatively soon … and Logan O’Hoppe rejoins the lineup … and Anthony Rendon finally gets healthy … well, they’re in this. And that’s all they wanted.

Bradford Doolittle: Not. The Angels began the day with a 10% shot at the postseason in my simulations. That, simply put, is why I can’t see them as legit contenders. The probabilities are too stacked against them getting into the playoffs.

That’s not to say that L.A. doesn’t have a playoff-quality roster. I think the Angels probably have one of the seven or eight best rosters in the AL. It’s also not to say that I think the Angels took the wrong approach at the deadline. I’m not sure I would advocate for such an aggressive approach for most 1-in-10 wannabe contenders, but the Shohei Ohtani situation makes this a special case.

If the Angels beat the odds and play into October and, somehow, that proves to be the tipping point in an eventual Ohtani free-agent decision to stay put, then obviously the decision to add is more than justified. I don’t know what the odds are that any of that will happen, but they aren’t zero. Given how great, unique, marketable and irreplaceable Ohtani is, I’m willing to roll the dice.

But the odds are the odds. The Angels are a solid team in an AL playoff field crowded with quality teams. They don’t have access to the AL Central crown. It’s just too steep a hill to climb.

Real or Not: The Mets were right to trade two future Hall of Fame pitchers in a three-day span



What are the Mets getting in Drew Gilbert?

Kiley McDaniel details what the Mets are getting in Drew Gilbert, who they acquired from the Astros in the Justin Verlander trade.

Kiley McDaniel: Real. Scherzer had a year and a half left at $43.3 million per year while his performance this year is tracking to be worth about one-third of that. Accordingly, the Rangers are getting him for the rest of this year and all of next year for $22.5 million, roughly in line with the pitcher he’s been this year, with a chance he regains his form. In exchange, the Mets got shortstop Luisangel Acuna, who is a back-third of the Top 100 type of prospect, with an implied trade value of about $20 million-$25 million. Acuna is a likely shortstop with plus speed, a chance for 15-18 homers, and solid contact skills who will open next season in Triple-A. You can see the math broadly implying the Mets covered Scherzer’s deal to get Acuna’s controllable six years.

In the other big deal, Verlander hasn’t fallen off quite as much and also has a 2025 player option that could trigger if he throws 140 innings in 2024. The Mets are kicking in $35 million (more than half of what’s guaranteed in his deal) and would cover half of his player option if it vests. So the Mets are even more aggressively buying prospect value, and they got it in center fielder Drew Gilbert and right fielder Ryan Clifford. Two of the four breakout great values in the 2022 Astros draft, Gilbert is ahead of Acuna in the back-half of the Top 100 and Clifford is just behind Acuna, on the periphery of the Top 100. That’s about $35 million-$40 million in prospect value, again almost matching the money the Mets kicked in, and Gilbert is another player like Acuna who could be in the big leagues next year.

It’s never easy to trade Hall of Fame talents, but the Mets used this terrible season and their deep pockets to reload for their next contending team, which could be playing together in New York at this time next season.

David Schoenfield: Not. Is there a master plan here? Thanks to Steve Cohen’s fat wallet, they ended up more or less buying some good prospects by including tens of millions of cash in the two trades. The Mets are operating differently from any other team, running up a record-breaking payroll and tearing it all down after four months. They’ll have to replace Verlander and Scherzer in the rotation for next season if they want to compete, which will mean signing more free agents, and there’s no guarantee those starters will be any better than the two future Hall of Famers they just traded away (and who were hardly the team’s biggest problem this season). I’d say the other 29 owners are probably ticked off at the Mets, except the Mets are just another run-of-the-mill team with some decent prospects, a large payroll and an uncertain future.

Real or Not: Verlander’s Astros have passed Scherzer’s Rangers as the team to beat in the American League West

Gonzalez: Real. Every executive in the industry would probably tell you Verlander is a better pitcher now than Scherzer. When the Astros brought Verlander back on Tuesday, they were only half a game behind the Rangers — even though Yordan Alvarez had missed seven weeks and Jose Altuve had played in less than 35% of their games. They’re both healthy now. Jose Urquidy is on his way back, and the likes of Jose Abreu, Jeremy Pena and Rafael Montero should be better. This division is going to come down to what could be a really fun two months — and I’m riding with the team that has made six consecutive appearances in the American League Championship Series.

