Why a July 31 trade deadline just doesn’t make sense anymore

This is an exciting week in baseball, especially for those who are into speculation and rumor, as the July 31 trade deadline is coming up Thursday. Over the next 24 hours, we should see some pretty significant moves, with Jon Lester looking like the biggest name to join a contender, but potentially being joined by the likes of David Price and Cole Hamels. Where these players end up may very well decide which teams make the playoffs, or in some cases, which teams get to bypass the wild card game and advance right on to the real postseason.  

Of course, Thursday’s deadline isn’t an actual trade deadline in the literal sense of the word. Trades can still be made next month, and they can even be made in September, right up until the end of the year. Thursday is just the end of the rules that make it easy to make a deal, because once the calendar flips over to August, waivers become involved and things get a bit more complicated. The guys who get moved in August are usually those who have big, expensive contracts, so Thursday’s deadline doesn’t really apply to guys like Cliff Lee, Matt Kemp, or Jonathan Papelbon.  

This brings up a question, though: Why do we have a trade deadline that is only a deadline to trade some players and not others? And, while we’re at it, why is the deadline July 31 anyway? 

This might surprise you, but the history of the trade deadline actually goes all the way back to 1917, according to some pretty great research by SABR member Cliff Blau. The National League adopted an August 20th deadline for trades back then, and then was joined by the American League in 1920, only they made their deadline July 1.  

In 1921, the two leagues got together and agreed to meet in the middle, picking August 1 as the date. That lasted for a whole year. Starting in 1922, the trade deadline was June 15, and that was the historically accepted date for over 60 years; it finally moved to the current July 31 deadline back in 1986, where it has remained through multiple expansions and two significant changes to the playoff structure.  

Back when the deadline was set to July 31, there were four playoff spots for 26 Major League teams. If you wanted to make the postseason, you had to win your division, which consisted of either six or seven teams. There was no prize for second place, and no way to win your way into the postseason if you came up just short. This made the buy-or-sell decision very easy for a large number of clubs, because it wasn’t too terribly hard to determine whether or not a team had a chance to win its division with two months to go.  

Let’s go back to 1986 for a minute. During the first year of the July 31 deadline, here is the top of the standings for the National League East as the deadline approached:

1. New York Mets: 66-32, — GB

2. Montreal Expos: 50-47, 15.5 GB

That’s right; the Mets had a 15 1/2 game lead over the Expos with two months to play. To put that in context, the A’s currently have the best record in baseball, and the Mets are 15 1/2 games behind them right now. The gap between first and second in the NL East in 1986 was the same as the gap between the best and the 20th best record in baseball right now.  

Things were a little more competitive over in the NL West, where the second-place Giants trailed the leading Astros by only 4 1/2 games. The third-place Padres were two more games behind that, however, and the team that eventually finished in second place in the division — the Cincinnati Reds — were two games back of the Padres. By the time the season ended, the Astros had won the division by 10 games. There just wasn’t really that much question about who was going to the postseason back then, and by late July, all but a half dozen or so teams could start planning for next year.  

Now, however, there are six division winners and four wild cards, meaning that 33 percent of the teams in baseball qualify for the postseason. The expanded playoffs mean that 18 teams are currently no further than 4 1/2 games out of a playoff spot. In 1986, there were eight teams within 4 1/2 games of a playoff spot on July 31. Maybe a July 31 trade deadline made sense back then, but the game has changed dramatically over the last 28 years, and I’m not so sure a July 31 deadline makes sense anymore.  

The Rays are a perfect example of why the league should consider moving the deadline back a couple of weeks. It’s probably in the long-term best interests of the organization to trade David Price, as they will get a much larger return for him now — when the acquiring team could get two postseason runs with Price as their ace — than they will if they hold him and make a trade this winter.  However, they’ve clawed back into the playoff race, and currently have a 15 percent chance of making the postseason. Over the next day or so, the Rays will have to decide whether or not they’re really contenders, when the reality is that they just don’t know.  

With two more weeks to evaluate, the Rays’ chances of making a real postseason run will be more clear. They’d be able to gather more information, and make a better decision about whether to keep Price for their own stretch run or trade him to a team that could make better use of his talents in October. Why is it good for baseball to force franchises to make franchise-altering decisions when it isn’t clear which way they should go? 

Certainly, there will always be bubble teams no matter what date you set, but it seems like the league could solve several problems by simply contracting the two trade deadlines into one unified deadline in between the two current dates. Rather than having some players be tradable through July 31 and others through August 31, how about just make everyone tradable up until August 15? Get rid of the waiver trade process, which doesn’t serve much of a real purpose to begin with, and give teams a few more weeks to gather information about their chances of contending.  

After all, that’s what the expansion of the playoffs was designed for; to keep teams contending longer into the season. MLB didn’t want teams playing meaningless baseball for the final two months of the year, but if the Rays get an offer they can’t refuse for Price, there’s a good chance that they’ll take it. With a later deadline, they’d give their fans at least two more weeks of interesting baseball before deciding to make the big sell.  

The date of the trade deadline has never been sacrosanct, and it has changed many times to accommodate the norms of the present day. With MLB making structural changes to keep teams in the race longer, it makes sense to also give them more time to evaluate whether to buy or sell. We’re not wearing acid wash jeans and listening to hair metal bands anymore, so maybe we shouldn’t be forcing Major League teams to decide whether or not they’re in or they’re out in late July anymore either.