Does anybody really need to do … anything?
Sure, the column’s got an innocuous enough headline: 5 TEAMS THAT NEED TO TRADE TO GET IN TITLE CONTENTION … but does anybody really need to do anything?
First, I’ll get my personal issue out in the open … For whatever reason, over the last few years I’ve developed a serious (and seriously unwelcome) antipathy for the word need.
Actually, I’ve been annoyed by that word for a long time. People love to say they need this or that or the other, but all we really need is clean air, clean water, something to eat and a roof when it’s cold or wet. OK, and love. Everything else is just gravy, right?
But it’s only lately I’ve noticed that need gets thrown around in a lot of baseball discussions, and something like 90 percent of the time the word is largely bogus. Yes, you need to outscore the other team to win. Yes, you need to win more games than everybody else to finish in first place. Yes, if you’re a pitcher you’ll probably need to win more than 200 games for any sort of shot at the Hall of Fame.
Everything else, though? Almost everything else is negotiable, or shades of grey, or … pick your favorite terms for uncertainty and judgment.
Those “5 teams that need to trade to get in title contention”? They’re the Blue Jays, Orioles, Yankees, Mets and Giants. Richard Justice writes that the Blue Jays need a pitcher (or two), the Orioles a left fielder, the Yankees a starting pitcher, the Mets a “bat,” and the Giants … actually, Justice suggests the Giants don’t really need anything at all, but that Brian Sabean’s so canny that even a relief pitcher or a bench player might well make the difference for this team.
Here’s my point, though, and I’m going to be obnoxious about it …
ANY TEAM THAT’S GOOD ENOUGH TO TRADE FOR ONE REALLY GOOD PLAYER IS ALREADY IN CONTENTION.
This is manifestly true, right? I mean, the Yankees have a four-game lead over the second-place teams in their division. Doesn’t that make them contenders for a title, by definition? The Blue Jays and Orioles are within four games of a wild-card spot, and one of the two teams ahead of them is the Twins. Doesn’t this make them both contenders for a title, by definition?
As for the Mets, I will argue they’re actually not good enough to trade for one really good player. Yes, they’re not far out in the standings, either in their division or for a wild card. But the Mets have been outscored this season. Absent Justin Upton having a tremendous two months, how do they play well enough to keep up with the Nationals, or with the Pirates and Cubs and Giants.
Then again, the great news for the Mets is they really don’t have much competition. So maybe, just maybe, it does make sense for them to grab a bat. Again, though, how much difference in the standings is one hitter likely to make over the last two months? Because here’s my real point, and this time I won’t be so obnoxious …
For all the talk about difference-makers, not many players make a real difference.
Look at the National League standings last year. The Nationals finished 17 games ahead of the second-place Braves, and the Dodgers finished six games ahead of the second-place Giants. The Cardinals finished only two games ahead of the second-place Pirates, but the Pirates and Giants both finished six games ahead of their nearest wild-card competition. For all the talk about the trade deadline, it’s highly likely that the six National League playoff teams would have been exactly the same even if nobody’d been traded all season. With all the trades made by National League teams in 2014, I suspect the biggest was the one that brought John Lackey to the Cardinals. They went 6-4 in Lackey’s 10 starts, and five of those six wins were by just one run. So with a replacement-level starter (or Joe Kelly) instead of Lackey, maybe the Cardinals fall to a wild card instead of a division title.
But (oops!) they got wiped out by the Giants in the National League Championship Series anyway, so getting Lackey didn’t propel them to the (big) title.
What about the American League? The Orioles finished 12 games ahead of the second-place Yankees, and the Angels finished 10 games ahead of the second-place A’s. Just as in the National League, the American League’s Central was a tight affair, with the Tigers finishing one game ahead of the second-place Royals. And the wild-card standings were a bit more interesting, with the Royals finishing one game ahead of the A’s, who finished one game ahead of the Mariners.
Of course, none of these teams won “the” title. The Royals didn’t do anything before the trade deadline, except acquire Jason Frasor. Who did pitch well in his 18 innings with the club (but was hardly used in October). The A’s did a ton before the deadline; whether you think this made them worse or better is a matter of conjecture. The M’s did add a couple of outfielders – Chris Denorfia and Austin Jackson – and while both looked better at the time than the guys they replaced, both were actually disasters, just two more on the long list of Jack Zduriencik’s acquisitions who played worse than they were supposed to.
So you’ve got all those contending teams and all those late-July trades, and I can’t find a single compelling instance of a player who really made a difference.
Is this normal? No, and yes. Last season was atypical, just in terms of how few division races wound up being even remotely close. But let’s just think about the math for a moment. Leaving aside Mike Trout, your typical great player is worth about six wins above replacement over a whole season … which means he’s worth only two wins after the trade deadline. How many races come down to two wins or fewer? Not many. How many of the teams in those races ultimately win the World Series? Even fewer?
Here’s the problem with using the word “need” … According to Baseball Prospectus’s latest Playoff Odds Report, the Blue Jays have a 4.7-percent chance of winning the World Series. That is, a title. Let’s say they add a starter and a reliever. Johnny Cueto and Aroldis Chapman. Which would really be something, wouldn’t it? That’s about as well as they could possibly do!
If they added both those guys, made a true blockbuster deal, their chances of winning the World Series might jump all the way to eight or nine percent. But probably more like six or seven.
Which is why I don’t buy into need, but rather want or good to have. Because I’m pretty sure the Angels aren’t listening on Trout.
Addendum: Everything above refers to contenders. As we’ve seen, it’s difficult to make a trade that actually makes a real difference in the standings, let alone in October. But if you’re the Phillies or the Reds or one of another dozen or so teams that’s got very little chance of playing big games in September, let alone October? Then, yeah: I’ll go ahead and say you need to get something done. If you ask me, late July is a great time to be out of contention. Because all those teams with prospects think they need your veterans.