Now that the draft is over, Major League teams can start reallocating their time to upgrading their Major League roster again, which is why mid-June is generally the beginning of the summer trading season. With two months of the season behind us, teams are beginning to get a better feel for the strengths and weaknesses of their clubs, and are formulating a plan for whether they’ll be upgrading for a playoff race or shedding veterans to shift value from the present to the future.
However, this year, the expanded playoff system adds a bit of a wrinkle to the buy/sell/hold decision making process. With a second wild card available, the barrier to entry for the “playoffs” (if we consider the one-game play-in a playoff game) has been significantly lowered, and now teams that think they’ll finish with ~88 or so wins (or a .543 winning percentage) can consider themselves to have a legitimate chance at playing postseason baseball. Right now, there are 12 teams playing at a clip that would see them win at least 88 games – Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Cincinnati are all on pace to win exactly 88 games, actually – and another four teams that are within two games back of that point, so they’re just barely off the necessary pace.
In addition, there are five teams that are hanging around .500 who each have reason to believe that they’ll play better in the second half (Boston, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Milwaukee) than they have to date, which brings us up to 21 teams that could theoretically talk themselves into being contenders at this point in the season. There’s little question that the addition of the second wild card is going to motivate some teams that would have been sellers to hang onto their talent, and probably shift a few teams that would have stood pat firmly into the buying category. The result will be more buyers and fewer sellers, which should create some interesting competition for the veterans who actually are put on the trade market.
That’s why, I suspect, the summer buying season may get started even earlier than usual this year. With teams anticipating this kind of structural change, there’s significant risk to waiting until late July to try and make your upgrades, as it’s quite possible that there just won’t be much left at the deadline. A team that is aggressive in pursuing an upgrade in June could not only rent a veteran for a longer period of time, but potentially end up with a better player than they could acquire than if they waited until the last week of July.
The trade-off to making a move sooner rather than waiting another month is that teams are working with a smaller pool of information now than they’ll have by waiting. For instance, the Pirates are currently tied for first place, but should they really believe they’re contenders given their status as one of the worst offensive teams of all time? Another month of baseball will bring more clarity to their ability to stay in the race all year, and for a team like that, that information could be the difference between being a buyer or not. For other teams, though, they have more than enough information to know what path they’re going to take — for instance, no matter what happens over the next month, there’s no real scenario where the Rangers will be sellers. They can buy now without worrying that they may learn something about their team over the next four to six weeks that would have caused them to make a different decision.
So, given what we know today, which teams should be willing to enter into buy or sell mode in June, and which teams should wait for more information before they make any big decisions? Let’s take a look at all the buckets and see who fits where.
Los Angeles Dodgers: 39-22, +51
Washington Nationals: 35-23, +33
Tampa Bay Rays: 35-25, +27
Texas Rangers: 35-26, +71
New York Yankees: 34-25, +40
Chicago White Sox: 33-27, +35
This group consists of five of the six current division leaders and the Yankees, so these are the half dozen teams that I’d imagine have little to no chance of falling out of the race in the next month and a half. In the case of both the White Sox and Nationals, I’d actually argue that both have enough glaring weaknesses that buying sooner than later might make a legitimate difference in the final standings, given the small margins that should be expected to decide the difference between the division winner and the wild card. Even if the Nationals feel that their strong start puts them on solid foundation for a playoff spot, the difference between winning the NL East and finishing second is pretty significant, and they should be willing to buy earlier than usual in an effort to add even an extra half a win – that could be the difference between ending up in the play-in game or not.
San Diego Padres: 20-41, -70
Chicago Cubs: 20-40, -53
Colorado Rockies: 24-35, -33
Minnesota Twins: 24-35, -67
Kansas City Royals: 24-34, -30
Oakland Athletics: 26-35, -27
Houston Astros: 26-34, -28
Seattle Mariners: 27-35, -12
These are the eight teams who really have no chance of making the playoffs this year. The Astros are the only team within eight games of the division lead, and that’s only because the NL Central has been the land of mediocrity this year. In each case, these eight teams are the ones who can confidently move veteran talent now knowing that they’re not throwing up the white flag, and could easily sell rebuilding-style moves to their fan base as in the best interest of the franchise. For the teams that are expecting to make acquisitions this summer, these are the eight teams that should be heavily scouted, as you can pretty much guarantee that each of these franchises will be auctioning off talent at some point in the next six weeks.
With 14 teams definitively in the buyer or seller category, that leaves over half the league in a holding pattern. However, we can break those 16 teams down into likelihood of buying or selling, and while all of the teams below need to prepare for the possibility of either path depending on how they play over the next month, there are some teams that are more likely to go one way than the other.
Atlanta Braves: 34-26, +31
San Francisco Giants: 34-27, +5
Cincinnati Reds: 32-27, +16
Cleveland Indians: 32-27, -16
Anaheim Angels: 32-29, +21
Toronto Blue Jays: 31-29, +33
St. Louis Cardinals: 31-31, +55
Arizona Diamondbacks: 30-30, +3
Boston Red Sox: 29-31, +20
Detroit Tigers: 28-32, -16
With the exception of perhaps the Indians and Blue Jays, these teams all began the year with strong playoff aspirations, and since they entered the season in win-now mode, they’re unlikely to shift gears based on what has happened to date. The Tigers struggles have opened the door for Cleveland to make a run at the AL Central division, while the Blue Jays have played well enough to give them a chance in the highly competitive AL East. It’s hard to see any of these 10 teams deciding to just sell off talent in July, but they’re also all vulnerable to a significant slump that could cause them to stay in the holder category all year long. You can sum up these teams position by saying that they’re probably buyers, probably not sellers, but could end up as neither depending on how they play over their next 30 to 40 games.
Baltimore Orioles: 34-26, -4
Pittsburgh Pirates: 32-27, -19
New York Mets: 32-29, -19
Miami Marlins: 31-29, -28
Philadelphia Phillies: 29-33, -1
Milwaukee Brewers: 28-32, -20
These six teams are all close enough to playoff contention – or expected to be contenders this year – that it is difficult to see them making the transition to full on sellers. While the Orioles, Pirates, and Mets are probably playing over their heads at the moment, they’ve also put themselves in a position where selling might be tough to justify given the existence of the second wild card. Even if they expect regression, it’s probably worth keeping their teams in tact in order to see if they can sneak into the playoffs and reenergize their fan base with October baseball. For the Phillies, Marlins, and Brewers, they aren’t bad enough or far enough out of the race to think that they can’t come back from their current positions, and their rosters suggest that they should be interested in trying to win this year.
The Brewers and Phillies are probably in the most interesting situations, given their talented free-agents-to-be, and if there’s going to be a significant late July market, it might be due to teams waiting to see if Zack Greinke or Cole Hamels do eventually become available. However, if you’re one of the six teams that look to be clearly buyers at this point, you may find it beneficial to make a move for one of the players off the seller’s roster sooner than later. Once some of those 10 teams in the “likely buyers” category start gaining confidence in their ability to contend, the demand for talent is only going to get stronger, and it’s hard to see too many teams currently in the mix moving into the seller category.
The eight franchises who can be sellers probably won’t be joined by more than one or two others, so we’re looking at having 10 or fewer sellers in the market this year. It’s almost certainly going to be a seller’s market, so getting in early may prove to be the best strategy for a team looking to add talent. You might have to pay what looks to be a bit of a premium to be the first buyer in the market, but once July rolls around and there are twice as many buyers as sellers, price could rise quickly. For a team like the Nationals or Dodgers who could use some help to maintain their current place in the standings, a June acquisition is probably the way to go.