While the Minnesota Twins’ signing of Kendrys Morales probably won’t make them a contender , it indicates to fans and general managers of the American League Central that every team in the division believes that they are only one or two pieces away from winning it. If the Twins, who are 31-33 at the time of this writing and sitting in last place, reach into the free agency chauffeurs to grab a veteran bat how much more should the team in first place look to improve their club?
Granted, even the last place Twins are only 3.5 games out of the division race. However, according to Baseball Prospectus’ monte carlo simulations, they only have a 12.1% chance of actually making the postseason. Even the Twins front office realized that the time was now to make a positive statement to their fan base and active roster
Now that the first year player draft is over, Major League Baseball teams can start refocusing their efforts to upgrading their Major League roster again, which is why mid-June is generally the beginning of the summer trading season. With two months of the season behind us, teams are beginning to get a better feel for the strengths and weaknesses of their clubs, and are formulating a plan for whether they’ll be upgrading for a playoff race or getting rid of veterans to shift value from the present to the future. Clearly, forfeiting their highest unprotected draft pick for adding Morales would indicate that the Twins front office feel they can make the postseason in 2014.
As the Morales signing has indicated, the expanded playoff system adds a bit of a wrinkle to the buy/sell/hold decision making process. With a second wild card available, the barrier to entry for the “playoffs” (if we consider the one-game play-in a playoff game) has been significantly lowered and now teams that think they’ll finish with ~88 or so wins (or a .543 winning percentage) can consider themselves to have a legitimate chance at playing postseason baseball. Although the Twins are projected to only win 76 games, the front office clearly sees the clubs ahead of them as fodder; easily being caught and liable for a collapse.
There’s little question that the addition of the second wild card has to motivated teams that would have been sellers to hang onto their talent, and probably shift a few teams that would have stood pat firmly into the buying category. The result has been more buyers and fewer sellers, which will continue to create some interesting competition for the veterans who actually are put on the trade market. In the Twins case, Morales was a veteran free agent.
With the playoff structural change, there’s significant risk to waiting until late July to try and make your upgrades, as it’s quite possible that there just won’t be much left at the deadline. A team that is aggressive in pursuing an upgrade in June could not only rent a veteran for a longer period of time, but potentially end up with a better player than they could acquire than if they waited until the last week of July.
The trade-off to making a move sooner rather than waiting another month is that teams are working with a smaller pool of information now than they’ll have by waiting. For instance, the Twins are currently in last place, but should they really believe they’re contenders given their status as having the third worst run differential in Major League Baseball? Another month of baseball will bring more clarity to their ability to stay in the race all year, and for a team like that, that information could be the difference between being a buyer or not. For other teams, though, they have more than enough information to know what path they’re going to take — for instance, no matter what happens over the next month, there’s no real scenario where the Rangers will be sellers. They can buy now without worrying that they may learn something about their team over the next four to six weeks that would have caused them to make a different decision.
In regards to the Indians, they should take a note from the Twins playbook and be extremely proactive with the trade market early. If the Twins improved their ballclub in anticipation of a postseason run, how much more should the Indians look to improve theirs this early as well?