It’s August, which for many fans is the month of what George Will called baseball’s “long gathering of summer heat.” This is the time when the pageantry of the All-Star break and the intrigue of the trade deadline give way to the sorting of wheat from chaff. It’s a transitional period, a sort of collective inhale ahead of the gale-force exhale of September.
It’s also a front office’s last chance to meaningfully reshape its roster. Bad teams can spin off guys who didn’t have clear suitors on the July trade market. Good ones can go hunting for what they either didn’t know they needed in July, or weren’t able to acquire at the right price.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Anyone on a 40-man roster has to go through waivers before being dealt, and if they’re claimed there, they can only go to the team, among those who submit a claim, that has the worst record.
Things used to be different, in more ways than one. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the advent of waivers in both leagues. Owners instituted the rule to put some constraints on the Yankees, who in the years after World War II had taken to nabbing the best talent available from National League teams who’d cleared the waivers there and could be sold to the highest bidder in the AL.
The rule hit the books in 1953, but it would be incorrect to say it took effect at that point. Baseball men aren’t that egalitarian; that hidebound by rules; or frankly, that smart. For more than 30 years, a gentlemen’s agreement governed the waiver-trade period, whereby teams simply let the guys that any contender would want float right on through, unclaimed. The only effective trade deadline throughout that period, and especially after the advent of free agency, was August 31, since a player had to be on his new team’s roster by then in order to be eligible for the playoffs.
The first evidence I can find of the erosion of that arrangement comes from 1985, over a deal for Bert Blyleven. It’s a rather strange story, actually: The Twins claimed Blyleven on waivers, as was their right, since they held waiver priority. To get a deal done, though, they essentially sold three players back to the Indians at the waiver price. The Blue Jays, White Sox and Red Sox objected, and even appealed to baseball’s chief decision-makers to have the deal voided. It didn’t happen, but the worm had turned. Teams were no longer in it together when it came to this stuff.
Ever since, you’ve had to sneak a guy through waivers with good timing, or an onerous contract, to make free-market trades in August. In 1989, the Cardinals tried to trade for Wade Boggs, but the Expos gamed the system and gummed up the deal. St. Louis had the right to claim Boggs first, as they trailed Montreal in the division race at the time, However, because the trade would have sent Tony Pena from the NL Cardinals to the AL Red Sox, the Expos got first crack at him, and they claimed him as a blocking measure.
My favorite block came in 1993, during my favorite pennant race. The Braves were closing fast on the Giants, who had led the division all year, but Atlanta still trailed by four games when Dennis Martinez of the Expos hit waivers. Martinez, of course, was as ice to an Eskimo for the Braves, whose rotation included Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and an as-yet-uninjured (his career began to unravel due to arm trouble a few weeks later) Steve Avery. Still, they claimed him, and made a good-faith effort to trade for him, or at least the show of one. Martinez turned down the deal, as was his right under the 10-and-five rules, but the Braves had made their move, and their point. The Giants ended up adding Jim Deshaies at the very end of the month, but their starting pitching unraveled over the next month, and although they stayed in it until the final day, the Braves overtook them.
Sunday marks one year since the biggest waiver-period trade ever, one facilitated by the bad contracts hanging like heavy chains around the necks of, especially, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford. We’re unlikely to see a similar one this season, or maybe, ever again. That deal, though, is another reminder that the era of the soft deadline for trades is over. The Dodgers forced the Red Sox to the table by claiming Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez, leaving them no one else with whom to negotiate and (given the opportunity the claims presented) no excuse not to at least discuss the deal.
This is one of the few, neat ways in which baseball has become more open and more free-market. Teams act in self-interest, not collusive interests, and that makes for more exciting rumor mills and for pennant races of greater integrity (or the greatest integrity possible, given the farce of the second Wild Card). It’s interesting to note that it was just when free-agency collusion became a major issue that the owners made a move, on a separate level, toward more honest competition for top talent. The rules that govern waivers are needlessly and (sometimes) problematically complex: Just ask former Pirates GM Larry Doughty. Eliminating an extra layer of complexity—the complicity of executives in working around the rules whenever they needed to—has made August’s trade season a more enjoyable and interesting one for fans.Next post: Before We Kill the Win and Abolish RBI, Let’s Ensure an Orderly Succession
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