Major League Baseball is rife with parity right now, and that's both a good and bad thing. On one hand, a lot more teams and fanbases have legitimate hopes and dreams of reaching October. On the other, this relatively new league-wide equality has neutered the trade deadline—formerly one of the most exciting times of the season—to an extent.
Think back to this time last year when the biggest names to change teams by July 31 were—no drum roll needed—Matt Garza, Jake Peavy, Ian Kennedy and Alfonso Soriano. Ho hum.
Sure, there was plenty of speculation and rumors galore about other, bigger-name players getting swapped (think: Giancarlo Stanton, Cliff Lee, Chase Utley, etc.). Not a whole heck of a lot actually happened, though, because so many teams were either buying or holding, and so few actually were willing to blow it up and sell when the playoffs remained a possibility, no matter how remote.
Parity giveth and taketh away.
Sandy Alderson—general manager of the New York Mets, who enter Tuesday games at 51-55 and six games out of a playoff spot—essentially summed up the state of mind for the majority of front offices with this quote via Anthony DiComo of MLB.com: "When I say it's unlikely that we'll do anything, we're not anxious to be sellers. We're cautious about being buyers. But we'll see."
Why is that? Well, in the American League, 11 of 15 teams are either in a playoff position or within six games of one; and in the National League, 10 of 15 clubs can make the same claim, including Alderson's Mets.
Put another way: With August on the the doorstep, only nine of 30 teams are more than six games out of a position that would put them in the postseason. The difference these days between being a club on the fringe of irrelevance and one who potentially could punch a ticket to October is more or less a good week.
By comparison, here are the number of teams six or fewer games out of a playoff spot entering August each of the past five years:
|Teams In Playoff Spot or W/In Six Games of One on Aug. 1 (2009-14)|
|SEASON||AL TEAMS||NL TEAMS||TOTAL|
|*Through July 28|
Now, the biggest reason for this, obviously, is the addition of the second wild-card spot in each league, which came about in 2012. But even still, it's hard to ignore the fact that there just doesn't seem to be as many dominant teams in the majors right now—or even any.
There is no 1998 or 2009 New York Yankees or 2001 Seattle Mariners, no 2005 St. Louis Cardinals or 2008 Los Angeles Angels, or even a 2011 Philadelphia Phillies. All of those teams won at least 100 games and ran away with their division.
In fact, five of the six divisions are separated by just 2.5 games or fewer at the top, and no division leader is ahead by more than fives games, which is the disparity between the AL Central-leading Detroit Tigers (57-45) and the second-place Kansas City Royals (53-51) entering games on Tuesday, July 29.
Such tight competition makes it difficult for decision-makers to, well, make decisions. Being aggressive as the trade deadline nears—Thursday at 4 p.m. ET is mere hours away at this point—is a legitimate risk when there are oh-so-many teams clustered together.
But maybe GMs should be seeing this not as a risk, but as an opportunity. An opportunity to make one or two big, bold moves to separate their club from what clearly has become a crowd.
Sure, a trade might seem like an all-in gamble that could backfire, but it also very well could push a team away from the pack and make it an immediate favorite to reach the postseason or even the World Series.
That's just what the Oakland Athletics did at the beginning of July by trading for right-handers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Chicago Cubs in one fell swoop. In so many ways, that was a shocking maneuver.
Because it happened so early (July 4). Because the A's are the type of small-market team that often must rely on young, cost-controlled talent for sustained success, and yet they jettisoned Addison Russell, a consensus top-10 prospect. And because GM Billy Beane is well-known for calling MLB's postseason a crapshoot at the end of a 162-game marathon.
The A's, after all, are always at the forefront of forward thinking in baseball, so seeing them push their chips to the center of the table in a win-now, worry-about-the-future-later deal was a bit jarring—but also telling.
Here's what Beane, whose 65-40 A's have had the best record in baseball for most of the season, told Bob Nightengale of USA Today after landing Samardzija and Hammel: "We have a team that can win right now. The end game isn't to have the best prospects, it's to have a good team. We have to take the opportunity and grasp it. We have a team that can win right now."
So if the A's, of all teams, can do it, why not any number of others? It's not a stretch to say that half the clubs in MLB would become an October favorite tomorrow by pulling off a massive, all-in, go-for-broke blockbuster today.
Instead of being swallowed up by the negative outcomes of the what-ifs, maybe GMs need to recognize just how paralyzed their counterparts appear to be. The executive who goes big puts his team in position not to go home come October.
Why might this not happen? Well, that again goes back to the extra wild-card spot: It's certainly possible that a club could wind up falling short of a division title, get stuck in a one-game playoff and have its "postseason" be over in just one game.
Heck, the A's themselves provide an example of just this possibility. After winning the AL West the past two years but bowing out in the ALDS, they needed to make their trade to try to get past the first round for the first time since 2006.
On the other hand, as it stands now, they might have needed to make the deal simply to win the AL West again. The A's have baseball's best record, but they have the misfortune of playing in the same division as the Angels, who sport the second-best mark at 63-41. That puts Oakland but 1.5 games ahead of L.A. entering Tuesday games.
If the A's do wind up coming up short in their quest for a third-straight division crown, well, then they run the risk of having traded away a major piece of their future—and a cost-controlled one at that—for nine innings of October. That can be devastating, especially for a budget-conscious team like Oakland.
Does that mean Beane should not have made the move? Heck no, because flags fly forever. But it does put the decision—and all the pressures and permutations that come with it—into perspective.
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