As has frequently been mentioned with trade talk dominating baseball discussion for the last few weeks, there will be a significant change in how MLB approaches the trade deadline this season: July 31 will represent a hard deadline on teams being able to complete deals, as opposed to prior years, where teams were able to make waiver trades in August, then deal freely in September (with the stipulation that players moved in those deals wouldn’t be eligible for the postseason). Since this will be the first time the deadline has taken place in this manner, it’ll be extremely interesting to see how it plays out. Early indications are that it might end up being a mess.
When this change was announced during the offseason, it was framed as something that would make the deadline easier to understand for fans — they’d no longer have to be told that July 31 was the “trade deadline,” only to see their teams still dealing or acquiring players for the next month — as well as for players, as they’d supposedly have the security of knowing where they’d be for the last two months, rather than having to move their families (or leave them and live in a hotel in an unfamiliar city) with just a few weeks left in the season. The interesting thing about the way the new system is playing out this year is that players may end up having less security — and being in worse positions to succeed — than ever before.
The most obvious example of this so far has been with the Cubs’ decision to trade for Royals catcher Martín Maldonado. Though Chicago and Kansas City had reportedly been in talks about a potential deal before Willson Contreras, the Cubs’ starting catcher, left Saturday’s game with a foot injury, the ailment (which caused Contreras to be put on the injured list as the corresponding move when Maldonado was added to the active roster) certainly helped to accelerate things. For now, Maldonado will partner with Víctor Caratini, who has been one of the majors’ best backup catchers this season, posting a .275/.353/.461 slash line while playing respectable defense.
But with the Cubs maintaining that Contreras’ injury is relatively minor, what happens when he returns? Whereas in past years they could’ve moved Maldonado to another team that suddenly needs catching depth in August, they now may be faced with a decision between releasing Maldonado (who is out of options) or demoting Caratini, who very much deserves to be in the majors, whenever Contreras is healthy. Maybe they’d be able to carry three catchers — a possibility that is made more feasible by Contreras’ ability to play the outfield and Caratini being able to cover both corner-infield positions in a pinch — but that’s certainly not a roster configuration that many MLB teams have successfully been able to stick with for extended periods of time. Either way, it doesn’t seem like a situation that will end well for Maldonado, a former Gold Glove winner who signed a $2.5 million deal with the Royals in March. He’ll either end up serving as a glorified bullpen catcher for the last couple months of the season or desperately trying to latch on with a new team after Contreras returns.
We’ll likely see teams deal with similar roster management issues as we get closer to the July 31 deadline, and during the month that separates the deadline and roster expansion. While the July trading deadline has historically been the point at which teams either make an earnest effort to get better or sell off their valuable assets, clubs have used the August waiver-trading period for years as an opportunity to add incremental depth. They’ve often sought to add veterans with playoff experience or guys with really good niche skills — middle-inning relievers, defensive specialists, pinch-hitters, pinch-runners, and backup catchers — who might not be able to stick on a contending 25-man roster for a full month, but can be squeezed in for a few weeks or in the hours before rosters expand to a 40-man maximum (players of this caliber to be dealt during last year’s August trading window included Ryan Madson, Cory Gearrin, Xavier Cedeño, Adeiny Hechavarria, Matt Adams, Lucas Duda, Terrance Gore, Drew Butera, and Chris Gimenez). Many of these players are out of minor-league options and therefore can’t just be stashed in Triple-A until rosters expand, so it’ll be much more difficult going forward for teams to make these sorts of incremental improvements without seriously shaking up their major-league rosters.
With the new deadline rules, teams either just won’t trade for those types of players anymore, or they’ll acquire them and then have to send their few players with minor-league options — many of whom are surely deserving major-leaguers if they’ve stuck in the big leagues this late into the season — to Triple-A until rosters expand on September 1, or at the very least until an injury occurs and a roster spot is freed up. And if they simply decide not to trade for these types of role players anymore, they’ll be left backfilling their rosters with their own minor-leaguers rather than with experienced major-leaguers when injuries inevitably occur over the season’s final two months, which means the product will probably end up being worse down the stretch and in the playoffs than it was before. For context, players acquired in August trades who have been impactful in recent postseasons include Cedeño, Madson, David Freese, Gio Gonzalez, Jay Bruce, Carlos Ruiz, Coco Crisp, and (most notably) Justin Verlander, though he’s admittedly a guy who the Tigers would’ve been more motivated to move in July had the current rules been in place.
Perhaps it would be best for MLB to take a page out of the playbook of the NHL — a league that has its transaction system in order better than any other major league — and slightly modify the rules that it’s scheduled to put into place next year. Under the NHL’s system, the 23-man roster limit goes away immediately following the trade deadline, but teams are limited to four recalls through the rest of the regular season. This gives teams the chance to trade for extra depth players and keep them in the NHL — or add impact contributors and bump existing role players from the regular lineup without just having to jettison them entirely.
With September call-ups effectively being eliminated after this season, MLB rosters will expand from 26 to 28 during the season’s final month rather than from 25 to a maximum of 40. But what if that expansion took place at the beginning of August instead? Like the NHL’s system, this would allow contending teams to “stash” a few extra high-caliber depth players on the major-league roster without having to send down an important contributor who happens to have options remaining, and it’d eliminate the largely pointless process of said contributors sitting around in the minors for a month and waiting for the call back to the big leagues on September 1. It’d be better for the players — so the league might want them to give something up in return — but then again, it’d make things easier on front offices, and with the players having given up as much as $18 million in potential revenue while trading 360 potential September roster spots for 30 season-long spots, perhaps the league would be willing to cut them some slack.
Beyond being bad for the players, the singular deadline disincentivizes teams from trying to compete. For example, consider the Giants, who — after an improbable July in which they’ve gone 11-2 while leading the majors with a .304 batting average, .910 OPS, and 27 homers — sit just 2.5 games out of the second NL Wild Card spot. But with San Francisco owning several of the best assets on the trade market — rentals Will Smith and Madison Bumgarner, plus 2020 free agents Sam Dyson and Tony Watson — its front office will be faced with a heart-wrenching decision on whether to express belief in a team that’s been the best in the majors this month, or to continue on with the plan to legitimately sell for the first time this century and cash in on some premium assets at a period in time where the organization is in need of more young high-end talent.
Of course, they largely would’ve had the same predicament under the old system, as several if not all of those players surely would’ve been claimed on trade waivers, severely limiting the Giants’ leverage since they’d only be able to negotiate with one team. But considering their unique circumstances, they certainly would’ve appreciated the extra flexibility, especially for fringier guys like Watson, Dyson, and Pablo Sandoval who would’ve been more likely to clear trade waivers. Instead, it’s very possible that they’ll conduct a fire sale at the end of this month, effectively punting on their season even as they’re well within reach of (or possibly in) a playoff spot. And this situation isn’t totally unique to the Giants; to certain degrees, the same is true for the Indians, Rangers, Red Sox, and virtually every NL team except the Dodgers, Braves (the two surefire contenders), and Marlins (the one NL team that is totally uncompetitive).
So is this a good change for teams that are trying to convince fans to spend their hard-earned money on tickets? Of course not — it’s hard to understand why fans wouldn’t be furious at their favorite teams for trading some of their best players for unproven young guys when they’re making a serious postseason push.
There’s nothing MLB can do right now to fix any of the trade-deadline issues they might encounter this year. But since further cooperation with the MLBPA will be required in order to firm up the new roster rules for next year, among other potential changes, this new system might be something they’ll need to reassess and refine over the winter.