I wrote last offseason that what Uncle Bud was trying to do when he expanded the MLB playoffs to five teams per league from four was essentially to put a Band-Aid on what has become a glaring competitive balance issue. Basically, by allowing more teams into the postseason, you increase the likelihood of a small-market team winning the World Series. If this happens often enough, then voila! No more competitive balance issues. Uncle Bud is the salve to our down-trodden sports’ soul.
This line of thinking, I should make clear, is quite obviously farcical. Increasing the chances of a fluke does not a perfect league make. After all, if we just let EVERY team into the playoffs and then had a single-elimination tournament to crown a winner, we’d almost certainly have a more diverse group of champions. But no one would respect those champions, and for good reason.
Anyway, as the MLB trade deadline draws near, I started to think of the expanded playoffs all over again. In many ways, Uncle Bud’s plan is working: heading into last night’s games, only five teams were more than 10 games out of their respective division races, while 17 of 30 teams were within five games of first place. Put another way, of the 14 AL teams, 10 are either (a) leading their division or (b) within five games of a wildcard spot.
And while this is mostly a good thing for the league—increased hopes and all that jazz—it’s also attended by some nasty collateral consequences. To wit: in most years once July rolls around, teams are fairly entrenched in either the “We’re-going-to-try-to-win-this-year” camp or “We’re-selling-all-our-assets-for-anything-you-got” camp. 1
Even more than that though, by July there were often 15 to 20 teams who’d already entered full sell-off mode. This was largely a good thing for teams who were hoping to acquire talent, because when there are more sellers than buyers, prices go down, and sellers must compete on price to move their inventory. It’s this “low prices—everything must go” mentality that left many feeling the Tribe got swindled in many of their big deals from recent seasons. I have typically argued–as I’m wont to do–that those weren’t inherently bad trades; they were just indicative of a buyer’s market. Lots of teams were selling players, and only a few were buying. Prices necessarily dropped.
But now consider the new artificial market Uncle Bud’s created. For the sake of argument, let’s say that due to the new hopey change, that there are only five teams who are currently willing to raise the white flag and sell their assets. Let’s also assume that another five teams will stay pat, hoping their clubs start to perform better. That leaves 20 teams competing for the assets of only five.
Which will result in at least two effects. First, the price for those assets (in terms of prospects or money–doesn’t matter which) will go up. When there are only one or two starting pitchers on the market, the selling team can ask for much more in a bidding war than if there are six or seven. This is basic supply and demand. The second (and related) effect will be fewer deals overall. The greater the number of teams who believe they have a chance to succeed, the more often those teams will be hesitant to give anything of immediate value up in a trade. Since most trades in the MLB are not “challenge-trades”, but rather moving future value for current value, this should result in fewer overall trades being made. 2 I don’t know about you, but I like trades, and anything that decreases them kind of stinks, generally.
This state of affairs, it should go without saying, also sucks eggs for the 2012 Cleveland Indians. Entering last night’s game, the club sat a half game out of first and three games out of an AL wildcard spot. Such a standing would normally suggest the Indians should be buyers at the trade deadline. But because of the added wildcard and closely bunched standings, there aren’t enough sellers. Furthermore, because the sellers who do exist are few and far between, the prices for their players are likely to be more than we can afford. It’s not like the Indians minor league system is overflowing with high-end talent after the Ubaldo trade—at least not the sort of talent that’s close to the Major Leagues—and we certainly don’t have the financial means to take an onerous contract off another team’s hands for a non-prospect.
I’m not saying that the Indians won’t add a player via trade before the July 31st deadline. In fact, I sort of think they will, if only to eschew the PR disaster that would accompany standing pat. 3 What I am saying is that any trade the Indians make is likely to take place in the context of an extreme seller’s marke. We’re likely to overpay for whatever acquisition Antonetti is able to get his hands on, if only because everyone will have to overpay for their shiny new acquisitions this year. ((If everybody’s overpaying, is it really overpaying? I’ll leave that imponderable to you, but the housing crisis might suggest the answer could be “Yes”.)
Uncle Bud has his avuncular fingerprints all over Major League Baseball, and in some respects, it’s hard to suggest his reign has been anything but positive for the League as a whole. The owners, I’m quite certain, love him for what he’s done for their bottom lines. There’s been labor peace for nearly 20 years. By all accounts, Interleague Play is, if not entertaining, then at least well-attended. Et cetera.
But far too often I find he ends up causing more problems than he hopes to solve. Don’t like ties in the All-Star Game? We’ll make it count for MORE THAN ANY OTHER GAME EVER!! Don’t like Barry Bonds? We’ll sic Congress on our Players Union and support specious lawsuits!! Don’t like the Yankees playing in six of the last 16 World Series? We’ll expand the playoffs!! Consequences be damned.
Except as any economist can attest, there are always unintended consequences to any policy change. And by making everyone feel like a winner, Bud might be making it a whole lot hard to actually win.
- You might remember the second vintage, circa 2008-2010. [back]
- Let’s note that there is the possibility that more “challenge-trades” could be made under this new system than are currently made, wherein, for example, a team might trade its current ace for another team’s current ace, or it’s current star position player for another team’s star position player. This would be awesome, and I wouldn’t complain about it at all, if only because we’d finally have concrete proof as to who the smartest GMs are. This sort of proof, by the by, is the exact reason it’s unlikely to happen: GMs don’t want to be judged like that. They are, gently, wimps. [back]
- I wouldn’t underestimate such PR manipulation’s role in pulling the trigger on last summer’s Ubaldo deal, by the way. [back]