Unsurprisingly, every MLB restart plan that has leaked thus far has been dissected and cross-examined by public baseball analysts. Questions like “Did Hitter X change his swing this winter?” and “Can opponents figure out Pitcher Y’s new breaking ball?” have been replaced with endless discussion of a potential shortened 2020 season. We’ve certainly indulged in some amount of analysis of pandemic baseball here.
One aspect of a shortened season I’ve yet to see interrogated is that of the trade deadline. Either MLB has yet to come up with a plan for this season’s deadline, or said plan simply hasn’t been publicly reported as of now.
Without confirmation of what a transaction deadline looks like in at the age of coronavirus, it’s anyone’s guess how the league will choose to handle it. Just when the deadline falls, how many games the season consists of, and whether trades will even be allowed will have a significant impact on teams’ behavior at the deadline.
The latest MLB plan suggested an abbreviated 82-game season, one that would see seven teams per league qualify for the postseason. Typically, the trade deadline falls on July 31st, two-thirds of the way through the season. The league could try to maintain this structure within the shortened season.
It’s very difficult to figure if staging baseball games in America will be safe by early-to-mid July, but that’s MLB’s reported target kickoff for the season. A July start for the regular season, followed by a conclusion in mid-October, would put a two-thirds trade deadline somewhere around Labor Day.
This is the simplest scenario. MLB plays an abbreviated season, allows for player movement and just plugs the deadline in at the same proportional point it usually sits. Even in this base situation, the forces at play could leave fewer teams across the league willing to sell.
MLB has designs on expanding postseason play, perhaps in an effort to recoup some lost revenue by cramming in as many lucrative playoff contests as possible. A 14-team playoff format would allow nearly half the league into the postseason, representing easily the wildest and most expansive playoff structure in the game’s history.
On the day of last year’s trade deadline, the seventh-place team in the NL was the 57-52 Brewers. Six other teams sat within six games of Milwaukee. Essentially, only the 14th-place Pirates and last-place Marlins would have been out of feasible playoff contention in the 2019 senior circuit under 2020’s rules.
The American League is bifurcated, with more excellent teams at the top and dreadful teams at the bottom. Nine teams would have been within four games of a playoff spot last year under 2020’s proposed rules. Even with that, a wide-open playoff format is likely to leave somewhere around three-quarters of the league within a few games of a playoff spot.
This dynamic could be exacerbated if the deadline occurs even earlier in this season. This is mere speculation, but it’s possible the player’s union could push for an earlier deadline, whether in an effort to limit late-year player movement under the specter of a possible coronavirus second wave, or just to ensure that players aren’t forced to uproot their families after their kids have already started school. Of course, the union could also just ask for player movement to be restricted during the pandemic.
Should the league institute a deadline closer to halfway through the season, it’s likely an even larger section of the league could talk itself into trying to hang in the playoff race. Will teams that would have been also-rans 100 games into a full season find it within themselves to sell if they’re sitting at 22-19 and in a playoff spot halfway through a wacky season?
Surely, teams that have been fairly committed to some sort of tanking (e.g. the Orioles, Tigers, Marlins) will probably have no problem selling at whatever trade deadline the league decides upon. The teams left towards the middle may be less inclined to make moves that hurt their chances, not after having been presented with an unexpected opportunity to contend in an upside-down season.
This could leave the league’s heavyweights, like the Yankees, Dodgers, and Astros, in a position where they have fewer options to improve in the middle of the season. The Yankees in particular haven’t exactly made huge additions at recent deadlines, but have consistently found ways to improve with mid-tier players. Last season, they picked up Edwin Encarnacion, and in 2018, they added Zack Britton, J.A. Happ and Luke Voit.
Adding such quality players may be difficult if the teams that have them are holding onto one of four Wild Cards. That will place a premium on depth, an organizational strength for the Yankees. If external improvements are hard to come by, the Yankees will be pressed to supplement the roster from within. They’ve done so with aplomb in previous years. Last season brought Gio Urshela, Mike Tauchman, and many others. This year may require contributions from Clarke Schmidt, Clint Frazier, or any number of unheralded players pressed into duty.
It’s impossible to say exactly how MLB will approach this season’s deadline. If player safety were truly paramount, the league probably shouldn’t permit player movement until spread of the virus is tightly contained. If there is a trade deadline, the balance of factors suggests that more teams will be in contention at midseason this year, and that could lead to a seller’s market, one with fewer avenues to improvement for the league’s top teams. Perhaps the Yankees will have to rely on the Next Man Up brigade once more.