Thursday, July 10, 2008

Going For It

With the trade deadline approaching, I'd like to consider the concept of when a team should "go for it". When should a team decide that they have a chance that's good enough to give away some of the future (ie talented prospects) to increase the chance that they have in the present?

First, let me say that I think that a championship is worth almost anything. If by making a trade you could somehow guarantee a championship now, I would trade the potential of every player in the minor league system to get that championship. Of course, there is never a guarantee, so adjustments to the scale must be made, but if we start at that absolute (trade everything for a championship), then we have a baseline for the discussion.

Let's start at the end of the spectrum that can be labelled 'obvious': Cleveland, Kansas City, Seattle, Washington, San Francisco, Colorado and San Diego are all at least ten games below .500 and are all at least ten games back in the Wild Card standings and basically have no chance at the post-season. Clearly there is no way that any of these teams should be trading prospects in an attempt to improve themselves for this season.

The next tier of teams include Baltimore, Toronto, Houston, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Cincinnati. These teams are all under .500 and at least 7.5 games out of the Wild Card. It is highly unlikely that there is anything that any of these teams can do at this point to give them a legitimate shot at the playoffs. The only way that a trade where these teams are giving up prospects for a better shot to win now makes sense, is if the trade would bring young talent that would be with the team for multiple years, making them contenders in the future as well. Those type of prospects for young talent trades are unusual, though. The only team in the group listed here that might be an exception is the Atlanta Braves. They are only 6.5 games back in their division and are only 6 games below .500. They have a positive run differential of +30, so they have been a little unlucky to this point, so there is reason to think that they might be a better team than their record suggests. They have quite a bit of young talent with Brian McCann, Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar, so they could be a team that might be able to trade some minor league prospects without damaging their future too much, but with the odds stacked against them, I'd think the trade would have to be a clear win for them to consider it.

The next group is probably the most difficult to gauge. This group really needs to be looked at on a team-by-team basis:

The New York Yankees are seven games over .500, 6.5 games back in their division and 4.5 games back in the Wild Card. They have a positive run differential and are playing exactly to their expected record. This is a team that historically has gone for it and I think they are in position to go for it again this year. They are in striking distance and the window for success with older players like Jeter, Giambi, Abreau, Pettitte and Mussina is shrinking. According to Baseball Prospectus the Yankees currently have a 10% chance of making the playoffs. If they can find a big move to make that will give them a 5-10% better chance, they should take it.

The Detroit Tigers, who I talked about extensively before the season started, are currently one game over .500, 7.5 games back in their division and in the Wild Card and they are playing exactly to their expected record. They have a mix of young and old on the team and it is conceivable that if they could make a big move that they could improve themselves into contenders. The problem is that they really don't have much left in their farm system to trade at this point.

The Minnesota Twins are ten games over .500, three games back in both the division and the Wild Card and are playing three games better than their expected record. This is one of the borderline teams for me - they traded Johan Santana prior to the season and so you would think that they are rebuilding, but they are close enough to the playoffs that it could be worth it to go for it. I think they should probably play it about half way, too.

The Texas Rangers are four games over .500, 6.5 games back in their division and six games back in the Wild Card. They, however, have a negative run differential and they are playing eight games better than their expected record. That means they have been lucky and it is uite possible that they will regress a bit in the second half. This is exactly the kind of team that can get fooled into making a deal at the deadline because they think they are in it, but they shouldn't be trading. If the team regresses as expected any improvement through trade will only be towards maintaining their current pace, which isn't good enough to make the playoffs.

The Oakland A's are eight games over .500, 4.5 games back in the division and four games back in the Wild Card race. They have a huge positive run differential and are actually playing four games worse than their expected record. Yet, Billy Beane just traded Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin to the Cubs for prospects. I have seen it suggested that Beane didn't trust Harden to stay healthy until the trading deadline and that some predict that Sean Gallagher (the 22 year old pitcher that Oakland received as part of the trade) will win more games in the rest of the year than Harden. I'm not sure I buy all of that, but I would expect Oakland to have a strong second half (unless they trade away more of their talent). They would be a team that I would advocate for making a deal to go for it at the deadline, but the team is run so unconventionally that it is difficult to predict what they will do.

The Florida Marlins are three games over .500, two games back in the division and 3.5 games back in the Wild Card. However, they have a negative run differential and have played four games better than their expected record. This team has not historically acquired veterans at the trade deadline and it would be surprising to see them do so. They might be a team, though, that could improve themselves enough to stay in the playoff race until the very end. While they have been somewhat lucky and could be expected to regress, they are close enough to the top right now that even keeping pace allows them a chance at the playoffs. I wouldn't mortgage the future, but it could definitely be worth it if they could trade some of their second tier prospects for a chance to win now.

The St. Louis Cardinals are nine games over .500, 4.5 games out in the division and only a half game out of the Wild Card. They have a positive run differential but have played about three games better than their expected record. In my opinion, the Cardinals might be in the most dangerous position in all of baseball. They have a fanbase that expects them to contend every fall, they have recently tasted success with an over-achieving team and their farm system has finally become average after years of being at the bottom of the league. This is a team that will be tempted to go for it and make a dramatic trade to improve their team for the second half, but they shouldn't. This team will almost surely play worse in the second half and there isn't a clear way to "put this team over the top" with a trade. If they can make a 'go for it' trade with their second tier of prospects, they should do it. Otherwise, they should concentrate on 2009 (when they are much better set up to make a run).

The final group of teams are those that are in lead for a division, the Wild Card or are close enough that it could be a coin flip. This group includes Tampa Bay, Boston, both Chicago teams, both Los Angeles teams, Philadelphia, the New York Mets, Milwaukee and Arizona. There are ten teams in this group and any of the ten can make it to the playoffs and win the World Series. These are the favorites as of today. Some might not need to do anything to get there, but the teams in this group should all be willing to trade the future for the chance to win today, because the championship is out there for the taking.

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