Anyone who follows the MLB for long enough will hear this phrase: the “trade deadline.” It doesn’t matter what your team is—the Brewers, the Rangers, the Phillies, the Mets—because every team will have to submit to one of the most important rules during the sport’s regular season. But what does it mean in the context of major league baseball, and how does the trade deadline affect teams? Can you trade for a baseball player after the trade deadline passes?
Let’s start with some basics.
What Does the MLB Trade Deadline Mean?
Like many of the major sports, the MLB has a trade deadline in place during the season. This year, it will fall on August 31st. This is the time limit before which trade deals have to be submitted to the MLB commissioner’s office. Once the deadline has passed, that’s it—no more trades for the season.
Last season was a unique one for the MLB, requiring rules to change for the trade deadline, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues throwing off the schedule. However, it’s worth looking beyond last season to judge the trade deadline. The trade deadline affects teams after spring training, opening day, and well into the regular season each season.
What Were Some of the Best Trade Deadline Deals?
Because the trade deadline forces some teams into a specific date, it’s possible that some teams get desperate—which creates opportunities for other teams. Let’s take a look at some of the most famous trade deadline deals in history:
- 1996 Boston Red Sox and Seattle Mariners: Trading pitcher Jamie Moyer to Seattle, the Red Sox must have figured that the 33-year-old had seen his best days in the MLB. But Moyer went on to continue pitching into his 40s, ultimately sticking with Seattle for 11 more seasons. It just goes to show how one trade deadline decision can have decades-long effects on the MLB.
- 1997 St. Louis Cardinals acquire Mark McGwire: you may have heard of the famous homerun machine. But before 1997, McGwire played for the Athletics. It was the pressure from the trade deadline that ultimately sent Mark McGwire to the Cardinals—in exchange for a reliever and a couple of prospects—right before McGwire’s historic home run record chase.
- 2000 Arizona Diamondbacks acquire Curt Schilling from the Phillies: actually, this trade ended up being productive from both ends. On the side of the Arizona Diamondbacks, they acquired Schilling, who would become a key contributor to their world series run. But because the Diamondbacks sent multiple players to Philadelphia, many of whom ended up contributing, it ended up being an interesting situation where there were merits on both sides.
- 2007 Texas Rangers and Atlanta Braves: the big name in this trade was Mark Texeira, a first base player who would go on to be a big-time player for the Atlanta Braves. However, since the Rangers acquired a number of prospects in this deal—prospects who would ultimately pan out—it ended up being a trade that lifted up the entire franchise. It goes to show that even a star player can be a good piece to trade away when the team doing the trading hits on the prospects it receives.
- 2008: Milwaukee Brewers acquiring C.C. Sabathia. Milwaukee was in win-now mode for a playoff run, which is why they gave up top prospects / minor league prospects in acquiring the starting pitcher from Cleveland. Sabathia would go on to have a nice streak for Milwaukee, while the “top prospects” in question ultimately didn’t pan out too well for Cleveland.
Of course, it all depends on your perspective. If your team needed an outfielder for a pitcher, and acquired one, maybe it was worth taking a chance. Or if a team needed top prospects in exchange for a superstar who wasn’t helping them win, it could be good for both sides.
What Were Some of the Worst Trade Deadline Deals?
- 2020 Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies: Trading Brandon Workman made headlines last year, and the immediate results suggest that it was a one-sided trade in Boston’s favor. It was Boston who sent Brandon Workman to the Phillies in a multi-player trade, knowing that Workman was about to hit the free agency market. But Workman’s immediate struggles for Philly suggests that it was a tough trade in the long run.
- 1989 Texas Rangers and the Chicago White Sox: Ever hear of a player named Sammy Sosa? In 1989, Sammy went to the White Sox (before ultimately going back to the Chicago Cubs). Although the Rangers did acquire a player who was productive for a few seasons, we all know the star player that Sammy Sosa eventually became.
- 2003 Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago Cubs: Aramis Ramirez was 25 years old playing third baseman, and his star was rising. So did it make sense to give up Ramirez in the prime of his career for a number of players? Not the way it worked out: the three players Pittsburgh received never really lived up to the trade, while Ramirez became a household name in Chicago, eventually becoming one of the franchise’s best third basemen of all time.
Once again, we have to look at trades from two sides. If, say, the Rockies traded two prospects to San Diego and one eventually became an all-star shortstop, does it really mean it was a bad trade? Ultimately, hindsight is 20/20 when you judge a trade.
What Happens if You Get Traded after the Trade Deadline?
It depends on what sport you’re talking about, but since we’re talking about the MLB, here’s how it works: in the MLB, you can trade players after the trade deadline. However, trading players after the deadline make them ineligible to play in the postseason.
In some trades, this has obvious implications for the team. For example, the Milwaukee Brewers traded for C.C. Sabathia with the hope of making a late postseason run. Trading for him after the deadline would make that trade moot.
It’s also important to note that for many players, their fate hinges on the trade deadline. We’ve mentioned Brandon Workman. But other names, such as Mitch Moreland, Mike Clevinger, and Trevor Rosenthal, have seen their destinies shaped by how teams approach trades.
Why is there So Much Action Before the Trade Deadline?
Why is there so much action before the trade deadline? Let’s take a look at a few examples:
- A player about to become a free agent. Let’s say the Los Angeles Angels have a player about to enter free agency. Let’s say it’s an off year, and they know they might not make the playoffs. Wouldn’t it make sense to trade that impending free agent to a contender, in exchange for prospects? Although many fans can’t understand why a team would give up a serious talent, it often makes sense for teams to maximize a player’s trade value before they can’t receive anything for them at all.
- Money considerations. If a large market team like the Los Angeles Dodgers or New York Yankees, for example, were to need bullpen help, they might be able to take on large salaries that a small-time team would want to get rid of. Since the MLB does not have a salary cap, baseball teams have to work within the constrains of their market.
Other Considerations for the MLB Trade Deadline
Because of the MLB trade deadline rules, teams have an interest in making moves around this time each season. The trade deadline is when time runs out. In the MLB, teams looking to make a post-season run need to acquire players in a hurry. And since the players they acquire through trade after the trade deadline are then ineligible for the post-season, it only makes a rush for players that much more frenzied.
For players, this can be a chaotic time as well. The trade deadline can add nerves for up-and-coming baseball players who know they may be on the block. And while most people think of the offseason when the major moves happen, it’s not always the case. Teams can start the frenzy of trade activity right smack-dab in the middle of the season—right ahead of the deadline. It can affect everyone, from someone playing outfield for the Orioles to a starting pitcher for the Miami Marlins.
The trade deadline can be a major discussion source during the season for any fan. There’s one thing left to say about the MLB season: it certainly keeps things interesting.
Conclusion on the MLB Trade Deadline
The reason why the MLB Trade Deadline exists is to keep a competitive balance in the game. While deals take place after the trade deadline, teams have to be smart with their decision. For example, you wouldn’t trade away your best talent to acquire a player after the deadline. Even if that new player can help you get into the postseason, they won’t be able to play postseason games. That means the trade was only good to get you in the postseason, but that’s it. MLB made the trade deadline to specifically stop teams from stocking up on talent right before the postseason.