Waiver Wire Acquisitions Necessary for Contenders

Jacob Eisenberg details an unnoticed pattern among recent World Series winners… 

Looking at the past five World Series Champions, a common pattern among them is that they acquired key reserve players at the trade deadline and utilized the following weeks’ waiver wire to complete their rosters for a postseason run. None of these teams made roster-altering trades; they simply found players to fill the niches their rosters needed.

In 2006, when the Cardinals acquired Jeff Weaver, executives around baseball didn’t think anything of it. Two months after the acquisition, it became clear the Cardinals wouldn’t have won the World Series without Weaver, who had a 2.46 Earned Run Average (ERA) in 29.2 innings pitched in the postseason. Weaver’s under-the-radar acquisition set the precedent for playoff contending teams to make low risk, high reward moves to propel their teams to a new level.

The following season, the Red Sox signed Bobby Kielty to a minor league deal just to add a fourth outfielder to the roster in case of a defensive substitution late in the postseason game. As luck would have it, Kielty delivered the World Series-clinching solo home run in game four to lead the Red Sox to a 4-3 victory over the Colorado Rockies.

In 2008, the Phillies certainly wouldn’t have won the World Series had newcomer Joe Blanton not delivered three consecutive quality starts in the playoffs on top of hitting a dramatic home run in game four of the World Series—the first home run by a pitcher in the World Series in over three decades.

In 2009, the Yankees acquisition of Jerry Hairston Jr. was considered a major disappointment at the trading deadline. Too focused on losing out on Cliff Lee and Jake Peavy, New Yorkers were peeved by the lack of initiative the team showed at the deadline. Little did Yankees’ fans know, Hairston was all the team needed; he became a key cog in the Yankees’ late-game situations due to his defensive versatility and his speed, a threat that the team had lacked all season. Hairston’s reaching base and scoring the winning run in the 13th inning of game two in the American League Championship series (ALCS) epitomized his impact. Of course, last year’s Giants team took the idea of utilizing the deadline and waiver wire to a whole new level.

It is clear that there is a relationship between mid-season additions, through the deadline or through waivers and post-season success. In the case of the 2010 Giants, six mid-season acquisitions compiled as late as Aug. 23 came together to propel San Francisco to a championship.

Baseball, as a game, is all about confidence. Baseball as a business is all about luck. Giants’ General Manager Brian Sabean has a whole lot of both. Sabean took flyers on former stars Pat Burrell and Jose Guillen, players that no other team was willing to risk anything on, and they both ended up carrying the Giants to a 45-29 post-All-Star break surge. On Aug. 23, Sabean made his final regular-season addition when he acquired Marlins’ outfielder Cody Ross. Sabean’s primary reason for claiming Ross off of waivers was to prevent the Padres from being able to do so. He didn’t plan to use Ross as much as extort his value from his rival, but as the GM’s luck would have it, Ross ended up becoming the Giants’ hottest bat in the lineup all postseason, as he lead the team with five home runs, including two dramatic blasts off of Roy Halladay in game one of the NLCS to give the Giants the lead in the series.

Here is another aspect to consider: knowing the past five World Champions had made minor acquisitions to tune up their rosters for a postseason run, is it a coincidence that on Aug. 23, 2010, the San Diego Padres held a five-and-a-half game lead over the Giants? On that day, the Giants acquired Ross, making him their sixth major pickup of the regular season. Fast-forward to Sept. 30, and the Padres’ six-and-a-half-game lead had become a three-game deficit. After leading the NL West for 148 consecutive days, the Padres found themselves eliminated from postseason contention. From the span of May 29 to Aug. 23, the Giants acquired six key contributors to the championship team; Ross, Burrell, Guillen, Fontenot, Lopez and Ramirez. From April 3 (opening day) to Oct. 4 (the season’s last day), guess how many players the Padres acquired.

If your guess is zero, you are correct.
It’s no coincidence that the Giants ended up getting hot at the right time, surging on to a postseason birth and eventual championship. It’s also not a coincidence that the Padres, who stayed put with the roster they already had, lost steam and eventually their division lead. The law that every general manager in baseball should know by now is this: if you don’t make even the smallest of tweaks to a potential hole in your team’s roster, that hole will become exposed and eventually ruin your chances of winning a championship.

For this reason, I can’t understand why any team within five games of a playoff spot wouldn’t sacrifice a prospect in order to acquire an established player who might help contribute to a playoff push. After all, you never know whether this is the closest to the playoffs your team will be for years.

For this reason, I commend the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians for acquiring Matt Diaz and Jim Thome, respectively, this week. Both teams are within striking distance of first place, and as history shows, a blockbuster trade isn’t necessary to give your team the shake-up it needs to chase down a playoff spot and win the World Series.

Originally Published in The Emory Wheel from September 12th, 2011

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