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Baseball’s potential rule changes and their impact on the Oakland A’s: Part 2

The league and the union are reportedly discussing several changes to the game. How could they help or hurt the A’s?

Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

In early February, Jeff Passan of ESPN reported that MLB and the Players’ Union are discussing a handful of drastic changes to the game that could be implemented as soon as 2019. We already discussed some of them in Part 1 of this series. The eight main proposals, according to Passan, are as follows (the ones we’re discussing in this Part 2 post are in bold):

  • A three-batter minimum for pitchers
  • A universal designated hitter
  • A single trade deadline before the All-Star break
  • A 20-second pitch clock
  • The expansion of rosters to 26 men, with a 12-pitcher maximum
  • Draft advantages for winning teams and penalties for losing teams
  • A study to lower the mound
  • A rule that would allow two-sport amateurs to sign major league contracts

Passan also mentioned one more in his article:

  • Ending Spring Training games after 10 innings and using the All-Star Game to test potential extra inning rules

Furthermore, back in late January, Ronald Blum of the Associated Press reported two more proposals from the league. They are:

  • Increasing the minimum Injured List stay back to 15 days
  • Increasing the length of time optioned players must stay in the minors from 10 days to 15

These proposals have a few different goals, addressing pace of play, roster manipulation, and encouraging teams to win. Fans have been split on each of these proposals, many preferring the game stay the way it is today.

Let’s take a one-by-one look into each of these proposed rule changes and analyze how they might affect baseball and, most importantly, how they might impact the A’s. There’s too much for one post, so in Part 1 we looked at the ones that directly affect on-field play, and in Part 2 we’re turning to off-field stuff (like roster size, draft, DL/options, etc.).

Trade Deadline Adjustment

Current Rule: July 31st is the deadline to complete any non-waiver trades. Waiver trades must be completed by August 31st for acquired players to be postseason-eligible.

Proposed Rule: All trades of any kind must be completed by a specified date prior to the All-Star break.

My Take: This one has its pros and cons. On the one hand, waiver trades have always seemed complicated and unnecessary. They rarely have any major significance, and in a way they dilute the non-waiver trade deadline.

But a trade deadline prior to the All-Star break could be all kinds of awkward. It was strange in 2014 when Jeff Samardzija was selected a National League All-Star despite playing for Oakland. A trade deadline before the break would make this much more common.

I think, in general, an earlier trade deadline could be very fun. More teams would consider themselves as being ‘in’ the race and could become buyers. Teams also might be willing to give up a little bit more if they knew they were acquiring two more weeks of a player. More talent changing hands is always a good thing. An earlier trade deadline could also place more emphasis on early season success, and lead to more aggressive offseason activity.

I like the idea of merging the two deadlines into one and holding it earlier in the season. However, I think it would be a better fit for one of the dead days directly following the All-Star game. While this would put an end to the entertaining mid-game trade and the #HugWatch, it would give the baseball world a day full of entertainment where teams, players and fans could focus solely on the transactions. Television coverage of the deadline would have great ratings, and could help the sport grow.

For the A’s: The A’s have often struck early during trade season. The recent Samardzija, Scott Kazmir, and Jeurys Familia trades all happened well ahead of the deadline. In that regard, not much would change for Oakland.

But last season was a little different. The A’s took advantage of waiver season, acquiring Mike Fiers, Fernando Rodney, Shawn Kelley and Cory Gearrin in August. I could see this change hurting the A’s a bit. They only really go all-in once they know their team’s success (or lack thereof) is sustainable. It’s harder to be confident in a team’s performance with the smaller sample size generated by the earlier deadline.

The A’s have also been something of offseason vultures, taking advantage of the weak market and scooping up free agent bargains in February. A more competitive offseason environment would hurt the A’s in this regard. I think when all is said and done, this rule change would have a slightly negative impact on Oakland.

Roster Size Adjustment

Current Rule: Each team is limited to a 25-man Major League roster (with the exception of a 26th man for doubleheaders). In September, the rosters expand to a maximum of 40 players. There are no restrictions on how many of each type of player a roster must contain.

