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July 23, 2010

Ahead in the Count

Buyers and Sellers

by Matt Swartz

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Adding players halfway through a season is worth far more to a contender than half of their full-season value. Those players can make in a difference in a situation where a couple of games could make or break a team's season. The Mariners traded for Cliff Lee in December 2009 with the expectation that he would help them contend for the American League West title in 2010, but it turns out that an underperforming offense rendered his wins useless towards that goal and they traded him to the Rangers two weeks ago. However, any team competing for the National League wild card knows that it will probably be decided by a couple games and that one big acquisition can make the difference. Sometimes adding two wins in a half season from a four-win player does more for a team's playoff odds than adding four wins for a full season. As an extreme example, consider two teams who are tied for the division lead with one game left to play against each other. How much would they pay for an ace? Certainly more than 1/162 of his value because the odds of that pitcher pushing a team over the top are very high.

This naturally begs the question of which teams would get the most value from adding any of the remaining players on the market. Players like Dan Haren, Roy Oswalt, Jayson Werth, and Prince Fielder can all add about four or five wins over a full season, and still could generate a couple extra wins for a team in the final two months. Thus, I created the following tables for each division explaining the estimated impact of adding a 4 1/2-win player on each team’s playoff odds and championship odds (through Wednesday’s games). These use the PECOTA-adjusted Playoff Odds Reports to generate a distribution of possible records after a hypothetical trade and the associated odds of winning enough games to make the playoffs. I also used the log5 method for post-season games to create a rough estimation of each team's championship odds with and without that 4 1/2-win player. These numbers certainly give a decent estimation of what happens to a team's odds upon making the playoffs. I used the same adjustments to approximate pre-season projected standings and odds, and considered the effect of adding a 4 ½-win player to teams at the beginning of the season, too.

AL East
Pre-Season Playoff and Championship Odds

Team

Playoff Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds Added

Champion-ship Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds Added

Yankees

53.2

78.7

25.5

9.6

18.9

9.3

Rays

53.3

78.8

25.5

9.6

18.9

9.3

Red Sox

76.4

92.5

16.2

13.7

22.2

8.5

Blue Jays

0.0

0.1

0.1

0.0

0.0

0.0

Orioles

0.5

3.0

2.5

0.0

0.3

0.3

July 22 Playoff and Championship Odds

Team

Playoff Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds Added

Champion-ship Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds Added

Yankees

92.8

97.3

4.6

17.0

23.9

6.9

Rays

83.1

92.4

9.3

12.9

18.1

5.2

Red Sox

22.2

37.9

15.7

3.4

7.4

4.0

Blue Jays

0.3

1.0

0.7

0.0

0.1

0.1

Orioles

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

The three best teams in the AL East are probably the three best teams in baseball. Going into the season, that certainly appeared true, but only two teams can make the playoffs from one division. This put a premium on wins, which explains why the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays had the most to gain by adding a star at the beginning of the season.

Closing in on the July 31 trade deadline, the Yankees still have a lot to gain by adding a star player, even though they are very likely to make the playoffs regardless. The Red Sox and Rays both stand to gain by adding a star player as well, though the Red Sox have less to gain. The Red Sox find themselves the likely odd team out as they are 4 ½ games behind the Rays for the AL wild card, but they could increase their chances to about 38 percent if they added a 4 1/2-win player. If they did reach the playoffs, even a likely home-field disadvantage would not change the fact that they would probably be favorites in any series against an AL Central or AL West team. The Rays stand to help themselves more by adding a star, because they would increase their odds of putting away the Red Sox, and they have a better chance of utilizing the star in their playoff battles as well.

The Blue Jays and Orioles appeared to be sellers at the beginning of the season, and nothing has changed. Compared to a contender who often stands to increase its odds of reaching the playoffs by about 6 percent for every win worth of talent it adds before the season starts, these teams would have no real changes in their playoff odds by adding a star.

In summary, as of right now, I would suggest the following decisions on the part of teams:

Yankees: Strong Buy
Rays: Strong Buy
Red Sox: Strong Buy
Blue Jays: Strong Sell
Orioles: Strong Sell

AL Central
Pre-Season Playoff and Championship Odds

Team

Playoff Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds Added

Champion-ship Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds Added

White Sox

24.0

50.0

26.1

2.6

7.5

4.9

Twins

34.7

62.4

27.7

3.8

9.4

5.5

Tigers

24.0

50.0

26.1

2.6

7.5

4.9

Royals

4.9

17.3

12.4

0.5

2.4

1.9

Indians

19.4

43.8

24.4

2.1

6.6

4.4

July 22 Playoff and Championship Odds

Team

Playoff Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds Added

Champion-ship Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds Added

White Sox

61.3

77.3

16.0

6.6

10.2

3.6

Twins

23.1

38.9

15.8

2.5

5.1

2.7

Tigers

16.4

30.3

13.8

1.8

4.0

2.2

Royals

0.0

0.2

0.2

0.0

0.0

0.0

Indians

0.0

0.1

0.1

0.0

0.0

0.0

Going into the season, the Twins looked like a slight favorite to win the AL Central, and adding a 4 1/2-win player could have increased their Championship Odds by 5.5 percent. While some players have underperformed, the larger damage to the Twins' playoff chances has been stronger than expected performances from the Tigers and White Sox. Even adding a star now would only push the Twins towards the 39 percentrange, so they are likely better served not to make a move. I do not think it would be wise for a team still very much in contention to start trading pieces away, but if they fall back a few more games before the deadline, the Twins could probably get some return on Carl Pavano, Orlando Hudson, Jim Thome, and Jon Rauch. Those players could each plug holes for contenders.

