How MLB's Wild-Card Expansion Affects the Trade Market at the Deadline
When Major League Baseball and the Players Association agreed earlier this year to add two extra wild-card berths to the league's postseason format, the idea was simple: More postseason berths means more contenders; more contenders equals more drama; more drama equals more fun.
And that, of course, all adds up to a little extra revenue, and a little extra revenue makes everyone happy.
It's oft been noted—and indeed, here I am noting it once again—that the wild-card expansion has had the desired effect. There are six teams within five games of the second wild-card spot in the American League, and the National League features three teams tied for the second wild-card spot. The St. Louis Cardinals are just 3.5 games off the pace.
So there are more contenders, and the drama is already evident with two months still to play in the season. "Huzzahs!" are in order.
What MLB probably didn't see coming was the impact that the wild-and-crazy playoff races in each league would have on the trade deadline. Priorities have changed, and that has something to do both with the extra wild-card berths themselves and another part of baseball's new collective bargaining agreement that we'll get to in a moment.
As far as how the wild-card berths themselves have changed things, ESPN's Buster Olney told the story in just 140 characters in a recent tweet:
By the way: A lot of teams in a holding pattern, and partly because some don't view one-and-maybe-done wildcard berth as a real incentive.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) July 18, 2012
There are more deadline buyers than usual due to the expanded playoff format, but Olney hit the dilemma on the head. The question the extra buyers have to ask themselves is whether going for it is worth the risk.
In the past, teams in the hunt for a wild-card berth could pursue deadline deals knowing that they'd play at least three postseason games if they managed to qualify for the playoffs. That was a pretty strong incentive to pull the trigger on trades.
Nowadays, teams in the hunt for a wild-card berth know they could snag one of the two wild-card spots, play one game, then go home. There's a pretty huge difference between three guaranteed playoff games and one. In a single game, it doesn't really matter who the better team is, and that means there's less incentive to go out and make improvements at the deadline.
To be sure, making a big deadline move is even riskier, especially if that move involves rental players who are speeding toward free agency.
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The deal that sent Zack Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels is a perfect example. To get him, the Angels gave up their No. 1 prospect in shortstop Jean Segura and two pitchers in John Hellweg and Ariel Pena, whom Baseball America deemed two of the best prospects in the organization before the start of the season.
In dealing for Greinke, the Angels lost a big chunk of their farm system. Ideally, it will pay off in the form of a World Series championship, and the Angels will re-sign Greinke. At the very least, it must pay off in the form of a postseason berth.
The Angels should be able to secure one of those, but they have a far better shot of nabbing a wild-card berth than they do of beating the Texas Rangers and Oakland A's to win the AL West. It's looking like the Angels are destined for a one-game playoff before they get to the actual postseason.
If the Angels lose that game, they could lose Greinke to free agency and end up with absolutely nothing to show for their midseason trade.
Teams are no longer entitled to compensation if a rental player leaves and signs elsewhere as a free agent. Per the new collective bargaining agreement, teams are only entitled to compensatory draft picks if they lose a free agent who was with them for the entire season, and they'll only get that pick if they make said player a qualifying offer.
In the past, teams could go after rental players knowing that they would be able to replenish their farm systems with extra draft picks even if they missed out on the playoffs and/or lost their rental players to free agency. All it took was an arbitration offer.
That sense of security no longer exists, so it's no surprise teams are far less interested in trading for pending free agents this season than they have been in years past. Rental players just don't have the same kind of value that they used to.
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This is part of the reason the Chicago Cubs are having so much trouble moving Ryan Dempster, who ranks second in the National League with an ERA of 2.25. The Cubs nearly got a top prospect for him when they agreed to trade him to the Atlanta Braves, but they're having no luck getting the Los Angeles Dodgers to agree to cough up a top prospect after watching Dempster nix that potential move. As Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus reported, the Dodgers' top pitching prospects are off the table.
This is partially due to the fact that Dempster robbed the Cubs of a ton of leverage when he used his 10-5 rights to shoot down the trade to the Braves. It's also partially due to the fact that the Dodgers prefer Matt Garza to Dempster, according to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com.
This was before Garza got hurt, mind you, when he was more desirable: 1. because he's a lot younger than Dempster and 2. because he's under club control through next season. If the Dodgers were to trade top prospects for him and miss out on their ultimate goal, it wouldn't be a huge disaster because Garza would be back in 2013.
The Dempster-Garza situation is just one of many examples that shows how much value controllable players have on the trade market this season. Other players like Josh Johnson, Chase Headley and Hunter Pence also come to mind.
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All three represent examples of how clubs are trying to take advantage of the increased value of controllable players. Heyman has reported the Marlins are seeking a "[Mark] Teixeira-like" package of prospects for Johnson. ESPN's Jayson Stark has written that the Padres are seeking a "massive return" for Headley, similar to the one they got for Mat Latos. Jim Salisbury of CSNPhilly.com has tweeted that the Phillies want a "big return" for Pence.
And so on. Talk such as this is pretty typical when it comes to controllable players on the trading block this season.
It's not hard to decipher why this is going on. Clubs are sticking their controllable players out on the block just to see what they can get. If they get what they want, they'll make out like thieves. If they can't get what they want, it's no big tragedy because they don't really need to trade their controllable players. They can just keep them and be happy they did.
The only downside is that these players will be pending free agents sooner or later, and the extra wild-card berths aren't going anywhere. A year or two down the road, clubs may not get what they want for these players in deadline trades and could be ruing the day they didn't move them when they were still controllable with a ton of value.
Then again, who knows how teams are going to approach the trade deadline in the next couple of years? What's happening this year probably won't be the norm going forward, as teams are using the 2012 season to figure out what to do and what not to do under the new CBA. Everyone's a canary in a coalmine this season.
Not that this is a problem. As far as Major League Baseball is concerned, the deadline craziness is drama.
And as we've already established, drama is a good thing.
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