Why Aren’t There More Sellers This Year?

Major League Baseball should consider moving the non-waiver trade deadline to August 10 or August 15, Jon Morosi of FOX Sports tweets. The current trade market has many potential buyers and not many clear sellers, and the idea is that, by extending the trading period an extra two weeks, there will be greater clarity about which teams are out of the playoff hunt.

Whether or not Morosi's suggestion is the right idea, it does seem to be a response to a real phenomenon. At least three GMs of contending teams (the Cardinals' John Mozeliak, the Tigers' Dave Dombrowski, and the Indians' Chris Antonetti) have recently said that this year's market includes few sellers.

It's undoubtedly true that, if the deadline were extended, teams would have more information to make a decision about whether to buy or sell. But this year, at least, many teams appear to be basing their trade deadline behavior not on their realistic probability of making the playoffs, but on other factors.

There are five playoff spots for each league. According to Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds Report, four National League teams (the Cardinals, Braves, Pirates and Reds) have better than a 90% chance of making the playoffs, while the Dodgers have an 85.5% chance. The only other team above 10% is the Diamondbacks.

In the American League, four teams (the Rays, Tigers, Red Sox and Athletics) have at least a 90% chance of making the playoffs. Four other teams (the Rangers, Orioles, Indians and Yankees) have at least a 10% chance.

That makes 14 teams with a realistic shot at the playoffs, and 16 teams who are out of the race completely or would need to go on a serious tear to get back in it. And yet it's not as if there are 16 sellers. The Nationals (7.4%), Rockies (1.9%), Royals (1.8%), Mariners (0.5%), Mets (0.4%), and Blue Jays (0.2%) show few indications of becoming sellers in the traditional sense, while the Angels (1.4%), Giants (0.9%) and Phillies (0.8%) seem to be only now opening themselves to that possibility.

So why is the market so slow? Here are a few reasons.

  • There are fewer players to deal. Mozeliak pointed out yesterday that as more young players sign long-term contracts, there are simply fewer talented players approaching free agency, and therefore fewer interesting players to trade. 
  • There are two Wild Cards now. The second Wild Card currently has no impact on the number of contenders in the National League — the Pirates and Reds have fairly strong grips on the two Wild Card spots, and both would be contenders even if there were only one Wild Card. In the American League, though, the Yankees would be 7 1/2 games out of the playoff race if it weren't for the second Wild Card, and the Rangers and Orioles probably wouldn't feel particularly good about their playoff chances, either. That might not change the number of sellers, but it would at least reduce the number of buyers.
  • Players traded at midseason no longer come with draft-pick compensation. Teams used to be able to receive compensatory draft picks for players they acquired in midseason trades. Now, such players are not eligible to receive qualifying offers, so the teams that acquire them lose out on that extra bit of value.
  • Buyers are increasingly reluctant to overpay. Many of this year's buyers are teams that must depend on their own young talent to contend. The Rays, for example, tend not to be big players at the trade deadline, because it's usually not in their interest to give up on prospects (and perhaps also because of financial reasons). The same can be said, this year, of at least the Pirates and Athletics. And even beyond the fact that this year's crop of contenders includes several small-payroll teams, most organizations are increasingly aware of the quantitative value of the moves they make, and midseason trades generally tend not to create many extra wins, as ESPN's Mike Petriello recently pointed out (Insider-only). Zack Greinke produced 1.4 WAR down the stretch for the Angels in 2012, and didn't pitch in a single postseason game for them — and the Angels gave up Jean Segura to get him. That's an outcome that should terrify contending teams.
  • Bad teams simply have few players to trade. Teams that have poor records tend not to have many players performing well. This is true every year, of course, but this year, two teams that have shown a willingness to sell veterans and rebuild — the Marlins and Astros — have already largely done so, and have few talented veterans left to offer.
  • This isn't fantasy baseball. As ESPN's Buster Olney recently pointed out (Insider-only), becoming a seller essentially means telling your fans the season is over. A team's baseball interests might dictate that it should sell, but its business interests might dictate otherwise. This year, this idea might apply to the Phillies (who have an aging core), Royals (who are currently .500, and who have had one winning season in the past 19 years), Blue Jays (who invested heavily in the 2013 season last winter) and Mets (who are planning to dramatically raise their payroll next year).

For some teams, several of these factors are in play. For example, Jeff Sullivan of U.S.S. Mariner recently showed that the Mariners, who are 50-55, simply aren't likely to improve themselves much at the deadline. Most of their better players, like Kyle Seager and Felix Hernandez, are younger (and Hernandez, after signing an extension, is under team control for the foreseeable future). Of their veterans, Kendrys Morales isn't a great fit for most of the playoff contenders, Raul Ibanez is a 41-year-old defensive liability, Michael Morse is also poor defensively and hasn't played since June (although he's about to return), and the M's have Hisashi Iwakuma signed to a cheap contract through 2015. The result is that they don't have many players other teams would want and that they should be motivated to deal. There's reliever Oliver Perez and perhaps Morse, and that's about it. If the Mariners were to go on a trading spree, they likely would not get much back in return, and so it may, in fact, be better for them to mostly sit tight, even though they aren't contending, and allow their fans to enjoy the last two months of the season.

The result of the current market is that there are only a handful of teams who are motivated to sell, and those don't have much a contender would be motivated to buy, particularly now that the Cubs have already completed several trades. Whether or not this is a problem that ought to be fixed is debatable, but let's assume that it is. Moving the deadline to mid-August might increase trade activity to a degree, but not primarily because the playoff races will be clearer by then. Rather, it's because the baseball-vs.-business problem Olney mentions will be less of an issue. From a business perspective, it's easier for a team to throw in the towel with six weeks left in the season than with eight weeks left. Moving the deadline to August would help teams on the fringes of contention maintain fan interest for two more weeks of the summer, allowing them to trade off their popular veterans for young talent in August, right before the start of the football season. Regardless of the exact date of the deadline, though, the number of teams that look, on paper, like sellers will probably be larger than the number of teams that are actually motivated to sell.

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