You hear that? The winds of change are blowing.
Thanks to a series of changes passed Thursday—some cosmetic, others sweeping—MLB’s on-field product will look a bit different this year and especially next year when most of the agreed-upon modifications will go into effect. Rather than holding two separate trade deadlines—one on July 31 followed by a waiver deadline on August 31—July 31 will be the final day for all trades across Major League Baseball beginning this season. This means teams can no longer pursue late-season blockbusters like the one Houston made for Justin Verlander on its path to World Series glory in 2017. With waiver trades no longer part of the equation, July 31 should be considerably more hectic this year as contenders seek missing ingredients while others look to press the reset button by stockpiling future assets. Teams looking to upgrade after July 31 can still do so through waiver claims and free agent adds, though trading will have to be put aside until the offseason.
In keeping with baseball’s ongoing mission to trim the fat off games, which has long been its Achilles heel and a key factor in younger fans flocking to quicker-paced sports like football and basketball, teams will be permitted just five mound visits per game starting this year. That’s a reduction from last season when clubs were allowed up to six stoppages. MLB is also cracking down on breaks between innings, shaving off five seconds for locally-shown games (2:05 to 2:00) and 25 for national broadcasts (2:25 to 2:00). It's clear the league is trying to reframe its image by taking a bloated, time-consuming product and making it more digestible for younger, click-happy audiences. Whether these time-saving maneuvers are enough to bridge the popularity gap between baseball and its chief competitor football remains to be seen. But it’s at least an acknowledgment that after decades of dawdling, it’s time for David Price (the second-slowest worker in baseball last year behind Verlander) and others to pick up the pace.
Baseball’s increased reliance on pitch count coupled with a steep rise in bullpen usage has posed an unexpected obstacle to the league’s painstaking quest for maximum efficiency. Analytics-driven managers like Gabe Kapler and Kevin Cash have only compounded baseball’s pace crisis by turning to the bullpen every chance they get. When the Rays debuted their “opener” experiment last year, many thought it could be the wave of the future. But from the looks of it, Rob Manfred has a much different agenda. To combat the constant parade of substitutions and resulting slowdown, the commissioner has mandated that beginning next year, pitchers can only be replaced at the end of each half inning or after facing a minimum of three batters with certain exceptions made for injury or illness. While most of the changes announced Thursday were agreed on by both the Players Association and MLB, this one was passed unilaterally by Manfred. The three-batter minimum could come as bad news for one-trick ponies like Marc Rzepczynski, who has already expressed concern that left-handed specialists like himself could soon fall by the wayside. While the new rule was met with a lukewarm reception, it’s probably preferable to the widely-panned, 20-second pitch clock the league workshopped during spring training.
MLB will also be implementing a yet-to-be-determined roster cap, limiting the number of pitchers per team. 2018 saw position players take the mound at a record rate. But that trend could be short-lived thanks to a new rule that creates a more concrete distinction between position players and pitchers. Beginning in 2020, position players can only be called on to pitch after the ninth inning or when their team is behind or ahead by at least seven runs. Meanwhile rosters will be expanded from the usual 25 to 26 next year with a 27th spot available for double-headers.
2020 will also spell an end to the yearly influx of September call-ups we’ve grown so accustomed to. In the past, clubs could roster up to 40 players for their stretch run but that number has been trimmed to just 28. The old saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” MLB could have heeded this advice a few years back when they scrapped the 15-day DL in favor of a shorter, 10-day injury reprieve. Predictably, teams found a loophole in the system, adding fresh bodies from Triple-A while sitting down players, particularly pitchers, with increasingly dubious injuries, only to come back good as new in 10 days. Now that Manfred and the higher-ups at MLB are privy to this inspired brand of trickery, pitchers on the shelf will again be looking at a minimum 15-day stint on the disabled list.
