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Bipolar Baseball and The Deadline Dilemma

World Series - Cleveland Indians v Chicago Cubs - Game Five
Aroldis Chapman, October 2016
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Bipolar Baseball and The Deadline Dilemma

Major League Baseball has entirely different worlds coexisting in its two leagues and that’s without even discussing the designated hitter.

For all intent and purposes one league already has four of it’s five playoff teams selling postseason tickets while the other doesn’t have a clear favorite to win any of its three divisions, never mind who will play in the Wild Card game. One league has a division where two teams could win 100 games (the American League East) and a third team, in a separate division, could too (the Houston Astros).

The other league has seven teams with 57 wins or more and three divisions where a team could win their crown with fewer than 90. This kind of bipolar disparity is exemplified by one All Star break fact. One league has as many as 11 potential playoff teams while the other, five; six, if nine games back of the Wild Card at the All Star break counts.

So, we have one league with four Goliaths and two poorly performing Davids fighting for maybe the worst record in baseball history, and another league where as many as eleven teams are battling in what could result in one of the greatest September playoff chases baseball has ever had.

That should make for a fascinating trading deadline.

Another interesting thing occurred to me too. The 2018/2019 offseason is already expected to be one of the most star-studded free-for-all free agent periods we have ever seen. Players like Clayton Kershaw, Josh Donaldson, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are all expected to be available to the highest bidder. That fact could have made this July deadline even more frantic if it was the National League that had the four “Haves” and the remaining “Have Nots” as opposed to the American League.

What if Bryce Harper or Clayton Kershaw were on the verge of free agency while playing for a Baltimore Oriole-esque 28-69 team. Add lesser names, but intriguing talents, that are all playing in the final year of their contracts for teams within five games of the Wild Card like Daniel Murphy and Gio Gonzalez of the Washington Nationals, Andrew McCutchen of the San Francisco Giants or Patrick Corbin and A.J. Pollock of the DIamondbacks, to stars like Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado, Adrian Beltre and Zach Britton.

That thought led me to my next one. What should franchises fighting for the opportunity to play in a nine inning, do-or-die play-in game or a chance at a division title and a bye in the Wild Card round do and how should they do it?

What is two months of a star like Manny Machado or an established veteran like J.A. Happ or an unproven one like Nate Eovaldi worth? What level prospect should a team be willing to trade for a high-leverage reliever like Zach Britton or a closer with long-term, affordable control like Brad Hand? Franchises have to balance their desire to make the playoffs and possibly win a World Series in 2018 with their organizations long term well-being. This poses a challenging and in many ways, ethical, dilemma.

Should the opportunity to win the division as opposed to qualifying to play in a winner-take-all Wild Card game impact what a franchise is willing to part with for a player? Two of the American league divisions are, for the most part, already wrapped up (AL Central and AL West) while the winner of the third may be unknown until the final series of the season in September when the Yankees and Red Sox play head-to-head, but both teams know they will, at worst, be Wild Card teams.

Should the Washington Nationals be willing to give up a better prospect than the Oakland A’s because they have a chance to both win their division (they are currently five and a half games back of Philadelphia for the NL East) and qualify for the Wild Card (they are currently five games out of the WIld Card)? Another hypothetical scenario.

Should the Mariners or A’s be more willing to trade better prospects to finish ahead of the other for the last American League Wild Card spot, since they only have one competitor to beat out, than the Astros who are investing to win the World Series or the abundance of National League teams that are all fighting for two Wild Cards and three divisional title spots?

Should any of this matter to a front office or should they all be equally as willing to spend just as much regardless of whatever playoff opportunity they can earn, Wild Card or Division title?

I hear comments from fans and I see it rationalized and justified by media pundits.

“What is the opportunity to face Chris Sale or Luis Severino in a one-game, nine inning do-or-die game really worth?” The Yankees were one win away from reaching the World Series after playing a nine inning, Wild Card do-or-die play-in game in 2017. Wild Card teams have won the World Series. Chris Sale, Luis Severino, Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw are not unbeatable forces of nature, especially in the playoffs.

You can’t reasonably argue on one hand that teams have to fight like heck to win their division to avoid the one-game Wild Card and then argue that the underdog in that Wild Card game can’t win it with the other. More importantly, the premise of the question, never mind the defeatist tone of it, is fundamentally wrong and anti-competition.

This is a question that shouldn’t even be asked and media members certainly should not make justifications for front offices to make decisions based on the acceptance of it. If a team has a chance to make any part of the playoffs, one game or a full series, they have to be willing to invest to do it.

I’m not suggesting that organizations should sell out their entire future and go all in now, regardless of who they are. I thought the 2016 Chicago Cubs trading Uber-prospect Gleyber Torres for a two-month rental of Aroldis Chapman, regardless of how many digits his fastball is or how many centuries it has been since they won a World Series, wasn’t a sound decision.

That is too much future for any amount of now when an outcome is always uncertain. Chapman played a key role in the final game of that 2016 World Series. He was in many ways the hero, but he was very, very close to being the goat. The reason why teams should be willing to trade just as much to enhance their chances of competing in the Wild Card game as to win the division is because the best team on paper doesn’t always win.

In fact, they often don’t.

The Boston Red Sox beat the Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander led Detroit Tigers in the 2013 ALCS before going on to win the World Series with a team that was not the best in the American League, either by record or on paper. That is why all franchises should invest purely based on the opportunity to make the playoffs, regardless of which spot it is, and why they should not grossly over pay for any opportunity either.

That said, Gleyber Torres for two months and a playoff run of Aroldis Chapman was too much. Teams need to find a more efficient way to be better come playoff time than that, but they shouldn’t resist investing in the now at the expense of the future either. It’s a delicate balance, but it’s doable and it is why these General Managers are there.