MLB Buyers & Sellers: Wild-Card Expansion Changed Market for Deadline Contenders

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterJuly 29, 2013

MILWAUKEE, WI - JUNE 07:  Cliff Lee #33 of the Philadelphia Phillies pitches in the bottom of the second inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park on June 07, 2013 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Buyers or sellers?

As the Major League Baseball non-waiver trade deadline approaches like a train barreling through a tunnel, teams have very little time to decide whether they are in the market to buy or sell. Or, for some, both.

For teams on the margins of the playoffs, being a buyer or seller has become midseason* lingo for whether or not a team considers itself a contender. Are you in it? Buy. Are you out? Sell. 

Only it's just not that easy anymore.

(*I love the "halfway" point of the season, as so many in baseball call the All-Star break. Only in baseball, a sport where numbers recorded to the second and third decimal point can determine the difference between being an All-Star and out of a job, is it universally recognized that the "second half" of a 162-game season starts 96 games into the year.)

Bud Selig changed the buyer-seller dynamic last season by expanding the playoffs, thereby extending the chances of potential playoff teams well beyond the traditional trade deadline.

While the second wild card has kept more teams—and more cities—interested down the stretch run of the season, the addition of two playoff opportunities has thrown the buyer-seller market completely out of whack.

Kansas City has gone on quite a roll since the All-Star break, so much so that suddenly the Royals find themselves in a situation where buying may be more beneficial than selling, as noted by Dick Kaegel of The Royals may be buyers? Welcome to the new MLB:

If the Royals were hopelessly out of the American League Central race, a decision to trade [Ervin] Santana would be easier for general manager Dayton Moore. But the Royals experienced an upsurge after the All-Star break. With a division title still a possibility, should one of their best pitchers be dealt away?

Word on the street is that the Royals, in order to deal Santana, would have to be overwhelmed with Major League-ready talent that would help them win -- if not this year, then certainly in 2014.

There is, realistically, little chance the Royals have of passing both the Indians and the Tigers for the AL Central, but Kansas City is only five games back of the second wild card, putting it just on the fringe of the "buyer's" market, which makes selling anyone, especially a pitcher who can help the club down the stretch, that much more difficult.

Things can change in a flash. The Royals had lost five straight games heading into the All-Star break and were not only six games below .500, they were a dismal 9.5 back in the AL wild-card race.

It's amazing what two weeks can do to a sure-fire seller.

It's amazing what two weeks can do to a team like Philadelphia, which looked like a buyer as it rallied into the All-Star break. Riding a streak of eight wins in 11 games heading into the hiatus, the Phillies have stumbled since the break.

Actually, wait. Stumbling isn't the right word for losing eight of nine games and being outscored 52-14 in eight consecutive defeats. That's more like falling down a cliff.

Speaking of cliffs, the Phillies' free fall has put Cliff Lee's name back into the trade conversation, per Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports.

Despite his enormous contract, Lee is certainly the Phillies' most valuable player on the trade market. The problem with trading Lee, however, is that GM Ruben Amaro would have to get so much back in return—a major league-ready position player and starting pitcher for 2014—that no current buyer could possibly be willing to part with so much for the lefty ace.

(If the Royals want a big league-ready player for Santana, imagine what the Phillies will command for Lee.)

Two weeks ago, the Phillies seemed like sure-fire buyers, hell-bent on keeping their aging roster together in hopes of a second-half run into playoff contention. Now, Amaro has to entertain the notion of stripping the roster down for the second straight season in hopes of rebuilding for next year.

And yet, as they're slowly realizing they are sellers, the Phillies are buyers as well, agreeing to a six-year deal with 26-year-old Cuban pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez.

Sellers are buying. Could buyers be selling too?

Dallas Morning-News columnist Tim Cowlishaw tweeted on Sunday that after trading away prospect Mike Olt for a starter like Matt Garza, the Texas Rangers need to find a bat for their lineup, jokingly agreeing with a suggestion that they offer Jurickson Profar to the Phils for Michael Young and Chase Utley.

How much of a joke is that, though? The Rangers may see a window closing with this club, and bringing back Young and adding a bat like Utley would be amazing for the Rangers this season.

Is another run at the World Series worth giving up your top prospect? It might be, if the market stays as thin as it is.

With more teams in the race later and later into the season, the market is strikingly in favor of the sellers. In the past, the most a team could hope for when trading away an impending free agent might be a borderline major leaguer or a deep-level prospect who might not make the big leagues for half a decade.

With so many buyers and so few sellers in the new Wild Card Era market, could teams like the Phillies—or even the Royals, if they have a more realistic look at the playoff landscape—be able to get more value for rental players than they had in previous years?

(Note: If anyone needs a closer, the Phillies have a high-priced malcontent they need to unload, ASAP.)

The sooner a team knows it’s a buyer or a seller, the better.