The White Sox suddenly find themselves on top of the AL Central and adding a star player would vault their odds of making the playoffs by about 16 percent. However, their playoff odds are strong enough without making a move that I would only advise a weak buy. They are not likely to be favorites in any playoff series, and risking too much on this season would not be wise.

The Tigers are also in a position where they should only consider buying, and should be very cautious about it. Even adding a 4 1/2-win player would move them up to about a 30.3 percent chance of making the playoffs, where they would also be underdogs. The Tigers may gain a lot more by saving their bullets for the offseason, and assessing whether adding big-name players can vault them in front of the Twins and Tigers.

Like the AL East trailers above, both the Indians and Royals should be looking to get market value for players that are unlikely to be part of their next championship team.

In Summary
White Sox: Weak Buy
Tigers:
Hold
Twins:
Hold
Royals
: Strong Sell
Indians:
Strong Sell

AL West
Pre-Season Playoff and Championship Odds

Team

Playoff Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds Added

Champion-ship Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds Added

Rangers

34.7

62.4

27.7

4.2

10.0

5.8

Angels

15.3

37.7

22.4

1.8

6.0

4.2

Athletics

24.0

50.1

26.1

2.9

8.0

5.1

Mariners

34.7

62.4

27.7

4.2

10.0

5.8

July 22 Playoff and Championship Odds

Team

Playoff Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds Added

Champion-ship Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds Added

Rangers

86.7

94.2

7.5

13.0

14.1

1.1

Angels

10.9

21.7

10.8

0.4

1.2

0.9

Athletics

3.0

7.6

4.6

0.1

0.4

0.3

Mariners

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

With the AL West race leaning strongly towards the Rangers even before the Lee trade, it probably did not make much sense to acquire him. While Lee certainly helps the Rangers’ chances of begin competitive in the playoffs, there is a real ceiling in terms of how much he could add to the their already-good chances of getting there. At this point, the Rangers should not go in any further. With a very strong farm system that makes them likely contenders for many years to come, it is not wise to trade away players that have a good chance of being part of winning squads in a couple years.

The Angels certainly should consider trading away parts at this stage if they get blown away by an offer. The Rangers have a few extra games in the bank already and a much better team with Lee aboard. The Angels do not have much to trade, as many of their players are under contract through 2011 when Los Angeles will likely have a better chance, but they should be listening on guys like Hideki Matsui and Brain Fuentes.

The Athletics and Mariners should be in sell mode. In the game's smallest division, both could be contenders very quickly, but to catch up with the Rangers, they should be looking to see what they can get to make it a fairer fight.

In Summary
Rangers: Hold
Angels:
Weak Sell
Athletics:
Strong Sell
Mariners:
Strong Sell

NL East
Pre-Season Playoff and Championship Odds

Team

Playoff Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds Added

Champion-ship Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds Added

Braves

46.9

73.8

26.8

5.2

12.5

7.4

Mets

15.3

37.7

22.3

1.2

4.9

3.7

Phillies

59.5

83.1

23.6

7.4

14.5

7.1

Marlins

15.3

37.7

22.3

1.1

4.5

3.4

Nationals

4.9

17.3

12.4

0.2

1.4

1.1

July 22 Playoff and Championship Odds

Team

Playoff Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds Added

Champion-ship Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds Added

Braves

88.0

95.0

6.9

9.2

15.8

6.5

Mets

12.1

23.8

11.7

1.0

3.1

2.1

Phillies

11.4

22.8

11.4

1.0

3.0

2.0

Marlins

3.4

8.5

5.1

0.3

1.1

0.8

Nationals

0.0

0.1

0.1

0.0

0.0

0.0

One way of looking at the Phillies' decision to trade Lee was that they would have been pre-season favorites in the NL East with or without him, and the playoffs are enough of a crapshoot that they might have been better off trading for the future because simply being favorites in 2010 did not make them guaranteed winners. This was flawed thinking, which underestimated the young Braves team that underperformed in 2009, and also ignored the natural variance in win totals around one’s true talent level. In fact, the Phillies actually stood to gain more from a 4 1/2-win player than 25 other teams in the league. Now, the Phillies are far enough behind that even adding a 4 1/2-win player would add only about 2 percent to their championship odds, while many other teams in the league could increase their championship odds by 6 or 7 percent. The best decision would be to hold, and to trade Werth for young talent if they continue to skid before the deadline, and not trade for Oswalt.

