Stand Pat or Go for It? What Makes Sense with a One-Game Wild Card?

The deals at the deadline(s) – it’s the cherry on top of the pennant race sundae. Ever since trading became a thing, teams have tried to improve their club in an effort to make the post-season, or win the post-season.

In the past, with the inter-league waiver deadline around June 15th, more teams had a chance at winning the league or division, so there were a flurry of deals then. After that, they could make intra-league deals, but inter-league deals needed waivers. (This lesson in prefixes is free of charge).

That’s why when you look at past transactions, there are a lot of trades on June 15th or so, and then not so many after that between leagues.

Now, with the leagues being no more than artificial scheduling constructs, everyone can trade until July 31 (or August 1st this year, because Sunday isn’t a day for deadlines I guess?). As always, in the past and now, the deadline for post-season eligibility is September 1st.

Most of these deals involve contenders trading away youngsters or prospects to teams out of the race for their veterans who can help them win now.

Every organization sniffing at the playoffs needs to ask themselves, “Should we try to go all in to win now? If so, at what cost?”

My thought is this, the farther away you are from the division lead, it doesn’t make sense to ‘win now’, even if you have a good chance to make the Wild Card.

Why?

The Wild Card is one game. Billy Beane has always said the postseason is “fucking luck,” and he’s mostly right. The one-game playoff is basically a roulette wheel. Depending on how the stars align, you may not have the luxury of starting your top rotation pitchers for that game. There’s always a possibility that if you pitch your ace, he may not ‘have it’. Your relief ace may blow a save. The other team’s starter could pitch the game of his life.

All you need to remember is Ozzie Smith hitting that home run in the NLCS against the Dodgers in 1985. That’s what can happen.

Let’s look at this year’s contenders:

In the AL, there’s no question that Baltimore, Boston, Toronto, Cleveland and Texas should have (and did in many cases) go all in, if they could. It makes sense, they had a nice lead or were close enough to the division lead that one or two key additions, for the right price, could make all of the difference.

As for Detroit? They were on the cusp. They trailed in the division by 4 1/2 games, and have played well over the past two months. They couldn’t be blamed for making a trade, but they do have JD Martinez and Jordan Zimmermann coming back from the DL in the next week, which is like an addition anyway. I think they were smart to stand pat.

Houston probably was fine to stand pat, too. What they need is players like Carlos Garcia, Ken Giles, and company to play to their potential. That’s what they need more than a trade and if they come on strong and make the playoffs they can do some damage if they win that first game. Seattle also was smart to hang on for now, and in fact subtracting Wade Miley may have helped them more than anything. There was talk of a trade for Zack Cozart, but they have a young shortstop in Ketel Marte, and I’d rather have him than Cozart long term.

The Yankees did great in selling. Maybe not what they got in return, but they weren’t going to win with this crew. Strip it down and rebuild.

In the NL, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles should have gone for it, and they probably did try (well, maybe the Nats didn’t try hard enough). Chicago, of course, had the means and opportunity to trade for everything they needed. Miami also was close enough (four games in the division) to make a couple of deals to try to win the division. Grabbing Andrew Cashner was quite smart for them.

The Mets and Cardinals were in a tough spot. The Mets may have had a legitimate reason to make a deal since they have maxed out their health insurance deductible. Jay Bruce and Jonathan Niece didn’t cost them an arm and a leg, but they’re not the type of players that signal a team is ‘all-in.’ They signal a team that needs healthy bodies to hang on. Bruce is having a career year, and if he regresses it may not be pretty, but the price was pretty cheap.

St. Louis was in an interesting spot. They have two trouble spots (second base and center field) that are filled by young players that still have some potential. Their rotation is decent, their bullpen decent, and they made one small deal for a decent reliever (Zach Duke) that will help them contend for the Wild Card. They’re not going to catch the Cubs, and the price to pay for Duke wasn’t high.

As for the Pirates, like the Yankees, selling was the right move. Melancon is a one-inning wonder, and has done great work for Pittsburgh these past few seasons. His contract is up, and he’ll be expensive, and the Pirates could grab a couple of pitchers on the cheap and do just as well.

From my view, there really wasn’t a team buying that shouldn’t have bought. The one long-shot may have been Jay Bruce to the Mets, but that’s justifiable as the cost was low.It made sense as well for the Astros, Cardinals and Tigers to stay with what they have, despite some of their fan base grumbling.

With only a one-game playoff, it makes sense for teams on the cusp of the playoffs to stand pat, or even sell. Wow, baseball execs being smart. Imagine that!

 

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