Proposed Rule: Roster size would increase by one, to 26. Teams would be allowed a maximum of 12 pitchers on the roster at a time. Rosters would expand to only 28 in September. It is unknown if a pitcher limit would remain.

My Take: Something should probably be done about roster management. Teams have wanted an extra roster spot for years, and pitching decisions allowed by the 40-man roster often make meaningless September games boring and long.

Presumably, this rule would be implemented alongside the other proposals increasing the minimum Injured List stay and option time. Otherwise, the pitcher limit would only encourage teams to manipulate the IL as teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers have, essentially using it as an extra roster spot for pitchers.

However, the main reason teams have clamored for the official extra roster spot is to add an additional pitcher, usually to decrease work load. I think, if anything, the pitcher limit should be set at 13. This allows for a normal 5-man rotation, an 8-man bullpen and a standard bench (4 players in the AL, 5 in the NL). This also gives teams the flexibility to experiment with 6-man rotations without having to worry about the impact on the rest of their roster’s construction.

The 26th roster spot also creates 30 new MLB jobs. However, decreasing September roster size from 40 to 28 does the opposite. I could see the MLBPA disagreeing on this, as it prevents union members on the 40-man roster from accruing service time. They could compromise on a 30- or 32-man September roster limit, perhaps with a 14- or 15- pitcher maximum for the month.

For the A’s: For much of the past two seasons, the A’s have carried a 13-pitcher staff. This rule change could quickly put an end to that.

As currently constructed, this would be a massive blow to the A’s. The bullpen is one of the team’s strength, with a rare combination of late-inning talent and middle relief depth. Liam Hendriks and J.B. Wendelken are listed on the team’s depth chart as the club’s 7th and 8th relievers. Both performed very well late in 2018 and could be set-up men on a lot of teams.

The 12-pitcher limit would force innings from talented arms like Hendriks and Wendelken onto the shoulders of a lackluster rotation. The rest of the bullpen would also suffer, having to throw more innings on shorter rest. The pitcher limit is clearly another attempt to address pace of play, and I would be shocked if the union agreed to it as currently constructed.

Draft Incentives/Penalties

Current Rule: None, beyond the Competitive Balance Picks, which are distributed based on winning percentage, revenue and market size.

Proposed Rule: Small-market and low-revenue teams would be rewarded for above .500 performance, either via higher draft picks or bonus pools. Conversely, teams losing 90 or more games would be penalized.

My Take: The league has been trying to address tanking and parity for years, and incentivizing winning through the draft is an interesting way to do so. However, it could quickly become complicated.

It is difficult to punish or reward teams based on win-loss record because they do not necessarily imply intent. For example, the 2015 A’s lost 94 games. However, they clearly were not trying to tank — despite trading away high-profile players like Samardzija and Josh Donaldson, they ended their offseason by acquiring rentals Ben Zobrist and Tyler Clippard. They traded for Khris Davis, Yonder Alonso and Jed Lowrie prior to a 2016 campaign that ended with 93 losses. The A’s clearly were not trying to be bad in either season, but under these rules would be penalized.

On the other hand, the Rays were clearly not trying to win entering 2018. They downgraded from Corey Dickerson to Cron, just to save a few bucks. They sent franchise player Evan Longoria to San Francisco and even dealt affordable Major Leaguers like Steven Souza and Jake Odorizzi. They showed little indication that they were trying to win, but a lot of things went right and they finished the season with 90 wins. They would be nicely rewarded under this system. But, based off of their preseason intent, would that be deserved?

If MLB wants to put an end to tanking, they should address the many sources of the problem rather than trying to disincentivize the result. I don’t think this change would be fair or effective.

For the A’s: The A’s have long been a team trying to stay in the middle. They can’t afford to tank, but also must be responsible with their assets. While building the current core, it seems the front office has tried to put a .500 team on the field each season.

But then, baseball happens. Both projection systems and fans had the A’s pegged for somewhere between 75 and 80 wins each of the past four seasons, but the actual results varied widely, ranging from 68 in 2015 to 97 in 2018.

