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Does the second wild card ruin the trade deadline?

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Probably. Let's look at how teams chasing the second wild card have reacted at the deadline for an explanation.

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The trade deadline is in 10 days. There are no rumors. Why, did you hear any rumors? If you have a good Ken Rosenthal tweet, can you share it with me? I just sit in a dark room, favoriting and unfavoriting a tweet from the Ken Rosenthai imposter account, hoping it'll get me closer to the next real rumor. Can I have half of whatever rumor you just read? I'll gladly give you two rumors on Tuesday for a heard-this today.

This is the most boring deadline in recent memory, and there are a couple of theories why. The first is that the Reds are holding things up, hanging on to Aroldis Chapman and Johnny Cueto until the last second, hoping to build leverage. The idea is that no one is going to spring for Scott Kazmir or Jeff Samardzija early if they can get Cueto at roughly similar prices, so they're going to wait. It makes a fair amount of sense.

The second theory is that it's the second wild card's fault. It's always the second wild card's fault. It will forever ruin trade deadlines and make every team feel like they have a shot at the postseason.

Let's explore the tyranny of the second wild card, then. How many teams have been in deadline limbo because of it? How many regret it? How many of these teams set themselves back five years? How many of them overcame the odds and made the postseason?

So many questions. The second wild card has been around for just three postseasons now, but there have been a lot of teams in the deadline limbo. The qualifications for deadline limbo:

  • The team couldn't be within four games of its division
  • They weren't currently leading a wild card race
  • They had to be within five games of the second wild card

Got it? Not close to the division, but reasonably close to the second wild card. What have those teams done since 2012?

Sellers: 0
Minor buyers: 3 ('13 Royals, '13 Yankees, '12 Cardinals)
Active buyers: 3 ('14 Yankees, '14 Mariners, '13 Orioles)
Inactive: 4 ('12 Orioles, '12 Rays, '14 Marlins, '14 Reds)

There haven't been any sellers within five games of the second wild card. Theory confirmed: The second wild card is screwing up the trade deadline.

You probably expected as much, but there's the proof. I chose the arbitrary benchmark of "within four games of its division" because the 1997 White Sox were lambasted for the White Flag trade, and they were three games back in the Central. But it looks like teams are afraid to deal talent away when they're five games away from a play-in to a postseason series.

It's quite a mixed bag for the rest of the teams, though.

Buyers with regrets

The 2013 Royals were 53-51 at the deadline, seven games back in the AL Central and 4½ back in the second wild card race. They dealt prospect Kyle Smith for Justin Maxwell, a fourth outfielder. This was a very, very Royals move, ignoring the overwhelming odds and making an inconsequential move for no good reasons. This is exactly why Dayton Moore and the Royals haven't been successful since ... wait.

Still, while Smith isn't a great prospect -- and while the butterfly effect of the deal could have helped them win the pennant the following year -- I'm sure the Royals would rather have Smith back than the memories of Maxwell.

That's about it, though. It's too soon to tell for a lot of these trades, considering the nature of prospects, but there hasn't been a prospect dealt by a deadline-purgatory team who has filled their old team with painful regrets. Not yet. The 2013 Orioles traded some possibly useful pieces for Bud Norris, but he was under team control for the following year, and helped them make the postseason. The 2013 Yankees dealt a wild young pitcher for the Alfonso Soriano Reunion Tour, and the wild young pitcher is still wild, but a little older. Last year's Mariners traded Nick Franklin for Austin Jackson, but Franklin hasn't done much of anything for the Rays yet.

Little deals to improve postseason odds a little are usually of little consequence. Eventually one of these teams will really eat it and deal away the wrong prospect, but eventually one of them will get just the right veteran to make the postseason.

Buyers that looked like geniuses

N/A. There hasn't been a second-wild-card-chasing team that's been aggressive at the deadline and made the postseason. The odds were against all of them. They couldn't overcome the odds. Last year's Yankees tried to with Chase Headley and Martin Prado, and all that got them was the idea that Headley was worth a lot of money.

Do-nothing teams that looked like geniuses

The 2012 Cardinals -- four games back of the second wild card at the deadline -- traded Zach Cox for Edward Mujica and did nothing else. The 2012 Orioles didn't even do that much. The Orioles made the postseason, eliminating the Rangers, and the Cardinals were eventually a win away from the World Series. Those were the only two teams out of the 11 that made the postseason, and they didn't need outside help to get there.

Is there a lesson there? Maybe. The '12 Orioles could have dealt players away, but they were just a half-game back of the second wild card. And who would the Orioles have traded away? It's not like they were in a spot to have a fire sale, not after contending for the first time in years, and there weren't any pending free agents to jettison. Both the '13 Orioles and Cardinals were in a postseason race, too, so it's not like a fire sale would have helped them contend any sooner.

Sometimes just hanging back and doing nothing is the best course. Often times, that's the best course, even.

Inactive teams with regrets

Think about the sweet spot a player has to be in for a .500-or-so team to deal him. He can't be a franchise cornerstone, around for several years like Adam Jones or Giancarlo Stanton. He has to be someone approaching free agency or close to it. Dealing a player who could help the team the following season means the team is making its job tougher in the coming offseason. That's a rough thing to do when the current season isn't a disaster. It takes pessimistic foresight that's easy to second-guess at the time.

There's only one true what-if team in this group, then. The 2014 Reds were .500 at the deadline. They were 3½ games out of the second wild card, and 5½ games out of the NL Central. They had veterans to deal. Mike Leake was in the middle of an OK season. Mat Latos came back from an injury and made eight mostly solid starts. Jonathan Broxton was pitching well.

Johnny Cueto still had a year of team control. The reward of keeping him was a second-half surge and a contending season in 2015. The risk, well ...

There were risks. The Reds being too optimistic about their 2014 and 2015 chances at the 2014 deadline might have set them back a couple years.

Of course, that's all with the benefit of hindsight. The lesson of the second wild card affecting the trade deadline are that there are no lessons. Teams have done nothing and been rewarded with a postseason berth. One team did nothing and regrets it a year later. The teams that made minor or major moves don't regret them yet.

All of them held up the trade deadline, though, by refusing to trade all their good young players and veterans for juicy prospects.

Do you have any rumors? Spare a rumor? It's so cold in here. Considering the success of the '12 Cardinals and Orioles, though, it's hard to blame teams for the inactivity. It's a lot easier to hope for the best from the status quo than it is to look into the future and predict the collapse of a team like the Reds.

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