That said, knowing what you are and knowing what to do with what you are can be very different things. 

Take the White Sox, for example. Chicago is ready to deal Jake Peavy despite the pitcher still being under contract for more than this season. Chicago is looking for top-level talent in return, and with Garza already off the block, teams in need of starting pitching may have to overpay in a seller's market. 

Is Peavy worth more in return than Santana? The extra year under contract could help Peavy's value over Santana, but this is still the question a team like Kansas City has to ask right now. Trading a solid piece of the rotation seems peculiar when the team is right in the thick of a playoff race. Still, getting back immediate major league talent for a player who will likely leave in the winter seems like the smart move. 

There's talk that Seattle—winners of seven of its last 10 games—might be in the market for someone like Peavy. The Royals are five games back and might be sellers, but the Mariners are 7.5 back and could be buyers. 

Even within a team's front office, the decision to buy (or at least who to buy) isn't always an easy one to make. 

The Yankees—a perpetual buyer in baseball's trade market—are just 2.5 games back from the second AL Wild Card despite being 7.5 games back in the AL East. New York, in need of a power bat in its lineup, traded for Alfonso Soriano—against the wishes of GM Brian Cashman. Via the New York Post

Cashman would not directly confirm what he advised Hal Steinbrenner, but told The Post: “I would say we are in a desperate time. Ownership wants to go for it. I didn’t want to give up a young arm [Corey Black]. But I understand the desperate need we have for offense. And Soriano will help us. The bottom line is this guy makes us better. Did ownership want him? Absolutely, yes. Does he make us better? Absolutely, yes. This is what Hal wants, and this is why we are doing it.”

Two seasons ago, before the days of two wild-card teams, the Yankees might have been less desperate at seven games out of a playoff spot with 57 to play, looking at how to regroup for the following season.

In this new era of expanded playoff baseball, the Yankees are right in the thick of the hunt and in total buy mode, which their GM knows could hurt them in years to come.

Thanks to the additional wild card (and, to be fair, the insatiable need to compete every year in New York), the Yankees, who are in fourth place in their own division and have four teams ahead of them for the final two playoff spots, are "desperate" to buy.

This is Major League Baseball in 2013.

It all used to be so damn easy. Were you a buyer or a seller? Or—more to the point for the fans—do casual followers even need to pay attention to the baseball team once football season starts?

For teams hovering around five or six games back from that second wild card, it's harder than ever to decide which route to take.

Of course, those teams don't necessarily need to decide by the end of July. The buyer-seller deadline has been shifting for years, with more and more blockbuster-style trades coming after the non-waiver deadline of July 31.

The Red Sox were in contention for the wild card on July 31 last season before a dismal August saw them fall more than 10 games out of contention. They traded nearly all their high-priced talent to the Dodgers in a blockbuster post-waiver wire deal, and 11 months later Boston has the best record in baseball.

It should be noted the Dodgers—who fell two games short of securing the second NL Wild Card after buying big last season—are leading their division this year, certainly buyers once again.

Much like last year, while the addition of the second wild card has kept more teams in the race longer than ever before, it hasn't necessarily forced teams to make earlier decisions than they otherwise would have. The July 31 waiver deadline is not the final benchmark for when a team needs to decide if it is a buyer or seller.

The Washington Nationals, for example, are having a terrible season but are just seven games back in the NL wild-card race after winning three straight. A year removed from a record win total and a relatively young roster of talent that should be back in form next season, it might be a great time for Washington to buy. (The same could be said for the Colorado Rockies, who are in a division that seems winnable every year.)

Buying in a seller's market is tricky, but for teams that don't need to overspend for players with one or more years left on their current contracts, it might make sense for a team on the fringes of the playoff race to make a few smart deals that could help next season if they don't spark a run this year.

Finding those players, of course, is never easy, but having the luxury—if you call being ostensibly out of the playoff race in July a luxury—of not having to make a move for the sake of making it could give one of those teams an edge.

Buyer or seller, the non-waiver trade deadline should never be a time to panic. On this date in 2012, there were still eight clubs, including division leaders, within 6.5 games of the second wild card in the National League. In the American League, there were 11 teams within five games of the second wild card.

Eleven teams!?! There were only 14 teams in the entire American League last season.

At the All-Star break last season, not only were there 11 teams in contention in the American League, but all 11 were within two games of the second wild-card slot as the final 70 games got under way. This season is a bit more clear, even though the last two weeks have created a tighter wild-card race in the American League with as many as eight of the 15 teams within 2.5 games and 10 within 7.5 games. 

In the National League, there are really only eight teams with a chance, as the Rockies have an outside-at-best opportunity at eight games out of the second wild card. 

The race has already lost one team since the All-Star break in Philadelphia. A lot can happen between the end of July and the end of August, for buyers and sellers.


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