Theoretically, a team like the A’s trying to hang in the middle wouldn’t be impacted too heavily by this rule change. But the unpredictable nature of baseball makes it anybody’s guess.

Two-Sport Athletes

Current Rule: Teams may not offer drafted players Major League contracts.

Proposed Rule: An exception allowing teams to negotiate big league deals with two-sport athletes to encourage them to stick with baseball.

My Take: So Major League Baseball wants a Kyler Murray rule. In theory, it makes sense — they want to do whatever it takes to attract the very best talent to the sport. But I’m skeptical that it would actually work.

Murray and his decisions are making headlines because he is an anomaly. There hasn’t quite been anyone like him, at least in recent history. And I’m no draft expert, but I doubt there will be anyone like him for quite some time.

This rule seems very easily exploitable. While each negotiated deal would likely be under heavy scrutiny from the league, it isn’t hard to imagine teams manipulating this rule to get top prospects on Major League contracts for less than they might one day be worth. The players could also try to use a second sport as leverage, and if a team won’t budge, may go unsigned.

Would this rule have even helped in Murray’s situation? At the time of the draft, nobody thought he would go on to win the Heisman. He wouldn’t have a ton of leverage against the A’s, and probably wouldn’t sign too large of a contract. The A’s would likely want a provision that stopped him from declaring from the NFL draft, but if push came to shove, they would likely back off and leave that door open for Murray, given how unlikely that looked at the time.

Fast forward to spring and we’d be in the exact same scenario — Murray choosing between forfeiting his baseball contract or the chance to be an NFL quarterback. Would a few million dollars spread over the next few years really weigh all that heavily on his decision?

This rule would only work on a tiny handful of players, and would likely be abused by many more. If anything, the league should be trying to make the game itself more appealing to these players rather than just giving them an avenue to quicker money.

For the A’s: Given how the Kyler Murray situation has played out, and despite David Forst’s recent comments, I wouldn’t bet that the team will take a risk on a player like him again for a long time.

Roster Manipulation Limits

Current Rule: Players optioned to the minors or placed on the Injured List must remain there for at least 10 days. Players optioned may return sooner in the event of injury or suspension to another player.

Proposed Rule: Increasing the minimum stay for both injured and optioned players to 15 days. The same exceptions will still apply.

My Take: This change appears to be targeted at teams like the Dodgers, who have manipulated both the Injured List and option rules to effectively create extra roster spots.

I don’t have a particularly strong opinion either way when it comes to this rule. I think fringe players will benefit most from the change, as instead of shuttling back and forth between the majors and Triple-A every week and a half, they will at least have a bit more stability.

The change would make many roster decisions more difficult. As a result, more players could find themselves designated for assignment and changing teams, potentially leading to new opportunities. I don’t see much of a downside here.

For the A’s: In 2018, Oakland only had two players injured for less than 15 days — Khris Davis and Santiago Casilla, both in late May. The Boston Red Sox led the majors with seven such trips.

Options were a different story. Franklin Barreto was shuttled back and forth quite often, but usually as an injury replacement, making him exempt from either rule. Others bouncing between Oakland and Nashville included Chris Bassitt, Josh Lucas, Ryan Dull, Daniel Coulombe and Emilio Pagan. But as fringe pitching depth, that shouldn’t come as a surprise and is fairly normal.

I wouldn’t expect this change to have too much of an impact on the A’s. They were less trigger-happy than most teams with short-term injuries, and didn’t manipulate the minimum option stay very often because those taxi moves so often coincided with their many legitimate uses of the IL.

It’s important to keep in mind that these proposals are all just that: proposals. There’s a chance some of these are implemented as is, while the league and the union come to a compromise on others. Some will never even make it to the field in any form.

That being said, I do think a handful of these have a decent chance. The Injured List and option rules are particularly easy to change if both sides desire.

Not all change is bad, and not all change is permanent. Most changes to the game come with consequences that nobody could see coming before they were implemented. But the league will always keep trying to tweak the game and make it more enjoyable for the fans and profitable for those in the industry.

We should have more clarity on potential changes in the coming days and weeks. Until then, these are nothing more than ideas.