There’s something ‘icky’ about those waiver dumps

The Angels dumping their players on waivers was a problem, but the Guardians scooping up so many of them is its own issue, too.

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I haven’t taken the time to write about what the Angels did before the postseason eligibility waiver deadline, when they placed 20 percent of their roster on waivers and told the rest of the league to have at it just so they could save a few bucks. And at this point, basically everything there is to say about it has been said, but still, there are some things about the whole ordeal I’d like to reaffirm, with the help of a couple of pieces that have run at Baseball Prospectus on the subject.

Patrick Dubuque, as I linked to last week, wrote about rules, and how there is always someone looking for a loophole, which makes acting within the rules the correct thing to do in a very general sense. That point of view forgets who makes the rules, though, which is how we end up with something like the Angels very obviously just trying to drop their chances of exceeding the luxury tax threshold and looking to gain a better compensation pick if Shohei Ohtani leaves as a free agent this offseason.

Whenever you have rules for anything, you get people who defend those rules to the death. It’s not necessarily a terrible instinct; after all, we have a deeply ingrained sense of fairness, and rules give us a clear set of shared standards to work with, an even playing field. Loopholes are just part of the game, the same way that lines are for suckers that aren’t smart enough to cut their way to the front.

But rules should change when there are better rules. To say that the Angels are just doing what the rules allow ignores one key element: That the Angels, as part of baseball’s ownership, made those rules. They helped set the CBT limit that now plagues them, and simultaneously allows them to pretend their hands are tied. Like so many things in business, it’s a hot dog man situation.

They’re doing what makes logical, rational sense within the construct of MLB’s rules, but there’s a reason this kind of behavior is described as “cold” and “calculating.” There’s an element of sharpness to it that is uncomfortable, even if it makes sense: some kind of “well it’s against the spirit of the rules” or some unspoken contract that says you shouldn’t bend the rules in your favor in this way. To quote Russell Carleton’s own piece on the subject, the feeling all of this elicits is “icky.”

The potion that led to the Guardians grabbing a quarter of a pitching staff from the Angels was a perfect brew of several factors coming together, and like everything else in modern baseball, it makes logical sense, but it feels kinda icky. On July 31st, the Angels were half a game out of a Wild Card spot. Shohei Ohtani was still capable of pitching. Mike Trout was eventually coming back from injury. It’s not a great hand to play, but it’s hard to fault them for giving it a whirl, particularly in the last year of Ohtani’s contract.

By August 30th, the Angels were tied with, well… Cleveland in the win-loss column, but without the luxury of playing in the AL Central. Ohtani’s magical unicorn horn and his UCL were broken. Mike Trout played one game in August and then got hurt again. It’s hard to fault them for giving up. In years past, there would have been a remedy for the Angels, but in 2019—why does that sound like so long ago?—the players association and franchise owners mutually agreed to do away with the August waiver trade deadline. The idea was that it would be an anti-tanking measure. (Heh.)

Both Dubuque and Carleton suggest, for different reasons, that a new rule is a solution. Dubuque’s piece discusses the case of Eddie Stanky and the rule that was created to combat his own behavior in the field, behavior that the rules did not cover yet, but clearly, after Stanky figured out a loophole in the “they don’t say I can’t do this” sense, was necessary. Carleton sees the same problem as Dubuque — what if more teams start dumping their rosters like this in August just to save a few bucks and making a team that’s not quite good enough even worse? — but with the additional concern of, “What if a team like the Guardians picks up all of these players and then wins the World Series?”

That doesn’t sound so bad on the surface — the Guardians added a little bit of salary and are a better team than they were before they scooped up a trio of starting pitchers they needed — but consider the possible ramifications in a league where loopholes and rational thinking are always at the fore. What this behavior of the Angels (and Guardians) will encourage is more teams dumping, and more teams knowing that someone will be dumping, meaning, they don’t need to try to make a big trade in July, or, even further back, promote that prospect despite a desire to control service time because the roster needs them sooner than later, or, before even that, do all that much to improve in the offseason. Being kind of there, on the periphery, by the time someone gives up in late-August, might be your ticket to the hot September you need, without all that pesky effort and spending and commitment into the future.

Now, you’re thinking, “well, not every team can benefit from this, the conditions need to be just right for it to work.” Sure, but only one team could end up with the number one draft pick for having the worst record, and just one team can win the World Series each year, and that didn’t stop multiple teams from very obviously tanking for draft position each summer in the hopes of building a cheap super roster out of homegrown players that would eventually bring them to postseason glory a la the Cubs and Astros. Crowding the space made the chances of success much less likely, but that didn’t stop the gathering. Not when there were additional benefits like, oh, not spending money, and then pocketing all those revenues that teams receive simply for existing because there was nothing to spend them on.

This wouldn’t be quite as significant a concern as tanking, especially since the most likely beneficiaries are teams in terrible divisions that aren’t any good in a vacuum, but you can see where some AL Central club knows they’re on the bubble, whether in January or July, and would consider just not trying as hard as they could to improve, because hey, maybe they’ll be the ones to benefit in August, thanks to the way waivers work through reverse record. Carleton is right, that waiver priority should maybe be reset once you pick up one player through them — I mean, this is how it works in fantasy baseball leagues, everyone, so one club can’t get every available waiver player all at once. Something has to be done, before this is all perceived as not just a possibility, but the rational, logical way to build a potential winner. By not trying all that much at all.

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