Did MLB's New Playoff Format Drastically Impact Offseason Player Movement?

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Did MLB's New Playoff Format Drastically Impact Offseason Player Movement?
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

When Major League Baseball chose to expand its postseason to include additional wild-card teams in each league, the idea was to make the postseason less exclusive and, thus, more inviting.

It worked. Richard Justice of MLB.com pointed out that 20 of MLB's 30 teams were within five games of a playoff spot by the All-Star break in 2012. Several division races went down to the wire. The American League's wild-card race wasn't decided until the final day of the season.

But the competition didn't just pick up on the field. MLB.com's Matthew Leach wrote in July that there was a different atmosphere on the trade market, as more teams than usual were looking to make improvements for the stretch run. Few teams figured they were out of it, so why wave a white flag?

If the expanded playoffs could impact the trade deadline in such a way, a question arises: Just how much did the league's new playoff format impact the offseason?

That's a complicated question with an even more complicated answer. The short answer is not that much. The long answer...

Well, here's the long answer.

 

Did Expansion Provide an Open Invitation for More Contenders?

There's at least one executive out there who will vouch for the league's postseason expansion as a legit offseason motivator.

Here's what Seattle Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik told Justice:

I think the second Wild Card has given a lot of other clubs a fighting chance. ... I'd never tell our guys we were fighting for the second Wild Card spot, but it's there. With what Oakland and Baltimore did a year ago, it's given a lot of clubs hope that this could happen. If players have good years and you make the right additions, you've got a chance.

Zduriencik would know. He was aggressive this offseason, adding both talent and veteran experience to his roster for the purpose of gaining a fighting chance. His winter involved signing Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay, Kelly Shoppach and Joe Saunders while trading for Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse.

Zduriencik tried for an even bigger fish before landing Morse in a trade from the Washington Nationals, at one point working out a deal to acquire Justin Upton from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Upton, unfortunately, used his limited no-trade clause to nix the deal.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Jack Zduriencik chose to go for it in 2013.

All the same, Zduriencik's motivations ring true. He referenced the Orioles as a team that made the most of the league's postseason expansion, and the feat they pulled off was even more miraculous than the feat the Mariners are trying to pull off in 2013. The Orioles finished 22 games out of the race in 2011. The Mariners only finished 18 games out of the race in 2012.

The Kansas City Royals, Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays were right there with the Mariners in the standings in 2012. Like the Mariners, they also spent the offseason making improvements for the coming season.

The Royals overhauled their pitching staff by bringing back Jeremy Guthrie on a $25 million free-agent contract and trading for Ervin Santana, Wade Davis and James Shields. The trade for Davis and Shields cost them top prospect Wil Myers, a sacrifice that signals the Royals are serious about winning now.

Kansas City GM Dayton Moore said as much to Joe Posnanski for his Sports on Earth blog: "We're trying to win now. Everything we do from here on in will be to win now."

The Royals are willing to spend to win now as well. Whereas the Mariners are actually in line to have a lower payroll (see Cot's Baseball Contracts) in 2013, the Royals have increased their payroll. They opened last season at roughly $64 million. Their payroll is now at about $77 million.

The Indians have also increased their payroll, as they're up from roughly $65 million on Opening Day last year to about $72 million now. Much of the new money is going to Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, Cleveland's two big free-agent signings.

The Indians also signed veterans like Mark Reynolds, Brett Myers, Jason Giambi and Daisuke Matsuzaka, and they traded for Drew Stubbs and Trevor Bauer. The big picture is a drastically overhauled roster that looks equipped to contend for a full season. The Indians were mere half-season contenders in 2011 and 2012.

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
It's not every winter you trade for a Cy Young winner.

The Blue Jays, meanwhile, were more active than the Mariners, Royals, Indians and pretty much everyone else in baseball put together. They began by pulling off a trade with the Miami Marlins that netted them Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and Emilio Bonifacio. They then went on to sign Melky Cabrera and trade for R.A. Dickey.

All the moves are going to cost the Blue Jays. Their payroll was at nearly $84 million on Opening Day last year. It's now at about $114 million.

The Blue Jays were good enough to be 2.5 games out of the wild-card race at the All-Star break when they were still relatively healthy in 2012. Conceivably, the added talent and extra payroll will combine with better health in 2013 to help them win the division.

