Fixing the Causes of the Trade Deadline Problem

Walt Jocketty can spend money to improve the Cardinals but can't find a way to do it wisely. It's not all his fault.

On Monday, the day after Major League Baseball's non-waiver trade deadline came and passed, many are praising Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty for ultimately doing nothing.

Granted, if the only option was to overpay to get a player who would not significantly help the team anyway, then the "no-decision" was a good decision. None of us will ever know if that, in fact, was the only option, though. Still, given Jocketty's track record and the lack of activity most everywhere, we have to give him the benefit of the doubt about the immediate happenings, or should I say non-happenings.

But, let's stop looking at the effects and get to the root causes of the problem. There are two factors which led to this current situation; one of which is not under Jocketty's control and the other, which was.

Let's take these one at a time, starting with the one that is bigger than Walt.

Why couldn't Jocketty and a number of his peers make the trade deadline deals they wanted? The answer is because the vast majority of the teams in both leagues still believe they have a shot at making the playoffs, or at least want their fans to believe it.

The primary reason for this is the advent and popularity of the Wild Card. Now, don't get me wrong. I am not going to launch off into a hopeless "Ban the Wild Card" diatribe. Despite its contrived nature and overinflated value come playoff time, no one can dispute the fact that the Wild Card is good for the game overall. It keeps interest higher in more cities longer in the season. That means greater fan support and more revenue for the owners.

However, just as the creation of the Wild Card signified a major change in the game, so should the trade deadline rules evolve to keep in step.

Instead of a July 31 deadline, why not make the non-waiver trade date at least two weeks later, say August 15? A couple more weeks of play will help more teams come to the realization that they should become sellers, not buyers.

If two weeks aren't enough for you, then how about making it a month? Consider moving that non-waiver deadline to the end of August and do away with the August trade via waiver month altogether.

To be eligible for participation in the playoffs, a player must be on his team's roster on September 1. That rule makes sense to ensure there isn't a lot of last-minute jockeying to artificially construct post-season rosters.

Under today's rules, players can still move between teams during August, but it requires them to pass through waivers. What that realistically means is that the only players who can move between teams are either those who are unwanted by others or more likely, those whose contracts are far too bloated when compared to the current contribution of the player (see Larry Walker trade).

Walker had been put on waivers prior to August 1 to facilitate a trade last season. He passed through waivers because any claimant would have had to assume the almost $18 million remaining on Walker's existing contract, a huge sum given his late-career status.

Each year, there are a number of veteran players who, like Walker last year, are quietly passed through waivers, enabling their teams to trade them during August if they so choose and are able to find a taker. As we learn more of those potential targets here in August 2005, we will share them. Still, it is difficult to get one's hopes up, as few August waiver deals of major significance are actually made.

Given all that, would it be such a bad deal to just eliminate the waiver trade month and extend the non-waiver trade deadline instead? If not, at least extend the latter and compress the former? Wouldn't that better reflect the realities of the game as played today?

Moving back closer to home, current options for Jocketty would seem to consist of a Mike DeJean-kind of trade (short-term rental of a reliever, traded for two players to be named later in August, 2003) or a Walker-kind of a deal (traded for three minor leaguers and a boatload of cash in August, 2004).

Again, what is needed for the latter to work is a willingness of the sending team to absorb a significant portion of the player's remaining salary just to see him leave.

It is a Catch-22 problem in many cases. If the player is good enough to potentially help the receiving team, then the sending team doesn't feel they should have to pay for the player to ply his trade elsewhere.

In the Cardinals' case, they want and need to get younger in the outfield. But, the players who may come available this month and who could pass through waivers would generally not fit that profile.

If the news on Walker and Reggie Sanders doesn't improve or if Jim Edmonds is injured again, Walt could still attempt a stop-gap move. But, as noted above, more likely, Jocketty may be forced to play out the rest of 2005 with basically the players he has. That is quite ironic given the fact that increased revenues enabled team ownership to authorize Jocketty to increase payroll now.

Still, I am not content to stop here. This leads me to my second factor, the one that Jocketty could have controlled.

The age and fragility of the Cardinals starting outfield has hardly been a surprise or a recent happening. As the 2005 club was assembled, this was identified as one of the major exposures, yet was not addressed early-on, when the price for players was more reasonable.

Since last winter, I have consistently and repeatedly projected that based on Sanders', Edmonds' and Walker's age and injury history, the Cardinals needed to come into 2005 with an experienced fourth starting outfielder who would get 120 starts during the season.

I took heat from a number of readers about that; some doubting that injuries would hit to that extent, while others added fears that the fourth starter might become dissatisfied due to lack of regular playing time and put clubhouse chemistry at risk. Right.

Based on the way it has played out, the only part of my prediction that was off is that it looks like my 120-game forecast was far too low.

Jocketty took a gamble that the club could get through 2005 with the outfielders they had. While the regular season may not yet be at serious risk, the final proof will not be known until late October, long after the time to act was passed.

Forecasting a playoff outfield with the corners manned by some combination of So Taguchi, Hector Luna, John Rodriguez and John Mabry should be cause for concern for everyone. Sure, Rodriguez has played well in his short time up and his story is a heartwarming one. Reminds me a bit of Bo Hart back in 2003. But, it should also be noted that by season's end, Hart's flame was not burning nearly as brightly as it had during the summer and of course, he never made it to the playoffs. And, even if J-Rod keeps it up, he can't be in multiple places at once.

The 2005 Cardinals could be on the cusp of a World Championship. Yet, standing pat may not be good enough to get over that final hump. And, there is no guarantee, despite a shiny, new, higher-revenue ballpark, that the 2006 squad will approach the consistent success of the 2004 NL pennant-winners and 2005 team to-date. I, for one, hope the Cardinals brass resolve to pull out the stops to maximize the chances of achieving the ultimate victory now.

In closure, no, Jocketty did not make any wild, crazy moves this past weekend, and that is understandable. However, he could have chosen to address the Cardinals' need back in the off-season and didn't.

Baseball's rules are clearly not helping Walt in his attempt to retro fix a problem that is now glaring. Even though he has recently been given money by ownership to increase spending to acquire an impact player, it may be too late for Jocketty to find a place to reasonably spend it.

Let's just hope there is no reason after the season to look back and wonder "what if"?

Brian Walton can be reached via email at

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