When Major League Baseball implemented a second wild-card berth in the American and National League last year, the whole idea was to create more competition.
By the time the trade deadline was drawing near, it was clear that the idea was a success. More teams were in contention, and that meant more teams were looking to buy. Good times, indeed.
But in 2013? Maybe not as much. The additional wild cards in both leagues are obviously still in place, but the races aren't as tight at the All-Star break this year as they were last year.
At the break in 2012, there were six teams within 2.5 games of the second wild-card spot in the AL and six teams within six games of the second wild-card spot in the NL. Between both leagues, only six teams were as many as 10 games out of the running.
As of right now in 2013, there are really only three teams within sight of the second wild card in the American League and four teams within sight of the second wild-card spot in the National League. Between the two leagues, nine teams are at least 10 games out of the running.
Point being that there aren't as many would-be contenders looking to be the first through a single door this year. As Mike Axisa of CBS Sports correctly noted in late June, that should, in theory, allow for there to be more sellers this year than there were last year.
The second wild card does, however, have the power to entice teams not to sell, and we can take a quick look at the most notable examples out there as things stand now.
Philadelphia Phillies: Buying? Selling? Or...What?
Last week, ESPN's Buster Olney caused a bit of a stir when he tweeted this in regard to the Philadelphia Phillies:
Other teams that have talked with Phillies GM Ruben Amaro lately say he's talking about buying, not selling.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) July 10, 2013
It seemed nuts at the time. Embarrassing even. The Phillies were under .500 and didn't look like a team worth buying for.
But then the Phillies finished the break as winners of seven of their last 10 and will enter the second half right at .500 with a record of 48-48. They may be 6.5 games out in the NL East, but they're only 5.5 games out in the NL wild-card race.
If executives around the league had their way, Ruben Amaro would throw his hands up, shout "Screw it!" and press the fire-sale button. If he were to do that, the Phillies' most attractive trade chips would be available. According to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports and, well, pretty much everyone else, those are: Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon, Carlos Ruiz, Chase Utley and Michael Young.
But as long as the Phillies are around .500 and very much in the Senior Circuit playoff picture, Amaro's not going to have much (or any) incentive to start waving a white flag. It's bad form for a general manager of a big-market team to sell while contention is still possible, and Amaro has the organization's upcoming TV negotiation to worry about, you know.
Lee, Papelbon, Ruiz and Utley are going to be very hard to pry from the Phillies as long as they're playing good or even decent baseball. Matt Gelb of The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that Young could be moved but likely in such a way that would benefit the Phillies now.
And it's not nuts to think Amaro could swing such a deal. Young's defense at third base has been horrid, but that's not an issue for teams that view him as a quality hitter who could DH and fill in at multiple positions. Young could certainly do that, so the report from Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports about the "intense trade interest" in the veteran these days sounds about right.
There's not a lot of time between now and the July 31 trade deadline. Exactly two weeks, in fact, which only gives the Phillies so many games to come to a more precise determination of where they stand in the NL playoff picture.
There's a chance that the next two weeks will be a disaster, in which case Amaro could be more willing to sell. But given the way the Phillies have been playing lately, there's an equally good chance that the next two weeks will go well and the club's top trade assets will still be off-limits. If the Phillies are still within sight of the second wild-card spot, selling isn't going to be happening.
The same sentiment would seem to apply north of the border.
Toronto Blue Jays: Not Ready to Give Up?
Remember when the Blue Jays won 11 games in a row and looked like they were on their way to becoming the team they were supposed to be?
That was a while ago, and what's happened since then hasn't been good. In 20 games following the 11-game win streak, the Blue Jays went 7-13 and fell to four games under .500.
Time to sell, right?
Not necessarily. The Blue Jays are 11.5 games out in the AL East but a much more manageable 8.5 games out in the wild-card race. They're down but not out just yet.
Hence the reason that the latest from ESPN's Jerry Crasnick doesn't come as a huge surprise:
Rival execs hearing #bluejays have no plans to shop Josh Johnson at trade deadline. It appears he's staying put.— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) July 17, 2013
If anything, the Blue Jays may be more interested in buying. And if they are, they might be interested in buying something big.
Here's what Gregor Chisholm of MLB.com wrote earlier this month:
The Blue Jays have yet to make a decision on whether they will become buyers at the upcoming non-waiver Trade Deadline, but if they do, then it's likely because a big piece is available at the right price.
The emphasis here is on "big piece," and it fits well with the latest news concerning Chicago Cubs right-hander Matt Garza.
On Monday, David Kaplan of CSN Chicago provided some updates on Garza's market and noted that the Blue Jays are among his "strongest pursuers." After making so many big moves over the offseason, Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos might not be done.
