At just past the halfway point of the MLB season and with the July 31 trade deadline looming larger every day, only 11 of the league’s 30 teams currently have a record below .500.
Call it parity, if you like. Over half the league (16 clubs) is within seven games of a Wild Card berth—not counting the six clubs currently leading their divisions—and for the first time, general managers across MLB will face the weeks preceding the trade deadline with two new spots up for grabs in each league.
Suffice to say, its a seller’s market.
This season will be the first to feature the ten-team playoff format, up from the traditional eight-team postseason. An additional Wild Card berth has been added to both the National and American Leagues, with the Wild Card clubs from each league facing off in a one-game ‘series’ (essentially, a play-in game) that will constitute the playoffs’ first round.
The decision establishes a new one-game, wild-card round in each league between the teams with the best records who are not division winners, meaning a third-place team could win the World Series.
This is the only change in baseball’s playoff structure since the 1995 season, when wild-card teams were first added.
For the 2012 postseason, the five-game division series will begin with two home games for lower seeds, followed by home games for the higher seeds. After that, it will return to the 2-2-1 format previously used.
The additional playoff berths haven’t made their mark on the trade market just yet, but one can see the effects in advance. With more room available for clubs to advance to the postseason, fewer general managers are going to concede the current seasons and part with assets to gear up for the following year.
If that additional berth isn’t enough to convince a team on the fence to hang onto its assets, the current standings might do the trick. Currently, there are only ten or so bona fide “sellers,” if the standings are any indication. That field of teams might be decidedly bigger if clubs in the five-to-seven-games-back range found themselves battling for a lone Wild Card berth.
As it is, that market has shrunk, and for as many fewer teams as will be shopping their players, an equal number more teams might be looking to add to their rosters.
With fewer trade options made available, the value of players known to be on the block figures to increase sharply. However, will that increase the total number of players who will be traded?
Of course, the expanded playoff system isn’t the only change contributing to uncharted trade waters. Revised compensatory picks for free agent departures have changed as well. This may have a bigger impact than the the expanded postseason.
And then there are the changes in compensation, which alter the dynamic significantly as well. Previously, if a player rated as a Type A or Type B free agent and his team offered him salary arbitration, the team received Draft-pick compensation if he left. Now there are many more restrictions on that compensation.
For one, if a player has not been with his current team for a full season, the team cannot receive compensation. Thus, some teams may be more hesitant to give up prospects for rental players, because if they do not sign those players, they don’t have the fallback of receiving Draft picks to replenish the farm system.
It may work the other way as well, though, because teams must reach a dollar threshold in their contract offers in order to receive compensation. So teams must do more than just offer arbitration to their free agents. It’s at least possible, then, that some potential sellers will decide that they won’t be able to stomach such offers, and with no Draft picks in the offing, trade veterans at a lower prospect price.
A confluence of factors, to be sure, but nothing will dictate the trade market so much as the standings. If in two weeks those teams at or just below the competitive bubble find themselves improving, the trade market could shrink even further. Conversely, a bad stretch of games by those same clubs could open up the market and drive down prices on currently known trade options.
The new limits on draft pick compensation are certain to play their part. Without the fallback picks to cushion the blow of losing a rental player—the Milwaukee Brewers parted with four players to get C.C. Sabbathia in 2008 and lost him to free agency after just 17 starts, for example—teams might be looking to make a greater number of “baseball trades,” in which teams deal MLB players for MLB players on a positional-need basis.
Such trades could benefit strong clubs entrenched in playoff positions, but are unlikely to help struggling clubs who would otherwise look to stock their shelves by shipping out good or marginal MLB players for picks and prospects.
This trade deadline will leave plenty to be sorted out in the months to follow. With so many changes, it will be difficult to identify trends and popular strategies until the effects of any trades—good or bad—have manifested themselves by either helping clubs this season or hurting their depth down the road.
It will take some aggressiveness on the parts of GMs and owners to open up the market and see what the new rules really entail.