If not, the wild card will be there as a fallback, just as it was for the Orioles in 2012 when they fell short of catching the New York Yankees for the division lead.

What the Mariners, Royals, Indians and Blue Jays all had in common in 2012 was that they ended up being huge long shots to make the postseason.

What they had in common this winter is that they all made moves with a "win now" mentality in mind.

They are poster boys for the notion that the expanded postseason has created a greater opportunity for teams to contend.

However, they are not the norm.

The Boston Red Sox, for example, also finished miles out of the AL wild-card race and spent the offseason loading up on players and payroll. They signed David Ross, Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, Koji Uehara, Ryan Dempster, Stephen Drew and Mike Napoli, and they traded for Joel Hanrahan.

The Red Sox did these things because they could. They dumped a lot of payroll when they pulled off their big August trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and they spent their winter filling in the blanks.

Boston's actually going to save money relative to where they were in 2012. They opened last season with a payroll over $175 million. Their payroll is now short of $152 million.

Elsewhere, the Minnesota Twins, who finished 27 games out of the postseason chase in 2012, spent the winter carrying on with their rebuild. The two biggest moves they made were trades that sent Denard Span and Ben Revere packing for young pitching. They're eyeing the future beyond 2013.

Over in the National League, six teams made like the Twins and played it safe this winter. The San Diego Padres, New York Mets, Miami Marlins, Colorado Rockies, Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros all finished at least 12 games back in the NL wild-card race, and none of the six were very active making improvements.

Denis Poroy/Getty Images
Behold the prize of San Diego's 2012-2013 offseason.

The biggest move the Padres made was signing Jason Marquis to a $3 million contract. The Mets jettisoned Dickey to Toronto and didn't make a major upgrade to his spot or any other spots, though they did lock up David Wright. The Marlins waved a white flag for 2013 when they made their trade with the Blue Jays.

The Rockies' biggest move was their trade for Wilton Lopez. The Cubs signed Edwin Jackson to a big contract, sure, but they focused mainly on gathering short-term contracts that they could trade later. The Astros picked up some trade bait of their own and also shipped Jed Lowrie to one of their new division rivals.

So not every club saw the same kind of grand opportunity that the Mariners, Royals, Indians and Blue Jays saw. While they abandoned slow-and-steady approaches in favor of bolder, headline-grabbing moves, the Red Sox stayed away from bold moves as they rebuilt their roster. Several other clubs carried on with their respective rebuilds.

It's possible that things would be different if there were three or even four wild-card spots up for grabs rather than only two. But MLB is not the NBA, where over half the league's teams are going to end up in the postseason and it only takes a handful of good players to get there. Only a third of MLB's 30 clubs are going to end up in the postseason, and it takes more than a handful of good players to ensure a trip.

The other thing about the wild cards is that earning one hardly ensures a long stay in the postseason. All the wild-card winners are ensured is a shot to win a one-game playoff, meaning 162 games of hard work could come crashing down in a matter of hours.

A reward like that is only worth so much risk.

 

Did It Provide More Incentive for Division Title Contenders to Make Moves?

More so than inspire teams to contend for a wild-card spot, what MLB's playoff expansion should really succeed in doing is convince clubs that they must get to the playoffs via a division title. That's the only way teams can guarantee at least a three-game stay in the postseason.

If you want to know just how important it is to end up with a division title in the end, just ask the Atlanta Braves and Texas Rangers.

The Braves won 94 games in 2012, but they fell short of the Washington Nationals in the NL East and then suffered a controversy-marred defeat in the NL Wild Card Game against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Rangers let the AL West title slip from their grasp in their season-ending series in Oakland and then got beaten by the Orioles in the AL Wild Card Game.

Following their defeats, the Braves and Rangers took two very different approaches to the offseason.

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
B.J. Upton will take Michael Bourn's spot in center field.

The Braves managed their winter like a team intent on not repeating the past. They kicked things off by signing B.J. Upton to a big-money contract and ultimately pulled off a trade for his younger brother, Justin. In between, they shored up their already impressive bullpen by trading for Jordan Walden.

The offseason as it pertained to the NL East didn't just consist of the Braves closing the gap between them and the Nationals. The Nats did their part to make sure it stayed wide, shoring up their roster by re-signing Adam LaRoche, signing Dan Haren and Rafael Soriano and trading for Denard Span.

