What You Need to Know About the MLB Trade Deadline

Willson Contreras #40 of the Chicago Cubs hits a double in the fourth inning against the Atlanta Braves. Jamie Sabau/Getty Images/AFP

The All-Star Break has come and gone, and that means baseball has about two weeks before the next big event on the calendar—the MLB Trade Deadline. 

If you look hard enough, you might be able to find sportsbooks that let you wager on who will get dealt and who will end up staying put. We’re not going to try to predict which trades get consummated, however. Instead, we’ll take a look at how the deal frenzy affects the teams and players involved in the games you’re betting on, and what might change as the deadline approaches.  

What is the Deadline?

The trade deadline traditionally comes at the end of July. This year, it’s a little later, on August 2. The idea behind it was to prevent teams from stocking up with “ringers”—players added at the last minute to prepare for the pennant race and postseason. Rosters essentially will be set after the deadline. With very few exceptions, the players teams have on August 2 are the ones that will be playing in October.

Instead, what’s happened is that a concrete deadline has inspired all the contenders to stock up on ringers. Teams at the bottom of the standings will trade away their best players—especially ones that are about to become free agents—in order to stock up on minor league prospects who could help them in the future, while contenders will snap up the best players on the market to improve their roster or to prevent their competition from adding someone to improve theirs. 

But the bottom line is that every team will be involved in trade negotiations as the deadline approaches and most will make at least a deal or two. That means that the teams you are betting on will be very different within a span of a few days

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In the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, teams expecting to be “sellers” will try to get the most out of the players they plan to deal. That means showcasing them. Veterans on poorer teams could get more at bats in advance of the deadline, and pitchers will see their pitch counts increase, as teams try to give the contenders a good look.

So expect Cincinnati’s Luis Castillo to go deeper into his starts over the next few weeks, and for the Cubs Willson Contreras and Nationals’ Josh Bell to get fewer days off. Those players’ current teams have no incentive to keep them fresh or rested, since they’ll likely be playing in a different city by August. 

No One is Coming to Save Us

The trade deadline can also send a clear message to the players in a locker room about whether or not management thinks they’ve got a shot. If the players think they’re a contender, but the front office decides to start shopping players to trade them away, it can cause a real letdown. It can also be a self-fulfilling prophesy. 

Last year, the Boston Red Sox were a surprise team and clinging to first place as the deadline approached, but the brass decided not to make any big changes. That appeared to send the message to the players that there was no confidence they’d be able to hold that lead down the stretch, so there was no reason to open up the wallet to add star players with big salaries. 

The team lost five straight games around the break and eight out of nine to eventually fall into third place. 

Addition by Subtraction

Poor teams trading away their veterans would appear to make a bad situation worse: The team already didn’t have enough talent to compete, and now they’ve lost their best players. But often, the opposite occurs. 

Trading away a veteran can shake up a locker room. The former team leader is gone, and that requires a new voice to step forward as the alpha dog in the clubhouse. It also opens up jobs at the big league level, meaning that some of the top prospects will no longer be “future big leaguers”. Instead of  veterans playing out the string on a last-place team, all of a sudden the team is filled with youngsters getting their first shot. That can cause a team to suddenly play better.

Of course, it doesn’t always work that way—last year, the last-place Orioles responded to the trade deadline by losing 18 straight games in August. Of course, the Orioles only made a couple minor trades, keeping most of their top veterans in-house to finish out the string. 

This year, the Orioles are a team to watch. They enter the break having just finished a 10-game winning streak and are within shouting distance of a wild card spot after years of last-place squads. It’s unlikely the team will actually contend down the stretch, but the deadline will send a message one way or the other on what the front office thinks.