On August 31, 1988, then as now the last day a team could add a player to its roster and still have him be eligible for the postseason, the defending AL East-champion Detroit Tigers made a trade with the Baltimore Orioles, acquiring 36-year-old outfielder Fred Lynn.
The deal cost the Tigers three prospects (one of whom, Chris Hoiles, later established himself in the majors as a power-hitting catcher). They were leading the division by two games, corner-outfield production had hardly been one of a mediocre offense's biggest problems, and they wouldn't add an above-average starter to the rotation.
The best part? While the deal went down on the 31st, it missed the actual deadline, so Lynn wouldn't be eligible to participate in the playoffs if the Tigers held their lead.
Nonetheless, the Tigers made the deal. Lynn was placed in left field and hit .222/.265/.467 in 98 plate appearances, starting even against left-handed pitchers, whom he mostly hadn't hit in years. Since Tigers left fielders had hit .300/.352/.434 to that point, this wasn't an improvement. They went 11-17 in September as the rest of the offense flatl-ined, and lost the division to the Boston Red Sox. The previous year, the Tigers had made the great John-Smoltz-for-Doyle-Alexander deal in August, but a year later, Lajoie's efforts were both late and misdirected.
That same risk attends any move made by the American League playoff and wild-card contenders. As of this morning, there are three teams tied for two wild-card spots: the A's, Orioles, and Tigers, with the Rays a half-game back, and the Angels a full game behind. Add in the three division leaders and that's eight teams in a 14-team league with a serious stake in the outcome of the race. The August 31 deadline has become very quiet in recent years, but if any quality players can be gotten through waivers, the temptation to make a deal will be strong.
Generally, only the biggest salaries will make it through waivers. On the other hand, Jose Mijares wandered all the way through the system to the San Francisco Giants just a few days ago, so perhaps anything is possible.
The AL has, depending on the team, approximately 50 games to play, or almost a third of the season. Thus, a deal executed between now and August 31 has a chance to make a decisive impact, although less so with every passing day. This is particularly true of starting pitchers, who can play just once every five days. As the Tigers discovered, you snooze you lose, especially if you apply the Band-Aid to the wrong spot.
There is also the risk of trading cheap, controllable, high-upside youth in pursuit of what will prove for some to be an embarrassingly futile reward; the one-and-done playoff play-in game. Fans, increasingly educated as to the value of prospects (in many cases making them more of a focus than the finished product, like aficionados of truncated cinema who avidly watch trailers but never the actual film) rail against what they perceive as giveaways. There is truth to this; too many such deals are ultimately self-defeating, as a couple of decades of George Steinbrenner Jay Buhner-for-Ken Phelps-type deals will attest. At the same time, fans also like championships, presumably more than they do the coming attractions, so teams looking to make a deal face a difficult decision above and beyond the question of whether they should splurge on the ugly contracts usually available at this time of year.
Consider the Oakland A's as an example of the precarious situation in which these teams find themselves. Six years removed from their last postseason appearance, the surprisingly competitive Beane-men still aren't drawing, a disappointment that might actually help them in the long run. Of course, they have to win to point out that they built it but the fans didn't come. In a close race, tolerating even one replacement-level position can change the outcome; the A's are currently living with two that are well below: third base, where defrocked Tiger Brandon Inge currently displays his good-field, no-hit stylings, and shortstop, where Cliff Pennington recently returned from a three-week stay on the disabled list to continue the worst season of his career. Oakland's .185/.251/.293 production at short doesn't quite live up to worst-of-the-century levels, not while Yuniesky Betancourt's resumé still exists for all to see, but it's somewhere in the bottom of the bottom ten. The team's aggregate .198/.243/.342 production at third isn't a century-worst mark either, but it's not far off.
In addition, Oakland's bullpen has been effective overall, but the endgame, currently in the hands of Ryan Cook, could use work. One of the curious aspects of the late trading deadline was how insignificant the traffic in relievers seemed. About a dozen relievers changed hands, but closer-types were hard to come by. Teams have rightly become wary of trading long-term assets for short-term ones, and no category of player is of more transient value than the reliever. That doesn't mean a need isn't a need, but Billy Beane is the least-likely GM on the planet to get suckered into a deal for "an experienced pitcher" with "a closer's mentality" ... someone like the Brewers' Francisco Rodriguez, for example.
Even if the A's felt that they could afford the last four to six weeks of K-Rod's $8 million contract, even if he pitched well for them, that would still leave the infield as a massive problem. But then, all of these teams are flawed or they wouldn't be wallowing around the .530 mark. No doubt each of them wants to acquire the talent to elevate themselves above that status, but the clock is ticking, the risk is great, and the chance of reward small.