This is the time of year when fans of all 30 major league teams are most restless, not as much by the stifling summer heat as much as they are stoked by the over-anxious media counting down the hours to the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline.
Some hype it as if it presents an immovable barrier for teams to improve themselves and if lost, the chances of the home team to taste success in the current season go right out the window.
Nothing could be further from the truth, especially when looking at trades of veteran players with substantial contracts, which could be likely targets of a number of contending teams.
How do teams negotiate around this date, you ask? Well, as August is upon us, teams attempt to pass a significant number of the players on their roster through waivers, even if they don’t expect to move any of them.
There is no penalty for doing so, only upside. If a player clears, he can be traded anywhere until August 31. Or, of course, he can always be held without a problem.
It is important to note that if done only once during several waiver periods each season, this particular type of waivers, called Major League Waivers, are revocable, meaning the player can be pulled back even if he is claimed by another team.
As you might expect, teams with poorer records are provided the first opportunity to claim players, either to improve their team or to block other teams from making deals. More on that in a minute.
If one or more of their players are claimed, the waiver process provides an instant way for a team to ascertain where potential trade interest lies. If their player is claimed, they can try to work out a deal during a roughly two-day period with that claiming team and if that fails, still pull him back. No harm, no foul.
This is why general managers across the game point out to innumerable skeptical and non-understanding souls time and time again that they can still make important deals after the "deadline". July 31st simply doesn't have nearly as much meaning as many want to attach to it.
The names of these waived players are not made public, and even the players themselves are not told. Yet by mid-August each year, Peter Gammons and Jayson Stark of ESPN are among those who provide some of the waived players’ names as captured through their networks of contacts.
Last year, Gammons estimated that 350 players across the game cleared waivers. They reportedly included Mike Sweeney, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Piazza, Derek Lowe, Tom Glavine and Todd Walker. Other big names were Hank Blalock, Michael Young, Brandon Webb, Tim Hudson, Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Matt Clement, Johnny Damon, Curt Schilling, Jason Varitek, David Wells, Bobby Abreu, Chase Utley, Garret Anderson, Darin Erstad, Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields, Rickie Weeks, Carlos Beltran, Pedro Martinez, Jon Garland, Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia and Scott Podsednik.
One could form a pretty powerful roster from these pickings, if only a general manager had the salary flexibility to assume these hefty contracts and the players were actually available.
As you might expect, many, many other players were pulled back and some were never even sent through the process.
A great example here in 2006 of a player who might actually move via this process is Randy Wolf of the Philadelphia Phillies. Wolf has yet to pitch in the majors this season coming off Tommy John surgery and is on the final year of a four-year contract, making $9 million this season.
At best, Wolf is going to make one start before the July 31 deadline. Given the seriousness of his surgery, the recuperation time and the fact that he was not all that impressive in his 30-day minor league rehab assignment, what rival general manager would take on the remaining $3 million due to Wolf by acquiring him now?
On the other hand, let’s assume the Phillies pass Wolf through waivers in August. By mid-month, if Wolf has put together a few solid starts, he could become an ideal trade target, especially if the Phils are willing to pick up some of Wolf's salary in return for a prospect.
So, while I don’t know this for a fact, I would be amazed if Wolf isn’t among those players the Phils try to pass through waivers. And, there will be many other variations on the theme all over the game, often involving players with goodly-sized contracts.
However, there are also risks in the waiver process. Things can go wrong if teams put in claims for players not because they want them, but to try to block a competitor from getting them.
Any claiming team has to be willing to assume the player’s contract and keep the player in the majors, because the current team just might decide not to pull their player back. In that case, like it or not, the player becomes the claiming team’s property, if they are the lowest-priority team to put in a claim.
The textbook example occurred at the deadline in 1998, when reliever Randy Myers was claimed off waivers by the first-place San Diego Padres from the Toronto Blue Jays, in an attempt to block a rival from taking him, rumored to be the Atlanta Braves.
The Padres won the battle, but lost the war.
The Padres didn’t anticipate that neither the Braves nor any other lower-ranked team would claim Myers. The Jays turned around and told the surprised Padres to take him.
As a result, San Diego ended up eating $13.5 million dollars from the bad contract they were forced to assume. Myers’ major league career ended in injury following 21 ineffective outings with San Diego that season.
On the other hand, there are have been plenty of recent August trades, helped along by players who cleared waivers, that have benefited many teams. Here are a few examples from one team, the Cardinals, that illustrate the point:
August 6, 2004: Larry Walker waives his no-trade protection to join the Cardinals from the Colorado Rockies in return for minor-leaguers Chris Narveson, Jason Burch and Luis Martinez. Walker stabilized the Cardinals' outfield, hitting 11 home runs and driving in 27 in just 150 at-bats following the trade. He added six home runs and drove in 11 in the 2004 playoffs.
August 22, 2003: Sterling Hitchcock is traded to the Cardinals from the New York Yankees in return for minor-leaguers Ben Julianel and Justin Pope. Hitchcock went 5-1 down the stretch for the Cards.
August 2, 2001: Woody Williams joins the Cardinals from the San Diego Padres in return for Ray Lankford and cash. Williams went 7-1 the rest of the way that year for the Cards, totalled 45 regular season wins over his two seasons plus two months as a Redbird and contributed a 3-1 post-season record.
Those trades couldn’t have occurred without the big leaguers having first cleared waivers.
The thing to take away from this is that the July 31 trade deadline is far for absolute.
So, excuse me if I don’t stay up late this coming Monday night agonizing over all the deals of the day made and not made.
And, if nothing significant happens with your favorite team, I urge those who are teetering on the edge of violence to keep the torches and pitchforks in the barn for a few weeks longer.
Teams can and will improve themselves in August. It has happened before and it will surely happen again.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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