To this end, MLB's playoff expansion seemed to make its presence felt in the NL East. The Braves have their hearts set on winning the division after missing out on it and suffering a huge disappointment, and the Nats have their hearts set on not letting it go.

The Rangers, however, did not walk the same path as the Braves this winter. They watched more talent leave Arlington than enter, as they lost Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli, Ryan Dempster and others to free agency. They flirted with re-signing Hamilton and signing Zack Greinke, but the biggest signing the Rangers made was to bring in Lance Berkman on a one-year, $10 million contract.

There are two rational explanations for Texas' quiet offseason. One is that the organization tried to make big moves and simply failed. The other is that it never felt desperate enough to make the kinds of decisions it was being pressured to make.

If the Rangers did indeed decide to leave good enough alone, then they're not as worried about the past repeating itself as the Braves appear to be. Even with the Los Angeles Angels and Oakland A's having made upgrades over the winter, the Rangers must think they'll be fine in 2013.

Ian Kinsler and David Murphy certainly do, anyway.

“We’re still here,” Kinsler told Sporting News.

“No reason to think we can’t do it again,” said Murphy.

Outside of the Blue Jays and their aggressive offseason dealings, the new playoff system didn't have much of an impact on the AL East either. Most notably, the New York Yankees were much quieter than usual.

The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports
Brian Cashman didn't have much freedom to work any magic this offseason.

The Yankees had one of their least aggressive offseasons in recent memory. They re-signed Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Ichiro Suzuki, and they signed Kevin Youkilis to a free-agent contract, but Nick Swisher, Rafael Soriano and Russell Martin all walked as free agents. 

Given their financial resources, the Yankees could have been active in free agency if they wanted to. But they didn't want to because doing so would have compromised their goal of getting their payroll down under $189 million by 2014. That was the driving force behind their offseason, not the new playoff format.

The Orioles benefited from the new playoff format in 2012, but they were also quiet this offseason. The biggest deal they made was signing Nate McLouth to a $2 million contract. Aside from that, they chose to leave good enough alone, not unlike the Rangers.

The Tampa Bay Rays may belong in that boat as well. The Wil Myers trade will certainly help them in the long term, but they have no guarantee that he's going to be a star right away. If he isn't, then the Rays will miss James Shields and Wade Davis in 2013, especially if they lack the pitching depth to make their usual run at a postseason spot.

Out in the NL West, the Diamondbacks are another team that made some significant moves for iffy short-term gains. They signed Brandon McCarthy, Cody Ross and Eric Chavez as free agents, but they parted with valuable trade assets.

Chris Young was turned into Cliff Pennington, a good-fielding shortstop who can't hit. Trevor Bauer was turned into Didi Gregorius, another good-fielding shortstop who can't hit. Upton and Chris Johnson were turned into Martin Prado and Randall Delgado, a good-but-not-great player and a former top prospect who didn't show much promise in the majors in 2012. 

Publicly, the Diamondbacks are obviously looking to contend in 2013. Privately, Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com says their real goal was to put together a hard-nosed team "full of gritty dirtballs." They didn't so much spend their winter constructing a winner as they did constructing an attitude.

With the D-Backs set to embark on an experimental 2013 season, the NL West should be up for grabs between the Giants and the Dodgers. To make sure they defend their NL West and World Series titles in 2013, the Giants basically made sure nothing changed over the offseason. They re-signed Jeremy Affeldt, Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro early on, and that was about it. 

The Dodgers were considerably more active this offseason, re-signing Brandon League to a big contract and then signing Zack Greinke and Ryu Hyun-jin to even bigger contracts. They clearly have their eyes on winning the NL West.

However, the Dodgers certainly weren't emboldened to spend by the new playoff format. For them, the new system is a means to an end, maybe even a complete afterthought.

USA TODAY Sports
Magic knows a thing or two about championships.

"We want to go to the World Series. If we don't accomplish that, yes, it is not a good season for us," club boss Magic Johnson told the Los Angeles Times. "Guys should be saying that. As the ownership group, that is what we are saying."

There's a similar thing going on in Detroit with the reigning American League champions. The Tigers paid a lot of money to sign Torii Hunter and to re-sign Anibal Sanchez, but they didn't do so for the sake of shoring up their chances of winning their third straight division title. Like the Dodgers, the Tigers are after a World Series victory.

