One of the common complaints we hear repeated almost mantra-like these days is that the trade deadline is coming too early because the second wild-card format has created “contenders” out of too many teams.
Well, not really.
Sure, a team trying to make a case to its own fanbase that it is worth taking seriously can claim to be “in a race” for something if it is single digits back in the wild card hunt with more than a month to go. That type of thing has gone on for years, even if you can count on one hand the number of teams that actually overcame such gaps. It’s all part of the business of baseball and marketing such faux contenders is a big part of keeping not only butts in the seats, but, more importantly, eyes glued to TV sets. As long as teams have their fans thinking they are somewhat in contention — realistic or not — the most casual of those fans will usually flip on a TV set to watch baseball they can justify as meaningful.
Here in Seattle, we all remember 1995, which, just as a reminder, happened 18 years ago for the Mariners. Not last week. We’ve seen some crazy come-from-behind repeats since, with the Cardinals and Rays doing it just two years ago — that St. Louis bunch actually going on to win the World Series. The Colorado Rockies came back huge in 2007 and went on to play in the World Series.
So, yeah, great comebacks do happen. Especially in wild-card races, where the teams vying for them are sometimes less than championship caliber and hence, not good enough to win their division and perhaps prone to squandering huge leads in the standings.
But that’s the key as well. Being honest with yourself about how good a team really is. To forego trade opportunities at the deadline because you’re hoping for a Mariners-style 1995 comeback isn’t really smart baseball building. And if every team fools itself the way it typically tries to fool fans with this “contending” stuff, then you could push the trade deadline back to Sept. 15 and it really wouldn’t matter, right?
After all, on Sept. 18, 2007, the Rockies trailed by five games in the wild-card standings and had four teams in front of them with 13 to go. And yet, the Rockies pulled it off and won the wild-card that year. So, is that our new “contention” baseline? Five games out with 13 to play and only four teams standing in your way? Like I said, miracles happen. But at some point, teams have to be realistic. And for every Rockies, or Cardinals, story, there are dozens of other teams over the same six-year span that went nowhere.
So, are there really that many more “contenders”, or probable ones out there?
Maybe a few more. That’s what MLB wanted when it went to the second wild-card format.
But unless the plan is to push the trade deadline back into the final month of the season, you’re never going to guard against that 15-game winning streak creating a contender out of the blue late in any season.
So, let’s look at some facts.
Even with two wild cards last year in each league, three of those teams still won 93 games or more. Only the Atlanta Braves managed to get in by winning 88. So,there’s that. You still had to be a really good team to make the playoffs even as a wild-card draw.
Now, if we assume that will remain the case going forward, what should we be looking for to separate the contenders from the trade deadline pretenders?
For me, a .500 record is the bare minimum.
If a team can’t win as many as it loses the first two thirds of any season, chances are it won’t automatically flip the switch the final third.
Looking at the Mariners this year, I felt they had to be .500 mimimum by Aug. 1 to have maybe a remote shot at a playoff run. They are five games under on July 30, so, no, it’s not happening.
Want a real darkhorse team? Try the Kansas City Royals. They are 51-51 going into tonight.
And the one thing the Royals have going for them that the Mariners do not is an outside shot at winning their own division. The Royals are seven games out in the AL Central, compared to 12 1/2 back for the Mariners in the AL West.
Still, I wouldn’t bank too much of the mortgage on the Royals. They’re riding an eight-game winning streak right now, so a week or so ago they were eight games under .500. Just like the Mariners were on pace for 92 losses before their recent eight-game win streak.
Consistency matters in baseball when you’re trying to separate contenders from pretenders. In the end, the consistently good teams will usually make the playoffs ahead of the consistently mediocre ones.
But yeah, once in a while, a team can play mediocre ball right up to September and then use one scorching hot streak to vault into the playoffs. It’s been going on since long before the wild-card was even invented. Nothing we can do about that and changing the trade deadline won’t help.
So, to recap, how do we try to pinpoint the true contenders?
Start with the .500 baseline.
Ask yourself whether the team needed a recent massive win streak to get to .500.
Check out how many other teams are in front of that club and whether it will take a second massive win streak to vault over all of them (unlikely to have two such streaks the second half of any season).
Look at the team’s starting rotation and whether it has the pitching horses to play .700 ball down the stretch and get to 90+ wins. Using our current Royals example as a .500 team, they would have to play .700 ball and go 42-18 over their final 60 games to reach that 93-win threshold.
Hey, this isn’t exact science.
And like I said, teams do buck trends and come out of nowhere to shock. But if teams are basing their trade deadline decisions on what’s probable, then the crude list I just supplied will go a long way towards separating the real contenders from those being propped up by their team’s marketing departments.
There really aren’t all that many more contenders out there right now compared to a few years ago. Just more teams trying to sell themselves that way. And don’t be surprised if we hear the cry for moving the trade deadline get louder and louder. Don’t be surprised if MLB even goes along with it. After all, MLB has always been a business first. And if moving the deadline back helps sell more tickets and generates higher TV ratings, then moved back it will be.