With two days to go until baseball’s non-waiver trading deadline, and nine and a half weeks until the end of the season, it’s a good time to assess the effect of the second wild-card team on the trade market and the races.
The effect has been: not much.
After a hundred games, there is only a half-game difference between the first and second wild-card spot in the American League, and one game in the National. It’s unlikely that such a small difference has altered anyone’s planning; the buyers and sellers would probably have been the same if there were only one wild card this season.
The moves so far – Zack Greinke to the Angels, Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante to the Tigers, Hanley Ramirez to the Dodgers, Marco Scutaro to the Giants, Wandy Rodriguez to the Pirates, Francisco Liriano to the White Sox, and Ichiro to the Yankees – have all sent players from teams hopelessly out of the playoff chase to teams either leading their divisions or within five games of first.
The Greinke trade is the most interesting from the standpoint of the new structure. The former Brewer gives the Angels a third possible ace in the rotation, along with Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. Los Angeles of Anaheim stands five games behind first-place Texas, and half a game in back of Oakland; if the season ended today, they would face off with the A’s in the American League’s one-game wild-card play-in. No matter how hard they have to fight down the stretch to make the postseason, they’ve got a pretty good chance of starting a top-flight pitcher in the winner-moves-on game.
Over in the National League, the current wild-card matchup would pit Atlanta against Pittsburgh – shades of Sid Bream! - the same teams that met in the NLCS 20 years ago, the last time the Pirates finished above .500. Besides the division leaders, only the Cardinals – shades of 2011! – and the West Division runner-up (SF or LA) have a realistic chance of getting to the expanded playoffs. (The next-closest team, Arizona, is 6 1/2 games out of the second wild-card spot.)
None of this means that the second wild card is much ado about nothing. The Angels and A’s could tighten things with Texas into a true three-team race. Detroit is only a game and a half behind the White Sox in their division, as well as a game behind the Angels for the second wild-card.
In each of these races, along with Pittsburgh-Cincinnati and Washington-Atlanta, there will be incentive to battle all the way down to the wire. The wild card has served as a fall-back position for division leaders since it was introduced in 1995; with your playoff life on the line in a single-elimination game, it is now less like a safety net and more like a walk on the high wire itself.
There will probably be more deals in the next two days; Josh Johnson, Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Shane Victorino are still being shopped, though James Shields is unlikely to go anywhere with Tampa Bay only two games behind the Angels. Further moves utilizing the waiver wire are possible in August and September.
The playoff expansion has likely had little effect on the state of the market this season. Thanks to the change, however, there is a greater likelihood of meaningful games in September, and there will be two win-or-go-home games for sure in early October.
As long as the play-in remains a single game, the second wild-card heightens the potential for regular-season drama. It’s the unreasonableness of the one-game format that makes it all work. Stay tuned.