Wild Cards making trade decisions more difficult
Additional postseason berths challenging teams in choosing whether to buy or sell
It can't possibly be easy to be a general manager this time of year, especially with the way the expanded postseason has added a layer of uncertainty to the standings situation.
Not that all of us necessarily feel sorry for these guys.
"You know what?" said Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips. "I like the extra Wild Cards. It gives GMs something to do. Because sometimes when I look at certain GMs, it looks like they just be chilling, eating, watching the game. So I think it's good that this gives them something to do."
Oh, they've got something to do, all right. What looks like "chilling" is actually studying a situation that, in many cases, is murky. And there is a lot of money, fan support and, oh yeah, job security relying on coming to the right conclusions.
The added Wild Card slot in each league -- an arrangement that debuted last season -- has added intrigue to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Because while some clubs are already undisputed sellers (Miami, the most prominent example, already moved arguably the No. 1 starting pitcher on the market in Ricky Nolasco), there are several clubs that can't help but wonder if they have got that one hot streak inside them, if they can climb into contention with a strong spurt.
"I think [front-office executives] realize that," said Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee, "and obviously having another Wild Card increases your chances."
At the All-Star break, there are 17 clubs within 5 1/2 games of a postseason spot and five others within 9 1/2 games. At a time when we are short on juggernauts, the only division lead larger than 2 1/2 games is the six-game edge the Braves hold on the Nationals in the National League East. To be deeply flawed is not to be sans pulse, and that is important to note. GMs have to decide whether to buy into the possibility of a sudden surge.
Lee's Phillies are proof positive of the Deadline's difficulty, because coming out of the break last season, they were 37-50, 14 games back in the NL East and, more important, 10 games out of the second Wild Card spot. On the morning of the Deadline, they were 13 behind that final postseason spot. Naturally, they gravitated toward the selling side of the equation, and they unloaded outfielders Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence in the final hours before the Deadline.
A funny thing had happened, though, by Sept. 12: The Phillies climbed above .500 and into contention. They were just three games out of the second Wild Card slot with 19 to play.
Now, whether they would have made that run with Victorino and Pence still on the team is something we will never know. Nor will we ever know if Pence and Victorino might have allowed the Phillies to overcome that three-game deficit and vault into the postseason, where opposing clubs would have had their hands full with Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay, all of whom pitched well in that second-half surge.
And that is pretty much the point. In this game -- especially now -- you never know.
Little wonder, then, why GM Ruben Amaro Jr. and the Phillies are wavering right now as they decide whether to part with some of their veteran talent -- guys like Carlos Ruiz, Chase Utley and Michael Young -- in order to stock up for 2014 and beyond or ride along with (or possibly improve) what they have in a very much undecided NL East.
"The Phillies have historically been a second-half team," Lee said. "[Members of the front office] have mentioned that to me before. You don't want to continue to have to rely on that, but considering where we are right now, you've got to continue to find the positive things."
There are several clubs in situations similar to that of the Phillies. The Blue Jays, Royals and Angels are far from where they wanted or expected to be this season, but there is seemingly little reason for them to start unloading the likes of Josh Johnson, Ervin Santana or a healthy Jason Vargas, to cite just three obvious examples.
The expanded postseason has philosophically and psychologically lengthened the season, in a sense, because even when you are somewhat convincingly out of the hunt, you can fight your way back in. And that is why many of the notable names in the rumor mill are not yet on the actual trading block.
Their clubs simply can't decide what to do.
"A lot of teams you think might normally be breaking things up aren't," Cardinals GM John Mozeliak told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "There just aren't a lot of players that are truly available."
While the optimism about getting into the postseason might be offset slightly by the daunting specter of a one-game playoff, most clubs will gladly sign up for the opportunity. The 2011 Cardinals' improbable rise from the August ashes to championship paydirt and the Giants' surge from an 0-2 deficit in last fall's Division Series against the Reds both demonstrate, in a dramatic way, that it is the hottest team that hoists the World Series trophy in this format.
So why not give your team every opportunity to get hot?
"If you're in that situation, you see [the Wild Card] as your one big shot to get in," said Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz, "and then anything can happen. That makes the game more interesting."
Right now, it is plenty interesting. The Deadline is less than two weeks away, and GMs have to decide where to draw the line between real hope and invented optimism.
They have definitely got something to do.