The wild card's negative trade effect
July, 17, 2012
By Buster Olney | ESPN.com
Jerry Lai/US PresswireTeams must decide if the cost of acquiring a Zack Greinke is worth possibly only one playoff game.As the second half of the season began, there were eight teams within 2.5 games of the lead in the AL wild-card race, an early sign that the expanded playoff field will do exactly what The Powers That Be want it to do.
More opportunity for the postseason, more teams involved in the pennant races, more tickets sold, more fans watching on television. More, more, more, more, especially in September.
But there are always unintended, unseen consequences whenever major restructuring is completed, like when the roof at the Marlins' new ballpark had a big leak in the first month.
Major League Baseball has worked to bolster the integrity of the division races and reward teams for prevailing through the grind of 162 games. But in doing that, it may have diminished the perceived value of a wild-card berth to the degree that some teams won't extend themselves in pursuit of that carrot.
"It's not worth it," said one GM.
Consider the current standing of the Tampa Bay Rays. They are 46-44 and 9.5 games behind the New York Yankees in the AL East, and so as the Rays wake this morning, winning the division is a longshot. The Baltimore Orioles are nine games out of first place, with their pitching in tatters.
Both teams are in the pack of clubs fighting for the wild-card berths, and they could devote the full power of their resources to making the playoffs. The Orioles could be aggressive in pursuit of Zack Greinke, because there would be some extra value for Baltimore to even contending in September; the Orioles, after all, haven't been in the playoffs in 15 years.
But even if the Orioles are able to outlast the other teams, this is what they are guaranteed, from a business point of view: One game.
That is, the one-game elimination contest between the wild-card teams.
"And it might not even be a home game," an NL GM said Monday. "You could make trades and get into the playoffs and not get a home game. There's not as much incentive to being a wild-card team as there has been.
"If you had a best-of-three for the wild-card [teams], and were guaranteed at least one home game, I think it would be different."
This is not really a concern for teams that have a legitimate shot to win their divisions. The Pittsburgh Pirates, for example, have every reason to be aggressive before the trade deadline: They can beat down 20 years of bad history, and they have a real shot to win the NL Central and host multiple games in the playoffs. The same can be said for the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals.
But the New York Mets are sitting six games out of first place -- exactly the same spot where they were when they made the ill-fated Scott Kazmir trade in 2004. Should they expend major resources and go all-out when their best chance is probably for a wild-card berth and maybe one game in the postseason?
Should the Milwaukee Brewers, who are eight games out? The Arizona Diamondbacks, who are six games out?
There will be trades in the days ahead involving players like Ryan Dempster. But in general, the trade market has been surprisingly stagnant, general managers report, and the perception of some of them is that the reduced value of a wild-card berth is partly to blame for that.
Miami, Tampa Bay and the trade market
The two Florida teams might completely alter the trade market in the next 10 days, because both are at the tipping point. The Miami Marlins have been a brutal disappointment in their first season in their new ballpark, and if the Marlins decide to sell rather than buy, they'd be willing to discuss every player on their roster, from Omar Infante to Giancarlo Stanton to Josh Johnson.
And if the Marlins believe they are going to trade Johnson, now would be a good time to start that process. He's signed through the end of the 2013 season, at $13.75 million this year and $13.75 million next year, and would provide a very interesting alternative in a pitching market that figures to be saturated with two-month rentals like Dempster, Brandon McCarthy, Kevin Millwood and (perhaps) Derek Lowe. A team swapping prospects for Johnson would do so with the knowledge that he could impact two pennant races, not one, and when he's right -- when he's throwing well -- Johnson's stuff could translate in either league.
This season, however, the 28-year-old Johnson (5-6, 4.28 ERA) has struggled. Most tellingly, he's allowed more than a hit per inning -- 119 in 107.1 innings, something that would never happen when his power fastball/slider combination was at its best. He had a good June but has had two rough starts in July.
The Marlins salvaged a split in their series against the Washington Nationals.
The Rays have lost three of four games coming out of the All-Star break, continuing a steady regression that started in early May, shortly after Evan Longoria got hurt. Alex Cobb was the losing pitcher Monday, as Tampa Bay lost for the 12th time in 18 games.
The Rays have this to look forward to tonight: Matt Joyce is set to rejoin Tampa Bay's beleaguered lineup.
• The Yankees are a distant figure on the horizon to the Red Sox, still in sight but perhaps out of reach, and Boston may be left to chase after the wild card. But the stakes seem different for the Red Sox than for a lot of teams, because of the 2011 collapse and because of the team's massive payroll and concern about maintaining the interest of its fan base.
And there is this, too: In spite of the erratic early performance and all of the internal issues, the Red Sox have a chance to be really, really good. Carl Crawford came back Monday, joining Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz, and the Red Sox looked closer to whole than they have all season and beat the Chicago White Sox. Adrian Gonzalez powered the Red Sox with a three-run homer -- although David Ortiz got hurt on the trip around the bases. Ortiz will apparently miss the next few days.
No wonder Boston has been aggressive in its pursuit of Dempster, who would solidify the Red Sox rotation.
• Kevin Youkilis was in no mood to feud. He feels comfortable with the White Sox, writes Bob Ryan.
• The Yankees have the majors' best record, they're playing well and they don't really have any major holes in their lineup. But the chances that they will be active before the trade deadline increased Monday, as they learned that Brett Gardner's elbow is not feeling good.
If the Philadelphia Phillies sell, Shane Victorino could give New York additional lineup balance. He is capable of playing center field and he mashes lefties.
• Two major injuries manifested on Monday, with the Reds announcing that Joey Votto will have knee surgery, and Toronto's Jose Bautista suffering some sort of wrist injury. The loss of Bautista would be crushing for the Blue Jays -- and it was unclear exactly what his injury is -- because they really have no way to replace one of the best power hitters in the game.
The Reds have a first base Band-Aid in the short term. Dusty Baker had been looking for ways to get Todd Frazier in the lineup, given that Frazier's OPS is better than .900, and Frazier took ground balls at first base over the weekend to prepare for this possibility. But Votto is Cincinnati's offensive engine and arguably the best pure hitter in the game, and the Reds' challenge during the next 3-4 weeks is to withstand his absence. This will presumably increase the likelihood that Cincinnati will be active before the trade deadline.
Frazier could have an extended stay in the starting lineup, writes John Fay. The Reds lost Monday in their first game without Votto.
From ESPN Stats and Info: Most wins above replacement since 2008
Albert Pujols: 32.2
Evan Longoria: 27.8
Joey Votto: 27.8
Matt Holliday: 26.9