We're now two weeks removed from a quiet July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. As it became clear that there wasn't going to be much activity, many commentators suggested that the second Wild Card was to blame. A few writers, including FOX Sports' Jon Morosi, proposed that MLB move its non-waiver deadline, perhaps to August 10 or August 15.
Of course, it may be that quiet trading deadlines aren't a bad thing, and therefore aren't a problem that needs to be solved. Maybe it's better for the game if non-contending teams act like they care for the entire year, not just through July. Maybe we don't want guns-for-hire changing teams right before the home stretch, rendering successful teams unfamiliar and unsuccessful teams irrelevant. Perhaps what happened this year is just fine.
Now that August 15 has come and gone, though, it's worth revisiting Morosi's suggestion. What we find is that it's far from clear that the second Wild Card had any more than a minor impact this year, and that it's unlikely that moving the non-waiver deadline would have had much of an effect on this year's lack of activity.
Here are the standings as of July 31. In the National League, the Braves, Pirates and Dodgers led their respective divisions, just as they do now. The Cardinals and Reds remained safely ahead of all other teams in the Wild Card race, just as they are now. And the only other team with a significant shot at the playoffs was the Diamondbacks. That's still the case.
In the American League, the Red Sox and Tigers led their divisions and still hold those positions. In the AL West, the Athletics and Rangers have switched positions, but both remain in strong contention for playoff spots. The Rays remain in line for a Wild card spot, just as they did two weeks ago. The Orioles and Indians remain on the fringes of the Wild Card race, and the Yankees aren't any further out of it now than they were then. And despite their much-ballyhooed surge, the Royals are now 5.5 games out of the last playoff spot, only a half a game closer than they were two weeks ago.
In other words, in the last two weeks, there have been few changes in the playoff picture that would suggest a large impact on teams' willingness to trade. Also, the second Wild Card doesn't appear to be much of a factor — it didn't matter much at the deadline, and it wouldn't have if the deadline had been August 15. Since no team is currently running away with the top Wild Card spot in either league, and no team was running away with either of those spots as of July 31, it's hard to imagine the extra Wild Card had much impact on teams' thinking, particularly given that many of the outside-looking-in teams, both then and now, were or are in the running for division titles as well as Wild Card berths. A one-Wild-Card playoff system would have altered the playoff hopes of the Orioles, Rangers, Yankees and Indians to varying degrees at different times, but probably not enough to make any of them sellers, and it would have had virtually no impact on teams' playoff chances in the National League.
This isn't to say that Morosi's proposal was a bad one. It's possible that, in some future season, the second Wild Card really will cloud the playoff picture, and a later deadline really might provide clarity. But those things did not, or would not have, mattered much this season.
So what was the real explanation for the lack of activity at the deadline this year? Shortly before the deadline, MLBTR outlined some reasons why sellers weren't motivated, including the proliferation of long-term contracts for young players and changes to rules governing compensation draft picks. Perhaps the most compelling, though, is that, for business reasons, it didn't make much sense for some non-contenders to give up on their seasons, particularly when the likely reward for trading was minimal.
The Phillies provide a good case study. In prior seasons, a team like the Phils might have sold, but this year, they didn't. In the past few weeks, the Phillies have attempted to make a splash, signing Chase Utley to an extension and reaching a deal with Cuban righty Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez (an agreement that now appears to be in jeopardy). The merit of the Phillies' decision to hold on to their players is, perhaps, somewhat debatable, but based on their trade chips' contracts (Cliff Lee, Jimmy Rollins, Jonathan Papelbon) or performance (Michael Young, Carlos Ruiz) or both, it would have been hard for the Phillies to get much in return. If you're a big-market team with lots of money, there isn't that much value in trading veterans for prospects who might top out as average players.That's especially true if, as in the cases of Lee, Rollins and Utley, the players you have to offer are big-name stars.
The Phillies' situation typified much of what happened at the trade deadline this year. The issue was that they were a big-market team given the unappetizing choice of trading big-name players for what would amount to very little.
Throughout baseball, teams merely shrugged at the deadline, not because of playoff races, but because being active really didn't benefit them. Two of the Giants' main trade chips, for example, were Tim Lincecum and Hunter Pence. Both those players are candidates to receive qualifying offers after the season, but they would lose that staus if they were traded. And so the Giants, who won the World Series last year and stood to benefit, from a P.R. perspective, from basking in its glow as long as possible, stood pat.
The Mariners, too, might have been sellers, but most of their tradable veterans (Kendrys Morales, Mike Morse, Raul Ibanez) had little defensive value and didn't fit well with other contenders. So, with little to gain from trading, they too stood pat. The Royals should benefit from pursuing their first winning season since 2003, and so they actively became buyers despite their playoff chances at the deadline being dubious at best.
Since the non-waiver deadline, there have been several trades, the highest-profile of which was the Rangers' deal for Alex Rios. But buyers have been remained circumspect, as shown in Jeff Todd's list of players who have cleared waivers. The list includes players like Dan Haren, Justin Morneau and Matt Lindstrom, who are in the last years of their contracts and would appear to offer at least some chance of helping a contender down the stretch. Haren and Morneau aren't nearly the players they once were, but to claim them and assume the remainder of their contracts would only have cost contending teams only a few million dollars per player. No team bit. That Lindstrom passed through waivers might be even more surprising, since he's owed less than $1MM for the rest of the year, plus a $500K buyout. While he isn't having his best year, he's a perfectly functional big-league reliever who gets ground balls and throws in the mid-90s. And yet no one wanted him.
So what's going on here? This year, teams that traditionally would have been sellers had other priorities — keeping the team together, pursuing a winning season, and so on. Teams that traditionally might be buyers were circumspect, guarding their prospects and, in some cases, their wallets. Maybe the conditions that shape the market will change next year. Having so many bigger-market teams, like the Phillies, Giants, Mets and Mariners, out of the running probably didn't help this season, for example. But the second Wild Card wasn't much of a factor in 2013, and moving the deadline to mid-August probably wouldn't have changed much, either. It doesn't matter when you schedule the dance if no one wants to go.