First, let's start with the act of placing a player on waivers. When you place a player on waivers, you are essentially offering that player and his contract to any team interested. Teams that put a claim in on a player on waivers are offering to take that contract as is, with no compensation to the team that the player belonged to. During the majority of the season, a team puts a player on waivers for one of two reasons. Either they want to get rid of the player and his contract, or want to send him to the minors outright but the player in question is out of options. And remember, if a player clears waivers (is not claimed in 7 days by another team) and is then released, their former team must pay the contract for the rest of the year. That's how Jeffery Hammonds is being paid $6.5 million for the year by the Brewers, but he's playing for the Giants for the league minimum while making that money. Sabean waited until he was off waivers to sign him.
The rules change a little in August, though. The July 31st trade deadline doesn't put a moratorium on trades; it only stipulates that for trades to occur after the 31st, the players involved must clear waivers first. Since the requirement for a player to be on the playoff roster is to be on a team's roster on August 31st, this is a whole month of new dealing that can be done.
Now, this seems at first to be ridiculous. If a good player is on waivers, why wouldn't you want to claim him, right? So, for trades to go through, it's unlikely to involve a big name or a key, quality player.
Well, that's partly true. Remember, if you claim someone off of waivers, you're getting his full contract for however long it lasts, and with a lot of lower level teams shedding payroll, it's unlikely for them to put in a claim on a big budget player.
Let's get back to the rules, and how the claims work. If there are multiple claims on a player on waivers, priority goes to the team with the worst record in that player's league. Say the Pirates waive Brian Giles. If only the San Francisco Giants and the Detroit Tigers put in claims, the Giants claim would be the ‘winning' one, because of the league priority. If no team in the player's league puts in a claim, priority then goes to the team with the lowest record in the other league.
Now, if a claim is put on a player on waivers, the team that waived him is allowed to pull that player off of waivers and not let him go. Or the team that owns the player can make a trade only to the team who made the winning claim (thus effectively blocking trades to anyone else). Or, of course, the team that did the waiving can let the player go, free of any compensation, to the team with the winning claim.
Got all that? Confusing stuff, and that's just the rules. Now comes the strategy in this feeding frenzy.
The fact that any player can be recalled off of waivers once a claim is put in on him means that putting any player on waivers (at least for the first time) is a risk free proposition. No matter what, they can keep the player if they choose to do so. However, by placing as many players as possible on waivers to see who clears them, a team does two things. First, they gain flexibility in moves they can make. Secondly, they can hide players that they are intending on trading in a mass of waivers, therefore reducing the possibility a trade will be blocked by another team trying to stay in the race.
Blocking possible trades are key at this stage for the playoff contenders. This is one of the few advantages the followers in a race have on the leaders, is the ability to muck up deals. But teams can't just put in claims on everyone. There is always the risk that they may claim a red herring, a player with a huge contract whose team will be happy to be rid of him, and suddenly a huge contract is weighing down the new team like an anchor in those shark-infested waters. This kind of thinking is ever important in a budget driven game like baseball.
And here in the strategy begins. Who is being placed on waivers to be traded? Who isn't? The cutthroat General Managers throughout baseball secretly love the strategy games being played for the next 25 or so days. It's almost like playing Stratego for millions of dollars. Now more than ever the rumor mill can't be trusted because much of it, if not the majority of it, could very well be misinformation put out to mislead other GM's. And then knowing that, some savvy GM's might put out the real information to make it sound like misinformation. And so on and so forth. And this is the real deadline time. Whether it's a battle to make the playoffs or looking ahead to the actual playoff series, the players who are traded in this month are often the make-it-or-break-it role players who are more the missing piece of depth or stability for a team. Guess right on a player someone else is trying to get, and you may have just gained the advantage in the NLCS. Get people thinking you're after Reggie Sanders and come out of the month with Rafael Palmeiro, and suddenly the tides change.
Welcome to the strategic thinking that it takes to be a GM. The waivers have started, and the blood is dripping into these shark infested waters. The only difference is that Bruce, the great white shark from the movie Jaws, would be afraid to be in the water with Brian Sabean, Billy Beane and Theo Epstein at this time of the summer.
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