Wide open playoff picture calming Deadline swell
Balance, extra Wild Card spots keeps more clubs from moving tide-turning pieces
MINNEAPOLIS -- Baseball's ceremonial second half will begin with 19 of 30 teams within just five games of a postseason spot -- and 14 of those 19 are within at least five games of leading their division.
Six more clubs are within at least eight games of their division lead or the second Wild Card.
This has inspired many a narrative about the game's competitive balance and general unpredictability. And these are good things, of course.
"It's our job to provide hope and faith," Commissioner Bud Selig said before Tuesday's All-Star Game, "and have the system where teams can compete."
But when the discussion centers around the upcoming non-waiver Trade Deadline, now just two weeks away, the narrative that matters most is how this cluster of competitive clubs has made the swapping season increasingly tame.
While we don't suggest reading too much into small samples, the run-up to the Deadline in the first year of the expanded postseason format fit that particular narrative perfectly.
In 2012, our MLB.com Trade Deadline roundup page counted 20 "notable deals" in the summer lead-up to the 2012 Deadline, beginning with a June 26 swap that sent Kevin Youkilis to Chicago and concluding with six trades of significance on July 31 itself.
Last year, we counted only 15 notable deals, beginning with the July 2 Dodgers' acquisition of Carlos Marmol and concluding with just three significant deals on Deadline day.
Again, maybe that's not worth reading much into. Perhaps some of the early action in this Deadline season -- the Angels and Pirates swapping struggling closers Jason Grilli and Ernesto Frieri, the Halos also adding Joe Thatcher, the Yankees bringing Brandon McCarthy and Jeff Francis aboard and, most importantly, that megadeal the A's made for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel -- are just the beginning of a busy month.
But many in the industry have their doubts.
General managers have bemoaned the lack of worthwhile bats available at a time when offense is down across the league. There are many eyes on veterans like Chase Utley, Marlon Byrd and Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies, and the White Sox Adam Dunn is an interesting option for some platoon power.
But if you watched Giancarlo Stanton hit that projected 510-foot blast to the third deck at Target Field in the Gillette Home Run Derby and salivated over what he'd look like in the middle of your favorite club's lineup, you can pretty much forget it.
And the impact pitching market is still somewhat of a mystery, too. Maybe the Rays will deal David Price, and maybe Cliff Lee will prove healthy and effective enough to be dealt by month's end. But neither move is a given.
The less-heralded likes of Ian Kennedy, Jorge De La Rosa or Wade Miley are other, potentially effective possibilities to be moved, but they're obviously not blockbuster-type names.
"I think it's been like this, really, for a while," Tigers president, CEO and general manager Dave Dombrowski said recently. "You might need to fine-tune, but, overall, don't look for a lot of help at the Trade Deadline, because it's not going to be available. And don't look for any help after the Deadline, because so many players get claimed [and, ergo, blocked from contenders]."
It's not just the Wild Card that has impacted the Deadline dealing. Savvier front offices have done a fine job of locking up young talent, and an influx of national television revenue has, in many cases, lessened the need to move players for the sheer sake of moving money. That's a big factor.
But that extra playoff spot has definitely impacted things in a big way, too, because it's put more teams in the hunt and out of the sellers' market.
"Makes you wonder if down the road they'll move that Trade Deadline back because of the extra Wild Card," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.
Yes, it does, although that's an idea that has come up among GMs many times before, without any real traction.
So if you're particularly in-tune with the transaction wire, the Wild Card's effect on the Trade Deadline is probably a bit of a bummer. The Trade Deadline just isn't as crazy as it once was.
But the extra Wild Cards have achieved their more important purpose, which is to inspire a sense of urgency down the stretch. As much as clubs want to get to October, they'd certainly much prefer to arrive rested and with room for error in a five-game Division Series, as opposed to a single-elimination Wild Card round.
"Last year, we played ourselves into the Wild Card," said Indians manager Terry Francona. "As exciting as that is, one day later you go home mad. There are a lot of rollercoasters to it."
With almost two-thirds of teams within spitting distance of a playoff spot, the rollercoaster still has plenty of twists and turns to come in the second half. Just don't count on a ton of trades.