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Separating the trade deadline buyers and sellers in a crowded National League

What if Madison Bumgarner doesn’t need to be traded to pitch for a contender?

St Louis Cardinals v San Francisco Giants Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Major League Baseball trade deadline is approaching, and this year figures to be even more hectic than usual. There is only one trade deadline now, on July 31, thanks to rule changes last offseason, which makes these next two weeks very important in helping to shape certain playoff races.

In 2018 there were 45 trades of major league players between the MLB All-Star Game and July 31. That was the non-waiver trade deadline. Players could still be dealt in August, but those on a 40-man roster would have to first be placed on waivers. There were 28 more trades last August, but now that option is gone.

With a singular trade deadline, no players on a 40-man roster can be dealt in August. Buyers have to complete their shopping now, and sellers have less time than before to decide if they are even sellers.

A peek at the current standings shows how difficult that second question is.

The American League is easy, with six teams at least 10 games out of a playoff spot. They also happen to be the only six AL teams under .500, so congratulations Orioles, Tigers, Royals, Blue Jays, Mariners and White Sox. You are sellers. Enjoy your bounty of prospects in various deals over the next two weeks.

In the National League, yikes.

Entering play Wednesday, seven teams outside of playoff position were within 3½ games of a wild card spot, and eight teams within 4½ games. If you want to include the 43-51 Mets as in it at 5½ games back, well sure, but their general manager Brodie Van Wagenen all but announced last week that the club was a seller, countering his own preseason “Come and get us” boast with “They came and got us.”

Put New York in with the Marlins as sellers, but what other teams join them? That’s where it gets tricky.

While being only 3½ games back sounds good, it gets tougher when you have six or seven teams you need to pass to get into playoff position. Five of the eight teams within 4½ games have losing records. Welcome to chaos.

Let’s look at the standings, but with the addition of playoff odds from FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus.

NL Wild Card standings

Team W-L Pct GB FanGraphs odds BP odds
Team W-L Pct GB FanGraphs odds BP odds
Nationals 50-43 .538 +2 83.8% 65.1%
Phillies 49-46 .516 --- 24.7% 30.2%
Brewers 49-47 .510 ½ 34.0% 27.6%
Cardinals 47-46 .505 1 22.7% 43.6%
Diamondbacks 48-47 .505 1 18.0% 32.7%
Rockies 46-49 .484 3 6.8% 6.4%
Giants 46-49 .484 3 2.8% 1.3%
Pirates 45-49 .479 5.7% 4.5%
Padres 45-49 .479 5.7% 6.0%
Reds 43-49 .467 7.6% 11.0%
standings through July 16

The Reds have the biggest task ahead of them, needing to leapfrog eight teams to get into playoff position, but they are also one of only seven NL teams with a positive run differential. The average of their likelihood of making the playoffs from FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus is just 9.3 percent.

An under 10-percent chance to make the postseason seems like a decent signal to start selling, and would make for seven clear sellers in the NL, but what do we make of the Giants? San Francisco was in a clear rebuilding year from Day 1 this year, but 11 wins in their last 13 games paints a much rosier picture for them. They are only three games out of a wild card spot yet their playoff odds remain dire, at just over two percent on average. The Giants seem like they should still be a seller.

But we can’t on one hand scold teams for not trying to compete in the winter — the shriveling up of free agent spending on non-elite players is a real problem — then expect a team sitting only three games out of a playoff spot to shut it down and start selling off key players.

While the Giants cutting bait and accelerating a rebuild by trading players now — Madison Bumgarner and Will Smith, to name a few, would be fine additions for many contenders — might be a better read of their truly realistic chances, it’s rotten for the fanbase.

“Every pennant race and every opportunity you have to get to the playoffs has a ton of value. It has a ton of value to the fans and the organization, and we don’t take that lightly,” Giants baseball operations chief Farhan Zaidi told Alex Pavlovic of NBC Sports Bay Area.

But while things look chaotic in the National League now, the good news is a lot can change in two weeks. After all, just 14 days ago San Francisco was 6½ games out of a wild card spot, needing to leapfrog nine teams to get into playoff position.

The market always defines itself. There will be trades, and a lot of them in these next two weeks, especially as we get even closer to July 31. With no more August fallback deals to rely on, expect a flurry of deals. Then we’ll know who the sellers are.