The Cincinnati Reds are in the same company as the Dodgers and Tigers. They won 97 games in 2012 despite getting no production from their leadoff hitters. They traded for a new leadoff man in Shin-Soo Choo, who had an .881 OPS batting out of the No. 1 spot in 2012. With him on board, the Reds have few noticeable weaknesses.

“I know that we’re close,” manager Dusty Baker told Sporting News. “I like this team; they like each other. This is as close to a family situation (on a team) that I’ve felt in a while.”

So outside of the Braves and Nats in the NL East, and the Blue Jays in the AL East, it's hard to see any would-be division winners that reacted to MLB's new playoff format this offseason. There were simply too many other forces competing for priority.

 

Did Fringe Contenders Have an Easier Time Drawing Big Free Agents?

What about the players themselves? Did the big-money guys have more markets to turn to thanks to the expanded playoffs?

Not really. They indeed had more markets to turn to, but not because of the expanded playoffs.

With a few notable exceptions—Cliff Lee comes to mind—the best free-agent players have always followed the money. They've always put the interests of their wallets ahead of the interests of their hearts.

It was the same old story this year, but with a twist.

Neither the Indians nor the Braves are used to having payrolls over $100 million, but both managed to reel in high-priced free agents. The Braves signed B.J. Upton to a five-year, $75 million contract, and the Indians signed Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn to contracts worth a total of eight years and $104 million.

For the Braves, signing Upton was simple. They had over $20 million coming off the books with Chipper Jones retiring and Bourn testing free agency. That was more than enough to make Upton a competitive offer. Even after signing him and making other moves, their payroll has dropped from over $93 million on Opening Day in 2012 to less than $83 million now.

The Indians, by comparison, had about $21 million coming off the books with Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore and Casey Kotchman hitting free agency. Not a bad chunk of change in and of itself, but how exactly was it enough for Swisher and Bourn

Two reasons. One is that the Indians have a new television contract that Paul Hoynes of The Plain Dealer has reported to be worth $400 million over the next 10 years. The other is that the new CBA allowed them to take advantage of discounted prices for Swisher and Bourn.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
This just looks odd...

Swisher was once said to be looking for a Jayson Werth-esque $100 million contract in free agency, but he hurt his chances of getting such a deal by playing poorly down the stretch of the 2012 season and in the postseason. Then, albeit unwittingly and understandably, he hurt his chances even more by rejecting the Yankees' qualifying offer, thus tying himself to draft-pick compensation.

The reality that signing Swisher would mean forfeiting a top draft pick helped shrink his market and, by extension, lower his asking price. The Indians were in a perfect position to swoop in and make a deal, as they knew they had TV money coming their way. They also knew that their top-10 draft pick was protected thanks to the fact that they finished with one of the league's 10 worst records in 2012.

The story was largely the same with Bourn. Early projections had him getting a deal worth as much as $80 million, but his ties to draft-pick compensation helped limit his market and drive his price down. The Indians took that as their cue to swoop in, and they still got to keep their protected top-10 pick.

That the Indians managed to end up with both Swisher and Bourn is certainly a sign of the times, but not as they pertain to baseball's new playoff format. They landed Swisher and Bourn because it was their turn to benefit from the rising values of local TV deals and the free-agency compensation rules in the new CBA.

They followed the money, and it led them to Cleveland.

 

Final Thoughts

When Matthew Leach wrote back in July about how the expanded playoffs were impacting baseball's trade deadline, it all sounded so simple.

That's because it was. New rules in the CBA altered the value of rental players, and the extra playoff spots up for grabs created a seller's market. But aside from that, it was business as usual. Teams knew what they had and what they didn't have. Some teams were looking to find what they didn't have. Others were looking to see what they could get for what they had.

Baseball's offseason is a completely different animal. Teams have to consider what they have not just for the coming season, but the season after that and the season after that. They need to consider how much what they have is going to cost now and then, and whether the risk is worth the reward when it comes to scooping players up off the free-agent market. Statistics that tell the story of what happened are replaced by statistics that tell the story of what could be.

With so much going on, there are dozens of influences guiding how front office people, owners and players go about their business.

The new playoff format is only one, and it's not fixed to the top of the pile.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com. Special thanks to MLBTradeRumors.com's Transactions Tracker for making it easy to recall so many signings and trades.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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