Trades, the expanded Wild Card and parity

Last week’s quick-hit trade deadline moves were surprising in a lot of ways. A week after the fact, I’d like to outline some of the differences between our expectations and the actual moves.

The Wild Card and parity

We’ve been hearing a lot about the expanded Wild Card in the last few years. It’s part of Bud Selig’s vision for the league where everyone’s in the chase, supposedly creating more excitement and better attendance.

Another bigger aspect of his plan that’s supposed to fall in right alongside that is parity. As a true salary cap (or perhaps, true-er cap) is in place with giant luxury tax implications, teams are encouraged to be in the same range of spending as others. Revenue sharing creates even more of a redistributive feel.

As far as these things contribute to an equaling of the playing field like that of the NFL, Selig has done the job. The Yankees’ empire appears to be crumbling, a topic Joe tackled in this morning’s post, and teams like the Marlins and Royals are no longer the worst in their divisions. (The Royals are five games above .500, while the Marlins are six games out in the Wild Card race.)

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The crumbling of the Yankee Empire

The Yankees aren’t scary anymore. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the Bronx Bombers were an evil empire, led by George Steinbrenner, that crushed the hopes of any team that dared challenge them. They were an all-powerful and deep-pocketed dynasty that had won five World Championships, seven pennants and 13 AL  East titles. But the Yankees have fallen from their pedestal.

In 2013, they failed to make the postseason for just the second time since 1995. This year, they are competitive, but are hindered by issues like age, health and an inability to hit in the clutch. In 2012, the team as a whole hit an astounding 245 home runs, though that number went down to 144 in the following year.

About two thirds of the way through 2014, they have managed just 101. For a club that has traditionally been home to legendary sluggers like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Mickey Mantle, that is shockingly few. There are many reasons that help explain the Yankees’ fall from greatness, but age and the lack of a good farm system in particular come to mind.

A team built on aging stars

Out of all the starting position players on this team, not one is under the age of 30. Derek Jeter has been one of the greatest players of all-time, but he is 40 years old and about to retire. Mark Teixeira, 34, has 19 home runs, but is batting just .229. A career .276  hitter, the last time he hit over .256 was 2009. 30 year old catcher Brian McCann was signed in the off season for $85 million, and is batting a disappointing .236 with 12 home runs. Even the usually consistent outfielder/DH Carlos Beltran, another free agent signing at 37, has just a .248 batting average. Finally, former ace CC Sabathia, 34, struggled mightily in his first eight outings, then underwent season-ending knee surgery.

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2014 trade deadline notes

This year’s trade deadline was surprisingly busy, all things considered. There’s a lot to cover, but let’s start with the basics:

All the big moves were about starting pitching. And it’s not surprising, given the recent impact of pitching on the outcomes of games. But the biggest three moves of the day were centered around starters with the potential to impact getting into — or getting through — the playoffs.

Boston makes big trades

The A’s and Red Sox started things off by swapping Lester and Gomes for Yoenis Cespedes. Read more about that here.

Then the Sox dealt another starter, John Lackey, to the Cardinals. This deal was a morning blockbuster that got lost in the madness of the big deals that preceded and followed it. Lackey bolsters the front end of the Cardinals’ rotation with Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn.

While Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly have been disappointing, a late return by Michael Wacha in September could give St. Louis the push into the playoffs if they’re able to stay in the thick of things. (Kelly was part of the package sent to Boston.) The Brewers have hung onto the Central lead so far and the Pirates have been particularly pesky for the Cards, so the move seemed a needed one.

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The absurdity of long-term free agent contracts

Over the past several years in Major League Baseball, player salaries have risen, and with them, the value of free agent contracts. It seems that every offseason, players whose contracts are up or have become free agent-eligible for the first timed are increasingly hyped.

Teams fight over them, and they are eventually offered deals that will pay them big money well past their primes. Sometimes, they will live up to these contracts for the first few years, but eventually, reality sets in and the numbers drop. However, they continue to get paid like superstars, even when they are average players at best.

The problem is not that these free agents are good players. For the most part, recipients of huge, $100 million plus contracts have been amazing throughout their careers. But once they are free agents, they are often in the middle of or near the end of their primes. Most analysts agree that a player’s best years will occur between the ages of 25 and 32.

This period fluctuates, but the point is that once you reach your mid-thirties, your body begins to break down. The problem is that most players are not eligible to be free agents until their late twenties. Another possibility is that they were been signed to a team-friendly contract early in their careers, one that expires at around their thirtieth birthday.

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Race for the pennant: AL East

The All-Star break is a great time for evaluating where a team stands. Last week, Joe looked at the long-term prospects of some cellar-dwelling teams. Over the next week, we will be previewing the race for the postseason within each division. Up first is the American League East. We’ll organize this discussion by current standing:

Baltimore Orioles
53-44 | division lead

What’s scary about this Baltimore Orioles team is not how good they are doing right now, but how much better they can be. Chris Davis, after his 53 home run performance last year, has only hit 15 home runs and is batting under the Mendoza line at a horrid .199. His last long stretch this bad was in 45 games for Texas in 2010, though he had almost no power numbers then. Manny Machado is batting .270 and has hit only 10 doubles so far this season, far off the pace of the 51 doubles he ended with last year. Ubaldo Jimenez has an ERA of 4.52 this season, 55 points above his career average. J.J. Hardy has hit only three home runs all year. The list goes on.

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