I understand the criticisms, but I still think that, overall, the second wildcard has been good for baseball. For a long time, the number of wins required to win that second wild card has been stable at around 89, which is a pretty attainable mark for a lot of ballclubs. As a result, even teams that project to be around .500 at the start of a year have a puncher's chance of breaking through into the postseason. More teams involved in the postseason chase means more excitement, which means higher attendance and television ratings, which means more money for Major League teams.
That said, the lowering of the postseason bar has had pretty serious consequences at the trade deadline, as fewer teams are willing to sell off assets if they still have a reasonable chance to be competitive. Of course, there are still only ten spots, and at the moment, there are 20 teams within five games of a postseason berth. Hell, in the American League, no team is more than seven games out. That means that a lot of clubs are going to go home disappointed. That disappointment will only be more acutely felt if the club refused falls out of contention in August, just after the trade deadline, and they have stubbornly refused to make lemonade from lemons and sold off their tradable assets. Indeed, that would make a tragic season all the more unbearable.
It takes guts to decide to sell if you've got a shot to contend, like the White Sox did in 1997 when the club sent Wilson Alvarez, the original Roberto Hernandez, and Danny Darwin to the Giants for six players, even though they were .500 and only three games behind the Indians in the AL Central. But the Sox read the tea leaves. They saw how good the Indians were and figured they'd get hot again. And they did; the Indians had the second best record in the American League after July 31. And for their prescience, the White Sox wound up with Keith Foulke and Bob Howry, amongst others, and stabilized their bullpen for the next five years.
But how can you tell them apart? How can you determine which teams are going to be in it for the long haul, and which should take the bold step of becoming sellers?
1) Trust the preseason projections and the Pythagorean record.
Every year a few teams jump up and surprise everyone out of the gate. Like the Twins, for instance. The Minnesota Twins have somehow muddled their way into a tie for the second AL Wild Card and to within five games of the Royals for the AL Central lead.
However, if you look at the projections, and at their performance, there's no way they should be four games above .500 at this point. Sure, teams play above their projections for stretches, but generally not for an entire season, and generally not enough to account for their deficiency in real talent. Cutting bait on 2015 would be exceptionally difficult, but would be the right move for this club in the long run.
Other examples: Tampa Bay Rays, Texas Rangers, Arizona Diamondbacks, New York Mets, San Diego Padres.
The Tigers had 2016 targeted for a final run at the World Series, having sent the last of their prospects packing to pick up David Price and Alfredo Simon, who are both in the last years of their contracts. But with Miguel Cabrera down with what sounds like a devastating calf injury that will have him out for a long time, and no other first baseman of note on their roster, and with a pitching staff that is already suspect, the Tigers could do well to trade Price and Simon and try to reload for 2016 and beyond. They can simultaneously help their club in the medium and long term while sacrificing this one.
Other examples: New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, Texas Rangers
3) How many teams are ahead of you?
The hardest part of coming from behind in the wild card chase is all the other clubs you have to jump over to get there, since many of them aren't exactly slouches. Like the Padres. They worked so hard to build a star-studded instant-contender this offseason. Now, six games under .500 and seven games back of the Cubs for that last spot. They also have four clubs ahead of them, including last year's World Champions, the Giants. Expecting to leapfrog all of those teams is folly. Even if the Padres do get hot, at least one or two of those other teams likely will as well.
Other examples: Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves, Arizona Diamondbacks, Texas Rangers, Cleveland Indians
4) Where are you in the success cycle?
If you're likely to have more than just this bite at the postseason apple in the future, you might be more willing to sell at the deadline. Look at the Twins again. So many of their players are young or at the start of long contracts. They have several more years to break through and don't need to be quite as desperate as a club like the Tigers or the Blue Jays, who are nearing the end of their competitive windows.
Other examples of teams on the upswing: New York Mets, Tampa Bay Rays
5) Who do you have you can trade?
Of course, all of this is predicated on your club actually having someone another team is going to want. And not just want, but want to give up actually decent talent to acquire. The Reds, for example, have Johnny Cueto, and aside from Cole Hamels (and maybe David Price), there isn't a better pitcher available this deadline. Cueto represents a huge upgrade to any rotation, and is fully capable of locking down a one-game playoff or the first game of a postseason series. And if he bumps the worst pitcher out of the rotation, he's even more valuable to a club.
Other examples: Detroit Tigers (Price and Simon), Oakland A's (Ben Zobrist), New York Mets (Jonathan Niese), Atlanta Braves (Jason Grilli)
None of which is to say that any of the clubs listed above has to sell. We still have 26 days in July for their fortunes to change. But GMs and owners need to view themselves as stewards, as well as competitors, and to lead their club in the right direction beyond 2015 as well. And those GMs with the fortitude to build for the future and weather the storm will likely be much stronger two years from now.