But what makes this particular point in the year awkward? Well, you see, a lot of teams that shouldn’t still be winning are winning. No shame there; as an Orioles fan, I can tell you it’s actually pretty fun, in fact.* But it’s also a little confusing.
*Also, confusing. When I look at scores, my thought process still keeps saying “I’ll go to check how the Cardinals are doing, then how the other teams in the playoff hunt are doing, then oh wait the Orioles are closer to first than the Cardinals I should have checked them before all those other teams I don’t care about. Huh.”
See, there was a pretty clear plan for this year: suck, and hope that enough young players improve to the point where a playoff run in 2013 or 2014 is realistic while flipping any decent veterans who weren’t tied down long term for prospects who might help the franchise in said 2013 or 2014 playoff run. Kind of formulaic, but it sounded like a winning strategy. Well, obviously not this year, but you know what I mean.
But then, the Orioles went and won instead. And they’re hardly the only team that had this happen; the Pirates, White Sox, Dodgers, and Mets are all near the tops of their divisions despite predictions that they’d be, if not last, then at least not far from it. So that brings up the big question of: What now?
See, even if all of these teams are in first or second, that doesn’t change the fact that they are all also still rebuilding (or, at least, they all should be, to some extent, even if some of them are going about it in confusing ways). Trading away prospects for help now could help them in their fight for playoff spots. Also, there’s a bigger chance of payoff in the event they do swing a big trade, with the two extra wild card slots increasing playoff odds.
But, isn’t that at all counterproductive? You spend all this time trying to grow players to be better in the long term, then ship them off for short term help like Casey Blake or Matt Capps? Doesn’t that just hurt your team overall? Particularly if your team is just a one season mirage, or on the brink of descent into the divisional basement?
Really, I feel like there are two major ways to go about this, both illustrated by teams last year. You could take the Pirates method, or the Indians method (coincidentally, neither method worked out too well last year, but the methodologies are what’s important).
The Pirates refused to give up any major prospects, and instead traded for flawed players who, they gambled, might have enough left in the take to push the team over the edge. Through that thinking, they acquired Ryan Ludwick and Derrek Lee.* That worked out both better and worse than expected. Lee showed that, yes, he did have something left in the tank (when he wasn’t injured) and was capable helping a team in September. Ludwick showed that, no, he was pretty much a bench player at this point.
*Although, based on how he did in the first half with the Orioles, I was pretty convinced at the time it was actually Derek Bell committing identity fraud to come out of retirement after a decade.
Overall, it was really no net change, which makes it a little disappointing. However, by taking smaller parts, the Pirates managed to hang on to all of their pieces for 2012 and beyond, meaning they may still be able to string together several years of meaningful Septembers.
The Indians, however, went the opposite way; they went all out and brought in Ubaldo Jimenez. Jimenez has...not been himself lately, to say the least. But still, they went for it. A rotation with a healthy, at-their-peaks Ubaldo and Justin Masterson would make a formidable force down the stretch and into October. There was much more room for success than there was in taking the Pirates method. But, like in the Pirate method, it didn’t work.
Unlike the Pirate method, though, it cost the Tribe two former first round picks (and then some), players who may well be the next Ubaldo Jimenez, or possibly even better. Or maybe they’ll just be another mid- or back-of-the-rotation guy. We won’t know for a while. The point is, you may be setting yourself up for a run into the Championship Series, or even World Series. You may also be setting yourself up as the next big punchline. You may even be doing both simultaneously.
Fans of these teams now have to decide if that risk is worth it. Good luck with that.