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OC Register: Facing the earliest trade deadline in pro sports, baseball gave us two hours of chaos

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Edwin Encarnacion led the American League in home runs when he was traded from the Seattle Mariners to the New York Yankees on June 16. For six weeks, he stood as the best player to change teams in the middle of the 2019 season.

Then on Sunday, Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer heaved a baseball from the pitcher’s mound over the center field fence rather than hand it to his manager. Tuesday, Bauer was traded for Cincinnati Reds for outfielder Yasiel Puig, who was in the middle of a benches-clearing brawl as the teams worked to finalize the deal.

And then, nothing.

Until the final two hours before baseball’s new universal deadline for trading major-league players, it seemed that Bauer and Puig would stand alone on a lonely island of stars switching teams. Hours later, they had company. Zack Greinke was a Houston Astro.

It was a strange deadline. Eighteen teams began the day Wednesday either leading their division or within six games of a wild card position. In a logical world, that left the other 12 teams as the clear sellers. Logic doesn’t always rule the trade deadline, and this year was no exception.

Two teams residing in the cellar of their divisions, the Colorado Rockies and Pittsburgh Pirates, held onto their closers. The Kansas City Royals, 22 games out of an American League wild-card berth, kept their closer (Ian Kennedy) and their coveted second baseman (Whit Merrifield). Outfielder Trey Mancini and his 24 home runs remain property of the 36-71 Baltimore Orioles.

While some executives held firm to their most coveted players and prospects, others acted boldly. Greinke and Aaron Sanchez join an Astros rotation that already includes co-aces Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander. The rebuilding Detroit Tigers did not hold tightly to closer Shane Greene (bound for Atlanta) or outfielder Nicholas Castellanos (now a Chicago Cub). The San Diego Padres received perhaps the most talented prospect to change hands, erstwhile Reds outfielder Taylor Trammell.

Yet the timing this year felt different. Not until the final hours before the deadline did the usual sense of urgency invade the marketplace. You could hear a pin drop – the same sound made by the Dodgers (who acquired Jedd Gyorko and Adam Kolarek) and Angels (catcher Max Stassi).

The biggest deadline deal, Arizona sending pitcher Greinke to the Astros in exchange for four prospects – including three of the Astros’ top five – was not reported until after the 1 p.m. buzzer. Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen told reporters he received his first trade offer from the Astros on Tuesday.

“I didn’t start out today hoping to channel Jerry Dipoto as my spirit animal, but somehow we sort of ended up there,” Hazen said.

Dipoto, the Mariners’ general manager, reportedly traded pitcher Mike Leake to the Diamondbacks for infielder Jose Caballero with 68 seconds left before the deadline.

August was previously a fertile ground for trades, too. To execute trades after July 31, a team would have to place a player on waivers, hope he passed through unclaimed by the other 29 teams, then agree to terms with a counterpart on a deal. The cumbersome process stifled many potential deals. The rules confused many fans. Yet the safety-valve period also led to some memorable trades in years past – notably the Astros’ acquisition of Verlander in 2017 and the Dodgers’ heist of Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto in 2012.

This year, the rules changed. The drop-dead July 31 deadline broke with baseball tradition, but it put Major League Baseball in line with two other major North American sports.

In the National Hockey League, this year’s trade deadline fell on Feb. 25. There were 304 games played after that date or 24 percent of all regular-season games.

In the National Basketball Association, this year’s deadline fell on Feb. 7. There were 412 games played after that date or 33 percent of all regular-season games.

In baseball? By eliminating the August waiver period, MLB ensured that 34 percent of its games would fall after the deadline (Wednesday’s game’s included). Major league executives operated on one deadline – an earlier deadline than their counterparts in the NHL and NBA faced.

In a way, that emphasized minor league depth. The Dodgers, for example, acquired utility player Kristopher Negron and infielder Tyler White last week. President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman said on a conference call Wednesday that those moves were in response to injuries to Kiké Hernandez, Chris Taylor and David Freese. If another injury arises, Friedman will have to rely on his internal options.

This is where baseball’s early deadline seems to get unfair. There will be another 3,214 regular-season games after Wednesday (assuming every team plays a full 162-game schedule). A lot can happen in 3,214 games – particularly at the end of a season, when wear and tear seems most likely to accumulate.

In any event, the effect of the “unified” trade deadline was clear. Most buyers and sellers waited until the last minute to pick a category. Other teams, like the Giants, did a little buying, a little selling, and a little standing pat. Their first-year general manager, Farhan Zaidi, even wrote a letter to fans to explain what they’d just seen.

“I hope you are as excited as I am to see how these next several weeks unfold,” Zaidi wrote.

It might not get any more exciting than Wednesday.

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