The impact of confusing National League races on the MLB trade deadline

Fifteen years ago this month, at the end of June 2009, the National League wild-card standings were memorably tight. Then, there were only two wild-card teams per league and the difference between the second entrant and the team in ninth place was just 3.5 games. After being informed of those standings from 15 years ago, a current NL executive chuckled as he considered this season’s wild-card race.

“2009 can hold my beer,” he said. “This is going to be crazy.”

The parity in the NL is striking — so much so that some would call it mediocrity. Just four teams are above .500 (the Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers and Atlanta Braves). Meanwhile, the next nine teams are separated by just 1.5 games entering the second to last weekend of June. Only the Colorado Rockies and Miami Marlins are far enough from the postseason race to already be considered clear subtracters at the MLB trade deadline, which comes on July 30.

The expanded MLB playoff system, now in its third year, has given hope to many organizations eyeing the two additional wild-card spots in each league, but opinions in the sport still differ on what these teams should do over the next five weeks.

“I just think there is so much incentive to add, if you’re close under the new playoff rules that you could see a lot of teams trying to add pieces — and at the very least, not subtracting,” one executive said.

But another exec saw it differently: “I actually do think with the combination of an extra playoff team, draft lottery and teams very much valuing prospects, we are getting to a point where there might be a disconnect between buyers and sellers. On one hand, the few sellers with elite players would hold all of the cards, but on the other you might have a lot of soft-buyers who aren’t interested in breaking the bank to add a few percentage points to their odds.”

As the San Francisco Giants battle the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Mets face the Chicago Cubs (7 p.m. ET on “Sunday Night Baseball”) this weekend in series that could shake up the NL standings, ESPN asked six MLB executives and scouts to handicap what the middle nine teams will do at the trade deadline. Who is likely to add? Who is likely to subtract or stand still?

The sure adders: St. Louis Cardinals, Arizona Diamondbacks, San Diego Padres, Cincinnati Reds

The phrase “life cycle of a team” was used several times by executives discussing these organizations. For two of them, that could also be referring to the life cycle of their front offices: John Mozeliak has been a top decision-maker for the Cardinals since 2007 while AJ Preller has been the same for the Padres since 2014. While both have been to the playoffs fairly recently — San Diego made it to the NLCS in 2022 and St. Louis was a wild-card team the same year — our insiders don’t see either further setting themselves back at the deadline.

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