August 1, 2014
Professional Courtesy, and How August Works
As the waiver-trade period begins, I thought it might be useful to bring this back up, as a refresher on why good players somehow don't get claimed in August. Originally ran in 2012, the day the Dodgers claimed Adrian Gonzalez.
This is the thing that was confusing to me about August waiver claims. Take the Adrian Gonzalez situation. He was claimed by the Dodgers, but the consensus among writers etc. is that the Dodgers will have to give the Red Sox something good to convince the Red Sox to let him go. This means that
1. Every American League team, and most of the National League teams (who had waiver priority before the Dodgers), passed on Adrian Gonzalez. By the letter of the rules, each of these teams could have claimed him, and the only risk would be that they could get stuck with Adrian Gonzalez's contract if the Red Sox decided to let him go nothing. Some teams, surely, wouldn't have much use for him, but a bunch of others -- Rangers, Jays, Orioles, por ejemplo -- would. Therefore, we would assume no team in the AL, or most of the teams in the NL, thinks Adrian Gonzalez is worth his contract.
2. The Dodgers, by contrast, think he is worth that risk, so he is (at the least) worth taking on for nothing; and, if they engage in trade talks, they think he is worth taking on and giving something valuable up for. They think he is worth at least his contract.
3. The Red Sox definitely think he is worth more than his contract, because given the opportunity to shed it, they instead are asking for more incentive.
4. And even if a team didn't want Gonzalez and his contract, they would presumably be able to trade him to the Dodgers just as easily as the Red Sox can, which means Gonzalez has some value. So why not put in the claim anyway? So why did teams pass on Adrian Gonzalez if he (and his contract) are so valuable?
I hope you followed that. It's kind of a mess, but moving on.
All of this means that, if everybody behaved according to the letter of the waiver rules, we would conclude (wrongly, as you'll see) there is a massive spread of opinions on what Adrian Gonzalez is worth, just massive massive, and the Red Sox are way out of touch with almost every other team in baseball. But after a bit of reporting this afternoon, here's what I've learned.
It doesn't work that way. Hypothetically, let's say Evan Longoria were put on waivers. Every team in baseball would love to have him; every team would find a way to pay his contract. You would expect the Twins would put in a claim immediately and that would be that. But -- and this is hypothetical; I don't know what Longoria's actual status is -- almost every team would actually let him go through waivers without putting in a claim.
The August waiver period runs smoothly partly because of professional courtesy, and mutually assured destruction. If a team doesn't think Longoria is actually going to be traded to them, they won't put in a claim. This is especially true for non-contenders, who mostly sit on the sidelines during August. That's because they want their players to go through waivers without getting frivolously claimed. If a team starts claiming everybody, even with a) little chance of landing the player and b) no intention of putting together a trade package to make it happen, then its own claims will start getting blocked, in retaliation.
In fact, before a club puts a claim in, a socially astute GM will reach out to the waiving team to ask about their intentions. Are they really looking to move the player? What sort of return are they looking for? And so on. So while it's true that it doesn't mean a ton when you hear that your favorite team claimed [Star Veteran X], it does mean at least a little something. These claims are, for the most part, made in good faith.
The exception: The block, which is all part of the game. The Twins, as non-contenders, would likely not be blocking. But if a contending GM thinks his rival will try to claim or trade for a player, he might put in a claim to prevent the rival from having that chance. It wouldn't be in good faith, in the sense that that team might not have interest in adding that player; but it is, at least, relevant to the competition.
As you probably know, nearly every player on a 25-man roster will be put through waivers this month. But one estimate I heard is that only about 20 percent or so are actually claimed.
So it is not necessarily the case that the Rangers, Blue Jays, Orioles and the rest of the AL crunched the numbers and found Adrian Gonzalez's contract an albatross they were unwilling to take on. It could just mean that they didn't think they had a realistic chance of trading for him this month, and they didn't want to be that guy.