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MLB will now have only one trade deadline: July 31. What will that mean?

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This might not seem like a big change, but it could have unintended consequences.

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For decades, major league baseball has had a trading deadline of July 31. (Before 1987, it was June 15. Imagine trying to beef up a contender with less than half a season gone!)

But that was a “wink wink, nudge nudge” trading deadline, as teams could make deals after that, up to August 31, if they obtained waivers on players involved. This happened frequently, and occasionally significant players went through trades after July 31. Most notably in recent years, Justin Verlander was traded from the Tigers to the Astros on August 31, 2017. He made five excellent starts for them the remainder of that regular season and was a significant contributor to their World Series run that year, including being named ALCS MVP.

Trades like that will become a thing of the past, starting this year, per Ken Rosenthal at The Athletic:

The switch to a single non-waiver deadline on July 31, which according to sources will be among the rules changes Major League Baseball and the players’ union adopt this season, will eliminate the indecipherable trade waivers in August, baseball’s version of the U.S. tax code.

The idea, first proposed by the union, is to protect the competitive integrity of the 162-game regular season, create more certainty for players and force teams to decide earlier whether they are buyers or sellers.

Sure, changing to one deadline on July 31 will do that — force teams to get into buyer or seller mode earlier. It’ll change the August “who’s on waivers this week?” questions and answers, as those will no longer exist.

However!

But another general manager labeled the pending change a “huge mistake,” warning of unintended consequences and saying if baseball is going to switch from two trade deadlines to one, it should move the date from July 31 to mid-August.

Playing the final two months without the ability to fill holes through trades is too risky for contending clubs, the GM said. Teams that suffer a rash of injuries at one position – say, catcher – might be forced to promote a minor leaguer who does not belong in a pennant race.

That’s a risk teams are going to have to take, apparently. One thing it will do, writes Rosenthal, is in situations like the one described above, it might help the union’s argument against gaming service-time rules:

In certain cases, the absence of trades after July 31 might make teams more inclined to promote hot prospects, which in turn should make the owners more inclined to address service-time manipulation. MLB and the union recently exchanged proposals on that topic but tabled the matter and other economic concerns until a separate discussion that is expected to take place after Opening Day.

As a hypothetical, consider the Brewers’ top prospect, second baseman Keston Hiura. If, after the single July 31 deadline, the Brewers lose their new second baseman, Mike Moustakas, to a significant injury, they will be unable to trade for a replacement. At that point, it would be counter-productive for them to delay Hiura’s arrival in order to gain an extra year of control before he reaches free agency. But under the current system, that temptation still would exist.

So this could benefit prospects like Hiura. For the Cubs, if they were faced with a similar injury (let’s hope not!), would they then be willing to push Nico Hoerner (for example) into a big-league pennant race before he’s “checked all the boxes” in the minors? Here’s another thing that Rosenthal says will be different after this deadline is altered:

Under the new rule, with the last trades occurring on July 31, two types of contenders will be hurt most. The type that bolsters its depth through a series of additions in August, such as the Brewers did last season when they added [Curtis] Granderson, left-hander Gio Gonzalez and reliever Xavier Cedeno on the final day of the month. And the type that gets hit with multiple injuries and falls out of the race in August yet is unable to save money and/or acquire prospects by trading veteran talent.

Since the Cubs returned to contention in 2015, they made the following deals after July 31 (August 1 in 2016 when July 31 fell on a Sunday):

August 27, 2015: Acquired Fernando Rodney from the Mariners for cash or a PTBNL.
August 31, 2015: Acquired Austin Jackson from the Mariners for a PTBNL.
August 19, 2017: Claimed Rene Rivera on waivers from the Mets.
August 31, 2017: Acquired Leonys Martin from the Mariners for cash or a PTBNL.
August 21, 2018: Acquired Daniel Murphy from the Nationals for Andruw Monasterio and a PTBNL.
August 30, 2018: Acquired Bobby Wilson from the Twins for Chris Gimenez.

The only really significant deal among those was the Murphy trade. It’s not clear to me whether the new July 31 trade deadline would eliminate only trades after that date, or all transactions including waiver claims (such as the Rivera claim above) and also purchases and free-agent acquisitions. In addition to the above, since 2015 the Cubs have also acquired Trevor Cahill, Quintin Berry, Mike Freeman, Jorge De La Rosa, Terrance Gore and Jaime Garcia after August 1 through purchases or waiver claims. All those players made contributions to the Cubs during their regular-season playoff runs after they were acquired. So MLB will have to clarify: is this new rule only “no trades” after July 31? Or is it “no acquisitions of any kind” after July 31?

Rosenthal concludes:

Teams will need to be proactive, perhaps overly proactive, creating options at different positions. They also will need to think twice about selling if they are on even the fringes of contention, knowing they would leave their fans with two months of meaningless baseball.

The fallout of the new rule will not be known until after it takes effect, but one thing is certain: The trade deadline will now be an actual deadline. If baseball was starting from scratch, it never would introduce anything that resembled the waiver period in August, with all of its Byzantine quirks. At least now the system will be coherent.

All of that is certainly true, and we’ll have to wait and see what the unintended consequences are.

One last note: If MLB is going to continue this on a regular basis, why not make it, instead of hard and fast on July 31, the Monday closest to that date and have all MLB teams scheduled off that day? That would make deadline day something exciting to follow for everyone, and a day of TV on MLB Network uninterrupted by games. Then everyone traded could start fresh with their new team the next day. Granted, that would eliminate “hugwatch,” but it would make for must-see TV.

Get it done, MLB. Too late for 2019, as the schedule’s already set, but for 2020 and beyond, this would be a way to create even more interest in the single trade deadline.