As play resumes following the All-Star break, there were eight American League teams within 1 1⁄2 games of a playoff spot, and two more — the Angels and White Sox within 6.0 and 6 1⁄2 games, respectively. In the National League, 13 of 15 teams were within 4 1⁄2 games of the second Wild Card position. That’s a total of 23 of 30 MLB teams who have a shot at making the playoffs as the July 31 trade deadline approaches.
Does that mean that there will be 23 buyers as the deadline draws near? Not quite. Each of the three AL division leaders holds a 6 1⁄2 game lead over the second place teams, while the Dodgers have a 12 1⁄2 game lead in the NL West. The Atlanta Braves are also 5 1⁄2 games up in the NL East. Only the National League’s Central division has a tight contest for first place at the moment, although things can change.
The last thing that fans want to see is their team waiving a white flag and throwing in the towel with two months left in the season, especially when they are within striking distance of a playoff spot. But that Wild Card berth isn’t what it used to be. The one-game elimination game is now merely a play-in game. It’s a 50-50 shot at playing real playoff baseball. General managers are sometimes reluctant to sell good prospects to make a push for the wild card game.
Teams who find themselves fading from their division race but still within striking distance of a playoff spot may want to take a cautious approach. They might be interested in players like Matthew Boyd or Shane Greene, who are under team control after this season, rather than a rental player like Nicholas Castellanos who will become a free agent at season’s end. That way, if they give up prospects and come up short of a playoff spot, all is not lost and their trade acquisition can help out next season. Or, those teams may add a rental player if the cost in prospects is not too high.
This season is different in that the July 31 trade deadline is the only trade deadline on the calendar. There is no period of special waivers in August, during which players such as Justin Verlander were once traded with a month remaining in the season. Teams don’t have the luxury of taking a “wait and see” approach at the deadline. It’s do-or-die time for any club that wants to add players to make a playoff push.
Let’s take a look at where these teams stand, and whether they might be buyers or sellers over the next two weeks.
Tier 1: Division leaders (7)
These clubs are buyers. They should not hesitate to strike while the opportunity is there to win. They should sell prospects if they can land a difference maker. The future is here.
We’ll add the Milwaukee Brewers (-1.5 games back in the division, -0.5 games back in the Wild Card) to this group as well.
Tier 2: Contenders (8)
These clubs are right in the thick of the race, with a shot at a division title and a better shot at a playoff spot. They should be cautious buyers. Don’t sell the farm unless they’re convinced that they are getting a player who will give them a big push, preferably for more than just this season.
Tampa Bay Rays (-6.5 games behind in the division, +1.0 games ahead in the Wild Card)
Cleveland Indians (-6.5 games behind in the division, currently holding the second Wild Card spot)
St. Louis Cardinals (-3.0 GB in division, -2.0 GB in NL Wild Card)
Boston Red Sox (-9.0 GB in division, -1.0 GB in Wild Card)
Pittsburgh Pirates (-3.5 GB in division, -2.5 GB in Wild Card)
Cincinnati Reds (-5.5 GB in division, -5.5 GB in Wild Card)
Washington Nationals (-5.5 GB in division, +1.5 games ahead in NL Wild Card)
Philadelphia Phillies (-7.0 division, currently holding the second NL Wild Card spot)
Tier 3: Wild card contenders (5)
These teams all reside in the Western divisions of their respective leagues. The Dodgers are way ahead of the pack in the National League and the Astros are pretty clearly better than their competition in the American League, and they will likely be adding as well. Oakland and Texas have had nice seasons, and can earn a playoff spot, but with a less-than-even shot at getting into the division series. Pythagorean expected records show that Arizona (+55 runs) has been a good bit better than San Diego (-35 runs) despite just a one game difference in the standings. These clubs should proceed with caution.
Tier 4: Pretenders (3)
These teams are not really contenders upon closer inspection. They are all under .500, and because they reside in larger markets, they may be tempted to make a run at a big prize, but the division is out of reach this season, so they should smell the roses and try to profit from what could be a seller’s market. [Ed.: The White Sox should definitely sell off prospects and buy, though. Like, all of them.]
San Francisco Giants (-4.5 GB in Wild Card)
Los Angeles Angels (-6.0 GB)
Chicago White Sox (-6.5 GB)
Tier 5: Sellers (7)
There’s nothing to see here for the rest of the season. The trade deadline might be the most exciting event remaining on the calendar for fans of these clubs. They will want to sell any player(s) who will be free agents after this season, and take offers for players with years of club control remaining.
The list of sellers includes seven teams who are at least 19 games behind their division leader, and well out of any Wild Card consideration as well. The Los Angeles Angels are six games out of a wild card spot, but are in fourth place, 11 1⁄2 games out of first. The White Sox are 13 games out of first. They would have to leapfrog three other teams for that second wild card birth.
Of the 13 NL teams within reach of a playoff spot, just seven were within seven games of their division leader. Four of those are in the Central division, where the Reds are in last place, 5 1⁄2 games out; they have already announced that they will be buying this month.
Four teams in the NL West division were 12 1⁄2 to 16 1⁄2 games behind the first place Dodgers, but three are within 2 1⁄2 games of a playoff spot. Even the last place San Francisco Giants, who were rumored to be selling Madison Bumgarner and closer Will Smith, are just 4 1⁄2 games from a Wild Card spot.
There should be at least 10 teams willing to sell this season, which accounts for one-third of the teams in the game. Roughly another third should be cautious buyers and another third should be aggressive buyers, doing what they can to win while they have the chance. It won’t shake out exactly like that (it never does), but all signs point to a relatively healthy seller’s market this season, especially for teams willing to deal players with more seasons of club control remaining.