Decades of tinkering still haven’t quite cured the All-Star Game of all its ills, but that won’t stop the league from trying to get it right. In an effort to spice up this year’s festivities in Cleveland, the Mid-Summer Classic comes with a few interesting twists. First, the stakes have never been higher for the Home Run Derby as this year’s champ will net a cool $1 million in prize money. The prospect of a seven-figure payday may entice coveted A-listers like Mike Trout and Mookie Betts to join the proceedings, which would be a huge plus for fans both watching and attending the event. The All-Star selection process will also be getting a facelift. After narrowing the field down to three finalists at each position, starters will now be chosen during a one-day “election,” giving fans the opportunity to send their favorite players to the Rock and Roll capital. Also, should the game go into extras (as it has the last two years), each subsequent inning will begin with a player on second base, a method the minor leagues adopted last year. The All-Star Game has never been short on gimmicks—the game decided home-field advantage in the World Series for over a decade. But unlike that blatant marketing ploy of yesteryear, these changes could provide a much-needed spark.
While Thursday’s improvements won’t shake up the sport any more than the last batch of changes, it’s encouraging to see the Players Association and MLB working in unison. Hopefully the two sides use this dialogue as a stepping stone for the next collective bargaining agreement, which is due to expire after 2021. There are plenty of I’s to dot and T’s to cross before that bridge is crossed, but it’s good to see the league embrace change after years of resisting it.
AL Quick Hits: The Blue Jays have reassigned Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to minor league camp. The league’s top prospect by a country mile, Vlad wouldn’t have been ready for the start of the year anyway after suffering a strained oblique last week. If all goes to plan, the 19-year-old should debut in late April or early May … Free agent Dallas Keuchel reportedly faced live hitters Wednesday in an 80-pitch throwing session at the Boras Sports Training Institute in California. Scouts from at least two interested clubs were on hand to watch the former Cy Young winner, who is hoping to secure a job before the regular season kicks off later this month … Josh James will toe the rubber for his spring debut Saturday against the Phillies. The Astros right-hander had been in the running for a rotation spot before a quad injury put him behind schedule … The Tigers are shutting down Michael Fulmer to work on his throwing mechanics. The former AL Rookie of the Year has shown reduced velocity this spring coming off his third knee surgery … Nicholas Castellanos partook in Thursday’s batting practice, suggesting he could be nearing a return to Grapefruit League action. The 27-year-old hasn’t suited up for the Tigers since taking a pitch off his hand last weekend … Francisco Lindor logged three innings in a minor league game on Thursday. The All-Star shortstop isn’t running at full speed yet but seems to be making progress in his recovery from a strained calf … Shane Bieber fanned eight over five no-hit frames Thursday as the Tribe rolled to a 9-3 victory over Colorado. The 23-year-old has been a menace this spring, compiling a stellar 0.64 ERA across 14 Grapefruit League innings … Kyle Seager will spend 10-12 weeks on the shelf after undergoing surgery on his left hand earlier this week. The elder Seager brother will be heading to the disabled list for the first time in his career.
NL Quick Hits: Brewers manager Craig Counsell has tapped Jhoulys Chacin as the team’s Opening Day starter. The 6’3,” 250-pounder will get the ball against St. Louis on March 28 … Tony Sipp joined the Nationals Thursday on a one-year, $1.25 million contract with a $2.5 million mutual option for 2020. The veteran southpaw cruised to a dominant 1.86 ERA over 54 relief outings for the Astros last season … Clayton Kershaw only threw fastballs during a 31-pitch bullpen session on Thursday. The left-hander’s shoulder soreness seems to have subsided, though it’s hard to tell if he’ll be ready for Opening Day in two weeks … Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he expects Alex Verdugo to crack the team’s Opening Day roster. The 22-year-old outfielder is rated as MLB.com’s No. 35 prospect and No. 1 in the Dodgers’ system … Corey Seager saw three innings of work on the minor league side Thursday. Tommy John surgery sidelined the two-time All-Star for much of last season … The Phillies are shopping Aaron Altherr, according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. Altherr probably won’t see much action this year with newcomers Bryce Harper and Andrew McCutchen both blocking his path to playing time in the outfield … Michael Taylor exited Thursday’s game against the Twins after injuring his left knee on a diving catch. The Nationals outfielder has impressed this spring, hitting a robust .360 over 25 Grapefruit League at-bats … Corey Dickerson went 1-for-3 with a walk and a two-run blast in his return to action Thursday versus the Phillies. The Pirates outfielder had been nursing a sore ankle … Christian Yelich collected two hits including his third homer of the spring Thursday as the Brewers and Angels played to a 7-7 tie. The reigning NL MVP has enjoyed a monster spring, batting an even .500 over 24 Cactus League at-bats.