The expansion of Major League Baseball’s playoff field from 10 teams to 12 is, from a competition perspective, a double-edged sword. When more teams are competing for playoff spots in the regular season, fewer teams are inclined to make their best players available at the trade deadline. Fewer sellers means fewer trades by contending teams. Less action at the deadline can make for a dull summer. What’s good for October is not necessarily good for July.
Then again, a quick look at the standings suggests Aug. 2 should be an eventful deadline.
Four American League teams and six National League teams began the day Wednesday with less than 1% odds of making the playoffs, according to FanGraphs. Three more teams – the Miami Marlins, Angels and Texas Rangers – were between 1 and 11%. Executives from 13 teams have no excuse for not engaging their counterparts interested in acquiring an impact player.
Now, what’s good for the summer is not necessarily good for autumn. Only two teams (the San Franciso Giants and Philadelphia Phillies) currently on the outside of the NL playoff race looking in have a realistic chance of turning the tables between now and the end of the season. In the AL, only three current non-playoff teams (the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Guardians and Seattle Mariners) have a strong case for holding on to their best players in hopes of making a run. Sorry, Angels. It isn’t hard to know what the fringes of the playoff race will look like in two months. Just look at today’s standings.
The addition of the third wild card team in each league this season presents a new wrinkle. Already, the value of a wild card berth was debatable. It usually fluctuates from year to year, depending on the quality of competition at the top of the standings. This year, the best teams in each league look like behemoths. Other times, a weak playoff field can motivate a possible seller to go for it in July.
In 2019, for example, the Washington Nationals managed to turn the tables on the Milwaukee Brewers, the Dodgers, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Houston Astros all the way to the World Series title. The Nationals were properly assessed, both internally and externally, as the kind of team that would be dangerous if they could clinch a playoff berth. Not only did the Nationals – 12 games under .500 on May 23 – secure the wild card with time to spare, they ended the regular season on an eight-game winning streak before dispatching Milwaukee in a memorable winner-take-all wild-card game.
But the 2019 Nationals are the exception to the rule. Their 19-31 record was the second-worst ever by an eventual World Series champion. Other than the White Sox, no team under .500 today has a roster similarly deep. The Angels have star power. The Mariners have promising young players (who might be better geared for a playoff run in 2023). The Marlins have the pitching. None of them can reasonably expect to plug all of their holes on the trade market.
Even if they could acquire the best available player at the deadline, which American League wild-card hopeful wants to sell the farm only to get fed to the New York Yankees in the Division Series round? Which NL teams want to face the New York Mets or the Dodgers? The best teams in each league are all on pace for 100 wins or more.
Executives often say that the cost to acquire a player – in terms of players, cash, or both – is never higher than it is in the month leading up to the trade deadline. The asking price is routinely so high, each trade proposal begs the question: are you sure you want to do that?
Next to “do you want to?”, the most pertinent question is “do you have to?” Sometimes the answer is no. Take the Cardinals.
Shortstop Paul DeJong, an All-Star in 2019, struggled to hit at the beginning of the season and was demoted to Triple-A. They turned to an unheralded rookie utility player, Brendan Donovan, who hit his way into the starting lineup and still had an on-base percentage above .400 two months into his career. San Clemente High and UC Irvine product Andre Pallante was never ranked on any prospect lists as a minor league pitcher, and began the season as a low-leverage relief pitcher. When the Cardinals lost starters Jack Flaherty and Steven Matz to injuries, Pallante was thrust into the rotation. The 23-year-old right-hander posted a 2.57 ERA in five June starts.
St. Louis might ultimately acquire a more established starting pitcher to boost its playoff hopes. But the Cardinals are already in position to clinch a wild-card berth in large part because of their organizational depth – a formula every executive is hoping to repeat this time of year.
The best player available right now might be Cincinnati Reds pitcher Luis Castillo, but that could change in a heartbeat. Some of baseball’s best players (Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout, Juan Soto) play for teams that will almost certainly miss the playoffs. The next month could hold a surprise or two. Max Scherzer and Trea Turner were not available in trades at this time last year, but they finished the season as Dodgers.
Expanding the playoff field was a maneuver that seemed designed to discourage deadline trades. Yet the first deadline under the new system might be a busy one because the disparity between the best and worst teams this season is so stark. That might not be the case every year, but it ought to make this Aug. 2 a day to set your alarm clocks early.