How the MLB Waiver Trade Deadline Has Completely Changed in Recent Years
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"Hey, did you hear who was put on waivers today?"
That's a question that was rarely, if ever, asked from one baseball fan to another back in the day (defined here as circa 2000). Nobody used to care about the August waiver season. This is because nobody used to know what was going on anyway. Waiver-wire dealings used to be obscurer than obscurity itself. That was actually kinda the point, in fact.
Not so much anymore. With the kinda of coverage Major League Baseball's waiver wire is now getting, it's becoming harder to tell where the non-waiver trade deadline ends, and the waiver trade deadline begins. All of a sudden, they are equally significant.
Case in point, the general obsession over whether the Philadelphia Phillies would trade ace lefty Cliff Lee did not end when the non-waiver trade deadline came and went on July 31. His name generated a lot of rumors, and that didn't stop once the deadline passed.
When Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports reported a couple days after the trade deadline that the Phillies had placed Lee on waivers, people freaked out. When Jon Paul Morosi of FOX Sports reported that the Los Angeles Dodgers had been awarded the waiver claim on Lee, people freaked out even more.
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This happened despite the fact that it was stressed pretty heavily that nothing was going to happen. A Lee trade was as unlikely after the non-waiver deadline as it was before the non-waiver deadline. One gets the sense that most people realize this after watching Lee stick around with the Phillies even after the Dodgers claimed him, yet waiver dealings are still finding ways to become headline news.
For example, the Boston Red Sox placed both Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez on waivers on Thursday, and B/R's coverage of Boston's decision to put them on waivers has gathered over 32,000 reads and close to 100 comments so far. Word came out on Friday from Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times that the Dodgers have claimed Gonzalez. Shortly thereafter, Sean McAdam of CSNNE.com reported that the Dodgers have put in a claim on Beckett too.
Both reports came on Twitter, and Twitter is now abuzz.
All of this is kinda funny seeing as how waiver-wire dealings are supposed to happen behind closed doors. As Enrique Rojas of ESPNDeportesLosAngeles.com wrote in his report of the Gonzalez situation: "The process is secret, unless the player in question is claimed and the parties agree to make the move."
Via NESN's Tom Caron, Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine said it best:
Bobby V says waiver claims are commonplace. "Problem now is people in baseball can't keep a secret."— Tom Caron (@TomCaron) August 24, 2012
Indeed, and the Internet only fans the flames. The Internet helped turn the hunt for trade rumors from a funny little sideshow into a booming business, and now, it's doing the same with waiver trade rumors. The people reporting these rumors aren't idiots. They know that there's a constant demand for rumors out there, especially rumors that involve big-name players. Reporting waiver-wire dealings involving big-name players is just another way to feed the demand and ultimately bring home the bacon.
What I think is becoming lost on some people is the fact that most of these rumors aren't actually going to lead to anything. The purpose of the waiver system is just as much for clubs not to make deals as it is to for them to actually make deals. ESPN's Jayson Stark noted this as far back as 2004 when he published a rundown of the rules of the waiver system, which is still widely referenced as the most comprehensive guide of what goes on during the August waiver season.
"Virtually every player in the major leagues will be placed on waivers this month," wrote Stark, "whether a team intends to trade that player or not. If nothing else, the sheer volume of names can at least disguise players whom clubs do want to sneak through so they can be dealt."
Clubs place all their players on waivers basically for one reason: They have nothing to lose. No trades have to be made. If a club doesn't want to move a player, it can just pull him back without having to pay any sort of penalty. Clubs also have the option of just giving away a player who is claimed if they are so inclined, which can be a darn good means of dumping salary.
Oftentimes, teams put star players on waivers for the exact purpose of doing nothing; all they hope to accomplish is getting some sort of reading of how interested other teams are in acquiring star players in the future. Here's how former Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi explained the process to Sports Illustrated in 2010:
Even Albert Pujols and guys like that get run through waivers. You find out who has interest in players. At the time that team might be in contention and think they could use a player because their ownership is really gung ho on winning and we're willing to take this salary for this year and next year. But then that team might not make the playoffs and over the winter if you call them and try to talk to them, they may say, 'We're going to go a cheaper way this year. Last year we had an opportunity to jump on it, but this year we're going to go cheaper.'
In a sense, the waiver trade deadline is just as much a time for preparation as it is a time for action. This makes it the exact opposite of the non-waiver trade deadline, which is very much a time for action and little else. This is why reports of players being placed on waivers usually come with disclaimers that nothing is likely to happen. That's the truth.
Superstar players are particularly problematic because they tend to make a lot of money, meaning any team that claims one of them could be stuck with the bill if the player's team decides to give him up for nothing. Superstar players also have no-trade clauses and 10-5 rights that allow them to block trades even if a waiver trade is agreed upon.
As such, superstar players are far more likely to be moved before the non-waiver deadline as they are to be moved after the deadline. So why is there a market for waiver-wire rumors? It's simple. People love rumors, for one. For two, there are exceptions to the rule. Every once in a while, big-name players actually get moved during waiver season.
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The list of examples is pretty long, but one name that comes to mind is that of Larry Walker, who was traded by the Colorado Rockies to the St. Louis Cardinals shortly after the trade deadline passed in 2004.
The Walker trade remains significant to this day because the Cardinals were getting a former MVP, a three-time batting champion and a seven-time Gold Glove winner. To boot, Walker agreed not to use his no-trade clause in order for the deal to go down. The odds were against the trade happening, but it found a way to happen anyway. Walker went on to hit 11 home runs and rack up 27 RBI in 44 games with the Cardinals. He also hit six home runs in the postseason that year, including two in the World Series against the Red Sox.
The "postseason hero acquired via waivers" is a role that Cody Ross also played when the San Francisco Giants picked him up from the Florida Marlins in 2010. That same year, players like Derrek Lee, Jeff Francoeur, Jim Edmonds and Octavio Dotel were also traded via waivers, and Manny Ramirez landed in Chicago when the White Sox agreed to take on what was left of his contract.
White Sox GM Kenny Williams pulled that same trick when he acquired Alex Rios in 2009. The Blue Jays took Chicago's claim as a chance to dump Rios' hefty contract.
Transactions like this justify the widespread reporting of who's on waivers and who's been claimed and so on and so forth. Despite the fact transactions happen pretty rarely relative to the number of players who are placed on waivers every August, the fact that there's an off-chance something might happen is a good enough reason for the news to be reported.
Simple as that. And since, like Bobby V said, nobody can keep a secret anymore, there's always going to be news to report. Fun times can happen, to be sure. But I urge you to heed Bobby V's other comment on the matter, which comes courtesy of Joe McDonald of ESPN:
Bobby V on waiver claims: "It's all kind of BS"— Joe McDonald (@ESPNJoeyMac) August 24, 2012
No argument here, but, well, it is what it is. Welcome to the 21st century, where no slow news day is safe.
If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.
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