As the trade deadline came and went, there seems to have been a feeling of disappointment about its activity, or perceived lack thereof. Too many players stayed put, while too many teams failed to improve. Ken Rosenthal went so far as to say that “life was getting sucked out of the sport.” Rosenthal cited the Dodgers, Cardinals, and Yankees as clubs that failed to do anything of significance, with the Angels, Phillies, and Red Sox as other teams who failed to do much at the deadline. Rosenthal includes a quote from White Sox GM Rick Hahn and floats the idea that the one-game Wild Card doesn’t provide enough incentive for teams to want to win. That statement isn’t really supported by this deadline, though.
Rosenthal correctly identifies that baseball’s economic system, which has fallen behind the times when it comes to rewarding players monetarily for their play on the field, is broken, and he’s hardly alone in suggesting that the second Wild Card helped to cause a trade deadline that lacked movement (or, more specifically, big movement — as Ben Clemens noted, the deadline was incredibly busy). Jayson Stark included a quote from an executive in his piece on the deadline:
“If you do that, you’re putting a lot of your future on playing one game,” said one NL exec. “It doesn’t make sense [to go all in to play one game]. If you made the Wild Card two out of three, I bet you’d see more teams willing to do something. At least that’s a series. But who’s going to make a big trade for a chance to play one game?”
Let’s put that logic to the test. Here are the playoff odds after the games on July 30:
|W||L||W%||Win Division||Win Wild Card||Make Playoffs|
In the Dodgers, Astros, and Yankees, we see three teams with their divisions sewn up. The second Wild Card is irrelevant. If we were to sort by division odds, we’d see three divisions still up for grabs: the AL Central, NL Central, and NL East. Now, if the Wild Card game wasn’t worth shooting for, we would expect the counter to be true and for teams seeking a division title to be extra-incentivized to avoid that game by winning the division. Cleveland made a big move, but merely shifted around parts for 2019 so as to remain in virtually the same spot. Minnesota traded for Sam Dyson but kept all its top prospects. The Cubs traded for Nick Castellanos, Derek Holland, David Phelps, and Tony Kemp, but emphasized Craig Kimbrel as the team’s big move. The Cardinals moved Jedd Gyorko to save some money, and take a flier on a 19-year-old pitcher. The Brewers traded for Drew Pomeranz, Jordan Lyles, Ray Black, and Jake Faria, but also traded Jesús Aguilar. Out East, the Braves and Nationals added a bunch to their bullpens. That’s seven teams with the supposed incentive of avoiding the Wild Card, and none of them went “all in” for the division.
As for the Wild Card, there were seven teams with at least a 5% chance at the one-game play-in: the Red Sox, Rays, Phillies, A’s, Mets, Diamondbacks, and Giants. The Rays, A’s, and Mets made aggressive additions, giving up good prospects to improve their rotations, with the Rays trying to improve the bullpen and infield as well. The Phillies might not have gone all in, but they added a good bat in Corey Dickerson after already trading for Jay Bruce and adding Jason Vargas, Drew Smyly, Blake Parker, and Dan Straily. These weren’t big moves, but they might have traded for the best hitter moved at the deadline. The Diamondbacks, who many thought would give up on the season, arguably improved as a team despite trading Zach Greinke by adding Zac Gallen and Mike Leake without moving Robbie Ray, David Peralta, Jarrod Dyson, or any pending free agents. The Giants did a soft sell, but kept Madison Bumgarner, Will Smith, and Tony Watson.
The reason more names were not traded at the deadline doesn’t appear to be because Wild Card teams weren’t trying to better position themselves in the playoff race. Instead, it was because teams like the Mets, Diamondbacks, and Giants refused to exit the race. Maybe the second Wild Card is partially responsible for the lack of big deals, but that actually might be a positive in this case. Yes, the Red Sox didn’t do anything, but they are also defending champs with a massive payroll and a thin farm system. Rosenthal gave them a pass in his piece, and I’m inclined to do the same.
The Angels sit in a weird zone of having a decent team, but needing more than the market could provide to get them back into contention this season, while Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, and Jo Adell help to keep their window to contention open next year.
As for the losing teams contenders usually feast on, the White Sox, Rangers, Padres, Reds, Rockies, and even the Pirates all see themselves as having a shot at contention in 2020. Giving up players other than pending free agents without getting better for next season wouldn’t help achieve their goals, which are admirable and what the league and fans should want. The Blue Jays, Marlins, and Mariners did what they could to move players. The Orioles didn’t have much to trade. The Tigers dealt what they could in Castellanos, but didn’t want to give away Matthew Boyd, a good starter with three more seasons of team control, without getting a dynamic return. The Royals weren’t going to move Whit Merrifield.
So which teams would have gone all in if the Wild Card had greater incentives, and what would all in look like? The Phillies, maybe, but they don’t have a prospect in the top 50 to headline a big deal. The Rays? They gave up the third-best prospect to move at the deadline, and the best prospect for teams with a good chance at making the playoffs this season. The teams chasing Wild Card spots were generally more aggressive than the teams chasing division titles. We can argue whether the trade deadline was good or bad, whether teams are too conservative generally with prospects and young players, and how to fix baseball’s broken economic system. We can even argue about whether the second Wild Card with a one-game play-in is best for the sport. But we shouldn’t take at face value statements that the second Wild Card has prevented big deals from happening at the trade deadline. The evidence doesn’t support it.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.