Sell at the MLB trade deadline? These teams didn’t and the move paid off

These last few days before the MLB trade deadline will be filled with opinion pieces arguing that a certain team exec would be an idiot not to sell off his prized assets.

Typically these are players who will be free agents or costly arbitration cases at season’s end. Why, the logic goes, lose them with no greater compensation than a draft pick when you’re out of the race?

The problem with that “logic” is that the teams in question may not be out of the race at all; people just think they are. Every season, virtually without fail, one or more teams makes an unexpected late-season run up the standings, sometimes even resulting in a surprise playoff berth.

Teams lagging five or more games from the final playoff spot as July turns to August are the perennial targets of this ‘sell’ speculation. Yet the surprising fact is that five-game or greater turnarounds are relatively routine this time of year. Just since 2017 — that’s the last five full 162-game seasons — 13 teams that were five or more games outside of a playoff position at the trade deadline have staged rallies of 30 or more percentage points by season’s end.

Three of them even qualified for the postseason tournament, and one won it all.

This is a look at some teams that proved August 1 isn’t necessarily the time to take the skeptics’ advice and sell.

Teams that didn’t sell at the MLB trade deadline and succeeded

2017 Minnesota Twins. At the start of play Aug. 1, 2017, the Twins stood 50-53, a .485 percentage, and in third place in the AL Central. They were 6.5 games behind the division-leading Indians and five games behind the final Wild Card team, the Royals.

At the trade deadline, the Twins made only one adjustment of consequence, trading their closer, Brandon Kintzler, to Washington. Even so they got hot, going 20-10 through August and finishing eight games above .500 at 85-77, a .525 percentage.

That 40-point lift in their percentage was enough to get the Twins the AL’s final postseason spot, overtaking Kansas City and holding off Tampa Bay and the Angels by three games. They were eliminated by the New York Yankees, but at least they did play October baseball.

2017 Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies were a desperate 39-64 when July turned to August in 2017  and  hopelessly out of contention. Team president Andy MacPhail and GM Matt Klentak traded away only a few veteran assets who were not front liners, notably Howie Kendrick and pitchers Jeremy Hellickson and Joaquin Benoit.

What transpired could not be described as a rally, but it certainly qualified as an improvement. The Phillies finished 27-32 after July 31, lifting their winning percentage from .375 to .407, a solid six-game advance.

2018 New York Mets. The Mets entered August of 2018 on the heels of a 25-4 beatdown from the Phillies and carrying a 44-60, .423 record. They were 13.5 games behind the division-leading Phils and 13 games out of the wild card race. They were, in short, toast.

What did GM Sandy Alderson do at the deadline? Not much, actually. He did trade second baseman Asdrubel Cabrera to the Phillies for a minor leaguer, but Cabrera was 32 and would not be missed.

The Mets played .500 ball in August, then rolled through September 18-10 for a 33-25 finish. It wasn’t enough to contend, but their .475 finishing percentage did represent a 56 percentage point pickup from July 1, and about a nine-game advance in the standings.

2018 Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays entered August of 2018 with a 54-53 record, 20 games behind the division leading Red Sox and 5.5 games behind the team holding the final Wild Card spot, the Oakland Athletics. GM Erik Neander took a mixed approach. He did send starter Matt Andriese to Arizona, Nathan Eovaldi to Boston and Chris Archer to Pittsburgh.

But he also got back assets, among them outfielders Austin Meadows and Tommy Pham and pitcher Tyler Glasnow. Pham and Glasnow became regulars as the Rays raced 36-19 through the season’s final two months, finishing third in the AL East. Their 90 wins still wasn’t good enough to gain a postseason spot (it took 97 wins to qualify that year) but the Rays improved by a solid 47 percentage points in the standings, finishing at .556.

2021 Atlanta Braves. The situation was not pretty in Atlanta at the 2021 trade deadline. The Braves sat at 52-54 on the morning of August 1, five games behind the division-leading Mets and nine out of the Wild Card. Not only did GM Alex Anthopoulos not sell, he did the opposite.

Anthopoulos went on a buying spree, one that actually began two weeks earlier when he got Joc Pederson from the Cubs for a minor leaguer. At the deadline, he added outfielders Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall and Eddie Rosario.

Suddenly, the Braves had a revitalized look. They won 36 of their final 55 games, improved their winning percentage by 61 points, and won the NL East by 6.5 games. They they rode that momentum all the way to a six-game World Series victory over the Houston Astros.

2021 St. Louis Cardinals. At the end of July in the 2021 season, the Cardinals were in almost as precarious a situation as the Braves. They stood third in the NL Central at a dead even .500, nine and a half games behind the Brewers and nine games out of the wild card.

They were in a classic “sell” position, except for one thing: Team President John Mozeliak didn’t’ sell, he bought.

It wasn’t the epic kind of spree the Braves went on. But Mozeliak did pick up veteran starters J.A. Happ and Jon Lester, the key loss being outfield prospect Lane Thomas. The two pitching pickups went a combined 9-3 as the Cards accelerated through the final two months, going 38-20.

That was enough to lift the Cardinals to 90 wins and clinch the final playoff spot. Their final .556 percentage was a 56 point upgrade from their August 1 standing, about a nine-game turnaround.

The 2018 Royals and White Sox, 2021 Blue Jays, Twins and Mariners and 2022 Cubs also staged major late-season turnarounds, although in all of those cases the teams were too far back to make a postseason run.

The lesson is simple. One-third of the season remains to be played, more than enough time for teams to climb the standings. If you believe in your personnel, the trade deadline may not be the time to engage in a panic selloff, no matter what you read.