On the other hand, the Braves have a chance to really improve their chances in the playoffs by adding a 4 1/2-win player. They will probably win the NL East either way, but they can strongly help their playoff odds with another great player as well, since they could not only increase their chances of home-field advantage but of being the best team in every post-season round.

The Mets looked like they were in trouble going into 2010, but they are still in pack, albeit toward the back, of six teams competing for the NL wild card. For the Mets, who are not necessarily any better than the other five wild-card contenders, small upgrades could be helpful but an eye on the future is more important.

The Marlins and Nationals have basically sunk 2010, and should be looking to trade what they can.

In Summary
Braves: Strong Buy
Phillies: Hold
Mets: Hold
Marlins: Strong Sell
Nationals: Strong Sell

NL Central
Pre-Season Playoff and Championship Odds

Team

Playoff Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds Added

Champion-ship Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds Added

Cardinals

65.5

86.7

21.3

8.2

15.2

7.0

Reds

11.9

31.9

20.0

0.7

3.2

2.5

Cubs

15.3

37.7

22.3

0.9

3.8

2.8

Brewers

15.3

37.7

22.3

0.9

3.8

2.8

Astros

15.3

37.7

22.3

0.9

3.8

2.8

Pirates

4.9

17.2

12.4

0.2

1.2

1.0

July 22 Playoff and Championship Odds

Team

Playoff Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds Added

Champion-ship Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds Added

Cardinals

85.5

93.6

8.2

7.4

11.9

4.5

Reds

47.1

64.8

17.7

4.1

8.2

4.2

Cubs

0.1

0.5

0.4

0.0

0.0

0.0

Brewers

0.1

0.2

0.2

0.0

0.0

0.0

Astros

0.0

0.1

0.1

0.0

0.0

0.0

Pirates

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

The Cardinals seemed like they would run away with the NL Central before the season began, but the Reds have put up a strong fight and are still only a game and a half a game behind St. Louis. At this point, both the Cardinals and Reds should be looking to buy. The Cardinals have the better team, and are more likely to emerge now that they have retaken the division lead, but with both teams in good position to get the wild card, neither team should give in.

On the other hand, the other four teams in the NL Central have fallen from contention and should be looking to trade what they can.

In Summary
Cardinals: Strong Buy
Reds:
Strong Buy
Brewers:
Strong Sell
Cubs:
Strong Sell
Astros:
Strong Sell
Pirates:
Strong Sell

NL West
Pre-Season Playoff and Championship Odds

Team

Playoff Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds Added

Champion-ship Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds Added

Padres

3.5

13.5

10.0

0.2

1.6

1.4

Giants

29.1

56.3

27.2

2.9

8.5

5.5

Rockies

46.9

73.8

26.8

5.2

11.8

6.6

Dodgers

24.0

50.1

26.1

2.6

8.0

5.4

Diamondbacks

24.0

50.1

26.1

2.6

8.0

5.4

July 22 Playoff and Championship Odds

Team

Playoff Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Playoff Odds Added

Champion-ship Odds w/o 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds w/ 4.5-win Player

Champion-ship Odds Added

Padres

64.6

79.8

15.2

7.3

13.2

6.0

Giants

33.4

51.1

17.6

3.0

6.6

3.6

Rockies

37.0

55.1

18.1

4.2

9.1

5.0

Dodgers

17.3

31.3

14.0

1.9

5.2

3.2

Diamondbacks

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

With the exception of the Diamondbacks, who should certainly be selling at this stage, the rest of the NL West is in contention. The Padres looked like they had the worst chances of anyone in the West coming into the season, but they put together a very strong first half, and look like one of the better teams in the league. The division is not yet won, and even at this stage, the odds of one of the other three division contenders going on a winning streak is high. This explains why the Padres only have a 65 percent chance of making the playoffs in spite of their four-game lead. However, a solid addition to their lineup could make a big difference for the rest of the regular season and in the postseason. The Padres should be looking to deal, but should also remember that their young squad should be competitive for several years if they do not trade away too much talent.

The Rockies are probably the best of the teams in the division, but at most, two teams from the NL West can make the playoffs. The Rockies also stand to gain a lot from adding a top player who could help them. The Dodgers are also very talented, but a horrible start to the second half has sunk their odds and moved their “strong buy” status to “weak buy.” The Giants might not be as good as the other teams in the division, so they are more likely to fall out of the race, but they have the pitching staff to match up with anyone. Adding a big bat might make a difference for them, but they should keep an eye on likely regression that could knock them out of the race anyway. The Giants should probably wait until the deadline to decide what to do.

In Summary
Padres: Strong Buy
Rockies: Strong Buy
Dodgers: Weak Buy
Giants: Weak Buy
Diamondbacks: Strong Sell  

Matt Swartz is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matt's other articles. You can contact Matt by clicking here

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