For many years now, the major league trade deadline has been at the end of July or early August. John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle laid out a case for moving it back a couple of weeks to the middle of August, adding that general managers have discussed the possibility for years, including at the annual general managers meetings.
It’s unclear how popular the idea is or how much urgency there is towards making it a reality, but the case is an interesting one and the fact that it has been brought up by front office people is noteworthy. As Shea points out, the late July deadline was implemented in 1986, before the Wild Card era. At that time, there were 26 teams but only four playoff spots, meaning 15.4% of clubs would eventually crack the postseason. The playoff field has repeatedly expanded since then and there are now 12 spots for 30 teams, allowing 40% of clubs to play beyond the regular season.
The most recent trade deadline provided an example of the difficult this presents. Very few teams were firmly out of contention by the end of July and some clubs were fairly quiet or did nothing at all in terms of deadline deals. Some decision makers commented after the fact about the low availability of impact players. Even some players that were long thought to be available, such as Shohei Ohtani and Cody Bellinger, were retained as their respective clubs stayed close enough to contention to justify taking them off the market.
Another point made by Shea is that, up until recently, there was a second trade deadline. It used to be possible to make trades in the month of August via revocable waivers, a process that was complicated to the point that explaining the byzantine rules was an annual tradition at MLBTR. But despite the convoluted details, notable players such as Justin Verlander, Josh Donaldson, Jeff Bagwell, David Cone and John Smoltz were traded via this method over the years, as well as a huge nine-player deal that saw Adrián González, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett go from the Red Sox to the Dodgers. But the August waiver trade system was eliminated in 2019, and there has just been a single deadline since then without much clamoring for the waiver system to come back.
The expanded playoffs and the lack of ability to make deals in August means that most teams have to make difficult decisions in the end of July about whether they are in or out or how aggressive to be. On top of that, Shea highlights that the draft has been moved from June to July in recent years, with MLB tying it into All-Star festivities. That leaves front offices with a short window of time to pivot from the draft to the deadline. Pushing the deadline back a couple of weeks would allow a bit more time for the chips to fall and decisions to be made, which would have franchise-altering implications.
Shea uses the example of the Angels, who decided to hang onto Ohtani this year. When they took him off the market on July 26, they had a 16.7% chance of making the playoffs, according to FanGraphs. Despite trading multiple prospects for players like Lucas Giolito, Randal Grichuk and C.J. Cron, they have gone cold and now have just a 1.3% chance. In an alternate universe where the deadline was in the middle of August, the Angels may have held onto their prospects and added more via an Ohtani trade, completely changing the future course of the club. At the same time, one of the 29 other clubs would have acquired Ohtani for a postseason push, which would have had massive implications for them as well.
The Angels are just one example. The Padres have continued to scuffle and may have given more thought to moving Josh Hader or Blake Snell as their window for a late-season surge narrowed. The Mariners have played extremely well of late and perhaps would have acted differently with more time to take this hot streak into account. There are many tantalizing scenarios to imagine.
Taken as a whole, it’s a compelling case that it would be good for the game to push it back, though it’s unclear if there’s any dialogue between MLB and the MLB Players Association on the matter. Although Shea lists August 15 as the proposed date for a new deadline, it likely wouldn’t settle on a specific spot like that. The new CBA allows the commissioner to set the deadline date somewhere between July 28 and August 3 each year. This allows the league to place it on a weekday with no day games, which eliminates the chances of a “hug watch” situation where a player is traded in the middle of a game. If the deadline were to be pushed back, it would likely be a similar window with some leeway to be moved.