Wild playoff race creates tough deadline decisions
There are 11 teams within six games of a playoff spot in the National League, which could make for a thrilling last two months of the regular season.
It also means some front offices are facing tough decisions as the non-waiver trade deadline looms.
It’s easy to deal away your top players when you’re 20 games behind, but if the postseason is still a possibility, the decision to buy or sell becomes trickier. The Washington Nationals, for example, are six games back in their division and trail the second wild card by the same margin — but there are enough legitimate stars on that roster that a medium-sized deficit is certainly surmountable with this much time to go.
Fangraphs.com gives the Nats a 42.5 percent chance to make the postseason, while fivethirtyeight.com (20 percent) and baseballprospectus.com (22 percent as of Sunday morning) are more pessimistic. Whichever website you believe, it would be unusual for a team in Washington’s position to become a seller at the deadline. That tends to happen for teams facing longer odds.
But with two wild cards in each league, a team can have a mediocre record and still be in the postseason race. And the path forward isn’t always easy to figure out. Here are a few teams in recent years that traded away key players — when they could have easily chosen to buy or stand pat instead:
(Playoff probabilities below are from FanGraphs.)
Record: 53-55 (11.8 percent chance to make postseason)
Tampa Bay was eight games out of first place and 5 1/2 behind the second wild card before sending ace left-hander David Price to Detroit in a three-team deal. The Rays received lefty Drew Smyly and infielders Willy Adames and Nick Franklin.
The aftermath: Smyly was great for Tampa Bay down the stretch in 2014, but injuries have held him back ever since, and he hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2016. Adames is currently hitting .196 in his first season in the majors, but he is considered a top prospect for the Rays.
Record: 49-52 (12.1 percent chance to make postseason)
The Tigers faced a double-digit deficit in the division race, so the best they could really hope for was to reach the one-game matchup between wild cards. They were only 3 1/2 games behind the second wild card when they sent Price to Toronto, and Detroit would also end up trading Joakim Soria and Yoenis Cespedes in a mini-teardown. Among the players the Tigers received in return were Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris, Matthew Boyd and JaCoby Jones.
The aftermath: Those deals remain a mixed bag for the Tigers. Fulmer was the AL Rookie of the Year in 2016 — and Detroit nearly made the postseason that year — but he has struggled this season. Norris has had injury problems, and Boyd has a career ERA of 5.21. Jones has flashed some athleticism in the outfield, but he has a .198 average in 481 big league at-bats.
Record: 50-48 (8 percent chance to make postseason)
New York was 7 1/2 games back in the division and only 4 1/2 behind the second wild card, but this was a team that hadn’t played in the Division Series since 2012, and the 2016 version didn’t seem likely to change that. So the Yankees sent Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs, and Andrew Miller, Carlos Beltran and Ivan Nova would also be traded in short order.
The aftermath: The Yankees hung around in 2016 and finished 84-78, then improved to 91 wins and an AL Championship Series berth the following year behind young sluggers Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez. Those players had nothing to do with the 2016 trades, but the Chapman deal did bring infielder Gleyber Torres to the Yankees, and he looks like he could be a star in New York for years to come. And Chapman even came back to the Yankees as a free agent.
Record: 52-49 (18.1 percent chance to make postseason)
Pittsburgh was 9 1/2 games behind the division-leading Cubs and three games behind the second wild card. The Pirates dealt closer Mark Melancon to Washington and also traded starter Francisco Liriano to Toronto, although Pittsburgh did receive Nova from the Yankees around this time.
The aftermath: This may not really count as a deadline “sale” — Pittsburgh had good bullpen depth beyond Melancon, and Nova replaced Liriano. In any case, the Pirates finished that season below .500, and 2017 was more of the same. The Melancon trade worked out pretty well, since that’s how the Pirates acquired Felipe Vazquez, their current closer. Now Pittsburgh is back in a similar spot to where it was at the deadline two years ago.
Record: 50-52 (8.5 percent chance to make postseason)
Facing a seven-game deficit in the division and a four-game gap behind the second wild card, Minnesota was slumping toward the end of July. The Twins then traded Jaime Garcia to the Yankees and Brandon Kintzler to the Nationals.
The aftermath: Well, a funny thing happened after the Twins became sellers. Minnesota played well enough down the stretch to finish with 85 wins, and that was enough for a wild card.
Other developments from around the majors:
The Phillies and Braves certainly stand to benefit if the Nationals decide to sell, but both of those teams are teetering a bit. Philadelphia lost the last three games of its series in Cincinnati and is 5-5 since the All-Star break. Atlanta is 3-5 since the break after dropping three of four to the Dodgers.
Boston’s Jackie Bradley Jr. went tumbling into the base of the Green Monster after making a diving catch across the warning track in left-center field Sunday. The Red Sox beat the Twins 3-0.
LINE OF THE WEEK
Rougned Odor went 5 for 5 and hit two home runs — one of the inside-the-park variety — to lift Texas to a 7-3 win over Houston on Saturday.
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