The trade deadline is in eight days. Thus far, we’ve seen the Cubs trade away Scott Feldman, the Cubs trade away Scott Hairston, the Cubs trade away Matt Garza, and most recently, the Cubs getting close to trading away Alfonso Soriano. Okay, sure, the Marlins traded Ricky Nolasco too, but you would not be wrong to suggest that it has seemed for most of July that exactly one team was open for business while everyone else just kind of stood around and looked at each other.
More teams are going to get involved over the next week and a day. The Astros will probably trade Bud Norris. The White Sox will probably trade Jake Peavy, Alex Rios, and perhaps others. The Brewers might deal Yovani Gallardo, maybe. The Marlins might decide to dump relief pitchers and their salaries. But, by and large, this is shaping up to be an absolute snoozer of a trade deadline, and it may very well be time to question whether or not July 31st is the right date going forward.
The deadline has actually bounced around a lot, historically. As noted in this article on SABR.org, the first instance of a trade deadline appeared in the National League in 1917, and in that year, the deadline was August 20th. The AL came on board a few years later, and in 1921, it moved to August 1st, then in 1923, they pushed it way up to June 15th. It shifted back to the current July 31st date in 1986.
But when July 31st was picked as the date, there were 26 teams, four divisions, and no wild cards, so it wasn’t particularly difficult to discern whether or not a playoff run was in the cards by the end of the season’s fourth month. Now, however, there are 30 teams, six divisions, and two wild cards per league, so the percentage of teams that “make the playoffs” has more than doubled from 15% in 1986 to 33% in 2013. And now, with two wild cards in each league, nobody thinks they’re a seller by the end of July anymore.
The Royals, at 45-51, aren’t selling. The Mariners (47-52) aren’t selling either, and that goes for the Phillies (49-50), Rockies (48-52), and Blue Jays (45-53) too. I can understand why the Giants, coming off a World Series title, aren’t selling even at 45-53, and it’s probably too tough for preseason darlings like the Nationals (48-51) and Angels (46-50) to give up on what they thought were very good teams heading into the season. But, still, that’s a bunch of teams going nowhere hanging on to their veterans.
With the second wild card offering lower hanging fruit, even mediocre teams are deciding that they’d rather keep their teams together than punt a season too early. After all, the Phillies are only seven games back of both the Braves and Reds, giving them twice as many chances to believe that a team in front of them might fall apart. The NL West is lousy, so even the struggling Rockies and Giants are still less than a half dozen games out of that race. Under this playoff system, you have to be downright awful in the first half — or have a front office completely committed to a rebuild — in order to talk yourself into selling at the end of July.
So, why not do everyone a favor and move the deadline back a couple of weeks, or maybe even a full month? After all, if the entire point of having a trade deadline is to prevent teams from using their resources to buy a bunch of hired guns late in the season, then our current pair of deadlines fails that simple test anyway; just look at the Dodgers mega trade with the Red Sox from last August. Did anyone think that trade — completed on August 25th — corrupted the purity of the NL West race? Would we really be unhappy if teams could acquire rent-a-veterans in mid-August instead of at the end of July?
From my perspective, pushing the trade back a few weeks would be a win for everyone.
The Contenders: By allowing teams a few more weeks to evaluate their playoff odds, more teams would eventually come to the conclusion that they should sell, creating a larger pool of talent from which to pick. Unpredictable injuries that occur after August 1st could be accounted for, so a team wouldn’t have to go into the playoffs at a disadvantage simply because a key player had the nerve to get injured in the season’s fifth month.
The Sellers: Moving the deadline back a few weeks would create a larger advantage for teams that were committed to selling early — the teams that probably need prospects the most — and would give bubble teams more information in their buy-sell-or-hold decision process. By not waving a white flag in July, teams that should be building for the future could hold on to veterans a bit longer, putting a better product on the field for the close of the season and providing a more entertaining brand of baseball without sacrificing future value.
The Players: More players traded means fewer qualifying offers for veteran free agents, and more players ending up with legitimate contenders rather than than playing out the string for a team that thought they were going to be in it in July. Reallocating quality players from non-contenders to playoff clubs means a larger share of playoff revenues would go to veterans, rather than young players that teams called up when they couldn’t find anyone to trade for.
The Fans: MLB Trade Rumors is a traffic monster for a reason: fans love trades. They love thinking up trades, talking about trades, and reading about trade reactions. Our traffic goes way up at the end of July and during the winter meetings, and I’m sure it’s not just a FanGraphs specific bump. People love trades. Maybe there are diminishing returns to having too many trades, but I’m pretty sure we’re not anywhere near that point yet.
The July 31st deadline isn’t some time honored tradition that we can’t mess with. It’s an arbitrary point selected from a time when there were four playoff teams per year; now there are 10. What’s the point of having a bunch of teams paralyzed by indecision because a .500 record no longer means that you’re out of the race at this time of year?
Teams are already making trades in August anyway. Let’s just do away with the distinction between the waiver and non-waiver deadlines and have a unified trade deadline of August 15th, or even August 31st if you really don’t care about a team’s playoff roster looking like their Opening Day roster. After all, with the Luxury Tax as a spending deterrent, there are other tools in place that are serving the supposed function of the trade deadline.
I think I could make a stronger case that we don’t need a trade deadline at all than that it should remain July 31st, given the current playoff system. I’m still a fan of the second wild card, but a boring trade deadline seems like an unintended consequence rather than an actual goal being accomplished. Moving the deadline back to August could eliminate that consequence and give everyone a more interesting, and more effective, trade season.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.