There’s a chance that you woke up this morning and saw this headline in the Post: “Yankees Burnett, Posada on trade waivers.” For the uninitiated, this might have induced a spit take. We normally associate waivers with releasing a player. Are the Yankees really going to cut bait on two underperforming veterans?
Absolutely not. In August teams place many of, if not most of, the players on their 40-man roster on waivers. It’s part of the process that allows them enact trades for the rest of the month. It does call for a quick explanation, as a primer for those who haven’t heard of trade waivers, and as a reminder for everyone else.
On Sunday at 4 p.m. the period where major league teams could freely exchange players expired. This is typically referred to as the trade deadline, but it’s really the non-waivers trade deadline. Teams can still swap players in August, but they need to pass through an additional obstacle. That is, a GM can trade any player in August as long as he clears waivers, which necessarily means placing him on waivers. And so we’ll see stories in the coming weeks about X and Y players being placed on waivers. Make little of these.
Let’s use Burnett as an example. Let’s say that Cubs GM Jim Hendry truly has lost his mind, and he puts in a claim on Burnett. The Yankees then have three options. They can work out a trade with the Cubs, they can simply dump the remainder of Burnett’s contract on the Cubs, or they can pull him back. Tempting as it might be to foist Burnett’s contract on some unsuspecting GM, I imagine the Yankees would revoke the waivers on Burnett and keep him on the team. They can place him on waivers again, in an attempt to pass him through, but you can only pull back a player once. If he gets claimed a second time, he’s property of the claiming team.
The entire point of trade waivers is to see who passes through unclaimed. Once a player clears, his team can trade him anywhere else. Chances are the better players in the league, especially ones with reasonable contracts, get claimed and therefore are blocked from any deals. For instance, if the Yankees put Brett Gardner on waivers he’d certainly get claimed. The Yankees would then pull him back, and that would be the end of any trade possibilities involving him. Chances are, the Yankees won’t even both placing Gardner on waivers. But you can be damn sure they’ll use the waiver process for all of their high-priced veterans. In fact, according to the Post, they’ve also placed Rafael Soriano, in addition to Posada and Burnett, on waivers.
Teams can also swap players not on the 40-man roster, which certainly creates opportunities. So while the Yankees cannot trade Dellin Betances, since he’s on the 40-man roster and hasn’t a prayer of clearing waivers, they could conceivably trade Adam Warren or Jesus Montero this month if it meant upgrading the major league roster. Of course, they’d have to find a player on a major league roster who has already cleared.
Any team can place a waiver claim, but when awarding the claim it goes to the team with the lowest win percentage in the same league. That is, if the Red Sox and the Astros put in a claim on Burnett, the Red Sox are awarded the claim, because they’re in the American League. But if the Astros and the Phillies put in a claim, the Astros are awarded, because they have the lower win percentage. (Same goes for, say, the A’s and the Red Sox.) This process leads to many trailing teams placing claims in order to block contenders from swinging a deal. This can be used both to block significant pieces and to block trade chips. For example, in 2009 the Yankees placed a claim on the Red Sox Chris Carter, because that muddled the deal that sent Billy Wagner to Boston.
The report of Burnett, Posada, and Soriano being placed on waivers is probably not the last of its type you’ll see this month. In itself, it is meaningless. It does become a bit more reasonable if they clear, but even then there is little to no chance that the Yankees would deal any of these players. In fact, there’s almost no chance they trade anyone on their major league roster, so we can effectively ignore trade waivers from them. What’s meaningful is seeing what players on non-contenders clear waivers. Those are the ones that could possibly help down the stretch run.