Second Wild Card Didn’t Ruin the Trade Deadline

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:

Playoff Odds on July 30, 2019
W L W% Win Division Win Wild Card Make Playoffs
Dodgers 70 39 .642 100.0% 0.0% 100.0%
Astros 69 39 .639 99.6% 0.3% 99.9%
Yankees 67 39 .632 91.9% 6.9% 98.8%
Braves 63 45 .583 74.7% 22.1% 96.8%
Twins 65 41 .613 73.7% 21.9% 95.6%
Indians 62 44 .585 26.3% 52.7% 79.0%
Nationals 57 50 .533 21.7% 56.8% 78.5%
Cubs 56 50 .528 51.3% 19.0% 70.3%
Cardinals 57 49 .538 30.1% 22.8% 52.9%
Red Sox 59 49 .546 4.5% 46.3% 50.8%
Rays 61 48 .560 3.6% 46.8% 50.4%
Brewers 56 52 .519 17.0% 18.0% 35.0%
Phillies 56 50 .528 2.3% 23.5% 25.8%
Athletics 61 47 .565 0.4% 24.2% 24.6%
Mets 51 55 .481 1.4% 15.2% 16.5%
Diamondbacks 54 54 .500 0.0% 10.7% 10.7%
Giants 54 53 .505 0.0% 6.2% 6.2%
Reds 49 56 .467 1.5% 3.2% 4.7%
Rockies 50 58 .463 0.0% 1.3% 1.3%
Padres 50 57 .467 0.0% 1.1% 1.1%
Angels 56 53 .514 0.0% 0.8% 0.8%
Pirates 47 60 .439 0.0% 0.1% 0.2%
Rangers 53 54 .495 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Orioles 36 71 .336 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
White Sox 46 58 .442 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Tigers 31 72 .301 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Royals 40 69 .367 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Mariners 47 63 .427 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Blue Jays 42 67 .385 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Marlins 41 64 .390 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

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.

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2 years ago

The second WC didn’t ruin the trade deadline…. teams’ ridiculous 100th percentile projection of prospects ruined the trade deadline.

2 years ago
Reply to  thestatbook

I think what you’re running into are two problems:

The best front offices are getting really good at identifying which prospects are gonna be useful MLB pieces: see the Dodgers’ consistent refusal to trade guys who turn out to be, in fact, very useful (Bellinger, Verdugo, etc)

The Dodgers have traded prospects: Jose De Leon, Willie Calhoun, etc. What do those guys have in common?

They haven’t really worked out.

So you have a bit of an impasse: the Dodgers know who they’re willing to part with and who they aren’t, but the other teams know that if the Dodgers are willing to part with a highly regarded prospect, it probably means they know something that isn’t public about the player.

So you see them move lower-end, more replacable talents (FV 40 and 45 and 35 types), but if you’re another GM and Andrew Friedman tells you he’s willing to trade you a FV55+ prospect who hasn’t debuted yet, you have to really be alarmed about why

Smiling Politelymember
2 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

HOU operates similarly. Also, LAD can bring up May and Gonsolin, who might not be Vazquez right now, but aren’t likely to be much worse than Shane Greene, etc. (not counting the obvious upside of ability and cost control), while HOU managed to get Greinke without dealing Tucker.

2 years ago

Houston gave up a lot for Greinke

I remember a year or two ago it was common thought that the Yankees, Dodgers and Astros were demonstrating how to build a winning team with an indefinite competitive window, compared to the Cubs and Red Sox moving many prospects and committing to a single core

I think you could argue that the Astros are moving into the second category. There’s not much high end talent after Tucker and Whitley and they will be very dependent on retaining the current core to compete, and not having those players decline to have the window be long.

Meanwhile the Dodgers and Yankees continue to churn out above average talent year after year.

2 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

It’s hard to tell; they might move to a Cleveland model and swap some of the older core for younger talent: like, Correa and Springer could be moved instead of extended or re-signed.

One thing we’ve seen over and over is big budget teams adopt/adapt the tricks of the smaller teams. They might keep the “generational” talent for their full careers but churn a good portion of the roster every few years to keep the average age in check and avoid the “Philly” collapse of recent vintage.

Joe Joemember
2 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

Astros promoted Alvarez this year, and kept two top 25 prospects. Yep, that sounds like a team that is willy nilly with prospects. How did Astros get Alvarez, again?

2 years ago
Reply to  thestatbook

It seems weird how good the Yankees think Deivi Garcia is. He’s not an overall top 50 prospect and is very high risk, yet they apparently weren’t willing to trade him for anyone not named Syndergaard.

2 years ago
Reply to  johansantana17

The guy did shred AA at age 20, so you could make the argument that he belongs more in FV55 level. There’s some concern that the reason he has performed so well is that almost nobody in AA can hit a 60-70-grade curveball, but I suspect the bigger problem with Garcia is that he is an extreme fly-ball pitcher in an era where fly balls are going for home runs at an alarming rate, and it’s not clear you can fix that without affecting the K rate.

I’ve said this before, that while I think it is understandable that the Yankees didn’t want to trade him for Stroman, it also wasn’t that far off a fair ask. And given the way that Yankee Stadium inflates left-handed power of Yankee stadium, the best thing for Garcia’s career (as a fly-ball heavy righty) is for him to be pretty much anywhere else.

2 years ago
Reply to  johansantana17

There wasn’t anyone else really worth getting unless you wanted to break the bank for Greinke.