A major change could be coming to baseball in 2019. MLB general managers are having their meetings in San Diego this week, and MLB.com’s Jon Morosi reported that they’re discussing making significant changes to how the trade deadline works.
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) November 5, 2018
Switching to a single, uniform trade deadline sounds simple and straightforward, which is the opposite of the system currently in place.
How does the current trade system work?
Right now there are two trade deadlines. The first is the non-waiver trade deadline, which falls on July 31. That one is pretty easy to grasp: any player under contract can be traded until 4 p.m. ET on that day. After that, players must be put on waivers before they’re traded. There’s no deadline for waiver trades, but there is a deadline for playoff eligibility. Waiver trades must happen by 11:59 p.m. ET on Aug. 31 for the traded player to be eligible for the postseason. For example: in 2018, Josh Donaldson was traded from the Toronto Blue Jays to the Cleveland Indians on Aug. 31, and he took the field for Cleveland in the playoffs.
The trade waiver process is complicated. Since the only way to trade someone after July 31 is to put them on waivers, teams expose most of their players to trade waivers — even stars like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. Once a player has been placed on waivers, he can be claimed by another team, or he can go unclaimed. If a player goes unclaimed for two days, he’s “passed through” waivers, and can be traded to any team. That’s also pretty easy. So where’s the complicated part, you may ask? It kicks in if a team claims a player on waivers. From there, three things can happen.
The team can pull the player off waivers and keep him, which means he can’t be traded until after the World Series.
The team can negotiate a trade with the claiming team, which could involve additional players and/or money.
The team can just let the player go to the claiming team, which means the claiming team takes on the player’s contract.
But that’s not the end of it, because the first team to claim a player may not get him. If more than one team claims a player, a hierarchy kicks in. Priority for a claim is decided by reverse standings in the player’s league, followed by reverse standings in the other league. If a National League player is claimed, priority would go to the worst team in the NL, followed by the second-worst NL team, and so on. The worst American League team gets priority after the best team in the NL.
How would eliminating trade waivers change things?
Still with me through that waiver trade explanation? If you are, congratulations. If not, that’s kind of the point. The waiver trade process is incredibly confusing. Players are put on and pulled back, and the order of claiming teams can change from day to day. That amounts to a ton of extra work for GMs and front offices around baseball, who just went through the non-waiver trade deadline. Streamlining the trade deadline into one date would eliminate that work and make things much easier.
Trade waivers have one thing going for them: the way it’s set up right now, teams with worse records have an advantage. If both the Baltimore Orioles and the Boston Red Sox claimed the same AL player, the Orioles would have the priority. But even that small advantage is complicated and borderline nonsensical, because the hierarchy favors teams in the same league as the claimed player. If the Red Sox and the Miami Marlins claimed the same AL player, the Red Sox get dibs because even though the Marlins are considerably worse, they’re in the NL.
All of this just makes it harder for teams to make trades. Especially when you factor in the posturing that teams do to hurt each other. Teams have been known to claim a player they have no interest in just to stop a better team from getting him. That’s fun palace intrigue, but it only exists because of the complicated trade waiver system, which itself doesn’t need to exist.
Right now, we don’t know how any GMs feel about eliminating trade waivers. It could be a wildly unpopular idea that we never hear about again. Or the GMs could discuss it and decide they want to move forward. If they do, they have to get the approval of the MLB Players Association. Without that, it goes nowhere. It’s not clear where the MLBPA would stand on the issue, but we may soon find out.
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