|More Playoff Teams = Less Trade Value for Superstars|
Written by Justin Zeth (Contact & Archive) on July 16, 2009
The St. Louis Cardinals have at least bandied about trying to acquire Roy Halladay's services for this year's stretch run and next. Their best young hitter, Brett Wallace, who's 22 years old and hitting AAA as we speak, would have to be included in such a deal--and that's just a starting point. Short of giving up Colby Rasmus, which one presumes isn't an option, seeing as how he's also 22 and already one of the best players on the team, the Cardinals would have to rightly clean out their system to get Halladay.
And it just doesn't make sense for them to do that. In fact, it doesn't really make sense for the Brewers, or the Dodgers, or the Phillies, to do that, either.
More than 20 years ago, the Tigers, in the midst of a hot pennant race, traded a big-time pitching prospect for a good veteran pitcher, Doyle Alexander. Alexander pitched the lights out down the stretch, and the Tigers won the division. Of course, the prospect they gave the Braves grew up to be John Smoltz, who is now 42 and still holding his own in the American League while they engrave his plaque to hang on the wall in Cooperstown.
But even so, you can argue it was worthwhile for the Tigers, because Alexander was exactly what it said on the tin. Of course... they then lost the ALCS to a downright mediocre Twins team, a minor fluke, and it would be almost 20 years before the Tigers would return to relevance. But do you see the complications all over the question of whether Smoltz-for-Alexander was worth it?
It was worth it because they didn't win the division.
It was worth it because heck, it would be 20 more years before they'd even get close. You have to take a shot whenever you have a shot.
It was worth it because, yeah, John Smoltz turned into John Smoltz, but for every one of those there are eight Homer Baileys or Mark Priors.
And on and on and on.
But something very, very important has changed since then, something you probably have completely overlooked: Now there are four more teams in the playoffs. Less importantly, this means it's easier to get into the playoffs than it was in 1987. More importantly, this means once you get there, it's dramatically more difficult to actually win the World Series. Because the playoffs are mostly random luck.
There's this notion that ace pitchers are super important because they're the most important element to winning short playoff series. If the story of the 1990s Braves isn't enough to convince you otherwise, consider that we just saw this last year with CC Sabathia, who came to Milwaukee and spent two months ripping the National League a new one. And the Brewers reached the playoffs (which they certainly would not have without him). And then they got summarily whipped by the Phillies, three games to one. It's very difficult for fans to swallow--and ten times more so for players, managers and executives--but the playoffs are mostly random. A seven, or especially a five, game sample is just too small to be anything resembling decisive. It's very easy to see just by looking through regular season results:
The Nationals are 4-2 against the Yankees and Blue Jays.
The Indians are 5-3 against the Rays.
The Mets are 5-1 against the Yankees.
The A's are 3-1 against the White Sox.
So on and so forth. A 5 or 7 game sample just isn't much. A very bad team can beat a very good team three times in five; in fact, given a long string of five-game series, the Royals would probably beat the Yankees three games out of five, something like 15% or 20% of the time. And in the playoffs, it's not the Royals against the Yankees; it's the Angels against the Yankees, and while the Yankees are the better team, it's not by a whole lot, and the Angels will win the series 40% or 45% of the time. It's mostly random.
And therein lies the problem with cleaning the young talent off your shelf to acquire even a superstar for the stretch run. Reaching the playoffs isn't as big a deal as it used to be, because it's a lot more difficult to reach or win the World Series once you're there than it used to be. Now, for a small-to-mid-market team, simply reaching the playoffs can, even if you bow out in the first round, have significant financial value, both in the immediate value of a couple of guaranteed sellouts at twice the usual rates, and in the long-term value of increased fan interest (which translates to increased season ticket sales) the following year.
But you have to balance that against the big pile of long-term value you're giving up by trading young talent, and as more teams enter the playoffs, the more the value equation comes down on the side of keeping the young talent. There's a big difference between gambling on a 25% chance, as the 1987 Tigers did, and gambling on a 12.5% chance, as the 2008 Brewers did. I'm not sure it's sensible any longer for any team to give up what Roy Halladay is worth, and that's why Halladay will remain a Blue Jay for at least another year.