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The Case for ... An Earlier Trade Deadline

Tom Seaver: Traded from Mets to Reds, June 15, 1977

20 STARTS, 1651/3 IP

Johnny Cueto: Traded from Reds to Royals, July 26, 2015


LAST THURSDAY, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said that he was considering pushing the nonwaiver trade deadline, which is currently July 31, back to Aug. 15 or even Aug. 31. The rationale is that having two wild-card berths in each league makes it harder for teams to know by the end of July whether they are buyers or sellers.

While this is a seductive idea, it's also a bad one. A better change would be to move the trade deadline up to June 15, where it was for more than 60 years until it was pushed to its current date in 1986. Some of the game's biggest deals happened that day, including future Hall of Famers Lou Brock going from the Cubs to the Cardinals in '64 and Tom Seaver from the Mets to the Reds in '77.

An earlier deadline would encourage the building of better teams. The modern game allows for an approach A's general manager Billy Beane has long articulated: Spend the first third of the season evaluating your team, the second third improving it and the final third watching the changed roster make a run for the postseason.

The primary goal, though, should be not just reaching the postseason but winning the division title and avoiding the wild-card game. Doing that means trying to build a 95-win team rather than one that wins 88.

The second wild card hurts the trade market by slicing one "full" playoff spot into two, with a single game deciding who gets in. For teams that are playing only for a shot at the coin-flip round, such as the Tigers (11½ games out in the AL Central at week's end), there's a temptation to avoid selling in hopes of sneaking into the playoffs as the second wild card and going on a run to a championship, as the Giants did last year. But there's also little motivation to be a buyer when reaching the postseason could mean a quick exit. Think of Beane's 2014 A's, who dealt away top prospects Addison Russell and Billy McKinney in July, only to spend about as much time in the postseason as you've spent reading this column.

That approach impedes the development of good teams over time and prevents the development of great ones. It's a crutch for GMs who would rather let the standings dictate their approach rather than their own beliefs.

Moving the deadline up would also increase the value of the players who are traded. On Sunday the Royals acquired Johnny Cueto from Cincinnati with 66 games left to play, meaning he'll make 13 or 14 starts for them, throw 90 to 95 innings and, sabermetrically speaking, be worth about two wins compared with the pitchers whose starts he'll take. The price Kansas City paid—three pitching prospects, including 2014 first-rounder Brandon Finnegan—reflects that limited value.

Had a June 15 deadline been in play, the Royals would be getting 20 to 22 starts, 140 to 150 innings and three to four wins of value. The Reds, too, would have been able to get more, such as Kansas City's top prospect, outfielder Raul Mondesi Jr. An earlier deadline would increase the value of veterans to their new teams and therefore increase the price paid for them, accelerating the rebuilding efforts of sellers, which would, in the long run, increase parity by spreading top talent around.

Nor would earlier trades necessarily depress the market. Teams may be less willing to concede they're out of the race in June, but they might be more willing to make the kind of trades that can have an immediate impact for both teams instead of just dealing in order to get rid of salary and impending free agents.

Manfred needs to make a decision that will be best for the game in the long term. Moving the deadline to June 15 will help do that.