Garza is a sensible target for the Blue Jays. Their starting pitching has been weak all season, and the pending returns of Brandon Morrow and J.A. Happ from injuries are only so reassuring. Garza may not be the ace he's suddenly being billed as, but he'd certainly be an upgrade for a Toronto rotation that could use one.
Would trading for Garza really be worth it for the Jays? Could he really make that much of a difference in helping them salvage what's been a hugely disappointing season?
Well, you have to look at things from Anthopoulos' perspective. His team had a bad first half, but there are things to like. The club's offense has generally been good and is more balanced with a healthy Jose Reyes, and the bullpen has been fantastic. Solidify the starting rotation, and a big stretch run could be in order.
Like with the Phillies, we shall see over the next two weeks. If things get worse for the Blue Jays, they could wave a white flag and see what they can get for Josh Johnson and others. But if they play well, they could keep their eye on that second wild-card spot and go (even more) all-in.
As far as teams straddling the fence between buying and selling in light of the second wild card, there really aren't many notable examples beyond the Phillies and Blue Jays. That has much to do with the fact that other clubs in the wild-card races in both leagues are actually closer to the lead in their respective divisions than they are to the second wild-card spot.
But still, the other clubs that are closer to the second wild card than the division lead are worth checking in on, if for no other reason than "just for funsies."
Elsewhere Around the League: Nationals, Yankees, Orioles and Angels
The Phillies aren't the only NL East club that's closer to the second wild card than they are to the division lead. The Washington Nationals are in that same boat.
The Nationals have already filled a need on the trade market, getting Scott Hairston and his righty power from the Chicago Cubs in a deal last week. Bill Ladson of MLB.com says that Nats manager Davey Johnson would like another piece for his bench, but Ladson opined that Nats GM Mike Rizzo could be more inclined to target a starting pitcher.
That's not a bad guess. Washington's starting pitching has been solid this year, but Dan Haren has been a huge liability when he's been healthy and Ross Detwiler is currently unhealthy.
However, bear in mind that the Nationals don't have a need for a top-tier guy like Matt Garza. With Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez lined up, the Nationals have the top of their rotation covered. If they make a move for a pitcher, it'll probably be a back-end guy.
While the Nationals are in the same boat as the Phillies in the National League, the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees are in the same boat as the Blue Jays in the American League. For them, the second wild card is currently more realistic than the division lead.
The Orioles, however, might be keeping quiet for the rest of the trade season. Danny Knobler of CBS Sports has written that the O's are looking for starting pitching help, but they've already shored up their starting rotation with Scott Feldman and have since gotten Wei-Yin Chen back from injury.
It's thus not a shocker that Orioles GM Dan Duquette indicated to Steve Melewski of MASN Sports last week that the team could be standing pat with its rotation.
"We are always looking (for starters), but I'd like to see how our team does with Chen and Feldman pitching regularly. We should be able to evaluate that between now and the end of July," said Duquette.
The Yankees, meanwhile, seem to be trying desperately not to stand pat, as reports have had them dangling right-handed starter Phil Hughes and right-handed reliever Joba Chamberlain in hopes of making improvements to a roster that could use more than a few in order to keep this year's playoff hopes alive.
But it doesn't sound so good for the Yankees. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports says that Hughes' market is not what the Yankees were hoping for and that he might not net them the bat they want.
Chamberlain's market sounds even worse. George A. King III of the New York Post has written that there's some thought that it won't even take a trade to get him. The Yankees might just release Chamberlain before long, making his trade stock more or less kaput.
So the Yankees might have to make do with what they have for the rest of the season. If so, their stretch run is going to hinge on star players A) getting and staying healthy and B) producing.
That's essentially where the Los Angeles Angels are as well. Their playoff hopes aren't looking so good either way, as they're 11 games out in the AL West and nine games out in the wild-card race. It's therefore not surprising that the Angels sound like they're in wait-and-see mode.
“This is our team,” said Angels GM Jerry Dipoto to Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times earlier this month.
Dipoto added: “You’re always looking for ways to get better, to maybe find some smaller pieces to contribute, but the high-profile moves? I wouldn’t suspect that we’re looking for those. I don’t know that we can acquire a better starting pitcher than Jason Vargas, and the bullpen has been very good.”
One starting pitcher who could work for the Angels is none other than Hughes, who Heyman noted have been linked to Hughes in the past. But for now, that's really the only link between the two.
And that...pretty much...does it.
For now, anyway. Given the smaller amount of wild-card contenders and the relatively large amount of wild-card contenders that have better shots at winning the division as things stand now, the second wild card isn't looming quite as large as it was this time last year. But that could change, as there are still two weeks for teams to rise and fall and, thus, for the big picture to change.
Don't take your eye off the standings, and certainly don't take your ear off the ground. With the All-Star Game now in the rear-view mirror, deadline season and the general postseason push are really just getting started.
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