Heading into the 2016 trade deadline, the New York Yankees had a decision to make: stick with their veteran-laden roster in the hope of squeaking into a playoff spot, or sell off key assets to revitalize their farm system and jumpstart a new era in the Bronx? They obviously chose the latter, dealing the likes of Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Carlos Beltran for a bevy of prospects, soon to be followed by the call-ups of Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge.
But what if that wasn’t the course they chose? What if Hal Steinbrenner, who needed convincing to sell, decided to roll the dice one more time on a creaky, aging roster whose glory days were quickly receding from memory?
What if the Yankees never traded for Gleyber Torres? That unattractive hypothetical crossed my mind in the last week while considering the implications of the new playoff format MLB is reportedly weighing.
A quick recap: Last week, the New York Post’s Joel Sherman reported that MLB was “seriously considering” expanding the playoff field in each league from five to seven teams. The top-ranked division winner in each league would get a first-round bye, while the other six teams would square off in best-of-three wildcard matchups to determine who advances to the division series. The higher seed would enjoy home-field advantage for all three games. As an additional kicker, the other two division winners would be able to choose their opponent from the bottom three seeds. Whether the new proposal is a creative and worthwhile experiment to increase audience engagement, a misguided effort that will alienate existing fans or simply a cynical ploy to distract from a sign-stealing scandal is being debated among fans, players and pundits.
If employed, the system certainly would have knock-on effects, and perhaps some unintended consequences. FanGraphs’ Ben Clemens argues that it could actually disincentivize all but the most elite teams from improving their rosters. One of those consequences might be a trade deadline season that grinds to a relative halt.
Going back to the 2016 hypothetical, the Yankees were 51-48 on July 25 (the day they traded Chapman for a package headlined by Torres), which was eighth-best record in the American League. They were just a half-game behind Detroit for seventh, or what would be the final wildcard spot in the prospective new playoff format. Is there a chance Steinbrenner would’ve sanctioned the trades of Chapman and Miller with the Yankees so close to an October appearance? Of course, it’s impossible to say, but MLB’s presumed rationale for expanding the number of postseason teams – keeping those respectable, if average, teams locked into the hunt for a playoff berth – would dictate not.
That’s not to say the trade deadline dynamics that so often breathe life into the middle of a long regular season would necessarily be altered, at least not if the prevalence of tanking persists (for example, six teams in the American League were no closer than 11 games behind the seventh-place team on July 31 of last year). But if one of the aims of the proposed format is to increase the number of teams vying for those wildcard slots, the number of deadline sellers would, logically, dry up. Maybe that’s fine! In the very narrow case of the 2016 Yankees, however, the decision to “go for it” would have arguably led to stagnation instead of re-invigoration.
Is that something to be concerned about in the grand scheme of all things baseball? It’s difficult to say, but it’s at least another question to ponder as the league considers its future.