Dave Cameron at FanGraphs doesn’t like the MLB trade deadline. More to the point, he doesn’t like the effect that the second wild card spot seems to be having on the trade deadline. Too few sellers, not enough action. He’d like to see the thing pushed back, maybe to the end of August.
I think he’s got the calculus a bit backwards – what we see right now would be a perfectly natural result of the playoff expansion. More teams that feel like they have a chance, as of the end of July, should mean that there is greater demand for Matt Garza but also less supply of Matt Garza. The predictable result? We should see both a higher price charged for a Matt Garza and also fewer Matt Garzas changing hands. This is basic economics. The question is – is there any reason we should consider that to be a bad thing?
Cameron would say “YES”, I would say “NO”. The first and second things to keep in mind are the two things that we care about as far as the general health of the game: short-run and long-run parity. We want, in a general sense, more fans to feel like their teams are one good run away from a pennant – deep into the dog days of summer at least. We also want hopeless mediocrity to be a fleeting thing, so that every fan of every team can – on April 1st – feel like just maybe this is going to be their year. More importantly, perhaps, we want fans currently watching their teams crumble to feel like next year is going to be their year. Those things keep fans interested in the game. Would pushing the trade deadline back to anything to help short or long run parity? I doubt it. Deadline deals are basically bad for short-run parity, period. Team A gives up and sells off its expensive veterans to Team B, greatly reducing the odds that Team A is going to make up it’s five game deficit to team B. An argument could be made that more fewer, pricier mid-season acquisitions are bad for parity because they give a massive advantage to the team that swings the deal – but, that would come with the benefit of improving long-run parity. If we have only a handful of teams that truly chronically stink right now, those terrible teams are the ones that are going to be able to load up on prospects or purge albatross contracts due to the new trade market characteristics. The teams in the race that don’t make the deals are hurt a little in the short-run, but their competitors who do might be forced to hobble themselves in the long run to do it.
The essence of Cameron’s argument is really that fans love trades therefore more trades are good for the game. By implication, anything that reduces the number of deals is bad for the game. Since playoff expansion improves short-run parity, it’s good for the game in one way but that has to be balanced against the negative effect of reducing the number of deals. Move the deadline to increase the number of deals, everyone wins. I don’t think the implication above is well thought through, though. Fans don’t like trades. Fans like discussing trades. Anecdotally, at least, it seems like fans are more likely to be against any deal that actually gets done than for it. But, clearly, fans do love to talk trade. Happy fans should be good for baseball, right? But the real question is whether fewer trades means less to talk about – and I don’t think that it actually does. If a team is in a position where they will not buy and will not sell, there is nothing to discuss. But a situation with 15 potential buyers and 5 potential sellers shouldn’t actually generate less buzz than a situation with 10 potential buyers and 10 potential sellers. We have been discussing possible trades for relievers here for a month if not more, despite the fact that no deal has actually been done. Moreover, Tigers fans have spent no insignificant amount of time discussing possible deals for players in organizations who insist that they’re more likely to be buyers than sellers (like Jonathan Papelbon or Tim Lincecum).
Now, pushing back the trade deadline might very well lead to more trade chatter simply because there is more time to trade. There’s a lot less of that in August as things stand, though the increasing importance of the waiver deadline for guys who are overpaid has changed that some. Less trade chatter in July, more in August, potentially meaning more chatter overall. That might be good for baseball writers as well as a certain sort of baseball fan. I’m not convinced that the benefits there – to the game as a whole – are large enough to justify even a discussion of a change in league policy much less actually going ahead and doing it. It’s even possible that a late trade deadline would lead to too many trades – if only 12 teams are still jockeying for position at the end of August. That would mean not only more deals but also rock-bottom prices, and the only guys changing hands would be veteran rentals not worthy of a qualifying offer. Given that what we care about is parity – if rentals are too cheap they don’t actually do much of anything to benefit non-contending teams in the long-run, while those deals do just as much to ensure that teams like the Cubs aren’t going to fill a lot of September seats.