Think safely pulling off a baseball season during a pandemic is tough?
Imagine pulling off a trade of significance at a trade deadline 40 days into a 67-day season, with protocol-trust and health issues in play, few motivated sellers and financial angst and uncertainty throughout the sport.
With this year’s deadline barely a week away, the Cubs are in buyer posture — for whatever that might be worth with a roster that already was at its budget ceiling before the COVID-19 pandemic crashed industry revenues.
They even have at least one clear, modest need to target, said team president Theo Epstein: a reliever or two who can get out left-handed hitters.
Will they have the resources to do even that much?
They can’t even be sure that if they work out enough of the baseball and money side of a deal that a player won’t decide to opt out of playing the rest of the season if he feels uncomfortable with the new environment. Nobody can.
“I don’t want to talk too much about hypotheticals,” Epstein said. “But obviously it’s easy to foresee that, and teams have to do their homework.
“And there might have to be more communication and more collaboration with teams when it comes to executing even the simplest of transactions this year.”
One of the few sellers four weeks into the season made a deal Friday night as the Cubs were in the process of getting blown out by the White Sox at Wrigley Field.
The last-place Red Sox in the American League East sent relievers Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree to the Phillies for right-hander Nick Pivetta and a pitching prospect. The Red Sox also included more than $800,000 in the deal, off-setting the vast majority of the 2020 salary differences.
That kind of salary-neutral deal might be just one more new normal to add to this strange, nine-week season with a narrow trading window leading up to the Aug. 31 deadline.
“Just about every team in the industry, maybe ever team in the sports world, is over budget in the big picture, when you look at what’s happened to revenues,” said Epstein, who suggested almost any trade scenario will be subject to “internal” discussions, including ownership, for any additional financial commitment it might require during this time of cuts throughout the organization.
Meanwhile, the real-life considerations of trades are in play in a big way for the Cubs and other well-positioned teams that have developed strong protocol cultures to mitigate players’ and families’ health risks.
For instance, what if you could get a pitcher like Mike Clevinger from Cleveland, with about $750,000 left on this year’s salary and club control through next year? After Clevinger violated safety protocols while on the road and then lied about it, he and fellow protocol perp Zach Plesac were optioned to the team’s alternate site.
Reports from Cleveland suggest Clevinger in particular might be shopped.
Clevinger is one of the best starters in the AL. But if his own teammates don’t trust him, why should the Cubs or anyone else. The Cubs haven’t had a player test positive since intake testing began in June.
It’s hard to be certain with almost any player how much they respect the risks of the virus or even how disciplined they might be within protocols regardless.
“I think every team is going to be cognizant of who they’re bringing in and how responsible they would be and how much you can count on them,” Epstein said.
“And also if acquiring a player puts them in an untenable situation,” he added.
That’s where the comfort level for the player and his family come into play, and the chance of acquiring someone who might opt out in an extreme case or wind up underperforming in a strange, new environment during an already strange, stressful season.
“I think we take that for granted overall, even when it’s not in a pandemic,” Epstein said, “that someone can drop their life and leave their family and move somewhere else. I don’t have to come to work each day, and you guys don’t have to come to work each day knowing that you might show up and [be told], ‘Oh, by the way, you’ve been reassigned across the country to a new job.
“So we kind of take that for granted to begin with, and then in a pandemic, it’s exponentially more difficult,” he added. “You can’t ignore all the soft factors. They’re very, very real this year.”
All of which might leave the Cubs searching for a modest bullpen addition or two during the next 10 days while looking for their more significant additions in the anticipated returns from the injured list of Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.
“It’s certainly a complicated landscape this year,” Epstein said. “There are a lot of years when we know we have an impactful move or two in us and it’s a question of finding it and executing on it. This year the moves might be more complementary, and there might be more internal solutions.”