One Trade Deadline Is Enough (or one too many)

By Bill


All the news today (aside from the very sad news about Mike Flanagan) has to do with waivers. Players on waivers, players claimed off of waivers, players staying put because their team can’t make a deal with the one team they’re allowed to trade with because that team claimed the guy on waivers.

It’s a pretty ridiculous process, and the results are boring and almost entirely meaningless. Hill and McDonald for Johnson. Kevin Kouzmanoff for nobody, really. There’s a lot of stuff that could happen over the next week or so…but it probably won’t.

Not that there haven’t been big deals in the past. This page chronicles a lot of them, through 2000 (Bagwell for Anderson and Smoltz for Alexander being the biggest). But mostly, it’s garbage. Alex Rios for literally nothing. The Rangers reacquire a used-up Ivan Rodriguez from the Astros, the Twins reacquire a used-up Eddie Guardado from the Rangers. And so on.

My question is: what’s the point? What good are these rules doing? TCM covers a bit of the history of the trade deadline here, a history involving Babe Ruth and names like Joe Dugan and Irish Meusel and is recounted in much more detail here. The point of the original trade deadline, writes Brian Cronin — and for a long time, it was June 15, not July 31 — was to benefit poorer, less successful teams by preventing your New York Yankees and Giants from attempting to buy a championship, with cash, late in the season.

And, well, for one thing, that doesn’t really happen anymore. Teams get “cash considerations,” but it comes along with other stuff — players aren’t just sold for cash. Obtaining that key player at the July 31 deadline requires a deep farm system, not deep pockets (and the latter helps quite a bit with the former, but at least there’s that extra step in between).

For another thing, though, and more importantly for these purposes, doesn’t the August 31 waiver deadline kind of contravene that purpose? And what purpose (if any) does it serve? It makes it much more difficult to trade a player, certainly, but that works both ways. The most successful teams can’t trade for that extra piece, because they’re too far down on the waiver wire to stand a chance of acquiring an in-demand player. But the non-contender with the player to sell suffers at least as much, because they’re limited to the one potential trading partner (and probably not the one with the most resources to offer).

So I guess the suggestion there is that the one group that does benefit is the mid-market, marginal contender, who is high enough on the list to make a claim on the player and can afford to make the move. But I’m not entirely sure it helps them, either. Take this year: the Indians and White Sox have been rumored to be in on Jim Thome, but as Paul Lebowitz writes, that makes for a better story than a baseball move, as neither of those teams actually has a particularly good shot at making the playoffs with or without Thome. The team in the best position to trade for a player is often a marginal contender for whom it doesn’t make all that much baseball sense to trade for a player, so in many cases, you might argue that the August waiver-trade system punishes even the “winners.”

I don’t get the history or mechanics behind the post-trade-deadline trade deadline. I’ve been searching for something that explains why it’s there and who it helps, and I’ve found nothing (tellingly, searches for things like “best waiver trades” comes up mostly with lists of the best potential waiver trades, none of which will ever happen). But it just seems to me that the post-July 31 waiver-and-trade system is bad all around, and antithetical to the whole purpose of the trade deadline in the first place. Either (a) give each team the right to trade any player to any team at any time, or at least through August 31 (which meets the goal of helping the out-of-contention team by permitting the team to market its wares to the whole league for a longer period), or (b) make the July 31 deadline a firm deadline, with no trades of any kind permitted thereafter (which hinders the well-to-do contender who may attempt to “buy a title”). Either way, it seems to me, is vastly superior to the convoluted and counterproductive waive-then-trade system.

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