When the MLB season is only sixty games long, how soon is too soon to start wheeling and dealing?
Hours before the first pitch of the 2020 MLB season, the defending World Series champion Washington Nationals found out they would be without their best hitter, on account of Juan Soto testing positive for Covid-19.
Taking a step back from the wider global health implications, let’s take this strictly for what it is in baseball terms: a potential multi-week injury to a star player on a contending team. Injuries are apart of life in MLB. It is why teams with depth tend to be the ones that contend. This is in part why teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers keep contending, while teams like the Miami Marlins feel compelled to blow up a solid core because of a pitiful farm system.
However, depth can only get you so far in MLB. Trades do need to be made. There’s a reason the trade rumors of July are arguably the favorite part of the game for many MLB fans. Between the hope of the Spring Training and the thrill of October, you can actually make a pretty solid case the regular season is the least compelling part of the MLB calendar.
But when is the right time to start MLB “trade season” when the entire season is only sixty games long?
The MLB Schedule Argument
On the one hand, all teams should adjust to the realities of the 2020 MLB schedule. Consider the Juan Soto case. In a 162-game season, does a team do anything if a star player is looking at a two to three week absence? Of course not. As the Nationals left the field Thursday night, 1.6% of the season had been played. As the saying goes, there’s plenty of baseball left to be played.
There’s a reason the trade deadline for 2020 was pushed back a month. Anything can happen between now and August 31st. Indeed, in the case of the Nats, it already has for the worse: star pitcher Stephen Strasburg was just scratched from a start due to injury. Should that linger, Washington is likely just an injury away from shifting their focus to 2021.
Based on past history, late August is the soonest teams should consider major moves, right around the forty game mark. That should have about 66% of the 2020 schedule in the books. That’s about right for past trade deadlines. Last season, for example, the Houston Astros landed Zack Grienke with 67% of their games played. Clearly then, making a move in the next couple weeks would be a major overreaction.
The Calendar Argument
On the other hand, the season is only sixty games long. In a little over sixty days, the MLB playoffs will be starting. Generally, there are only fifty to sixty games (and days) left in the season when those major trade deadline deals start happening.
By that measure, the Nationals would be more than justified to consider making an aggressive roster move by early August. If not this week. They already made a half measure move, agreeing to terms with Josh Harrison. Seems like the pressure is on in the nation’s capital.
As it is in every MLB city. Each individual game this year is worth just shy of three times as much as it would be in a normal season. Trades can, and should, start being considered at any moment by teams serious about making a playoff run in 2020.
Ultimately, the correct answer is probably somewhere in between. Certainly now that the playoff field has been so ridiculously expanded. The Nationals might not look like the World Champions without Soto in the outfield, but they have already proven they look like a .500 ballclub. That’s easily going to be good enough to punch a ticket to the postseason.
But that’s not going to be the case for everyone. Don’t be surprised if some of those bubble teams, and an ambitious contender or two, don’t start churning out some roster moves over the next couple weeks.