Major League Baseball and its union agreed to off-field rule changes for 2019, as well as on-field rule changes for 2020, the two sides announced in a joint news release Thursday. But the most significant change could be what comes next: formal discussions over some of the sport’s fundamental economic issues, an almost unprecedented step in the middle of a labor agreement.
The new agreement will install a single, July 31 trade deadline for 2019, abolishing the Aug. 31 deadline for “waiver” trades — a step the union hopes will create more urgency for teams to construct playoff-ready rosters earlier, without the fallback of a late-summer addition.
Also new for 2019: an All-Star Game “Election Day” and a $1 million bonus for the winner of the Home Run Derby, enhancements intended to add juice to baseball’s midsummer showcase. And intended to improve pace of play: reducing commercial breaks to two minutes and mound visits from six to five per game.
The 2020 changes would include a three-batter minimum for new pitchers and a roster expansion from 25 to 26 players. The former rule theoretically would slow the parade of pitching changes in the second half of games and improve pace, while the latter would create 30 more big league jobs across the game. As part of the new deal, MLB will table its proposal to install a pitch clock by 2020.
Still, in terms of impact, the bigger development is the sides agreeing to address the economic issues — from free agency to the luxury tax to the manipulation of players’ service time — that have frustrated the union and its members since the current, five-year collective bargaining agreement went into effect after the 2016 season and have threatened to undo the sport’s 25-year run of labor peace.
The sides are expected to begin discussing economic issues soon, a sign of a potential thawing in labor relations that had grown contentious in recent months, with union leaders decrying a perceived lack of spending by owners and league officials accusing agents of misreading the market. The unusual, mid-agreement talks, if fruitful, could result in an extension of a CBA scheduled to expire at the end of 2021.
The 2019 changes should create a whirlwind July for baseball, with some high-profile enhancements to the All-Star Game showcase and a greater impetus for teams to make trades by the end of the month. In the past, contending teams could make “waiver” trades — in which a player must first pass through revocable waivers — by Aug. 31, a method the Houston Astros used, most notably, in 2017 to acquire ace pitcher Justin Verlander.
The All-Star Game “Election Day” would pit the top three vote-getters at each position against each other in a one-day runoff vote, theoretically producing a frenzied, social-media-driven finale to the selection process. The $1 million bonus for the winner of the Home Run Derby, meanwhile, is a clear ploy to entice superstar players to enter the event following years of high-profile defections.
The roster expansion to 26 players in 2020 could come with a limitation on the number of pitchers a team can carry — likely 13. That and the three-batter minimum would be aimed at limiting the influence and prevalence of relief pitching. As part of the roster change, teams reportedly would be permitted to carry 28 players in September, significantly down from 40.