Jesse Rogers: Not. OK, so both teams added a good pitcher. Oh, wait, the Rangers got two good ones in Justin Verlander and Jordan Montgomery, and they’ve already led the division all season. They also have a manager who can match wins and experience with Dusty Baker. And they’re not going to experience any fatigue, considering they haven’t been to the postseason since 2016. All that mileage on the Astros might not prevent them from making the playoffs but it may slow them down in September. They’ve already had an inordinate amount of injuries and are bound to see some more. That’s what happens when you play deep into October every year. Every part of the Rangers can match the Astros in talent, though maybe not experience. Still, the new kids on the block will hold off the defending champs and win the AL West.

Real or Not: The Yankees are not going to make the playoffs after an underwhelming trade deadline

Gonzalez: Real. The Yankees’ approach to the trade deadline might be the most confusing of all, for one simple reason: status quo just wasn’t the answer. They either needed to add in order to vault themselves into contention or better situate themselves for 2024. As it stands, they’re simply not good enough. Of course, Aaron Judge helps a lot. And maybe Nestor Cortes and Jonathan Loaisiga can give that pitching staff a boost — but Cortes had a 5.16 ERA through his first 11 starts and Loaisiga has made three appearances all year. Worst of all, the offense that surrounds Judge is a complete eyesore, and they didn’t make it any better. But forget all that. Let’s just go through it: Are the Yankees better than the Rays or the Orioles? No. Are they better than the Rangers or the Astros? No. That’s four teams, plus the AL Central winner, leaving only one realistic playoff spot — and I think the Blue Jays are a far superior team. The Yankees might legitimately be the fifth-best team in their own division. It’s time we stop pretending otherwise.

Schoenfield: Not. You’re not going to suck me in and say the Yankees are going to miss the playoffs. No way. I know what’s going on. I see that .230 team batting average and Jake Bauers hitting leadoff and Anthony Rizzo hitting .170 since the beginning of June and Aaron Judge hobbling around on a bad toe and Domingo German missing a start because of an infected hair follicle, which is an injury so ridiculous you can’t even make it up. It’s all goofy and weird and it makes so many baseball fans so happy to see. It’s like the Yankees are re-living the era of Alvaro Espinoza and Oscar Azocar and Bye-Bye Balboni — the last time they finished in last place. But I know better. You should know better. Of course the Yankees will get hot and make the playoffs. I don’t know how, but it will happen. The Blue Jays will fade. The Red Sox have no pitching. The Angels or Mariners? Please. The Yankees will win that third wild card and, as they say, you just have to get in. Be prepared, baseball fans.

Real or Not: The going-for-it Cubs will win the National League Central

Schoenfield: Real. OK. OK. The Cubs are four games behind the Reds entering Wednesday’s critical game against Cincinnati, the third of a four-game series. They’re behind the Brewers. They are not the betting favorite with that deficit and two teams to leap over, but there’s this: They’ve been the best team in the division. Yes, I’m going to drop the run differential on you here: The Cubs are plus-67, the Reds are minus-7 and the Brewers are minus-14. The Reds have a lousy rotation and the Brewers have lousy hitting, while the Cubs have been pretty solid in both departments.

They do need to get Marcus Stroman back on track (2.28 ERA through June 20, 9.00 in seven starts since, including 13 runs in 6⅓ innings his past two outings). Justin Steele (12-3, 2.65 ERA) continues to pitch well, Kyle Hendricks continues to get the job done with his 87-mph sinker and Jameson Taillon has perhaps figured things out with a 1.78 ERA over his past four starts. That’s a good rotation if Stroman fixes what he says has been a mechanical issue that popped up when the team went to England for the London Series. The Cubs also added the best hitter to switch teams at the deadline in Jeimer Candelario, giving the Cubs even more flexibility with the lineup. Certainly, these games against the Reds are huge, and then the Cubs host the Braves, but after that comes a stretch where the Cubs can do some damage: Mets, Blue Jays, White Sox, Royals, Tigers and Pirates before a crucial six games against the Brewers and Reds in late August and early September. I feel a big stretch run coming on.

Rogers: Not. It’s not that the Cubs aren’t as good as Milwaukee or Cincinnati. They probably are. Maybe even better. It’s just that the math isn’t in their favor. Even being just five games behind those teams is enough to bet against the Cubs overtaking them. FanGraphs gives them a 15% chance — granted that was before factoring in the addition of Jeimer Candelario. Then again, the Brewers added as well, so perhaps there will be no real change in those odds. If Stroman and Drew Smyly — or even just one of them — find their game again, the Cubs will have a much better chance. But that’s assuming Taillon continues on a positive path and fatigue doesn’t catch up to Steele. Perhaps the same kinds of things can be said about a shaky Brewers squad — but they’re the team in front. For that reason, they get the edge.

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