It's a whole new world as the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches, but maybe not for the reasons you think.
A number of changes have taken place since last year in the way that baseball does business. Most prominent, for good reason, is the addition of a second Wild Card in each league. But when it comes to trade talks, a less publicized change may have more impact.
Adjustments to Draft-pick compensation for free agents have significantly altered the value of many "rental" players, both to buying and selling teams. The combination of the two new circumstances means that this Deadline is harder to figure than any in recent memory.
That's because for pretty much every team, in every segment of the standings, something is different than it's been in the past. One way or another, the equation has changed.
For teams that appear to be safely in the postseason, the urgency may well be greater than ever to fortify their clubs. With the unpredictability of a one-game Wild Card playoff, clubs will likely be less willing to be satisfied with falling short of a division title.
For teams in the Wild Card hunt but not securely in October, there's one more invitation available to the party. No team is significantly closer in the standings this year than it would be in the past, but the math is friendlier because there are more spaces available.
And for all contenders, the sense is that they have more competition for valuable pieces this year.
"More teams feel they have a chance at October and therefore are willing to try to improve," a National League executive told MLB.com, "whereas in past years more teams sought prospects and financial relief than what we are seeing now. [It's] certainly a seller's market."
It's curious, though, because the standings don't really reveal much difference this year in who is a contender and who is not. In each league, there is a tie atop the Wild Card standings as the second half begins, so teams are just as far out of the second Wild Card as they are the first. The second Wild Card will have much more impact in years when there is one team running away with the Wild Card and a pack of teams vying for the second spot.
Certainly, the challenge is easier when there is one more spot, but the real chances for most teams didn't go up that much. And yet, if their perception of their position improved, that's all that matters. That's enough to increase the number of buyers and, just as important, decrease the number of sellers.
"The second Wild Card spot definitely changes the way teams think," A's assistant general manager David Forst told MLB.com. "I mean, having a shot at a playoff spot is not something that you take lightly and certainly is not something that comes around every year. For teams that see that extra spot being a realistic opportunity, that's going to be a big factor in thinking pertaining to the Deadline."
A second NL executive argued that it's likely that teams will overestimate the value of the extra spot, at least in the first year or two. With time, that may diminish, but in the early going, it's possible we'll see an overreaction by borderline teams that may now see themselves as buyers.
And then there are the changes in compensation, which alter the dynamic significantly as well. Previously, if a player rated as a Type A or Type B free agent and his team offered him salary arbitration, the team received Draft-pick compensation if he left. Now there are many more restrictions on that compensation.
For one, if a player has not been with his current team for a full season, the team cannot receive compensation. Thus, some teams may be more hesitant to give up prospects for rental players, because if they do not sign those players, they don't have the fallback of receiving Draft picks to replenish the farm system.
"Without compensation, teams are less likely to give up the farm," the first NL executive said, "so I agree that this has and will affect how teams view trades. It's clearly a steep price to pay."
It may work the other way as well, though, because teams must reach a dollar threshold in their contract offers in order to receive compensation. So teams must do more than just offer arbitration to their free agents. It's at least possible, then, that some potential sellers will decide that they won't be able to stomach such offers, and with no Draft picks in the offing, trade veterans at a lower prospect price.
Again, it's a bit of an unknown. The second Wild Card, at least, is more straightforward, especially in the American League, where the dividing line looks pretty clear. Eight teams are within 2 1/2 games of the Wild Card in the AL -- the Angels, Orioles, Rays, Indians, Tigers, A's, Red Sox and Blue Jays. The next team down is Kansas City, 7 1/2 games back. That's not to say the Royals will be sellers, but the math would make it hard for them to justify any kind of short-term upgrade at the expense of their farm system.
In the NL, it's less clear. Five teams are very much in the mix: the Reds, Braves, Giants, Mets and Cardinals are all separated by one-half game. Then there's Arizona, four games back, the Marlins five out, the Brewers six back and the Phillies 10 back. Somewhere on that continuum is the line between buyer and seller, and the coming days and weeks will make it a bit clearer.
But for those teams hanging on the fringe of contention, if they want to believe, they can. A five-percent shot has become a 10-percent shot, and if the memory of the 2011 Cardinals, a team that got in the postseason at the last moment and won the World Series, stands out in someone's mind, and suddenly the line between selling and holding, or holding and buying, gets blurrier.
There's no way to know how it will turn out, but it's going to be interesting to watch.
Matthew Leach is an editor and reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach.