The expansion of Major League Baseball’s playoff field from 10 to 12 teams is a double-edged sword from a game standpoint. When more teams compete for playoff berths in the regular season, fewer teams tend to play their best players at the trade deadline. Fewer sellers means fewer deals for competing teams. Cutting back on deadlines could make summer dull. What’s good for October is not necessarily good for July.
Then again, a quick look at the rankings shows that August 2 should It’s an eventful deadline.
Four American League teams and six National League teams had less than a 1 percent chance of making the playoffs on Wednesday, according to FanGraphs. The other three teams — the Miami Marlins, Angels and Texas Rangers — were between 1 percent and 11 percent. There’s no reason executives from 13 teams shouldn’t involve their peers interested in acquiring influential players.
Now, what’s right for summer isn’t necessarily right for fall. Only two teams (San Francisco Giants and Philadelphia Phillies) are currently in the NL playoffs, and they have a chance to turn things around between now and the end of the season. In the AL, only three non-playoff teams (Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Guardians, and Seattle Mariners) currently have a good reason to keep their best players in the hopes of succeeding. Sorry, Angel. It’s not hard to know what the edge of the playoffs will look like in two months’ time. Check out today’s rankings.
The addition of a third wild-card team in each league this season presents new wrinkles. The value of wild-card berths is already debatable. It usually fluctuates from year to year, depending on the quality of the top-ranked matches. This year, the best teams in every league have looked like behemoths. Other times, a weak playoff field might incentivize would-be sellers to go for it in July.
For example, in 2019, the Washington Nationals managed to reverse the World Series titles of the Milwaukee Brewers, Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros. The Nationals are properly assessed both internally and externally, and if they can get a playoff spot, it’s going to be a dangerous team. The Nationals (12 games under .500 on May 23) not only got a wild card, but ended the regular season with an eight-game winning streak before beating the Milwaukee game with a memorable winner-take-all wild card.
But the 2019 Nationals are the exception to the rule. Their 19-31 record was the second-worst ever for the eventual World Series champion. Aside from the White Sox, no team below .500 has the same deep roster today. Angels have star power. The Mariners have promising young players (who may be better suited for the 2023 playoffs). The Marlins have pitching. None of them can reasonably be expected to fill all the holes in the trade market.
Even if they can get their best players at the deadline, which American League wild card wants to sell farms just to be fed to the New York Yankees in the division series? Which NL teams want to face the New York Mets or Dodgers? The best teams in every league are going 100 wins or more.
Executives often say that the cost of acquiring a player — whether it’s players, cash or both — will never be higher than the cost of a month before the trade deadline. Asking prices are often so high that every deal proposal begs a question: Are you sure you want to do this?
Next to “Do you want it?”, the most relevant question is “do you have to? “Sometimes the answer is no. Take the Cardinals.
Shortstop Paul DeJong, an All-Star in 2019, struggled early in the season and was relegated to Triple-A. They turned to a little-known rookie utility player, Brendan Donovan, who entered the starting lineup with a hit percentage still above .400 two months into his career. San Clemente High and UC Irvine product Andre Palant has never been ranked as a minor league pitcher on any potential list and started the season as a low-leverage pitcher. Palant was forced into the rotation when Cardinals starters Jack Flaherty and Steven Matz were sidelined with injuries. The 23-year-old right-hander posted a 2.57 ERA in five starts in June.
St. Louis could finally get a more mature starting pitcher to boost its playoff hopes. But the Cardinals have been able to earn a wild-card berth, in large part because of the depth of their organization — a formula every executive wants to repeat this time of year.
The best player at the moment might be Cincinnati Reds pitcher Luis Castillo, but that could change in an instant. Some of baseball’s best players (Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout, Juan Soto) play for teams that will almost certainly miss the playoffs. There might be a surprise or two in the next month. Max Scherzer and Trea Turner weren’t traded this time last year, but they finished the season with the Dodgers.
Expanding the playoff field is a tactic that appears to be designed to thwart deadline trades. However, the first deadline under the new system can be busy because the gap between the best and worst teams this season is so stark. Maybe not every year, but this August 2 should be made a day to set an alarm earlier.