Buyers and Sellers Based on Playoff Odds

The decision to buy or sell at the July 31st trade deadline has become more complicated with the addition of a second wild card. Two extra teams now play one post-season game, and the lure of that opportunity combined with the “anything can happen in October” mindset means that teams are reluctant to punt a season that isn’t already dead in the water.

However, with three days left until trades require passing through waivers, the line of demarcation between contender and pretender has been pretty clearly drawn. Here are Cool Standings’ playoff odds for each team in Major League Baseball:

American DIV WC POFF
St. Louis 64.4 34.3 98.7
Atlanta 97.1 0.8 97.9
Pittsburgh 24.2 68.8 93.0
Boston 50.2 41.2 91.4
Oakland 86.2 4.8 90.9
Detroit 79.3 10.5 89.7
Tampa Bay 42.5 46.5 89.0
Cincinnati 11.4 74.6 86.0
Los Angeles 63.4 3.6 67.0
Cleveland 17.7 27.4 45.0
Baltimore 6.0 33.7 39.8
Arizona 28.3 5.3 33.5
Texas 12.7 15.3 28.0
New York Yankees 1.3 11.9 13.2
Kansas City 3.0 5.7 8.7
Washington 2.2 5.9 8.1
Colorado 6.4 1.6 8.0
Chicago Cubs 0.1 2.8 2.8
Anaheim 0.8 1.7 2.5
New York Mets 0.3 1.4 1.7
San Diego 1.0 0.3 1.3
San Francisco 0.9 0.1 1.0
Philadelphia 0.3 0.6 0.9
Seattle 0.3 0.6 0.8
Toronto 0.1 0.6 0.6
Minnesota 0.1 0.2 0.2
Chicago White Sox 0.1 0.1 0.1
Milwaukee 0.0 0.1 0.1
Miami 0.1 0.1 0.1
Houston 0.0 0.0 0.0

There are nine clear buyers, each with at least a 67% chance of reaching the post-season based on Cool Standings data — which, it should be noted, isn’t perfect, but even systems taking forecasts and depth charts into account aren’t going to produce numbers that are much different — and a strong enough roster to believe that their current place in the standings is sustainable. For the top nine clubs listed there, anything short of a playoff berth will be considered a disappointment. They’re good teams in prime position to play in October, and most of them have pretty good shots at winning their division, which is now of even greater importance given the two wild card system.

After the Big Nine, there’s a bit of a gray area. The Indians and Orioles have solid enough playoff odds to justify making a run, but in both cases, those are heavily skewed towards the wild card side of the ledger, and the wild card is a bit of a trap. Giving up significant future talent for the right to play a single elimination game, and then enter the division series at a significant disadvantage even if you do win, is probably not worth it. If you just sort by division odds instead of playoff odds, then the Orioles have about the same chance as the Rockies, which shows that their position is a little more complicated.

The Rangers, Diamondbacks, and Yankees are also in the gray area, where you could justify both buying and standing pat. Arizona should probably be the most aggressive of the three, given that nearly all of their chances of making the playoffs come from winning the NL West, and thus would result in an automatic entry into the division series. The Yankees have a minimal chance of winning the NL East but could still capture a Wild Card spot, but again, how much future value should a team give up for the right to play a win-or-go-home game?

From the bubble group, I’d suggest that Arizona, Cleveland, and Texas act as buyers, while Baltimore and New York should probably not mortgage their futures even though they are realistic wild card contenders. If we add the Diamondbacks, Indians, and Rangers to the Big Nine, then you have 12 buyers, six in each league. Everyone else, realistically, should be at least entertaining offers for their free-agents-to-be, and in many cases, should probably be even more aggressive than that.

It’s become en vogue for mediocre teams to put some value on “finishing strong”, but realistically, the 16 teams with playoff odds of less than 10% should be focused on 2014 and beyond. It’s one thing to not trade young players under team control at good prices, or players you’re planning on making a qualifying offer to in hopes of retaining at a discounted price, but if the Royals think they’re actually going to make a run at the postseason this year, they’re misreading their position. The Nationals have gone from pre-season favorite to disappointing should-be-seller. The Rockies, Mariners, Angels, and Padres might have their eyes on contending next season, but each has pieces that they could move to improve their odds of doing so, and should be looking to take advantage of a seller’s market.

Right now, by most reports, there are still only a few teams willing to move players for prospects. There’s an opportunity here for teams that aren’t going anywhere in 2013 to take advantage of the supply shortage and make good deals that help them more than hanging on to their veterans will. It looks like the next three days might be a race to see which of the non-contenders decides to prioritize meaningful future wins over the ability to sell a fan base on a third place finish.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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