Is your favorite baseball team looking for a top-of-the-line starting pitcher for the remainder of this season? Or how about another relief pitcher who is a bit more reliable than what you’ve currently got? Or maybe a corner outfielder with a bit of pop in his bat? If so, this is the time to go shopping.
Every year, as the All-Star break approaches, general managers around the league are on the phone to their colleagues, checking out the landscape to see what players might be available that could push their clubs over the top and hopefully into the postseason. They first tend to look toward teams who are fading from the playoff picture, and at players who are due to become free agents at the end of the season.
The reason this activity takes place in July is the trade deadline. Actually, the July 31 deadline is properly referred to as "the non-waiver trade deadline." That is, any team can trade any major league player to any team, unless there are no trade rights involved, without having to put that player through waivers first. Beginning Aug. 1, a major league player has to clear waivers before he can be traded to another team.
General managers may not find their options as attractive as they did a few seasons ago. For one thing, the playoffs are now expanded to include a second wildcard team in each league. That should turn more clubs into buyers at the deadline, and fewer clubs willing to run the white flag up on their season so soon. It’s not just the one extra team who may make the playoffs, but every team that might be able to claim that last spot — the spot that gives them the right to play a one game playoff. Anytime demand is increased and supply is decreased, prices are on the rise.
In addition to the expanded playoffs turning sellers into buyers — or at least into non-sellers — there is the increased value that is placed on a supplemental first-round draft pick, which is the compensation that a team receives if they make a qualifying offer to a departing free agent player.
It used to be the case that, when a top free agent was traded in July, his new team could make him an offer at the end of the season and receive a draft pick the following June if the player declined. Not any more. When the Tigers acquired Anibal Sanchez from Miami, for example, they were not eligible to make a qualifying offer and be compensated. Miami, though, still lost the compensation that they would surely have received if they kept Sanchez and made the offer at season’s end. So the Marlins wanted more for a player who was worth less to his new team.
Far fewer compensation picks are available nowadays. In the two off seasons that have passed since the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) was signed, relatively few players have received a qualifying offer, and every one of them declined the offer, in hopes of signing a multi-year contract for more money. In each case, when a player moves to a new club, his former team receives a supplemental first round draft pick.
For reference purposes, a couple of recent supplemental first-round picks include Nick Castellanos and Cory Knebel. Those supplemental picks are worth more than they used to be. Under the terms of the previous CBA, there were about 30 supplemental first-round selections, since there were more compensation picks being given out to teams that lost free agents. Today, it’s only the elite free agents that receive a qualifying offer of more than $14 million. Those added picks now fall in what would be the late first round, or within a few slots of the first round.
What all this translates to for a buyer at the trade deadline, is that they need to start the bidding at or above the value of a supplemental first-round draft pick when they make an offer on an elite player who will be a free agent at the end of the season. They’ll have to give up first-round value for a rental player. That makes it more difficult to acquire some of the most attractive trade targets at the trade deadline.
The Tigers will surely be buyers at the trade deadline this season. They are virtually certain to make qualifying offers to Max Scherzer and Victor Martinez, and they’ll receive supplemental first-round draft picks if they should leave as free agents. But those guys aren’t going anywhere just yet. Rather, the Tigers will be looking to add pieces to their bullpen or their lineup for the stretch run. While it would be nice to add players who could contribute both in the short term and the long term, the clubs that might be selling such players will be asking for a premium under present market conditions.
The passing of the trade deadline isn’t the end of the world. A team can still acquire players after Aug. 1 if they make the right waiver claim, or if the player clears waivers. But those players tend to be veterans with contracts that their current clubs would like to unload. Aubrey Huff and Delmon Young are a couple of players that the Tigers were able to get in August. But if you’re looking for a Huston Street or Joaquin Benoit, better make arrangements before the clock strikes midnight on July 31.